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SYFY WIRE Features

Ron Perlman on playing the big bad in 'Poker Face,' how he joined Rian Johnson's TV universe

Ron Perlman talks about the joy of playing Sterling Frost Sr. and his Oscar hopes for his bestie, Guillermo del Toro.

By Tara Bennett
Ron Perlman in POKER FACE

In a season filled with fantastic guest star appearances, the Poker Face team saved one of the best for last with Ron Perlman finally appearing as the season-long thorn in Charlie Cale's side, Sterling Frost Sr.

The casino mogul who was mentioned and only briefly heard in the pilot episode, "Dead Man's Hand" sent his fixer Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt) to go fetch Charlie for him in the wake of his son, Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody), leaping from the penthouse window. Expressing his extreme anger at Charlie via an ominous phone call at the end of the first episode is what sent her on the lam in the first place, never stopping for fear of what her one-time benefactor would do to her in revenge. 

Time, and Legrand, finally caught up to Charlie in "The Hook," but boy, did her big face-to-face with Frost Sr. not turn out at all like expected. As the bookend character for the whole season, SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with Ron Perlman to ask how he initially got cast, his thoughts about working with the Poker Face team and in prep for this weekend's Academy Awards, his thoughts on being part of Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

(l-r) Benjamin Bratt, Ron Perlman in POKER FACE

**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 10 of Poker Face below.**

You've been busy doing a lot of voice work of late, so how did the Poker Face team lure you back onto TV?

I'm actually not quite sure what the genesis of it was. I know that Mary Vernieu, who is the casting director for this show, and I have had a long standing relationship. Perhaps it was her that thought of me for this role. In one of those rare instances where people come to agreement, Rian said, "Oh, okay! Yeah, that might work." And here we are.

Does the genre of standalone TV mystery shows hold a special place for you, like The Rockford Files or Columbo?

You just named one of my favorite of all time which is The Rockford Files. I never missed The Rockford Files and I never missed a Colombo. Those were two of my favorite movie stars who ended up becoming the defining forces in the richness of episodic television, Peter Falk and James Garner. And they were lucky enough to be linked with unbelievable writers like Rian. 

When you got cast as Sterling Frost Sr., did they pitch you the whole arc so you could understand the context of how he's basically the impetus for Charlie's whole road trip?

They were kind enough to send me two scripts. The pilot, which my voice appears in at the end of, and also where my "son" appears. So that gave me a great deal of frame of reference, in terms of where I fit into the world of this particular splice of Charlie Cale's very, very sordid existence. Rian's writing is so vivid, and so filled with behavioral idiosyncrasies that you pretty much have all the clues you need as to the weight of the guy, the history of the guy, the background of the guy, how he moves through the universe and stuff. These are all the questions that you want to have as many looks at as you can when you start mouthing the dialogue. And so I had as much as I possibly needed.

Did it all make sense to you with just reading two scripts?

I was actually quite confused because here I am bookending the pilot and the 10th episode, but I keep reading that each of these episodes are standalone kind of Columbo [style]. But it felt to me like it's one of these limited mini series where she's on this journey. And the fact that she's on the lam from this horrible incident she had with Adrian Brody's Sterling Jr. in the pilot, how are you going to do that and then claim to be a standalone episodic every week? And then I started watching the show. And, like we all did, I went, "Oh, that's how!" [Laughs.]

How did it feel coming into the series at essentially the end having never worked with any of the cast or director Janicza Bravo?

I had a phenomenal time chewing up the scenery and holding in the laughter because working opposite Benjamin and Natasha. It was challenging because they're so funny. I haven't seen the episode yet. I can't wait to see it. If I weren't in the show, it's still my favorite new show that I've watched in the very, very recent past.

Let's talk about your big sit-down scene with Charlie. We're expecting a terrifying Sterling but we get this exchange where he's like her biggest fan. He wants her to help him out and talks to her like she's really special. And then "Boom!" It's really heartbreaking which I didn't see coming.

I mean, that's the gold. What you're describing is so anti-formulaic. There's so much warmth and humanity and recognition. There's the overused expression "game recognize game," but there is that, which immediately elevates the characters to a level where they're not operating one dimensionally. They're really in a much more complex mindset. Even in that very brief exchange that they have on the phone in the pilot, you can see that she had these expectations about an ogre. And what she ended up with was — if the circumstances were a little bit different, man — she'd be my surrogate daughter. 

There's not a lot of writers that hand over material like that for guys like me to immerse themselves in. So when you find it, you cherish it, you hold on to it, you hug it, you kiss it, and you hope it never ends. Being somebody who's had a bunch of good fortune to be in TV series that lasted a while, where you had the opportunity to delve into a world and then stay there and continue to investigate and turn over new dimensions, this was one that I would have cherished to be part of. Maybe I'll talk Rian into finding the next Ron Perlman TV series.

There's a great photo Rian Johnson posted from production with you having dinner with him, Benjamin, Natasha and Janicza. That's looks like a fun time.

I was meeting everyone in that photograph for the first time. I can't remember whether that was after we had all done a day's work together, so there was somewhat of a familiarity, but it was very new. It felt very old and lived in. Natasha is an old soul. You can see by the things she wants to pay homage to, that she may be living in this generation, but part of her is in the past. Benjamin is a beautifully welcoming human being. He has a warmth that's almost too good to be true and indescribable. And then Janicza... we were all just feeding off of one another's magic. She was right in there. Everybody was incredibly generous with revealing their innermost selves in a very short period of time. So yeah, that picture means a lot to me, which is why the minute Rian posted it, I reposted it. Those are some good times.

Last but not least, you reunited once again with del Toro to voice the character of Podesta in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. It's a stop-motion film, which was celebrated in Poker Face, and has been embraced by critics and audiences. How has it been for you to see it getting nominated for an Oscar and being part of its success?

I've been at dinners with Guillermo where he was discussing with various other artists — and I just happen to be a fly on the wall most of the time — Pinocchio for about 10 years now. To see him finally get to the place where he could get it made, and not only get it made, but get it made in conjunction with this vision that he's had since he was a very, very tiny kid. He's maintained that innocence and that purity. But also that kind of wonder of like, what happens to a soul like that when he comes into the real world with all of its evils and unkindness? Particularly when he sets it in a Fascist backdrop, what happens to a beautiful, innocent soul like that? This is his exploration and it's a very personal one.

To watch him get a chance to execute it, but then the extra added bonus of watching it be 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and win every single award it can possibly win all around the globe. I'm not gonna make any predictions about Sunday night. But, come on? He's got a shot. It's cool, and it couldn't happen to a more brilliant, talented, beautiful, soul. My wish for all my fellow actors is that they all find a Guillermo del Toro.

Click here to watch the all the first season episodes of Poker Face streaming now. Or other Ron Perlman movies like 5ive Girls on Peacock.