LOS ANGELES Hollywood's modern man of a thousand faces, Ron Perlman, never minded hiding behind rubber masks and mounds of makeup early in his career.
Perlman, who reprises his title role as a wisecracking demon turned superhero in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," says he was able to put more into his acting when he was disguised as a caveman, a hunchbacked monk or the homely half of TV's "Beauty and the Beast."
"I probably appreciated mask acting more when I was a younger man than I do these days, because I wasn't real comfortable in my own skin in the early going," Perlman said. "Putting that few inches of rubber between me and the camera sort of freed me up to be more me than I was able to be as me.
"Little by little as I've gotten older, those concerns have kind of melted away," the 58-year-old Perlman said. "I'm much more comfortable in my own skin, but I thank God for those mask roles in the early days. They allowed me to kind of get an expansiveness and freeness that I probably wouldn't have had otherwise."
Perlman never set out to become a contemporary Lon Chaney as he moved from live theater into film and television in the early 1980s. His first big-screen role put him on that path, though, as he played one of the prehistoric men in Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Quest for Fire." Annaud later cast Perlman as the hunchback who winds up burned at the stake in "The Name of the Rose." Perlman starred as one of TV's strangest heartthrobs in "Beauty and the Beast," playing a noble, refined man-lion who lived underground and had an unusual romance with a beautiful attorney (Linda Hamilton) from the surface world.
"That's a testament to just his talent and how he loves playing characters, that he can do it under even inches of rubber makeup. That he can still let a character shine through when it's even that much harder," said Selma Blair, who plays Hellboy's fiery girlfriend. "No one else could do it. That's why he winds up the one under all that rubber."
Perlman, who grew up in New York City, began his professional career on the New York stage after earning a master's degree in fine arts.
His true face has appeared many times on screen in such flicks as "Alien: Resurrection," "Enemy at the Gates," "The City of Lost Children" and the Academy Award-winning short "Two Soldiers." Yet Perlman is best-known for creature-feature parts, an animal-human hybrid in Marlon Brando's "The Island of Dr. Moreau" or a Nosferatu-like alien in "Star Trek: Nemesis."
An odd sort of typecasting led to Perlman's repeated on-screen masquerades.
"Whatever it is that sets you off in the business, you get on the short list of being asked to be that guy for the rest of your life," Perlman said. "With me, it was acting under heavy makeup."
He figures that's what led Guillermo del Toro to casting him with his real face in the Mexican filmmaker's directing debut, the 1993 horror drama "Cronos."
Del Toro had been working in special effects and makeup, honing his talents at creating the sort of amazing monsters he would present in "Pan's Labyrinth" and the "Hellboy" movies.
"He was watching a lot of the guys who worked in special-effects makeup, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and myself," Perlman said. "Probably I was invited to be in 'Cronos' more as a kind of good-luck charm than because I was right for the movie. Because I was completely wrong for the movie, but I think he just wanted me around, like you keep an old shoe for the comfort aspect."
Perlman turned into a keeper for del Toro, who cast him in his action tale "Blade II" and waged a long campaign to convince Hollywood executives that the actor was the ideal man for 2004's "Hellboy."
When del Toro first got involved with adapting "Hellboy" from the graphic novel, Perlman met with the director over dinner and was told that in a perfect world, he would be the right guy for the part.
"I said, 'Well, we all know we don't live in a perfect world, so let's just go eat and we'll forget about this conversation. Because if you're planning to spend any more than about a hundred-thousand dollars on this movie, you're never going to get me in this role. I'm not going to pass the sniff test,"' Perlman said.
For years, studio bosses held out for a bigger name to improve the movie's box-office prospects.
Del Toro persisted and eventually won out, casting Perlman as the colossal red-skinned Hellboy, who stomps on evil demons then unwinds with his cigars, cheap beer and menagerie of kittens.
"What I love about Ron is that he has the physical capability of playing a brute of enormous proportions. He's really not that tall, but he's sculpted like a Russian realism statue, with huge hands and a huge head," del Toro said. "There is something of the noblest mammalian proportions in the guy. He's fantastically gifted physically, and then his voice. He has one of the most enveloping, entrancing voices. This is a guy that at lunch can be reciting the menu, and you're fascinated by the ingredients."
While Perlman never set out to become Hollywood's go-to guy for roles behind masks, one of his most-moving experiences as a movie fan came when he first saw Charles Laughton in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"The most human character who happens also to be a gargoyle that you've ever seen on screen," Perlman said. "I remember how much humanity he was able to evoke with one eye kind of by his left cheek and the other eye above his forehead and this huge hump on his back. Completely obscured by some makeup artists' design, there was all this heart and emotion and pathos. The fact that I kind of have a chance to work in that milieu is purely coincidental but also feels right to me because of the profound effect that had on me.
"I'm kind of lucky. Not that I'm comparing myself to how great Laughton was, but that we're sort of working on the same problems as actors."