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Ron Perlman Leads the Pack

Actor compares gang role in <i>Sons of Anarchy</i> to parenthood.

Ron Perlman

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Corbis

Ron Perlman arrives at the season two premiere of the FX series "Sons of Anarchy" at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles.

In his role as gang leader Clay Morrow on FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy, which returns for its third season Tuesday, Sept. 7, veteran actor Ron Perlman has to blend the dedicated machismo of a gunrunning outlaw biker with the sensitivity of a man pursuing the best for his family. For Perlman, previously best known as the titular hero in the Hellboy films, Clay is a perfect vehicle for combining his acting talent with his personal experience as a dedicated family man. Perlman spoke to AARP about the show's new season, and how family was essential in determining his life path.

Q: This season of Sons of Anarchy revolves around your stepson Jax's attempt to recover his infant son — your character's grandson — who has been kidnapped. Does being a dad give this story line extra resonance for you?

A: Absolutely. Your relationship to the plight of the innocent and the obligation of protecting those who cannot protect themselves comes into strong focus when you become a parent. In terms of the acting process — of utilizing your own life experience to convey the emotion of the day — it looms very large.

Q: Clay is a lifelong outlaw biker with a very healthy, loving relationship with his wife, Gemma, played by Katey Sagal. How important is that relationship to his ability to be an effective leader?

A: I think Clay sees himself as the patriarch of a family, and all members of the family — whether related by blood or not — are that close, and are interdependent. Clay has a huge appetite for leadership, and there's a ruthlessness that comes with being a patriarch:"I will protect my family. I will make all decisions for the greater good to the absolute degree that I can."

As a father, nobody's coming into my house with evil intent. That's not Clay speaking. That's me speaking.

Q: I understand your dad played an important role in your becoming an actor.

A: My dad came to see me in a [college] production of Guys and Dolls on the night we opened. The following night, I came off the stage and found him waiting for me in the wings. I didn't know he was coming. I said, "Dad, what are you doing here? I'm going out with my friends." He said, "I know. I just needed to come back and check something. We'll talk tomorrow." The following day, I said, "So what were you checking out?" He goes, "I just wanted to make sure I actually saw what I saw." I said, "What do you think you saw?" He said, "You know you need to do this, right? You need to be an actor. It's gonna be a tough life and there's no guarantees, but this is what you need to do." About six months later, he was dead. So it was an amazing … you finish the sentence, because I can't.

Q: That's an incredible thing for a parent to do for a child. How did your dad's generosity in that sense affect how you dealt with your [now grown] kids?

A: I just wanted them to find something they were passionate about that they could also make a living at. It didn't matter what it was. That was the gift my dad gave me. It was like, if you find something to do that you love, don't turn your back on it, because you only get one shot. Whatever the struggle is, keep your head down. It's worth it. And he was right. I've had an amazingly satisfying life. If it all ended right now, I'd go out really happy.

Q: What paths did your kids choose?

A: My son is studying to be a chef. My daughter is a singer/songwriter/actress. We all chose creative endeavors.

Q: Do they come to you often for advice?

A: Not really. We spend a great deal of time together and there's always lively discussions about what I'm going through and what they're going through, but I don't think they seek my advice so much as there's just this exchange. When they hit the rocks or are unsure about the next step, they check in with Dad. But I really feel that it's their path. It's all about discovery, about falling down on your face and picking yourself up and saying, "I'm not gonna do that anymore." That's how you get where you're going.