Nearly three decades since his iconic role, Jason Scott Lee is again in top shape.Read article
Muscle & Fitness: Easy Street (The Hard Way) starts with the summer that you lose your dad. Looking back at the time that happened for you, does an event like that make you grow up faster? Did that make you hungrier for success?
Ron Perlman: I think the former rather than the latter. I was still in the midst of finishing college, so I wasn’t wrapped up yet in thirsting for success and I also wasn’t ready to grow up that fast. I think your school years are basically your fuck around time. It’s like you’re in a laboratory situation and you really don’t have… I mean you think you have a lot of pressure on yourself with midterms and finals and grade point average, but compared to actually getting out of school and having to pay your bills and make a life for yourself, high school and college are nothing you know. You’re in a completely protected environment, and you can pretty much do anything you want so long as you don’t get arrested. Being in the midst of that and then having something as sobering as kind of becoming the man head of the family was a real bucket of ice water poured over your head. Whether you’re ready or not, you’re gonna have to start figuring shit out and answer a lot of questions you didn’t even know were questions.
You were overweight and high blood pressure as a kid—to the point where doctors put you on a no-salt diet and you lost 95 pounds. Between being overweight and kids teasing you about your distinct face, that’s an experience that would make most people pretty bitter. How is it that you came out the opposite way?
I got to understand what people in pain are going through. Any type of discomfort that you feel, whether it’s objectively justified or not, you’re feeling it. This is what keeps the psychiatry industry alive and well and there’s a lot of Prozac because people are in pain. People are trying to figure out ways to cope with it and deal with the pain. For me, what it did was it opened up this sort of compassionate side of myself where anyone that I saw in pain, I relate to and identified with.
And as I began to get lucky as an actor—and the strange thing about my early success as an actor was I was usually playing beasts; I was playing gnarled characters in heavy prosthetic makeup that were monstrous in one way or another, but had these beautiful souls and pure hearts. I noticed that I was getting a huge amount of response from people who were relating to the human spirit overcoming physical limitations. I became a symbol of hope for people. It just felt good to me. It felt good that I could turn what had been something very painful in myself to something that shows it’s okay. In fact, it’s not only okay, it’s what makes you, you. These little vulnerabilities, these little imperfections, these little things about yourself that make you different from anyone else, that’s what makes you, you. That’s ultimately what you want to be.
You don’t want to be anyone else or like somebody else, you want to be the best you that you can be. It took me years and years, and decades and decades and decades to learn that for myself. But part of why I was able to learn it was because I got so lucky and I got these phenomenal ways to interact with the public through my work. I got such amazing feedback from people, but really heartfelt feedback. It wasn’t like one dimensional or superficial. It was very, very layered and multi-leveled, and people were sharing a lot of their innermost hearts with me. The more that that happens, the more I realized I’m being entrusted with some very private, very beautiful shit, and it kind of makes you long to do better, and to do more and to make your reach go further. The last couple chapters of the book are kind of like all I’m trying to do right now is figure out how to pay the world back for giving me a way better life than I ever had any business to even dream possible.
In the book you mention that you worked as a limo driver between jobs. Is this what kept you going? The feeling that this work is resonating with people?
Well I now have come to feel, and this is probably the most overarching theme of the book, starting off just as a fanboy of movies and then in my mid-60s as someone whose had a 40-year career in movies, and going through all the phases that one goes through as a participant in that art form, I’ve now come to realize that the story tellers are—there’s a nobility to what we do because we’re able to give credence to universality, to commonality; by telling stories that mean the same thing to lowly village people in Nigeria as they do to the most upper crust on Nob Hill in San Francisco.
That just resonates on a certain level so they’re felt in the same way the world over. There’s a nobility to that. I no longer have anything negative about my participation in the world of story telling, and I just happened to fall in love with cinema because in my estimation it does it better than the other art form; it does it better than fiction, it does it better than painting, so it combines all of it. It combines sound and fury and image and thought and sentiment and soul and a conscience and everything that’s noble about the human condition is conveyed in our cinematic history. Knowing that I’m just a tiny little passing voice in that world fuses me with this energy force that I’m going to try to make sure that the privilege that I was given of life in cinema is not squandered. I completely embrace it and do as good a job as I possibly can, and leave behind some sort of evidence that I gave a shit about telling stories that help people get through the fucking day.
Can you remember what your first real experience in the gym was like?
I actually started going to the gym and getting a notion of getting ready to perform on a level I never knew before on my very first movie, which was Quest for Fire. We were going to be playing these guys who did everything by hand. We were going to be pretty much bare from the feet all the way to the forehead, there would be furs draped over our shoulders, but for the most part we would be naked underneath and walking on whatever surface we were walking on with no shoes. So I needed to get ready kind of quick. I had a lot of time, but considering how out of shape I was, I didn’t have nearly enough time to get as ready as I needed to get. But that was the beginning for me. I joined Gold’s Gym in New York, and I was smart enough to ask the membership guys if they would recommend an in-house trainer. The guy taught me how to work out. He gave me a routine. I said I really need you to be as aggressive with me as possible because I don’t have a lot of time, and so he was. I kind of transformed myself and I saw in a relatively short amount of time what eating good and pumping iron five to six days a week can do for you. What happens is the minute you do that once, the minute you’re not doing it, you feel horrible about yourself so the gym has now become a kind of a marker for me. When I’m not in the gym I feel horrible about myself, I feel guilty, I feel like I’m robbing myself of that special time where I’m getting strong, and breaking through on those days you just don’t feel like you have anything. Those are the days you gotta work out harder. You’re teaching yourself how to break through and do what’s asked of you, even though you don’t feel like you’ve got it. That’s what an actor has to do al the time.
What is your workout like now?
We try to go to failure so we’re using weights that are rather formidable, but what I do is I superset, so I do two exercises in tandem, usually push-pull. So if I’m doing shoulders then I’m doing pulldowns and I’ll do 24 reps of each with no rest in between and three sets of those—and I’ll do five supersets, so by the time I’ve left the gym in an hour, I’ve done ten exercises, 24 reps of each times three. Then I go upstairs and do another 30 minutes of hard cardio. I’m keeping my heart rate up above 125 the whole hour and a half. I do a lot of legs. I find legs give me a better sense of wellbeing. If I’m in shape from the waist down or I’m strong from the waist down, then I don’t get nearly as winded when I’m needing to run or walk, do fight scenes or whatever. I’m lucky I’m forced to do it because of my job because it really helps my personal life as well. I just feel better when I’m working out every day.
How long do you feel your career would have lasted without physical fitness?
I have no idea. I don’t know. I would hate to have to live on the balance.