Harold Perrineau, a one-time cast member of 'Oz' and 'Lost,' chats about his role as Damon Pope on the biker series 'Sons Of Anarchy.' He reveals what it's like portraying an ex-drug kingpin gone legit on 'SOA' & a bass player on the comic 'Wedding Band.'
Harold Perrineau, a former series regular on both the controversial cable prison drama Oz (as Augustus Hill) and the cult sci-fi classic Lost (portraying Michael Dawson), recently became a recurring character on the hit biker/gang series Sons Of Anarchy – created by executive producer and writer Kurt Sutter (The Shield). In Season 5 of Sons Of Anarchy, Perrineau portrays Damon Pope, a ruthless, ex-drug kingpin who rose from the streets and who built a legitimate empire and his slowly and wisely becoming an influential advisory to Jax Tellar (Charlie Hunnam) and his SAMCRO gang.
Surprisingly, Perrineau didn't go through the normal Hollywood of practice of auditioning for the role of Damon Pope. He simply landed his latest gig by closely monitoring Kurt Sutter's SOA comments on Twitter. "I knew they were looking for Damon Pope for a while, because Kurt Sutter was always tweeting about it – since I followed him on Twitter," the 49-year-old Brooklyn born actor reveals. "My wife was always reading it, and one day she said, 'You know, they still haven't found Damon Pope. Maybe you should try to send Kurt an e-mail.' So, I sent him an e-mail just to see if I could get a meeting with him. He took the meeting, and we sat and talked about it. By the time I got home, he called me and bravely said, 'Let's do it.' And so, here I am."
Kurt Sutter, creator, writer, actor and executive producer of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
To portray Pope, Perrineau not only consulted with Sutter about his thoughts on the character, but he did his own extensive research on historical gangsters who have tried to crossover into legitimate business ventures. "Kurt and I talked at length about his ideas concerning Damon Pope and some of the people that Pope reminded him of," remembers Perrineau, who shares a Screen Actors Guild Award with his Lost cast mates for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series. "One of the people Kurt compared Pope to was Frank Lucas, who was the subject of the movie American Gangster that Denzel Washington did – which was based on Lucas' life story. So, I started doing a bunch of research on my own about a lot of different guys who took their street life and then turned them into more legit businesses. That's kind of how I sort of set up Damon Pope and how he might think or the way he may act in retaliation to things that are very emotional for him. So, basically, I just sort of pulled on these different sorts of businessmen and gangsters who I thought had similar kinds of backgrounds."
While Sutter has modeled several Sons Of Anarchy characters on the actors who portray them, Perrineau is adamant that the show's creator didn't write the role of Pope just for him. However, now that he is part of Sons Of Anarchy, Perrineau may be having an influence on the way Pope is being portrayed on the show. "Kurt had already started scripting Pope before we met," he recalls. "He had an idea about Pope at the end of Season Four. He had been down the line of meeting people for the character, and I guess those things didn't work out. When they didn't work out, and I knew I had some free time, I kind of thought, 'Whatever that idea was – his idea for Pope – is probably a long shot for me, because I don't normally cast like that, but I had confidence that I could probably pull something off. So, Pope wasn't fashioned after me at all. But, I think as the series is going on and as I am working together with Kurt – as he's writing it – I think maybe somehow we have started to form the same person. It has all started gelling together. But, he didn't have me in mind when he originally wrote Damon Pope."
Harold Perrineau as Damon Pope in a scene from 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Perrineau admits he's still coming to terms with some of the violent acts that Pope has set into motion on the series. However, he's even more intrigued by the way fans are willing to embrace Pope's unique brand of violence. "There's something perplexing about the level of violence that Damon is capable of and the positive way people respond to it," he explains. "There's something really curious about that for me. He has the ability to be really, really violent and people get really super excited about it and there's something in me that says, 'I don't know if this makes me happy or not.' I mean, this guy burned a girl and everybody's really excited about that. So, it leaves me really in this strange place. I'm really happy that people like the work, but I am really confused because it's really violent."
Although Pope initially appeared on the series as a ruthless, heartless man for burning alive SAMCRO member Tig's daughter, in retaliation for his own daughter's death – caused by the actions of the biker Tig (Kim Coates) – Perrineau says he hopes that fans of the show can see past Pope's need for revenge. "I liked the idea of this guy who didn't just roll into the show as some gangster just to be tough, but he was a guy who just lost his child – so, he was just very, very angry," he explains. "One of the things that I felt like might be really challenging and kind of fun is to see – as the series went on – is if audience members would just go like, 'Oh, he's just a terrible guy' or if someone can go, 'Hey, if somebody had killed my daughter for a frivolous reason that Tig killed his daughter, what would I do?' and actually have some empathy for Pope. I'm really curious about whether that will ever play out, or if it's just going to be like, 'He's just a bad dude.' So, for me, I thought that was an interesting thing to try to spot and then try to bring to the character."
Charlie Hunnam as SAMCRO president Jax Tellar on 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Perrineau remembers that, initially, he felt it might be potentially difficult for him coming onto a long-running series packed with a huge cast of badass biker characters and trying to become good friends with the actors who portray them – especially since Pope is supposed to be the badass supreme of Season Five. "I have to say it was a little daunting, because they are a bunch of dudes who play bad asses," Perrineau says with a laugh. "But, they are all great actors on the show, and they do really, really well. So, I felt in the very beginning it was going to be sort of interesting trying to ingratiate myself into this group of guys while also keeping a bit of distance. I knew that my character was going to be an adversary, and I didn't want any of my own personal feelings about liking the other actors, personally, to come across with Pope. That's because I think Damon Pope is very focused and serious about what he needs done and wants to do. So, it was a little tricky, but they're a great cast of people and great actors, and they made it really, really easy for me."
Perrineau confesses that working on the Sons Of Anarchy set has been quite a unique experience compared to his tenures on Oz and Lost. "Sons Of Anarchy is different in that with Lost and with Oz, there was such a huge cast of people and there was always tons of people and personalities around all the time, so you were negotiating that while you were working and playing the role," he explains. "The sort of luxury I've had with Sons Of Anarchy is while there are lots of people on the show itself, Damon Pope is very specific and he's very focused. I'm really not around everybody as much. So, for me, it doesn't feel like there's that much to negotiate. I feel like I can really focus in on what this one character has to do and who he has to do it to or with or whatever. In that sense, I don't feel how big and broad like the rest of the cast is like I did in the other two shows."
Harold Perrineau with his 'Lost' (Season One) cast mates
The fan following for Sons Of Anarchy is a fiercely loyal and openly vocal gang itself, particularly on the internet. Since Perrineau was a fan of SOA before he joined the cast as Pope, he was already familiar with the almost rabid devotion that Sons Of Anarchy aficionados had for their favorite series. However, he admits that once he joined the cast he began to feel a different kind of energy by becoming a participant in the mythos that surrounds Sons Of Anarchy. "Because of all the social media stuff, right after the opening episode – the very first episode – I gained a whole lot more Twitter followers and people who were really excited about me doing the show," he says. "There were people who were really happy to see me, had seen me do other things before, people who had never seen my work before and people who were really mad at Damon Pope, but super excited about what was going to happen next. And so, pretty immediately I got to experience a lot of the SOA fans.
"When it comes to the fans of the show, they're just incredible," Perrineau adds. "Earlier on, you kind of get to feel it like growing and growing and growing, and it's really fun and exciting. Watching it grow is pretty cool. I was really shocked by how passionate all the people are about the show and how available Kurt is to his audience. But, at the same time, I feel like a little like I'm playing catch-up, like I don't know what people expect or what they do and they're already in there and they're settled in. They really love the show and they know everything about the show, and I really am trying to like catch up as much as I can and do all of my homework and see the shows and know what the people are talking about, because they really do seem to love the show and are passionate about it. Luckily, I am feeling the love. I've got to say that. They're really loyal even if they don't like Damon Pope."
Harold Perrineau as Augustus Hill on 'Oz'
Although he has spent the past few years concentrating on primarily on television and film (Romeo + Juliet, The Matrix Trilogy, 28 Weeks Later) roles, surprisingly, Perrineau is a seasoned Broadway veteran who began his career on the Great White Way. "I was in the chorus of the revival of Dreamgirls, and this is way back in the '90s," he recounts. "I even went out on an international tour with Dreamgirls, and then that show came back to Broadway again. So, I did that on Broadway and then, off-Broadway, I did like Godspell and Street Dreams and all these other little musicals. Those are my first jobs. I was a dancer, singer and musical theater guy. But, I haven't gotten any substantial offers to go back on the musical stage. I just haven't had the opportunity, lately."
That may all change with his newest series gig. In addition to Sons Of Anarchy, Perrineau is now a regular lead cast member of the upcoming hour-long musical comedy series Wedding Band (which premieres November 10 at 10:00pmET/PT on TBS). Along with Perrineau, Wedding Band also stars Brian Austin Green, Peter Cambor and Derek Miller. The comedy follows four friends – three single, one married, all with day jobs – who escape their daily stress and responsibilities by playing "weekend rock gods" in Seattle's premier wedding and events band, Mother of the Bride. In Wedding Band, Perrineau portrays band member Stevie, a bassist and session musician who's jammed with all the big rock giants, "from AC to ZZ," but he's never been an official member of a band until Mother of the Bride.
Harold Perrineau portrays Mother of the Bride bassist Stevie on the upcoming hour-long comedy series 'Wedding Band'
"Wedding Band is the closest to a musical that I've been able to be part of," admits Perrineau, who sings in LA clubs during his spare time. "The show is going to have a lot of really great singing and a lot of great songs. I got to play like ten different instruments in this thing. It's just a ton of fun. Like I mentioned, it is the closest thing to a musical I've gotten in a while. Maybe it'll remind theatre folk that I can sing and dance, too."
His costars on Wedding Band, particularly Brian Austin Green, absolutely love having Perrineau on the series. "I'm asshole enough to play the lead singer, I'll hold the mic stand and sing like I'm the shit," Green says, half-jokingly. "Harold, though, is the one with a great voice. Harold has honey in his voice. He's got a great R&B-y thing going on, and he's hot. When you see the pilot, you'll see. Better yet, he's a helluva sweet and charming person to work with. I'm so glad he's a part of the show."
Harold Perrineau with his 'Wedding Band' costars Brian Austin Green and Peter Cambor
Does Perrineau's new stint on Wedding Band mean that Pope will no longer be a part of the Sons Of Anarchy universe after this season has run its course? "Honestly, Kurt and I haven't discussed what is going to ultimately happen to Pope," he confesses. "I really like being a part of Sons Of Anarchy, so I hope Pope makes it out alive this season. Theoretically, I could do both shows, but I don't know what Pope's ultimate fate is."
From playing a prison inmate on Oz, a traitorous plane crash survivor on Lost, a ruthless drug kingpin on Sons Of Anarchy to a singing and dancing bass player on Wedding Band, Perrineau has played all types of characters -- from one extreme to the other. He confesses that he chooses the roles he wants to play by following his artistic gut feelings towards the characters and the overall feel of the show. "Whenever I am offered a project, I certainly look at the character that I'm going to play, first," he admits. "I'm keenly aware of the characters I'm going to play, but often, I look for the content of what's going on, too.
Harold Perrineau as Augustus Hill on the iconic prison drama 'Oz'
"For instance, when I did Oz, back in the day, we didn't know where it was going to go, but I was really interested in this idea of whether prisons were for retribution or actual redemption," he recalls. "I knew that that was part of the conversation that we were going to be having with Oz, as well as being entertaining; the same with lots of other things that I pick. I kind of try to pick things that I would be proud to be part of, that I'm really happy to say, 'Yes, I was part of that conversation,' even if it's a hard conversation about some of the entertainment things or whatever. I like to do things that are fun, entertaining and also kind of help you think. I'm not so interested in a lot of mindless things that sort of take you away from your life or take you out of your experiences – things that are just plain stupid."
Harold Perrineau as Michael Dawson on 'Lost'
Portraying diverse characters on television/cable series and in motion pictures is a great thing for most actor's careers. For Perrineau, though, his eclectic roles have proven to somewhat of a double-edged sword. "The thing that's making my career the most rewarding – and is also kind of the most frustrating – is that I've gotten to play a lot of different things," Perrineau says. "I've gotten to do a lot of different things and that's really what I wanted to do. I really love being an actor, and for me, an actor really gets to step into many, many different lives and experience them and try to bring them to life and tell the story that the writer is telling. I've been able to do things that you wouldn't expect me to do or things that I think I should be able to do, but no one else does. And so, you can bring life to that kind of thing, but it's also the thing that's the most frustrating because people will see a thing you do and sort of because the way the business is and the branding is, it's hard because they try to pin me down, going, 'Oh, he can just do that one thing.'
"I feel like I'm constantly, constantly having to prove that, 'Oh, yes, I can do that, too,' not like in a bragging way, but it's like this is what my job is as an actor," he laments. "If I can't do it right now, I certainly can figure it out because that's what my job is. So, it is both the thing that I'm most proud of and the thing that causes me the most sort of stress because I'm always having to prove, like really, really keep proving that I can pull this off as well. Sometimes I'm wrong. Sometimes I can't do it, but I really like trying. That's why I love doing Sons Of Anarchy. It challenges me in ways I haven't been before. I'm so glad Kurt had faith in me to pull off the role of Pope. I'll always be grateful to him for giving me the job."
Actor, singer, musician and entertainer Harold Perrineau
While Perrineau is considered one of the most successful actors in Hollywood, what in the world would he be doing today if he had failed to land such primo roles as Damian Pope – or major parts in iconic series like Lost and Oz – and had to work in another profession to feed his family? "That's a question my dad used to ask me a lot,a long time ago, and he'd say, 'Of course, you could always get a job at the post office,'" he fondly remembers, with a chuckle. "I really don't know? I'm one of those people who is a jack of all trades and a master of none. There are so many things that I'm interested in and there are so many things I could probably do – and don't. So, I don't know what I would be doing? I know that I have a certain amount of tenacity to do whatever I'm doing as well as possible. So, I'm sure that wherever it was, even if it were the post office, I would be doing a really respectable, respectful job and being as successful as I could at that. Actually, the truth is I wish I could say, 'I'd be fighting in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).' I really wish I could say that, but that's not really realistic, but I love it so much that I could say that."
New episodes of Sons Of Anarchy air Tuesday nights at 10:00pmET/9:00pmCT on the FX network. (Check local listings)
Wedding Band premieres Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 10:00pmET/PT on TBS. (Check local listings)