Ron Perlman and Michael Caton-Jones on Choosing Sparsity Over Action in ‘Asher’

We chat with the actor and director about stripping gangsters to their emotional core.
Asher Ron Perlman
Momentum Pictures
By  · Published on December 12th, 2018

One last job. We’ve been here before. The gig never goes well for the criminal working on their exit strategy. Yet, despite our familiarity with the concept, the audience is always eager to watch this particular self-destructive descent. The on-their-way out gangster storyline is a bare-bones structure that allows actors to ignore narrative complication and embrace the character.

We don’t need to worry about how A will lead to B and end up at C. The audience is given permission to focus on performance, study the face that will lead to the soul of the being in crisis. Put the right actor on such a barren stage and the tired concept is revitalized.

Asher bears a strong resemblance to several other films. Ron Perlman is an aging hitman who freely gave himself to sin decades ago, but when a kill goes wrong early on in the movie, the villain is forced to reevaluate the life that led him here. Director Michael Caton-Jones surrounds the wretch with other compelling faces like Richard Dreyfuss, Famke Janssen, and Jacqueline Bissett. Your attention might wander under the guidance of lesser artists, but these personalities are impossible to resist.

I spoke with Perlman and Caton-Jones over the phone. Both men saw the potential in Asher to strip a screenplay to the thinnest of frames and find emotional heft in the long silences between stares. Here is a character who would choose to jam a screwdriver in your head rather than suffer an exchange of pleasantries, and Perlman was hooked on the thought of stuffing that rage into every facial twitch.

Or at least he was after a little cajoling from Caton-Jones. “What is sacrosanct is the minimalism of it all, how little is explained,” says Perlman. “We never ever explain who he’s killing or why. We very, very rarely explain anything about his prior life. Most of it is explained with just a gesture, or nuance, or look, or photograph on the wall. Everything is incredibly understated, which gives way to the making of a movie that’s more stylistic than it is substance oriented.”

For Caton-Jones, Asher was also an opportunity not to check the usual Hollywood boxes. “A lot of scripts these days tend to be somewhat politically correct, and try to cover all bases and create sympathy here, there, and everywhere,” he explains. “Here was one that left an awful lot open to the imagination, and I’m of the opinion that the less you do, the more of the audience finds some intrigue or some interest. They can actually be a participant in the experience.”

There is a danger to playing the plot so close to one’s vest. Assume too much as a storyteller and you could lose your audience. However, Perlman put his faith in the viewers, “If we give them the right clues as to what they’re seeing, they’re going to understand, they’re going to fill in all these blanks, that we deliberately left out. That was something I had to fight for.”

Perlman has played every kind of roll. We celebrate him for Hellboy, Beauty and the Beast, and as the nightmarish patriarch of Sons of Anarchy. He’s often used as a spice to liven up a meal, tantalizing your palate as he rages through Pacific Rim, Season of the Witch, or Desperation. His name in the credits causes one to perk up and pay attention.

That doesn’t mean he has to find a rut and work through it. “I really am trying my hardest to steer clear of repeating myself,” says Perlman. “There might be similarities in what a guy does for a living, but the psychology of the characters is what fascinates me most. If I’m reading a character and I feel like I’ve already solved his psychology, I’m not eager to go back and try it again, under another guise.” Asher is not Nino from Drive.

Caton-Jones agreed that Asher offered a possibility to use Perlman in a manner we’ve not seen before, “I felt ‘you’ve got a face like Mount Rushmore, mate. Just sit there and let the audience look at that and let them imagine what’s going on in your head.'” The director strived for a reduction. “I kept trying to get stiller, stiller,” he says. “After a while, Ron understood it and he was going with that. I just think that’s one of the strengths of the film. A lot of what you’re thinking is there on our face.”

Perlman appreciates his place in cinema, but he’s also looking to free himself from studio constraint. In 2014, Perlman launched Wing and a Prayer Pictures so that he could steer some of his creativity behind the camera, and gain some control on the content. “Acting is kind of like a drug for me, and I’m never going to give it up,” he says. Dominance on a project is indeed thrilling. “Producing requires that I’m involved in every single decision and aspect. Every single hire, including the above the lines, directors, actors, designers, and below the line, crew, I’m involved in.”

Why was Asher a film that demanded his full attention? The answer is simple, “I felt like when I read the script, I was able to see the world and what the world should look like, and Jay Zaretsky’s incredibly original writing needed to be protected.” So, Perlman made it his mission to guard his baby by throwing himself into the film and surrounding the character with an army of talented people.

Actors don’t come much more accomplished than Richard Dreyfuss, and while he does not fill too much screentime in Asher, his presence hangs like doomsday over the proceedings. To snag such a tactician was an incredible rush for Perlman, “You’ve heard the expression, ‘Pinch me moments?” Simply sitting across from Hooper was a rush. “I mean look, man, I did most of my dreaming about who I wanted to be in the movies, the kind of stuff I wanted to do in the movies, by watching Richard Dreyfuss’ early work in the 60s and 70s.”

As Perlman recalls the moment in which his character squares off against Dreyfuss’ mafioso overlord, childish whimsy feels Perlman’s breath, “There I am on set with him, grappling with these realized dreams, and finding him to be as boyishly enthusiastic about what he’s doing as he ever was.” For once, meeting your heroes paid off. “These fantasies that one has about working with somebody as iconic as that, were born out in real time. What a fucking great dud this is. Look at how much fun this is playing with him, and how much he really loves that boyish act of just role-playing, being an actor.”

Staring at the poster for Asher, you gaze into the eyes of Perlman, and you look down the barrel of his pistol. The image might be easy to scroll past or dismiss in a theater lobby, but then you catch those names at the top. Perlman, Dreyfuss, Janssen, Bissett. That’s a cocktail you can’t find in the average dive bar. You need a taste.

Asher is now playing in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)