Harold Perrineau Interview

07 January 2009

'Oz' narrator Perrieau says donning a dress for 'Woman on Top' was anything but a drag

'Oz' narrator Perrieau says donning a dress for 'Woman on Top' was anything but a drag

Harold Perrieau, Jr. isn't insulted at all when I tell him I'd hoped stunning Spanish actress Penelope Cruz would be the one going on a press tour to promote "Woman on Top." They star in together in the romantic comedy about an ambrosial Brazilian chef (played by Cruz) who abandons a cheating husband and starts over in San Francisco, and I explain that I'm just gaga over her. "Who isn't!" he loudly agrees.

Well, in this film as a matter of fact, Perrieau's character isn't -- at least not in the way we're implying in this conversation. In "Woman on Top," Perrieau plays Monica, a drag queen with Carmen Miranda-style flamboyance. He's played a cross-dressing character before, a fey twist on Mercutio in Baz Lurhmann's rock 'n' roll "Romeo + Juliet." But this role is about as far as you can get from the part for which he's most recognized, playing the wheelchair-bound prisoner who is conscience and commentator to HBO's shockingly realistic maximum security stockade drama series, "Oz."

Out of jail and out of drag, Perrieau is an affable and expressive guy with energetic gestures and a boisterous laugh always at the ready. Hanging around his San Francisco hotel room today, he twists a finger around a couple of dreadlocks -- something of a trademark hairstyle for him -- as he tells a story about the first time he visited this city while performing in a stage play.

"I was put up in a apartment-style hotel that wasn't in the best neighborhood," he laughs. "I'd look out the window and go, Look at all those hookers!"

They were just putting you in a place where all the amenities were available, I tell him.

"Right, of course!" he shoots back.

"Hello, Room Service," I say, "You see that girl walking by...?"

Perrieau starts laughing and just about rolls out of his chair.

His second trip to San Francisco was to film "Woman on Top," which takes place here. And today is his third visit, but he won't be seeing any hookers this time since he's holed up in his suite, doing interviews all day and apparently twisting those dreadlocks all day, too.

So after we're done cracking prostitute jokes, I have to ask about the hair...

Q: Have your dreads ever cost you a part?

A: They actually have, a couple yeah. Not so much a role, but a couple auditions. This year I got to audition for Martin Luther King. I did my best, but they couldn't see past it.

Q: You would have cut them off for that role?

A: Are you kidding? Gimme a razor! If the role is good enough, I'll cut them. But you can't offer me the third best friend to somebody's cousin and ask me to cut my hair for it. (I was offered an) M&Ms commercial. (They said), "Will you cut your hair?" (Scrunching up his face in mock disgust.) NO! No! Find somebody else!

Q: They need an M&M with dreads! They haven't done a commercial with a black M&M.

A: There you go. I got a new job! The brown M&M. It's discrimination! (Laughing.) There's a blue one, there's red one, and what? What? What!

Q: You've had a very broad range of roles. You're the one-man Greek chorus at the maximum security prison, which is the best role on "Oz," commenting on everything that goes on.

A: (Still laughing.) It's a good job. Can't complain about that. And it's such good writing. (Creator-writer) Tom Fontana is so smart. He's just got a really interesting point of view about stuff. It's odd -- he says when he writes (my part) he hears my voice. When I read it, I hear his.

Q: Then there was (the lost-in-the-mountains thriller) "The Edge," which I'm guessing you took because of the chance to work with Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and David Mamet.

A: Uh, yeah.

Q: I ask because your part was one of those the-brother-always-gets-killed-first role.

A: (Laughs, rocking far back in his seat.) You can look at it like that. Or you can look at it as Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and, you know, Yeoman Johnson -- the guy that beams down with Kirk and Spock and you know that guy's gonna die. But David Mamet had written the script. There was Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. I was like, wow! I couldn't pass it up. I was really excited.

Q: There's quite a bit of Shakespeare on the resume too.

A: Actually, the most Shakespeare I've done is in class, when I was studying in New York. Then I got "Romeo + Juliet."

Q: Then "Macbeth In Manhattan" last year. I didn't see that. It didn't make it out very far.

A: (Rolling his eyes.) No, it did not.

Q: Oh, is that a good thing?

A: Oh, yeah. (Laughing hard.) Listen, (writer-director) Greg Lomgardo's a nice guy, but I'm really glad nobody saw it, and we'll leave it at that.

Q: OK...and you've had a couple drag-ish roles, too. Your Mercutio was a little light in the loafers, and you've gone full-blown here.

A: This is really drag. Mercutio was just buggin' out, you know what I mean? He was just high, crazy, stoned. In a society where macho is the thing, for Mercutio to come out in a dress, that's ballsy. Mercutio is just off his f**kin' rocker and doesn't care. Then there was that thing about him maybe loving Romeo or not, well I guess that changes things.

Q: So what's the first thing you do when you find out you're playing a drag queen?

A: Well, the first time I read the script, I told my agent, No, I'm not auditioning for that. So many people (saw me as) the drag queen from "Romeo + Juliet" I wasn't. I just didn't wanna do it. But they called me, seriously, like seven or eight times. Then Alexa Fogel, who cast "Oz," called me up and said, "Hey Harold, the director of 'Woman on Top' is here in New York..."

I was like, "Alexa, I told my agents, I don't wanna be a drag queen!" She was like, "Harold, this director is really good. Come in and meet her. She's really good." I went and I met her, and she was really good. Suddenly I hoped she liked me. And she did.

Q: So who's your favorite drag queen?

A: I'm a big Ru Paul fan. I think Ru Paul looks fabulous. He works it out. When I got the job, I was like, "Why didn't you sign Ru Paul?" (Director Fina Torres) was like, "No. Too much."

Q: She's right. Ru Paul would be like, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mrs. DeMille!"

A: (Laughs hard.) Exactly! He might have been too much.

Q: Ru Paul takes one look at a girl like Penelope Cruz, and it's like, game on. It's a competition.

A: (Rolling around in his chair laughing.) Right, right! And he's so tall, and she's such a little girl. So that would have also been a really bizarre thing.

Q: Is she little?

A: She's kinda small. I mean, I wore flat shoes. I'm not that tall, but if I'd had on heels it would have been ridiculous.

Q: So what did you do to prep for that role? Watch "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and "Some Like It Hot" and find a happy medium?

A: Actually, I went back and watched (the 1991 transvestite documentary) "Paris Is Burning." I went to talk to this drag queen, Miss Demeanor, who works at Lucky Chang's in New York, and Miss Demeanor helped me out with the technical aspects of it...

Q: How to tuck?

A: Exactly! It was like, "Miss Demeanor, I'm not braggin' here, but I gotta hide some things!" (Laughs.) So she helped me out with all that. Different types of makeup to make your skin look smooth. We didn't use all that stuff, but it was really good to have all the information about the amount of prep and work and everything that goes into looking like that. I didn't even realize it took that much work. So she hooked me up -- I keep saying "she" but Miss Demeanor (lives as) a he. He's gay, he has his life, he's not a drag queen, but he does a drag show. He was very clear with me about that.

Q: Because there are drag queens that are drag queens all the time...

A: Exactly...

Q: ...and there are drag queens that are just doing a show.

A: Exactly. And he hooked me up with that. People that are trying to live life as a woman have a different set of goals.

Q: So with a character like Monica...

A: ...who is living as a woman, there is a whole different thing about how you want the world to perceive you. (This information) was really, really useful to me because it just hadn't occurred to me. One is a show, the other is like, how do I walk down the street without someone kicking my ass?

Q: I was going to ask you if you walked around San Francisco in the outfits from the movie, but then I realized around here, who would notice?

A: (Laughs.) Right! I didn't walk around the streets so much, but it was odd enough just walking around the set. I'd get there and, you know, crew guys...(Laughs again.)

Q: Parading around in front of a bunch of Teamsters. I'm sure you got a ration of s**t from those guys.

A: First you walk in (to the makeup truck) and they're like "Hey, how are ya?" Then you walk out and they're like, "I just said hi to that f**king freak!" It actually gives you insight into somebody who wants to live like that, how they day-by-day get up and face that. Everywhere they go.

Q: Did you stay in character between takes? I imagine once you get that stuff on and start the ball rolling, it's hard to put the breaks on until you're taking it off at the end of the day.

A: During lunch, I'd just go have lunch. But during (takes), the voice changes, the manner changes -- it's way easier to just stay there than to have to keep gearing it back up.

Q: And how about inside your own mind? You're sitting there, between takes, and some hottie walks by in a spaghetti-strapped dress while you're in your Monica garb. Are you still checking her out?

A: (More rolls of laughter.) Hey, how do you do this: You're in drag, you're in a bath tub with Penelope Cruz. That's tough.

Q: That is a moment when you're thinking, I've gotta stay in character or it's going to kill me!

A: Exactly!

Q: Because if you're not, you're going to suddenly realize, Hey, I'm the envy of all mankind!

A: Of all mankind! (Laughing and rocking onto the back legs of his chair.) I know some guys who would put on lipstick to get in a bathtub with Penelope Cruz!

Q: Hell, I'd put on lipstick to get in a bathtub with Penelope Cruz! But you did carry it off, I must say. Although your ass is a little too small to carry off those panties and the leggings.

A: (Huge laugh.)

Q: Not that I was checking out your ass.

A: Apparently you were. That's alright. We won't talk about it!


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