Harold Perrineau finds his way

“I’m a little weird,” said Harold Perrineau. “My wife says it all the time, ‘You don’t realize how crazy you are.’ I’m the guy who tal...


“I’m a little weird,” said Harold Perrineau. “My wife says it all the time, ‘You don’t realize how crazy you are.’ I’m the guy who talks to myself thinking about something.

He didn’t sound weird in a recent phone interview. Driven, perhaps, or even a little obsessed – like many successful actors.

Maybe the weirdness was on his mind because he was calling to talk about his starring role in a new horror series,”From,“that, without a doubt, East weird. Imagine “Our City” if George Romero got his hands on it.

In the series, the first of which Sunday on Epix, Perrineau plays Boyd Stevens, a no-nonsense sheriff tasked with protecting his town from undead visitors who prowl the streets after dark. Sporting neighborhood smiles, these ghouls beg to be let into people’s homes. It’s not a good idea to let them in – unless you want to be gutted, like the little girl and her mother in the show’s unsettling opening minutes.

“They slowly meander towards you,” said Perrineau, 58, a father of three who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Brittany. “That’s what makes them so scary.”

For Perrineau, it’s familiar ground: a return to form for an actor whose best-known roles have been as similar desperate men in difficult situations, including Augustus Hill, the paraplegic narrator of HBO’s experimental drama “Oz.” (1997-2003), and Michael Dawson, the tragic father and frustrated artist of the famous ABC series “Lost” (2004-10). As in “Lost,” a series with which “From” shares two executive producers, Perrineau’s character finds himself trapped with an eclectic cast of characters, plagued by supernatural forces.

To hear Perrineau describe it, the role once again allows him, as an actor and a human, to ask himself: “What would I do?”

But it is also the next step on a path that is by no means obvious, a main role on television – his first since “Oz” – at the antipodes of the stage, where Perrineau, singer and talented dancer, s the teeth are done. And that’s a long way from where it started.

Perrineau grew up in Cypress Hills, a neighborhood in the historically challenging East New York section of Brooklyn. He caught the performing arts virus early on. He loved to dance, he said, and at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush he studied violin because he was ‘too little to play bass well’.

He was not a fan of horror; As a kid in “those neighborhoods in the 70s,” he said, “there’s no money and no funding, and people are growing up on welfare and there’s firearms and drugs”.

As he said, “I had enough bad pictures in my head.”

Still, the lure of the performing arts was strong — he had found his kind of weirdos — so Perrineau said goodbye to Brooklyn to study musical theater at Shenandoah University in Northern Virginia. But when his classmates found out he’d left New York to prepare for a career on stage – “Are you crazy?” he remembers that they asked him – they pushed him to rethink his choice. After a year and a half, he returns to New York to study dance on a scholarship Ailey school and took acting classes.

Perrineau got a break in 1986 when he was cast as a dancer on the NBC series “Fame.” Acclaim followed in the 1990s for roles on ‘Oz’ and the big screen, including as the delightfully glamorous Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996) and the light romantic comedy ‘Best Man’ (1999) , which spawned a sequel in 2013. (A Peacock series featuring the original cast, including Perrineau, is slated for later this year.)

In 2004, “Lost” took his career and “took it to another level,” as he soberly put it. (Translation: “I couldn’t walk down the street without being recognized.”) Her character was killed off in Season 4 and returned for the sixth and final season, an arc that Perrineau said to have disappointed him at the time. It was also a development that, in retrospect, likely helped him avoid being defined by a single role later on.

“Luckily or unfortunately, depending on when you ask me, I left ‘Lost’ pretty early, so people don’t just see me as Michael,” he said. “It helped me do as many other things as possible.”

To name a few, he played a central role in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” a judge on the Amazon series “Goliath,” and an angel on the NBC series “Constantine.” His stage career also continued: six years ago he made his acting debut on Broadway in a revival of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

But Perrineau said it was a dress — dresses, really — that honed her sense of self. As drag queen Rhea Ranged in the Netflix comedy “Dumplins”, Perrineau said he learned ‘this thing about:’Girlyou have to be you because there is no other way to be.’”

“Being in a dress,” he said, “was the first time I felt like I understood how to understand my Weirdo Harold.”

Whoever Weirdo Harold is, he has fans. At the start of “From,” one listener will be actress Niecy Nash. Perrineau played Dean, the autistic brother of Nash’s Desna, the owner of a South Florida nail salon and money launderer in the TNT comedy-drama “Claws.”

Nash said Perrineau was “top of the list in terms of favorite scene partners” on “Claws,” which recently completed his run of four seasons. Outside of work, she says, the guy is a mensch.

“He’s a great time, and an amazing dad, and he has one of the most infectious laughs I’ve ever heard,” she said. “The fact that he’s leading the charge against the zombies is something I watch.”

Like the road that leads out of town in “From” — which supernaturally leads back to town — Perrineau’s path away from “Lost” has, in a sense, come full circle. Created by John Griffin, “From” is another show about perdition, in every sense, a slow-burning horror story about trapped strangers with dark backstories and motives.

If this sounds a bit familiar, no wonder. The show’s executive producers include Jack Bender and Jeff Pinkner, two of the executive producers of “Lost,” the ultimate trapped alien story. But listen, miffed ‘Lost’ fans: ‘From’ 10-episode first season will have ‘a very contained arc’, Pinkner said.

“That’s also what they said about ‘Lost’,” Perrineau said with a laugh.

These arcs, however, draw very different lines. Where “Lost” began with a plane crash and only later – to many fans’ frustration – tipped into the other world, “From” has been supernatural horror from the start, driven by two central mysteries: Why do these creatures come back every night? And why can’t the townspeople escape? Add additional layers of premium cable carnage and horror fans should be tickled.

Bender, in a recent video call, said that after working with Perrineau on “Lost,” he knew the actor was a “wonderful maypole” whose warmth brought his castmates closer together. Perrineau “carries that deep well of integrity with him without diffusing it,” Pinkner added, going on to describe the actor’s qualities as “gravity, grace, intensity and heartache.”

Griffin, the creator, who was on the video call with Bender and Pinkner, recalled a day on the “From” set when one of Perrineau’s lines didn’t land; after some back and forth about what to do next, Griffin let go.

“So I was like, ‘Harold, do what feels right to you,'” Griffin said. “I walked away and then watched him on the monitor, and sure enough, he opened his mouth and the magic came out.”

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