Actor Harold Perrineau is, as the saying goes, “living his best life,” and he’s edutaining (that’s educating and entertaining, in case you didn’t know) along the way. The Brooklyn-bred, Alvin Ailey trained dancer turned actor can recall a time early in his career when the roles he was relegated to play had virtually little breadth or depth; the thug, the criminal, the stereotypical boy/man in the 'hood. But at some point in time, possibly in part due to the universe’s answer to his prayers for more interesting and engaging roles, Perrineau’s career has afforded him parts that break barriers, challenge perceptions and allow for representation of the underserved and unseen.
He’s played a wheelchair bound convict (Oz), a drag queen (Dumplin’), a father in Lost, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Link in two Matrix films, Julian in the cult classic The Best Man and a gay man who comes out of the closet in Lee Daniels’ FOX show, Star. For Perrineau, representation matters, and he’ll be the first one to tell you the same. We spoke to Perrineau about the importance of his current role in TNT’s Claws as a Black man with autism, his co-star Niecy Nash’s heralded role in When They See Us (in which his daughter Aurora Perrineau also stars), and his definition of “free love.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about autistic persons that maybe you yourself had until you stepped into this role?
Harold Perrineau: They’re really not helpless. It really is a matter of getting the right help and focusing your attention and whatever you focus your attention on, you can usually get those tasks done. And so that would be the biggest misconception, I think, that people with autism just don’t have any hope for the future and that they can’t do anything. They can do many, many things and that’s awesome.
Do you personally know anyone with autism? How has it touched your life?
Perrineau: I do! A lot of what Dean is based on for me is based on the relationship between my cousin and his sister. Back then when we were younger, they called it mental retardation, and it turns out years later that it’s just a severe case of autism. He’s super, super bright but just has sensory overload, sensory perception difficulties and also his verbal skills are really not intact. So he didn’t get official help when we were younger. A lot of what I do is based on the memories of them. But also, there are a number of friends that I have who have children who are autistic. I’ve talked to quite a few of them and their kids once I knew that I was going to do the role. I have a real connection for that Dean and Desna relationship from my own life.
Based on your experience in the role of Dean and in line with your desire to entertain and educate, why is representation so important to you?
Perrineau: I find myself quite often doing roles of people who are underserved. People in the LGBTQ community, people who are autistic… For me as an actor, I feel that it’s really important to get in there and use all of my own feeling to convey the things that are joyous and the things that are difficult. I just really want to make sure that it’s represented and it’s represented well. I go through painstaking detail to make sure that I try to get it right, at least to my knowledge, on screen, because representation is just too important.
Not only do you play an autistic person in Claws, but a Black man at that, in a society that looks for reasons to lock us up. Can you talk about the layers that this role of Dean presents for you?
Perrineau: That’s why I think representation is important, because we do get misdiagnosed. As a Black man, it really is important for me to put it out there. There are times when something happens and you’re overloaded, and that can be completely misconstrued out in the world. As a Black person, anything that you do might look violent, and if you’re having a hard time you could be shot dead. So, for me, the more people that see, this is a possibility… if you’re like, you know what, I remember that kind of behavior from that character Dean, so before I start to pull out or start to shoot or beat up, maybe I’ll investigate a little more. For me, that’s important, but it’s only possible if the representation is there.
You’ve had several roles that push past boundaries and raise awareness. Are there any roles that you’d still love to explore?
Perrineau: It makes it tricky for people to hire me because they’re like, what does he do? I just try to do it all and represent as well as I can. I’ve been really, really lucky. I didn’t expect this Claws thing to come up, and I didn’t expect to play this character, but I feel really lucky to get to play lots of different things. Really early on in my career I kept getting the chance to play the kid from the ghetto who winds up selling drugs and gets shot dead right there in the street and I was like, nah, this can’t be all, this can’t be it. I’ve been really, really fortunate. I’ll just keep taking what comes from the universe.
Speaking of spinning, your now viral dance scene in The Best Man Holiday was jaw dropping. I don’t think most people know that you’re an Alvin-Ailey trained professional dancer. How do you foster and keep your love of dance alive off-camera?
Perrineau: I love to dance! It is definitely one of my main loves. I try not to show off with it when I’m at parties [laughter] but sometimes I just happen to be that dude. People are like, “Oh snap! You get down like that?” and I’m like, 'Yup, I do.' [laughter] I’m always checking out what kind of new dances are happening, and every once in a while, I go to different schools. I don’t go and dance as much because I’m older and my knees don’t work like they used to and I’ll push it too far and then I won’t be able to act, so I try not to do too much. But me and my girls are always working on new dance stuff. It’s just part of my soul. I move.
Can you talk about your role as a gay Black father, Bobby Brooks, on Star, and what are your thoughts on the show’s cancellation?
Perrineau: For me it was interesting to play a dad who decided to be out and the consequences of that, and one of the consequences of that was losing his son, and like I said, for me representation is very important. There are lots of representations of Black fathers who leave their kids, and while I don’t ever hope to be a father who leaves his kids I do understand that there are many reasons, and they’re not just prison, and they’re not just drugs, but they are personal reasons. While it’s a difficult thing for his son to understand, I really applaud the character, that man who says I just have to be who I am because if I’m not, I’m dying. Nobody chooses something in the world that’s going to cause you the most pain. I thought it was a really fascinating character to play. It was fun to work with Luke James, the Queen and Miss Lawrence, and I’m surprised that they didn’t get picked up again with so many cliffhangers and so much going on, and people seemed to really love it. I imagine that Lee is going to do something to close it out. It was a really interesting look at the music business and relationships and stuff like that. I had fun doing Star.
Did you talk to your Claws co-star about her role in one the biggest film projects of the year, When They See Us, and if so, what was that conversation like?
Perrineau: I’ve gotten to work with a lot of really talented people, and sometimes there are those people who are just special, like beyond talented, and Niecy is that. She’s just special. She’s like the James Brown of acting. First of all, the girl’s always got like four jobs on deck doing this or that, and just as a person, she’s just a force of nature – she’s fun, funny and giving, and she’s great in all the roles that she does. It’s so great to work with somebody who really loves it like that and who is really that good at what she does. She’s so smart about it. This year she directed for the first time, and it was with a kind of ease that you rarely see in even seasoned directors. I’m in love with Niecy Nash. I love that she’s my sister and I get to just roll with her. And because she’s my sister, I don’t have to be distracted by how good-looking she is—I can leave that all to everybody else [laughter]. Regarding When They See Us, we didn’t talk about her role—just that she was going to be in it and my daughter was going to be in it, and Ava was doing this thing. I was in New York around the time when all that stuff went down in Central Park, so it was always just a really tough subject for me. I remember being stopped by the cops for nothing, pulled over just as you were coming home from school; it’s just all too frickin’ familiar for me. I didn’t talk to Niecy about it, but I was really proud when I saw it. It was a hard role to play, and she just killed it.
How do you feel about interracial dating and those who think a successful Black man in Hollywood such as yourself should be with a Black woman?
Perrineau: Well, I’m in an interracial marriage myself, and I have always been a strong proponent for “free is free,” right? If we fought for our freedom, to be free, then we are free to pursue work, jobs, life and love in whatever form that takes. Free is free. This idea that I have to be bound by the idea that I have to be with a Black woman, or I have to be with a woman period, when I’ve found love somewhere else or I feel differently than you might feel… I’ve always been a proponent of free is free. But the freedom to love this person, or that person, to love Miss Lawrence or to be in love with Regina Hall—I want that freedom. I want to be able to choose. As my sister Niecy Nash is always talking about, living your best life—at the end of the day, that’s what I want for myself, for my kids, for my neighbors, for my community. Live your best life!
Image Source: TNT, Michael Tran/FilmMagic