ollywood has launched a thousand careers, and among them are the many extremely talented character actors and comedians we’ve watched for years, whose nuanced performances knock us on our asses every time we see them. Just the sight of them elicits responses like, “I love that guy! Wasn't he in that one movie? You know the one. What is that guy's name?” They're the bit players, the minor characters, the people who give performances that sometimes outshine those whose names go above the title and for the most part these folks are pretty damn interesting. They’re the unsung heroes of Hollywood, and we thought it was high time they were given the attention they deserve.
Kelly Perine has appeared in such popular sitcoms as Seinfeld, Coach, Mad About You, and The Bernie Mac Show, among many others. He played Chuck the security guard on The Drew Carey Show, Duane Odell Knox for four seasons on One on One, and Flava Flav’s brother Winston in Under One Roof. We recently talked to Kelly Perine about his life and career.
W2C: So, where did the road to Hollywood start for you?
KELLY PERINE: State College, Pennsylvania. My dad was a professor at Penn State and my mother was a chemical engineer. My father was also very active in community theater—so that’s how I got the acting bug and by the time I was four years old I was up on stage in various community theaters in and around central Pennsylvania.
My mother got transferred to the Chicago area during high school and I went to Lake Forest Academy for four years. At the time I was involved in professional movie stuff around Chicago. I was in a movie Lucas. From there I went to Pomona College where I got my undergrad degree in film studies. While I was in college I did all sorts of plays and I was in an improv troupe called Without a Box.
With Los Angeles 45 minutes away did you make the occasional trip out to check out the Hollywood scene?
Yes, but I was at Pomona to soak up the college experience. By the time I was a senior I decided I wanted to become a pro actor so I decided to go get more acting training. I went to University of California–Irvine where I got my MFA in Drama and spent three years doing a lot of theater, everything from Shakespeare to Brecht to Moliere.
So you were an “actor’s actor?”
You can say that.
What happened when you left the insulated university environment and traded all of the warmth of the classroom for the harsh realities of Hollywood?
(Laughs) It was incredibly eye-opening. In graduate school I was one of two black kids. And when you walk in to your first audition for a black male, 23 years old…and there’s 95 black folks that look just like you, you say, "Jesus this is going to be harder than I thought," and not only am I not the only game in town I’m going up against people that had series as kids, or had been in the industry for 15 years. And, so, when you get off the bus with a master’s degree and say, “Hey Hollywood I’m here,” they say, “Hey we don’t give two shits,” it’s an eye opener.
So, is it similar to what Robert Townshend was trying to portray in his film Hollywood Shuffle?
Yes, it’s the same. Robert’s actually friend of mine and I did a season of his TV show The Parent Hood. What Robert was talking about was that there’s only X amount of roles written intelligently for African Americans—roles that aren’t about them being African American, rather than slaves, maids, or gang bangers. Even now, all the movies that are getting acclaim like The Help—it’s always about the white hero who is saving the black folks or Mississippi Burning where the white heroes come into save the black folks during the Civil Rights era.
Is that disheartening for you as a black actor?
Look, Hollywood is a big money business and they’re not looking to celebrate diversity. They’re out to make money. They might say, “black folks don’t sell internationally and we’re trying to sell foreign rights and black ensembles don’t sell overseas,” all of which comes into play when they’re financing films. But I know white and Asian actors who have had their problems too.
Have there been times where you’ve hit a wall?
I’m now on the cusp of two decades in this industry. In any other business if you’re in something for two decades, there’s credit that comes along with that—you get the corner office, you work your way to partner, you get tenure; there are rewards if you put in the time. In show business, if they don’t need you, they don’t need you….you don’t get rewarded with your own TV show because you’ve been doing it for 20 years. These days, the person with a million hits on YouTube–or the most twitter fans—is the one who gets their own TV show.
"A mantra I go off is, 'Hard work is the best kept secret in Hollywood.' The word 'no' doesn’t bother me. I got that from my parents who would tell me, 'Keep going, don’t let the no’s frustrate you, there’s a bigger yes coming.'"
That means Twitter and YouTube democratize the whole playing field?
Yeah, but in some ways the democratization isn’t equal. If I said to you, “I’ve always been meant to be a doctor. I’m ready to operate’ and you say, “yeah, where’d you go to medical school?”and I reply, “No, you don’t get it, I was born to be a doctor because I watch ER and St. Elsewhere. Where do I go to operate?" I’d be laughed the fuck out of the room. But in Hollywood you don’t need anything to call yourself a professional. You just have to get off the bus with a headshot. It’s really the confluence of two things: the glamour and you don’t need credentials to be in it. Of course that will attract everybody.
The thing that is so difficult is that the commodity you are selling is yourself. You are your product and the rejection that comes inherently with this industry is very personal. Actors will hear, “you’re too short, you’re too fat, too skinny, too pretty, lose ten pounds; you know what? we liked you better when you were fat, cut your hair, get bigger tits,” and so, when you keep getting rejected, people turn to things for comfort: drugs, food, alcohol, sex. That’s why you see a lot of people in rehab.
So, how do you explain your resilience?
I have a hustle gene. I’m not afraid to hear “no” and go after it. It’s kept me hungry and busy. When I see 95 people that look like me, I can out-hustle them. I can read the trades, crash auditions, have two or three different shirts I can change into if the audition calls for it.
A mantra I go off is, “Hard work is the best kept secret in Hollywood.” The word “no” doesn’t bother me. I got that from my parents who would tell me, “Keep going, don’t let the no’s frustrate you, there’s a bigger yes coming.” The vast majority of people who have careers and maintain longevity are the journeymen actors. Look at Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad. He’s been around forever.
Let’s talk about the “yesses” that have come your way.
Well, first came the national commercials. I was one of the spokesmen for Foot Locker and I did a whole series of ads. Commercials were god sends because you could live for months on a couple of commercials. I booked a couple of episodes of Mad about You and Seinfeld. Then I was on a show called Between Brothers with Tommy Davidson and Kadeem Hardison. Tommy was on In Living Color and Kadeem was Dwayne Wayne from A Different World.
What were they like towards this new kid who didn’t quite have the extensive resume yet?
At first they were like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” and then after a couple of weeks they were like, “Ok, he can hold his own. He knows what he’s doing.” They were nothing but generous and kind to me.
Tell us about being on The Drew Carey Show.
Drew Carey was one of my first big gigs. I started on the first season when the whole show was just getting rolling. I first played a processor who is called in when Drew is getting sued for sexual harassment. I only had two lines, then they brought me back for four lines, then eight lines and I ended up doing the show on and off for the next five years. It wasn’t written as a recurring role.
They must have really liked you.
I had a great time with everybody there. And when they were looking for a security guard character and because I had such a good rapport with everybody they hired me as Chuck the security guard.
To me, it was a testament to the fact that no matter how small the part, or how little you’re given, or how few the lines, you have got to be professional, do your best and knock it out of the park. You never know what’s going to happen. If you’re going to get one line, knock the shit out of that one line.
Does Drew live up to his laid-back, nice guy persona?
Drew was a fantastic guy. He would actually take some of us to Vegas on the weekends if he was doing standup there. He'd get us rooms and put us up…he was just really generous with his time and celebrity, didn’t have a big head at all. He is just humble and giving.
Since you have an improv background it must have been great working with Ryan Stiles from Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Everybody was super cool on The Drew Carey Show and Ryan is incredibly talented. Ryan needed Whose Line Is It Anyway because he needed to show how talented and versatile he is because his brain is on fire quick. Just watching him on the set was really cool.
What was it like playing Flava Flav’s brother on Under One Roof?
Flav is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Here’s the thing about Flav, he is in the moment. He is present and makes you feel great about yourself and then he’s off to the next person.
Was he good with learning his lines?
Look, his attention can wander a bit (laughs). I don’t know if it’s ADD. When you’re doing these TV shows you have about five or six different takes. So, Flav likes to do things twice and the director would say, “Flav, we’ve gotta hit this a couple more times, do another pass, and shoot coverage and Flav would groan, “Oh, man!” (laughs) But he was a real trooper.
We shot that show in a small town, about 45 minutes outside of Vancouver— Coquitlam, British Columbia. And when Flav walked into a local bar, rocking his big clock, people went out of their fucking minds—they just love that guy. People would take pictures with him and he would shoot pool with them. Again, If you would’ve told me, growing up that I’d be kicking it and I’d become friends with the rapper best known for “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. That’s why I look at myself and my career to see how truly blessed I have been and know that the best is yet to come and that kind of humbles me.
So, what’s on the horizon for you?
A lot. I am about to go to Atlanta to shoot a BET show called Let’s Stay Together where I play a recurring character. I have written several feature scripts for film and TV, among them is a comedy called I Wanna White Baby about an African-American, former child star who thinks he can revive his fledgling career with some publicity by adopting a white baby.
I’m also excited about a short film that I produced, executive produced and starred in, called A Perfect Day, which is getting a lot of heat and winning some awards at film festivals. In the film, an 18 minute short I play a post office worker who talks a kid out of going on a shooting spree. It was written and directed by Adam Rubin.
It sounds pretty timely with all of the shootings of late.
After everything that happened at Sandy Hook and now in the ensuing gun debate, my film is getting some heat. But we’re not talking about the second amendment and gun control, mental health issues, just a person intervening and a kid choosing not to use violence.
Any parting advice for those pondering a showbiz career in Hollywood?
Just get in the game somehow, just stay in the game because you never know what great things will happen just by being in the mix. The pie is big enough for all of us.