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Photo by Eric Yang. Courtesy of Harold Perrineau.

Path to the Emmy Awards: Harold Perrineau Talks His Journey to ‘From’

You might assume that the star of a horror series Stephen King calls “Scary as hell” would be more somber than the average person. But when Harold Perrineau virtually sat down with Casting Networks to talk season two of the MGM+ series From — and what led up to the role that has him contending for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series — he was nothing short of joyful. The actor’s openness and relatability make it easy to feel like you’ve known him for years.

You can keep reading for all the laughs along the way as Perrineau revealed the journey that took him from a children’s theater program at Long Island University to portraying Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to playing Michael Dawson in ABC’s Lost. And you can see the video version of our interview, as well, to hear about the path that just may take the actor to this year’s Emmy Awards.

Harold, thank you so much for being with us, and I would love to hear the moment you knew that acting was what you were meant to do.

That’s a good question, and I hope we get through this interview without giggling a lot because I’ve got a feeling we will. So, here we go. I went to a high school that had a performing arts element, but I was a violin player. Somewhere in the back of my mind — because I watched a lot of television — I knew I wanted to be an actor. But I didn’t know how that was going to happen. My aunt was going to a school called Long Island University and one day called us all up and said, “Hey, there’s a children’s theater program here.” And she took us all down there all at once, my brothers, my cousins — just a whole crew of us. They told us we had to audition so I went home, worked on the song and I came back.

And you know, I was used to my mom. Every time I would sing, she’d go, “Boy, get out of the house with all that noise.” So I go to the audition, and the guy is playing the song — it’s Billy Joel. [Sings] I’m singing, and I see him look at me like, “Wait, what’s that?” I look into the audience, and my mom is watching the audition. I see her look at me like, “Hey, what’s happening here?” And then out of the corner [of my eye], I see the kids from the theater company. They’ve all started looking at me like, “Hey, who was that?” And I thought, “I’m home.” [Laughs] From that moment on, I knew I was going to figure out how to be an actor. I don’t know why an actor, but that made the most sense to me.

So then, I had a long journey through musical theater and dance, and all that was really cool. I had a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey School and danced there for years, but I just kept wanting to be an actor. After years and years of study, I quit everything I was doing. I didn’t dance anymore, I went back to bartending and I went back to acting school. While I was studying with this amazing teacher, Barbara Marchant, I realized it was exactly what I wanted to do. “I don’t know if I’m going to get to do it,” I thought. “I’m getting old now — but this is exactly what I want to do.”

I love it. It’s so cool you shared that you were wondering if you were going to get to act because you definitely did. You have some incredible credits, Harold. Can you give us an overview of some of the major roles in your career that led up to From?

Really early on, one of my first films was this movie called Smoke. It was directed by Wayne Wang, who is a wonderful director. A year or so after it came out, I got to audition for Baz Luhrmann. That was a really great moment because I’d auditioned a million times to be in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I finally got the job. And Baz Luhrmann said, “Okay, here’s one of the things I want to know — can you dance?” I was like, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask that question for years. [Laughs]

You were like, “Say less.”

Yeah, for me that was when the journey made sense, getting me to that point. I was getting ready to play Mercutio, which I thought was one of the greatest roles ever. So, that was a highlight for me. Romeo + Juliet was one of my favorite plays at the time, and they were really surprised that that kid from Smoke could do what I was doing as Mercutio.

So, those were really great projects, and there are a number of really cool things I got to do throughout my career. But I would say one of the projects that was a direct lead to From is a show I did called Lost. Our executive director on Lost, Jack Bender, is actually the executive director of From. So we knew each other well, and when the chance to do From came up, we already trusted each other. All that led to me being part of this fantastic show that I’m really excited about.

Now let’s talk From — I hear that you don’t particularly love horror. What convinced you to lead a series in that genre?

Well, you heard correctly. I am not a big horror person. There are just a lot of really terrible things that go on in the world — I’m not entertained by sitting around watching horrible things happen onscreen. So, I was like, “I don’t really want to do it.” But there were a couple of really cool things about this project.

One, I knew that Jack Bender was going to be helming it as a director, so I was really excited to work with him. And also Jeff Pinkner was going to be our showrunner, whom I’d worked with on Lost as well. Two, the script was amazing, and while there are so many horror elements, I thought the characters were really well-developed. I felt like it was more of a study about people in a desperate situation trying to figure their way out. And because it happened around the pandemic, we were all in that kind of situation so it resonated really quickly. We were all trapped in some place and being hunted by some unseen monster. None of us could figure out where it was coming from, how it got here or what to do about it.

So all those things conspired to make me go, “I really, really want to do this show.” And then each script gets better and better and better. So it felt like I made the right choice. And even though it’s horror, it feels a little bit more like a suspense thriller and character study. Though, for you horror fans, it is really scary.

When Stephen King is saying From is “Scary as hell” — when he is tweeting about it — you know it’s well done.

And that’s when you’re like, “Right? Didn’t we do it, though?” [Laughs]

That’s so great. And you’re a contender for this year’s Emmy nominations. Can you share a standout moment for you as a performer in this season?

It’s such good writing, so it’s hard to pick out a moment. But in episode six — one of my favorite episodes — I have a conversation with Kenny’s mom. Tian Chen is the character’s name, and Boyd has to explain why he lied to her about the person who killed her husband. Elizabeth Moy is such a fantastic and open actress. I remember that as I was trying to do the scene, I was having a hard time not breaking down while explaining why I had done this terrible thing that really hurt her.

For me, it was one of those really great moments — the words just flew out of my mouth and the emotion flew out of my body because I had a great script and a great scene partner. And when I got a chance to see it, I was like, “That’s exactly right. That’s exactly how that felt.” Boyd should feel as bad as he’s feeling, and he should have to fight to still tell this woman why he did to her what he did. People making hard choices about what they’ve done or let happen to other people, that’s horrifying in and of itself. Character, human drama — that’s what it is. I really love that about the show, and that stands out to me from season two.

Definitely. And it had to feel so good as an actor to finish doing the scene and know it was exactly what you were supposed to feel like as the character. Now, are you someone who can just shake that off? Like, after you went to that depth as the character, did you go home and have some ice cream?

[Laughs] I remember asking Jack if I could have a moment, and I went in my trailer and just cried a little bit. Because it really gets to me. So, I cried a little bit and then came back, and we finished the day.

What a professional! But, was there at least ice cream in your trailer?

[Laughs] You know what? I think I’m going to start doing that. Because the crying is ridiculous — I should get some ice cream.

Crying is always better with ice cream. [Laughs]

Put a little chocolate sauce on there and some whipped cream and just have at it. [Laughs] That’s what I should do. It’s going to be my new go-to — thank you.

Perrineau’s interview proves an actor can lead a horror / human drama series and “go there” emotionally while also being the type of person who enjoys dessert and having a laugh. The star’s performance in season two of From may earn him an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination, and the actor could also pick up a nod from the Television Academy in the limited series category for his lead role in The Best Man: The Final Chapters. You can find out when all the nominations for this year’s Emmy Awards are announced on July 12.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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