A character actor with more than 80 film and TV projects to his name, Austin, Tex.-based Marco Perella is receiving his widest exposure ever—for a movie he finished shooting eight years ago. As the drunk disciplinarian stepfather of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) in Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning Boyhood, Perella plays the pathetic bully with a finesse that’s left some viewers thinking the movie was all too real.
EW spoke to Perella about his role in the film and the choice of words when he’s being praised for being bad.
The interview below references specific scenes and plot details of Boyhood.
EW: When did you first become involved in the project?
PERELLA: It was about 10 years ago. Rick [Linklater] had already been shooting for two summers and I’d just worked on A Scanner Darkly with him in Austin, so he called me up and he gave me the whole scoop. It was just a little private thing. He didn’t know then exactly how it was going to work.
What did he tell you about the part?
Well, he said that he’d like me to be involved in years 3, 4, and 5. He said, “Yeah, um, I want to you play an a–hole for about three years.” And I said, “Sure, Rick, I’m your boy!”
When we first see Bill, your character, he’s a professor flirting with one of his adult students, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and there already seems to be something slightly off-kilter about him.
Oh really? Maybe that’s just me. [Laughs] I want to say it’s my wonderful performance, but maybe it’s just this vibe I throw out. Poor Patricia Arquette, she sure knew how to pick ’em. By the next year, I’ve gotten progressively more screwed up.
He’s revealed to be a control freak who’s much more than a social drinker. How do you approach playing someone messed up like that?
You know, human beings justify themselves and lie to themselves. And they’re in denial about all kinds of things all the time. That character for me was no different. My attitude when I was playing him was, “Hey, if everybody would just do what I say, there would be no abuse.” It’s very strange, but as an actor you have to lie to yourself—because that’s what I think a guy like him is doing.
There’s something menacing about him but we also know he’s quite pathetic.
Oh, God, yes. The guy is so self-loathing and the violence comes out of his desperate need to find someone else to blame for his faults. Alcoholics are mixed bags—everybody can relate to being around one, everybody has them in their family, even if they can’t admit it. We’ve all seen them fooling themselves and striking out and blaming everybody else for their problems. I’ve seen it. Unfortunately, I knew how to play it all too easily.
Was it complicated to shoot the scene where your character has a drunken outburst at the kitchen table and throws a glass at 11-year-old Mason?
No, it wasn’t. By that time, the kids had totally bought in to the fact that we were making a movie. And I wasn’t lost in the method or anything. I didn’t go off in corner and gnash my teeth and sharpen my claws. I hung out with the kids all the time and we were all great buddies. Rick would say, “Okay, we’re going to do this scene and Marco’s gonna throw stuff at you.” But they all knew we were all just pretending. They understood what my character was doing, but they knew I wasn’t really going to hurt anybody. To tell you the truth, it was kind of exciting for them.
A lot of that probably has to do with Linklater’s gift for directing child actors, right?
Absolutely. There may be other directors who are as good with kids as Rick, though I’ve never met them. I can’t imagine anyone who’s better. Think about movies like School of Rock or Bad News Bears; he’s worked with kids a lot. The guy is just “one of us” with the kids: playful, easy and breezy.
It’s sad how that section of the movie ends, with Bill’s two biological kids being left with him.
Yeah, doesn’t that bother you when you see it? Those are those tough moments in life, when you’re stuck somewhere and you don’t have the choice to leave. That’s the dark tragedy—you just hope that those other two kids were able to eventually get away.
Were you involved at all in the intervening years?
I’d go and visit people on the set over the different summers. Rick’s sets are just wonderful. He gets it all done in a very relaxed way, stress free. So I’d go and say hi to Patricia and say hi to the kids, and they’d have little pool parties and things. And I’d made another movie [2006’s Fast Food Nation] with Rick along the way.
Did you think Linklater might call you back to make another appearance some years later as Bill?
You mean like, “Hey, the kids run into their ex-stepfather and he’s a wino living on the street”? [Laughs] But no, of course not. The movie’s not about my character and I knew that my part was done after year 5. Hopefully, the guy got help. But some people are too proud and egotistical to accept help and he might be one of those people.
What’s been the reaction of fans when they recognize you specifically from Boyhood?
It’s been complimentary, but the compliments are along the lines of “Oh, you were so terrible! You were really, really bad in that, man!” I’ve collected the adjectives: scary, violent, bad, terrible, drunk, a–hole. Someone told me I was odious—that was one of my favorites. At one of the press conferences for the film, I wasn’t there but someone asked, “That guy who plays the stepfather? Why would that guy let you film him the way he is?” Rick had to say, “Well, he happens to be an actor.” I’ll take it as a compliment.