It is a universal truth that pain often precedes growth. Within the violent, uncertain and often chaotic world of OZ, there is wisdom to be found. There are life lessons to learn, fences to be mended, tears to be shed, alliances to be formed, and demons to be exorcised. Assuming that one survives, that is. In this frightening land of OZ, Tom Fontana has presented a microcosm of life replete with complex relationships seared by desires, possibilities, hope, fear, danger, tension, love and hate.
Each installment of OZ is tied to a theme, such as 'The Routine,' or 'You Bet Your Life.' Accordingly, most episodes of the series OZ begin with a soliloquy by Prisoner# 95 H 922, otherwise known as Augustus Hill. The complex nature of the subtly eloquent Hill is brilliantly showcased in an outstanding continuing performance by Brooklyn-born actor/dancer Harold Perrineau.
Ostensibly designed to emphasize the underlying life lessons to be found in each harrowing visit to Emerald City, the soliloquies are used to punctuate each episode at critical points and provide both a foundation and denouement for each episode. They comprise both the opening and closing scene of most episodes in addition to peppering the story at several points. Hill's often-colorful presentations take place in what Fontana refers to as 'The Box.' This is a 'sleight of hand' space where 'anything is possible' and adds a uniquely rational yet magical quality to Fontana's imaginative storytelling of the hellish life to be found in a maximum security prison.
Harold Perrineau attended Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., to study music and theater. From Shenandoah, Harold trained as a dancer with The Alvin Ailey Company. Perrineau toured with the cast of Dreamgirls and also starred in an off-Broadway revival of the acclaimed musical, Godspell. He was also featured in the critically acclaimed, Avenue X. He made his screen debut opposite William Hurt, Harvey Keitel and Forest Whitaker.
Perrineau has guest starred on numerous television series and sitcoms, including: The Cosby Mysteries, ER, Living Single, Law & Order, I'll Fly Away and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. His film credits include: both The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Reloaded, both scheduled for 2003 release, Woman On Top, from 2000, in which Perrineau played 'Monica,' 1999's The Best Man, The Edge, (1997), Blood & Wine, (1997), Romeo and Juliet, (1996), Flirt, (1996), Smoke, (1995) and 1988's Shakedown.
An ardent devotee of the martial arts, Perrineau studied Kung Fu Wu-Su for five years. It was a pleasure to interview Harold and several other OZ cast members at The Odeon in NYC this past November.
DAVID GUARINO: You once said that 'behind bars is no different than in front of bars … people still respond the way they respond based on love, hate or loyalties.' Does this summarize the ongoing theme of OZ?
HAROLD PERRINEAU: (Harold nods) I think, yeah, that's the point of OZ. You think that it's a glimpse of this other world, but it's not. It's a glimpse of humanity and the world, people's responses to things, stuff like that. So, yeah, I would say that's the ongoing theme, that's the thing that's the most interesting about OZ. To watch people do those things.
DG: I have always felt your character of Augustus Hill was never really developed as much as it could have been …
DG: But then your major role on OZ seems to be delivering the soliloquies, which really comprise the lesson of each episode.
HP: (Harold nods and smiles) Right.
At this point, Lee Tergesen, a.k.a. 'Tobias Beecher,' who is seated to my right at the counter we are all sitting at in New York's Odeon Restaurant, chimes in:
LEE TERGESEN: It's funny, but I feel like you were given too much character! (Laughter)
HP: (laughing) Well thanks for your little point of view, Lee!
DG: What part of the character of Augustus Hill do you relate to the most, and why?
HP: Well there is a part of the character I relate to, and I'll answer your question in two parts. Regarding the first thing you said about it (Hill's character) not being developed that much … . I think that's the right route. I don't think that you can develop the character and get to know the character and still be able to objectively take the speeches in between. Like, if you had more and more of an opinion of him (Augustus) … if you thought he was, for instance … like Beecher, you might not believe him! ... You might think, how does that guy know that? It's easy to be objective because you don't know him that well. And so the thing I most relate to is the observer in Augustus …
DG: The observer in him …
HP: (Harold nods) Yeah. That's Hill's job, being an observer. That's the thing I really key into a lot. When something is observed, Augustus Hill will just go ahead and speak about it. That's the part that I thought was really cool about this character, that he is an observer, I like that a lot.
DG: Now I remember also reading that you had said that because of the fact that you deliver the soliloquies and have never really played that much off of another character, that sometimes it got kind of lonely playing Hill and the narrator …
HP: Yeah. These guys all get to have, like a good time and do scenes together, and they get to work with other actors. There have been times when I have been in front of the camera for a whole day when it was just me and the crew. None of the other guys were there and it got kinda like ... a little lonely. Or sometimes I'm running around, or I'm sitting in 'The Box' waiting for them to set it up. There I sit, waiting on them!
DG: How was it to wear all those cool costumes when you were delivering the soliloquies? Some of them looked really heavy …
HP: Some of them were great! Some of them, well … (Harold laughs) I used to love it when Tom would come on the set, 'cause I could always say, 'Well, this is another fine mess you got me into!' Some of those costumes were just outrageous!
DG: They were! Like I say, they looked heavy. Some of the outfits also had a hat or headdress, didn't they?
HP: (Harold nods) Yeah, and I think they made me do, like, white makeup when I had to portray a statue …
LT: Didn't they pour paint on you during the first episode or during the first season?
HP: Yeah, they did. Blood and sperm. It wasn't paint at all; it was real blood and sperm …
LT: Wow! You're the man!
HP: Yeah, they don't play around! (Harold is laughing and we all join in)
DG: (Turning to Lee Tergesen) By the way, the one scene in OZ that I can say, from my point of view, I couldn't see happening, was in the episode entitled 'Variety.' In which you and Schillinger do a duet together … (Harold begins laughing heartily) I couldn't get that, unless one of you died at the end of the scene … . That stretched me to a point of total disbelief …
LT: Wait a minute, David. Then you don't understand 'The Box.' Anything can happen in 'The Box.'
HP: (Harold nods) Anything happens in that 'Box,' right …
DG: Oh, right—it happens in 'THE BOX.'
LT: (Lee nods vigorously) All those songs were in lieu of his (Hill's) monologues …'
DG: Ahhhhhh, right!
LT: (With a mock crazed look) That's because MR. HOTSHOT couldn't be there! Also, in the episode in which the Variety Show happened, the only person to sing was Michael Wright, who sang badly! (Harold laughs loudly) Everybody else was singing in 'The Box' and they were all singing well! It's a fantasy …
DG: I know you've probably been asked this a million times, Harold, but do you have a favorite soliloquy?
HP: Umm. Yes, I've been asked before, but the truth is I don't. If I see them again, there are some that are really profound, and there are some of them that are amazing to even consider. But there have been so many that I can't remember them, and I can't remember one that is my favorite.
DG: Can you remember one that you thought wasn't very effective, or that you weren't crazy about doing?
LT: (Lee raises his hand) May I interject? Do you guys remember a story called 'Works of Mercy?' (Lee turns to Harold) The show was all about mercy, and it's the same show where my son's hand was cut off. And the last thing was you looking right into the camera and saying, 'Kyrie Eleison means Lord have Mercy. Please have mercy.' UGH! Lee makes the sound which ends each episode of OZ which sounds like a deep-voiced man uttering 'UGH!' (Harold is laughing) Oh, and there's also an episode in which God is a gangster!
HP: Yeah, God is a mob boss! (Harold is shaking his head) Yes, there's such great writing (on OZ). It's really hard to choose. Some of them (the soliloquies) really affected me in an amazing way. There's the one about the animals telling the truth. People wondering about whether their dogs are going to heaven …
DG: That's one of my favorites …
HP: Right. And the morale there is that pets always tell the truth, that's all they do. And everyone's wondering if we're going to heaven, and that was really like, wow! Exactly! And what would that be like, you know? Just tell the truth. All the time. So those kinds of things really affected me in a profound way. Now I still lie a lot! (Harold laughs and Lee joins in) Now that I think about it … .
DG: Harold, you were born in Brooklyn?
HP: (I was) Born and raised in Brooklyn.
DG: Tell me about touring with Dreamgirls. What was that experience like for you?
HP: That was my first big job, David. Did I get my equity card on that job? (Harold muses) I might have gotten my acting card on that job. I was 21 and just out of dance school and I went on the tour (of Dreamgirls). And Lauren Velez and I (Lauren plays Dr. Gloria Nathan on OZ) were both in that company, and we both always wanted to be actors. So we'd be backstage watching the other people do their thing, cause we were both dancers in it ... and we'd go to the movies and we'd sit there and go, 'One day, man, one day I swear to God we're going to be doing movies!'
DG: You and Lauren would say that?
HP: (Harold nods and chuckles) We'd sit around and Lauren and I would say that … all the time! 'Look at us, man!' So we were, like, the youngest people in the show … it was great.
DG: How do you feel about the fact that OZ has never really won any major awards? Does it bother you?
HP: I don't know!
LT: I think if you give us one (award), you've got to give us all the awards …
HP: (Turning to DG) Does it bother me? No, cause at the end of the day I know we did really good work and we did really interesting stuff. That I can live with. You know, we didn't win the Emmy? Aw, well, all right!
DG: You didn't really expect to win the Emmy, did you?
HP: No. Well, I didn't expect the show to go past the first year! (Harold laughs) I thought, this is not going to get goin' on …
LT: OZ is not a safe show to be voting on … I mean, speaking as the sodomized lawyer … (we are all laughing)
HP: It's not safe …
DG: So tell us about your latest projects, Harold. I understand you're in the upcoming films, The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Reloaded, right?
HP: Yeah. We're done with those. They are really long and I was in and out doing those for about seven or eight months, I don't know. The first one, The Matrix Reloaded, comes out Memorial Day, 2003, I think. The next one I'm not sure about, but it will be soon after. They're going to be amazing.
DG: Of all the television series that you've appeared on, Harold, was there a particular show that was the most fun for you?
HP: Of all of them? Well, of course OZ has probably been the most fun. I mean, you have the coolest people (working on that show), and I've made the most friends from that. Other than that, like, Livin' Single was fun. I know Queen Latifah a little, and Kim Fields has had a long, long career. She's been a star like since she was a little kid. Sitcoms are hard to do, man. I didn't realize it until I got there. These guys are pros. There's a certain way they shoot sitcoms; there's a certain way they read the lines and hold for the laughs. It's really another cloud. I was outside my element there. At least I knew people there. It was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing, but here I go, right?' (Harold laughs)
DG: Your first big role was playing opposite William Hurt, wasn't it? What was that experience like?
HP: (Harold nods) My first big role, yeah. It was scary …
DG: Were you intimidated by it?
HP: Yeah. How could I not be? These guys are like iconic. The only thing that helped me settle down is that we actually had some time to rehearse. Like a play. And the approach to the film, because it had been a book, was more like doing theater than a movie. And since I'd done so much theater, that really helped me calm down a bit. But I was completely freaked out … it was one of those things where you're auditioning and auditioning, get the job! Now I've got the job and I'm scared … (Harold laughs)
DG: Harold, what do you think is the most important life lesson that a viewer can learn from watching OZ?
HP: There but for the grace of God … go I. Because going back to what we were talking about before about OZ being a view of the world behind prison bars … We live in a time and in a society where information comes from all over the place, and you can get all kinds of crazy information and you could be the nicest, coolest citizen in the world and wind up, somehow, behind bars. And it's not so far removed as everybody thinks. We think that it's not an issue; 'Oh, prison doesn't have anything to do with us,' but it does, right? And because OZ brings a form of humanity to the prison and to prison life, it also begs the question, 'What are we doing? What do we do about it?' If you think of the justice system, and we all really need to look at it, you come to realize that what affects one person (whether behind bars or not), affects us all. At the end of the day we are all OZ.