How I fluked into movies, thanks to Luke Perry…

3757 2480 Rob McGibbon

“I’m not someone who looks back. 90210 opened some doors and I don’t regret doing it, nor do I have any illusions that the interest in it will go away”

A note on the text from Rob McGibbon: This interview with Luke was conducted during lunch on the last day of filming of The Beat Beneath My Feet in October 2013. It was written for The Independent, which commissioned it, then spiked it.

I was an Associate Producer on the movie, which had a screenplay by Michael Mueller and produced by Scoop Films. I had fluked into the film a few months earlier after an impromptu social meeting with Raj Sharma, the founder and owner of Scoop. He told me that he had just green lit a new film, but was really struggling to cast the lead role. I asked him to summarise the plot. After he had finished, straight off the bat, I said: “You need an American, someone who was really hot in the 1990s. What about Luke Perry?” It would prove to be a moment of divine casting inspiration – as well as deep relief that all those pointless years in showbiz journalism had not been entirely wasted. Raj was intrigued by the idea. Three weeks later, he took me to dinner and announced with a shrill of excitement: “You won’t believe this, but we have signed Luke Perry!” From that moment on I was heavily involved in the film. This included interviewing Luke, and, quite unbelievably, “starring” in the last scene of the film “with” him. My quote marks.

Gifted Guitar Wrangler

The director John Williams was in desperate need of a new extra for the final scene, but it was getting late. We had about an hour left to shoot before the film had to wrap and John wasn’t happy with the member of the crew who had been lined up for the part. He scoped around the school hall where we were filming and suddenly his eyes alighted upon me. He came over and scanned my blue Geox bomber jacket and my two-tone burgundy brogues. He then muttered a sentence that had never been directed at me before, nor since. “You have a great look.” I instinctively looked behind me. He then explained what I had to do in the scene. He noticed my alarmed look, then asked pointedly: “Are you up to that?” Er, yeah sure. I was to be Luke Perry’s guitar wrangler, backstage at a big rock concert. The scene involved Luke walking towards me, followed by the steady cam. I would shake his hand, wish him good luck, and pass him his electric guitar. Easy. Well, until a loud, beefy bloke aggressively shouts “Action”. Luke very kindly did a rehearsal with me before the camera started rolling. “You just do it anyway you feel is right, my friend,” he said. I immersed myself in character and impressed him with my natural talent in passing an object to another human being. It is fair to say that I nailed it. Well, I didn’t cock it up. In the final cut of this scene, my right elbow and hand get star billing. At least I can say, without any sense of hype, that I worked on a film with Luke Perry and that he was great to work with.

In all seriousnesses, he was. Luke was a generous actor, who was encouraging and kind to all the cast, most notably Nicholas Galitzine who was making his first film. But, beyond that, Luke also brought a vast amount of support to the production team, many of whom were very new to the business. He had no airs and graces and happily put up with his “luxury Winnebago” for the shoot, which was a particularly decrepit camper van. He was a shy and intense character who preferred to keep a distance, but he was also quick to muck in and help when help was needed. Once the film wrapped, we took over an upstairs room of the pub where we had been filming and Luke got straight behind the bar. He served drinks to all the crew for many hours. I had a brief chat with him before I left and he gave me a quick hug and thanked me for suggesting him for the part. He was a good guy with a big heart.

Rob McGibbon meeting Luke for the first time on set in South London

Poster for the film from 2014

Interview by Rob McGibbon at The Bedford, Balham, London, October 2013.

It’s one of the last places you’d expect to find Luke Perry, the cool dude from Beverly Hills, but here he is high on the roof of a vast and fetid pub called The Bedford in Balham. 

The sunny glamour of the 90210 zip code is replaced by the grey urban reality of SW12 9HD, but he’s gamely climbing sloping slate tiles during a photo shoot so the distant London skyline can fill the background. To his credit, Perry doesn’t even flinch when the photographer shouts, a touch gauchely, “G’on, gimme a mean James Dean look.” This was the impossible celluloid comparison he was saddled with twenty-five years ago. Evidently, it still shadows him. 

Numerous moody scowls later, Perry squeezes in opposite me on an abandoned old picnic bench table and begins constructing a roll-up with Golden Virginia. A screen of pub tea-towels flutter on the washing line near us and trains from the station below clatter by. It begins to drizzle. Surely, that James Dean tag gets on your nerves?

“Hey, I’m easy, man,” he says in a husky drawl, with an insouciant smile. “There ain’t nothin’ new under the sun for me with that kind of stuff. I maintain a relaxed line.”

Perry’s resigned calmness is understandable. He lived through the mayhem of teen heartthrob fame and has the wardrobe of white crew neck T-shirts to prove it. And his face bears testament to that. The James Dean quiff has thinned and receded noticeably since those pin-up days, while the frown lines in his forehead are deeply etched. 

He is also craggy around the eyes but, for 47 (soon to be 48), Perry has worn pretty well.  The face is still angular and he remains lean, toned and handsome, not to mention, inescapably cool. He is affable and likeable, but is instinctively guarded and wilfully remote. 

Throughout the 1990s Perry played rebellious Dylan McKay in that seminal teen series with Jason Priestley and Shannen Doherty. He chalked up 199 episodes and posters of him papered the homes of besotted girls around the world. Fans often besieged his parents’ home in the mid-West hoping he’d turn up.

The years since then have been mixed, both professionally and personally. There has been no stellar Hollywood movie career that many predicted, but unlike some of his fictional classmates he has never stopped working, which is no mean feat considering the typecasting inflicted by such a huge TV series. 

American TV series and made-for-TV movies have been his staple out-put, as well stage work, including The Rocky Horror Show on Broadway and When Harry Met Sally in the West End in 2004. Life away from the screen has had its challenges, too, not least when his ten-year marriage to Minnie Sharp ended in divorce a decade ago. They have two teenage children – Jack, 17, and Sophie, 13.

You sense that bringing out the ashes of Beverley Hills 90210 could be a touchy subject with Perry, but he bats it away easily. “I look back on those days fondly,” he says. “I love those people. Jason [Priestley] is still a dear friend and we hang out a lot. We even vacation together with our kids. I’ve lost touch with most of the other guys, but hey it’s a long time ago, we’re all busy getting on with life.

“Any of the negative stuff that came from the show is far surpassed by the positive. I learnt so much about acting and filming and it changed everything for me. It was quite a ride and the association with such a big series has hardly been unkind. A lot of people watched it and loved it. Who I am to complain?”

But how about the pretty boy label, surely that has been a pain and hard to escape? “I don’t know how to answer that. If I had a succinct response, I would share it with you. I don’t think about those things because it seems you’re talking about someone else. I’m an actor. It’s as simple as that.

Luke with Nicholas Galitzine and DJ-turned-actor Christian O’Connell

“Besides, I don’t really see the downside and, if there is one, I don’t concentrate on it. I’m not someone who looks back. 90210 opened some doors and I don’t regret doing it, nor do I have any illusions that the interest in it will go away. I mean, we’re talking about it now, even though it has nothing to do with what I’m doing here.”

Fair point. So what brings him to the dubious delights of Balham? Perry is here playing the lead amongst a group of unknown actors in The Beat Beneath My Feet, his first foray into a low budget British independent film. 

The Beat Beneath My Feet is a comedy drama with Perry as a broken down American rock guitarist called Max Stone, who has faked his death after tragedy and financial ruin destroyed his life. Stone re-surfaces in South London, where he is recognised and blackmailed by an obsessive teenager called Tom, played by newcomer Nick Galitzine. 

Tom is hell-bent on becoming a guitarist and their unlikely friendship makes for a moving and entertaining story that has been receiving a positive reaction on the independent film circuit. The movie launches at London’s Raindance Film Festival later this month.

But what on earth draws a star like Luke Perry to such a small movie and how does he swap Beverley Hills for Balham?

“I’m very comfortable in places like this,” he says, gazing across the rooftops. “I come from a very working class, blue-collar area in Ohio, so these smells and inner city vibes are as familiar to me as a place like Beverly Hills. Besides, I have a real love for all aspects of London. After-all, my ex-wife is British.

“And me doing this film always comes down to the same thing: Am I moved by the story? I read the script and it moved me. There have been moments on this where I have felt this character flowing through me and that has touched me deeply. I have felt overcome with emotion and those fleeting moments are the best you can hope for as an actor. 

“Sure, it would be great to have an extra 50,000 dollars to spend on certain things, but that won’t necessarily make the scene any better. The only down side to this movie has been the food – it’s not been great!”

Clearly Perry has been doing well enough to indulge in projects that creatively appeal, so how are things looking for his career in general? He is predictably laid back: 

“I’m somewhere between my last job and my next one. That is always the way I have looked at this business. My last job is behind me, my next job is out there somewhere in front of me. I just keep going like that and I’m lucky to be able to do things that interest me. 

“I choose how much and what I do, but that doesn’t mean I get the pick of everything. Maybe Tom Hanks gets that trip, but any actor who says otherwise is full of sh*t. I just keep on going.

“As far as I can see, no movie can make your career and no movie can break your career. It’s all just one after the next. As long as people watch this and see something they haven’t seen before, then I’m happy. If the movie also makes some money, well, no-one is ever p*ssed when that happens.”

And, with that, Perry runs a hand through his hair and heads back for filming in the pub below. He hunches into the collar of his coat and ambles off looking, it has to be said, very much like James Dean.

Following a stroke, Luke Perry died in hospital in Los Angeles on 4th March 2019. He was 52.