Ron Perlman has portrayed some challenging characters: a gentle giant in CBS' "Beauty and the Beast," a horned, haunted mutant in the "Hellboy" movies and the den father of a grizzled motorcycle gang in FX's "Sons of Anarchy," which returns Tuesday for its third season. But his most unlikely role was his real- life stint as a University of Minnesota graduate student.

Perlman, 60, who spoke with us from the set of a movie he's shooting in Shreveport, La., reflected on the strange path that led him to Minneapolis in the early '70s, his disdain for motorcycles and his passion for cigars.

Q How are things in Shreveport?

A Very hot, very sticky. I thank God some of these states like Louisiana have implemented these tax credits to make it very tantalizing for film production. I've made so many movies over the past 10 years in Eastern Europe and the fact that we're bringing productions back to the U.S. is great.

Q How did you end up getting your master's in theater in Minnesota?

A I grew up in New York City and went to the City University of New York in the Bronx. While I was there, I accumulated $6,000 to $7,000 in parking-ticket fines and I had no resources to pay that. Then these brochures started circulating and there was one for the University of Minnesota. Well, I thought, nobody will look for me there. Most New York cops don't even know Minnesota is in the union.

Q What did you learn while you were here?

A I discovered Minneapolis/St. Paul was one of the most culturally vibrant places in the United States, not just in theater, but also the Walker Art Center and the symphony.

Q What are two or three of your favorite memories?

A I had moved out there with a girl who had a job working backstage at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and so I got a job with her, doing lighting, working in the costume department, anything to be close to theater production. The guy running the theater at the time promised me that he'd eventually put me on stage, but he never did.

Probably the most memorable production I did was "The Iceman Cometh" at the university, directed by Warren Frost. I played Chuck, the day bartender. It was probably as good a show as I'd ever seen. You really couldn't make a living at acting, but you were doing it for the sake of doing it.

Q How did the experience affect your career?

A It was a special, pivotal time. Before that, I wanted to avoid the horrors of being a professional actor because every actor I knew had holes in their clothes and ate spaghetti six times a week. But after Minneapolis, I realized there was no running away from this.

Q After graduating, did you contemplate sticking around the Twin Cities?

A I was planning on it until the day I left. I loved my two years at the university and I loved the vibe of the city, but I had to decide whether or not to keep my apartment in Dinkytown and I realized that there was only so far I could go in Minneapolis, so I went back to New York.

Q Weren't you worried about those traffic tickets?

A What had happened is that the cops found my mother, and she paid the fines. By the way, a week from next Tuesday I will have paid her back.

Q Did you find success in New York right away?

A During the first 30 years of my career, I had these pockets of great things happening, bracketed by long, long periods of inertia and aimless wandering. That pretty much described my career until I turned 50 and found that [director] Guillermo Del Toro had faith in me. He really fought for me. Ever since the second "Hellboy," I haven't stopped working.

Q Any chance you two will collaborate again?

A I can't say. As long as the two of us are walking the Earth, there's always that threat.

Q Any chance you would come back here to do some theater?

A I pretty much stopped doing theater. I'm addicted to the film experience. I tried to do a couple plays in the '90s, but they didn't have the same lure for me that it had in the past. I'll eventually go back and do a play, just to get past the fear.

Q Speaking of fear, I remember that when you started "Sons of Anarchy" you didn't know how to ride a motorcycle. Are you now addicted to riding?

A Not addicted to it. I just do it to get through the show. I'm not wired that way. I'm not really into speed and danger. I find bikes very powerful and very exposing and very dangerous. I don't need that. Right now I'm living in this casino, and I don't gamble. My life is a gamble.

Q One thing you do love is cigars. When I saw you do a press conference in L.A. a couple weeks ago, I could have sworn that you had an unlit cigar in your hand.

A I was planning on lighting it the minute I got off that panel. My smoke of choice is Joya de Nicaragua, which are about $6 each. I had to find a regular cigar that wasn't going to break the bank. It's got a really, really full body, strong and smooth. On a bad day, I'll smoke about four. On a good day, maybe two. I smoke them the wrong way. Like cigarettes. I inhale.

Q Isn't that awful for your body?

A I don't know. Ask me in 15 years. • 612-673-7431