In a new excerpt from 'Burn It Down,' the actor shares details behind what led to his original departure from the popular show.
In a new excerpt from the upcoming book, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, which chronicles the alleged toxic and hostile work environment behind the scenes of ABC's hit TV show, author Maureen Ryan spoke to writers and cast members across all six seasons, including Perrineau, who detailed their experiences. A writer also alleged that co-creator/co-showrunner Damon Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse were often not receptive to concerns that storylines were focusing primarily on the "hero characters," who were white.
Perrineau joined the supernatural series in 2004 as Michael after starring in Oz, the Matrix movies and Romeo + Juliet. The actor remembered being initially "hopeful" about the promise of the role, which he said had been sold to him as "equitable" when it came to splitting screen time across the expansive ensemble. He said in the book excerpt, which Vanity Fair first shared Tuesday, "I was such a believer."
The 59-year-old actor said it became apparent, as the first season of Lost began to unfold, that "I was the Black guy. Daniel [Dae Kim] was the Asian guy. And then you had Jack and Kate and Sawyer," who were played by Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly and Josh Holloway, respectively.
He pointed out an early version of the script for season 2's second episode, which revolved around Michael's son, Walt, getting kidnapped. That version of the script allegedly featured flashbacks that focused on Sawyer instead of Michael. Perrineau said he remembered being surprised at how little Michael mentioned his missing son, considering the circumstances. “I don’t think I can do that," Perrineau recalled. "I can’t be another person who doesn’t care about missing Black boys, even in the context of fiction, right? This is just furthering the narrative that nobody cares about Black boys, even Black fathers.”
The actor claimed he expressed his concerns about the script and the lack of depth or complexity he felt his character deserved to Lindelof and Cuse over a subsequent phone call. "If you're going to use me, let's work," Perrineau allegedly told the duo in that call. "I'm here to work. I'm good at my job and I'll do anything you want. Except be 'the Black guy' on your show." Perrineau claimed Lindelof and Cuse told him the episode was not centered around his character, though later a revised version of the script tweaked the flashbacks to focus on Michael. "I felt like suddenly they were mad at me," the actor alleged, claiming he filmed the flashbacks in a condensed two-day schedule of 14-, 18-hour work days.
Several weeks before filming was to begin on the season 2 finale, Perrineau claimed he was told by Cuse that he would not be asked back for season 3 and alleged the EP said he wasn't sure if Michael would ever make a return to the popular franchise.
"I was f**ked up about it. I was like, 'Oh, I just got fired, I think,'" Perrineau said of the alleged conversation. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what's happening?' [Cuse] said, 'Well, you know, you said to us, if we don't have anything good for you, you want to go.' I was just asking for equal depth." The actor claimed Cuse's response to his request was, "'Well, you said you don’t have enough work here, so we’re letting you go.'"
According to the excerpt, multiple sources alleged Lindelof said, in an apparent reaction to Perrineau's departure after season 2, that he "called me racist, so I fired his a**." Lindelof later responded to the allegations after they were brought up by the author, saying, "What can I say? Other than it breaks my heart that that was Harold's experience." He maintained that he did not recall "ever" saying those remarks after Perrineau's exit: "I’ll just cede that the events that you’re describing happened 17 years ago, and I don’t know why anybody would make that up about me."
Though Perrineau was written off the series after the second season, he was reinstated as a series regular in season 4. By the end, however, his character died in an explosion aboard a freighter. (He also returned for an appearance in the final season.) Perrineau took part in an interview after his onscreen death, where he blasted the tumultuous ending to Michael's journey. "It's like, what the hell? I came back for that?" he said in the original 2008 interview. "I'm disappointed, mostly because I wanted Michael and Walt to have a happy ending. I was hoping Michael would get it together and actually want to be a father to his kid and try to figure out a way to get back [home]... If I were writing it, I would write it differently."
Lindelof acknowledged, as quoted in the excerpt, that there was "a high degree of insensitivity" with regard to the handling of Perrineau's concerns. Both he and Cuse cited the growth spurt of Perrineau's TV son, played by actor Malcolm David Kelley, as a crucial factor in how they went about approaching Michael's arc. Cuse acknowledged it was a story problem they "did not know how to solve," except to "resolve Michael's story at the end of season 2."
"Every single actor had expressed some degree of disappointment that they weren’t being used enough... That was kind of part and parcel for an ensemble show, but obviously there was a disproportionate amount of focus on Jack and Kate and Locke and Sawyer -- the white characters. Harold was completely and totally right to point that out," Lindelof said. "It’s one of the things that I've had deep and profound regrets about in the two decades since."
"I do feel that Harold was legitimately and professionally conveying concerns about his character and how significant it was that Michael and Walt -- with the exception of Rose -- were really the only Black characters on the show," he continued.
Burn itIDown: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood is available June 6.