Claws star Harold Perrineau shines in TV’s most surprising crime drama

Harold Perrineau in Claws. (Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Courtesy of WarnerMedia.)
Harold Perrineau in Claws. (Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Courtesy of WarnerMedia.) /

Harold Perrineau discusses his Emmy-worthy role as Dean in Claws.

Harold Perrineau deserves an Emmy nomination for playing Dean Simms in TNT‘s Claws, a show so unique that you probably didn’t realize it’s a crime drama.

Claws might have started with a nail salon, but from its first season it’s been mixed up in all kinds of crime. In the most recent season, Dean’s sister Desna (Niecy Nash) set out to build her criminal empire after surviving the Russian mob. Unfortunately, Desna’s ambition put incredible strain on her relationship with Dean, who started to put some necessary—and heartwrenching—distance between the two of them.

Perrineau’s performance as Dean has been one of the best things about Claws from the beginning, whether it’s his portrayal of a character with autism, or the emotional roller coaster that Dean has been on. Precinct TV recently sat down with him to discuss how he continued to develop Dean in season 3, and how much the role means to him.

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“It’s been a long time for Dean,” said Harold, who has played the role for three seasons with a fourth on the way—the longest time he’s lived with a character since his SAG Award-winning work on Lost. “I loved hanging out with Dean. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever played, though really, really tricky to play.”

That’s because there are so many different layers to Dean Simms. He’s not only Desna’s brother; he also happens to be autistic. Harold has done an incredible job portraying autism authentically while also making sure that’s just one part of Dean’s character—his autism does not define or limit who he is. In fact, particularly in Claws season 3, we saw Dean being a better person than his sister was.

“I’m happy about it and proud of it,” Harold reflected. “In this really interesting time when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter and all these different things, one of the things I’ve always thought throughout my career is that sometimes you judge a person or you judge a thing because you don’t know it. But when you get to know it, you have a different point of view about it.

“Because of black people, autistic people, the whole thing, I was really glad to put Dean in people’s living rooms,” he continued. “And so maybe the next time you come across a person and you’re not exactly sure what they’re doing, you might give them a little leeway considering maybe there’s a learning difference here, or maybe there’s something [else], and you won’t think oh, this person is dangerous.”

People with developmental disorders like autism aren’t regularly represented on TV, and Harold Perrineau has been wonderful in providing some of that representation and fully embracing what it means to play someone with autism. He’s shown viewers an autistic character who lives a full life, who is strong and compassionate, and who isn’t held back by his condition—he keeps moving forward through all of the chaos that comes his way. And it’s a lot.

In Claws season 3, Dean struggled with his desire for vengeance after his beloved Virginia (played by Karrueche Tran) was shot at the end of last season, and wound up losing an eye because of it. He also watched Desna’s dreams of power and grandeur get the better of her (to the point where she panicked and tried to get him to leave the country), and developed an addiction to Mahjong that he needed to wrestle under control.

Along the way, audiences saw Dean grow and push back harder against his sister. He had relied on Desna for so long, and still loves her deeply, but he needed to make a life for himself and one that didn’t involve the life-threatening chaos swirling around her. It was impossible not to root for Dean as he found his voice and his inner strength more than ever before. He’s come a very long way from the start of the series, and he’s carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, too.

“I think that’s what a lot of season three was about—not just distancing himself because of the crazy, but distancing himself because of his need to really be independent. To be an independent man,” Harold explained. “Even as I say it, I remember saying it so many times: “I’m an independent man, Desna.” That’s really what he tried to do in most of season three. He was working really hard to be on his own, and some things worked, some things didn’t.

“When we get to season four, we’ll see how that plays out as he continues on that journey, which I imagine that he does. We haven’t really gotten a chance to investigate it yet.”

That’s the other reason many people might not think of Claws as a crime drama. It’s not a whodunit or a procedural; it’s a show about big personalities and messy relationships that are all caught up in crime. Whether it’s the Husser crime family, the Russian mob, or now whatever Desna thinks she’s accomplishing, there are criminal elements all over the place. And no one has clean hands.

Since the end of season 2, Dean has killed the woman who tried to murder Desna, gotten a gambling problem, dealt with Virginia’s shooting and her calling off their engagement, and seen his estranged father (Glynn Turman from House of Lives) come back into his life. There’s always something going on, usually huge and often violent, and that’s a challenge for any actor. Harold, however, hasn’t just taken all of the twists and turns in stride; he loves the unpredictability.

“That keeps me on my toes. That keeps me doing the thing that I love to do, figuring out the puzzle of human beings and then trying to live in that skin,” he said. “The one thing I do think about the show is that it feels like it’s evolved. But I feel like it’s always kind of been the same [as well],” he told us. “These really grounded people rooted in who they are, in these really crazy and obscure circumstances, but things that feel really topical. That, I feel, carries out all the way through.

“In season three, we’re dealing with addiction. For Dean, it’s a Mahjong addiction…You get to a place where you just kind of throw your life away.”

Dean still has plenty to work through whenever Claws season 4 begins. Will Virginia change her mind about no longer wanting to get married? Will his relationship with Desna calm down or could she manage to push him completely away? Could he just get a break somewhere with a lovely beverage? It’s almost mind-boggling to look back and see how far he’s come since the show’s first season, and exciting to look ahead at how much more he can accomplish. That’s because Harold has put so much effort into bringing Dean to life, and showing every nuance of who he is.

While on break from Claws, Harold recently had a recurring role as Detective Nick Armstrong on ABC’s The Rookie. It was a complete 180-degree turn to go from Dean to a seemingly straight-laced Los Angeles cop, and from a quirky crime drama to a more traditional show. “I like being that kind of likeable guy that then has an interesting turn,” he said, “But it was really different. I wasn’t really able to bring anything over from Claws to that.”

He knows the genre really well—his breakout role was on HBO’s prison drama Oz, he starred in the underrated The Unusuals, and he’s also appeared in a number of other crime dramas, including NBC’s Law & Order: SVU. But it says something that watching Harold Perrineau any of those shows isn’t like watching him play Dean Simms. Every time you watch him, you see something new and special, and Dean is the most unique role of his career.

“Dean is so really different than anything I’ve ever played,” Harold reflected. He’s also different from any other character in the TV crime drama genre—and hopefully Dean, and Harold, will get some recognition when Emmy nominations are announced.

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All ten episodes of Claws season 3 are now available to stream on Hulu. Claws will return for season 4 on TNT in the future.