From showrunners Ron Fitzgerald & Rolin Jones, and executive produced by Robert Downey Jr. & Susan Downey, the HBO limited series Perry Mason is set in 1931 Los Angeles with Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) as a PI that’s struggling to make ends meet. When the case of a kidnapped one-year-old with a $100,000 ransom comes his way, Mason turns to his right-hand man Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) and E.B.’s legal secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance), for help in answering the growing list of questions surrounding the crime.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Matthew Rhys talked about his reaction to taking on a Perry Mason remake, why this was a character that he wanted to dive into, the challenges in taking on this role, whether there could be a second season, if he’d be interested in directing an episode, finding the perfect hat and his love/hate relationship with it, the collaborative development process, and the fun of working with such a talented cast.
Collider: When someone mentioned the name Perry Mason to you, were you immediately intrigued? What was your reaction to that?
MATTHEW RHYS: It was interesting, in that the full amount of information wasn’t quite relayed properly. I got this message saying, “They wanna talk to you about a remake of Perry Mason.” And I was like, “Why would you wanna remake Perry Mason? You can’t remake Perry Mason.” And then, when I spoke to my agent, he said, “HBO wants to make a remake of Perry Mason.” And I was like, “Well, it’s not gonna be a remake. It’s gonna be thoroughly HBO-ified, if they’re making it.” And then, at the pitch meeting with the producers and writers, I realized very quickly that it wasn’t a remake. It’s a firm re-imagining and a redefining of Perry Mason, in a very interesting way.
Perry Mason is one of those characters where people are often more familiar with the name than the details of the show, itself.
RHYS: That’s exactly my experience with him. I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course. Why would you remake Perry Mason? Hang on, I don’t really remember Perry Mason.” You have this image of who Perry Mason is. I, for one, had this image of who Perry Mason was, and then you have these vague memories of people confessing on the stand, but I had no real specifics of Perry Mason. So then, when you’re questioned on what your memory of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason is, you’re like, “Well, I don’t really remember it that well.”
Does that give you a certain sense of freedom? Is there a relief that comes with not really having to be beholden to that idea because people aren’t really even sure what that idea is?
RHYS: It does, to a certain degree, and basically, to a certain generation. There are a number of people that I’ve spoken to, of a certain age and up, who have very strong memories and very strong opinions about Perry Mason. So, they’re like, “Oh, you’re the new Perry Mason?” And you’re like, “Well, I’m a different Perry Mason.” There are vast waves of generations that don’t know who Perry Mason is, that it’ll be introduced to, and I’m pleased about that. I don’t think he’s as recognizable of a character in the societal zeitgeist that people would be up in arms going “You can’t remake this now!” I think enough time has passed.
After doing a series like The Americans, which was such a great show and such a great character, it seems like the hardest thing would be figuring out what to do, after that. How did you approach that? Did you feel like you wanted to take a minute to decide what that next step should be? What was going through your head, as far as where to go from there, once that show ended?
RHYS: Listen, no one more than me knows what a gift Philip Jennings was and what I got to play with that character. I always take it back to its base level, which for me is, when I read something, am I interested in this script? Do I wanna know how it ends? Do I care about these people? How would I play this character? With the first episode of Perry Mason, I was like, “I’m interested in this person. I love how cracked he is. And I wanna know how this ends.” Those, to me, are the markers of whether I’ll wanna do something and I’m interested, at its most simple level, and I was.
Actors often talk about wanting to be challenged or scared by a character. Were those feelings also there? Were there things that you felt nervous about, or ways that you thought the character might really challenge you?
RHYS: I don’t think there’s anyone that I’ve played, that hasn’t challenged me, and that’s part of it. I’m sure rock climbers look at rock faces and go, “That looks interesting. I’d like to have a go at that.” I don’t know why I made that analogy, but it’s kind of like that. I looked at it and thought, “That would be interesting to play. I wonder if I could do that.” The other big interest was that it’s an origin story. When the Downeys (Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey) said, “We want to redo Perry Mason, but we wanna start with the origin story,” I genuinely went, “Oh, yeah, that would be interesting. How did he become a defense attorney?” And then, the big interest for me was in his reluctance and reticence of becoming a defense attorney, and once he does, how did he then become a good one? How do you build to believably thinking, “Yes, I can see why this person is a good defense attorney?” There’s a luxury afforded to an actor who gets to do that on screen. As nervous as I was, as an actor, at the beginning of those court scenes, that’s what the character is, as well. You’re afforded that luxury, in real time, which is a rarity, but it also challenges me. At the end, you’ve gotta plausibly believe that this man can actually do it. That was another big challenge for me, which I enjoyed.
Obviously, when you tell everyone that this is the origin story for the character, it gives a sense that there’s more story to tell. Have there been conversations about a bigger plan for this character?
RHYS: There has. The commission was a limited series, and that’s what it was HBO. They’ve talked about a second series, but I think that’s dependent on how this first one broadcasts. But at the time, that’s all there was, and that’s all they set out to do, initially, to see how it does. So, I think we’re gonna see how the next few months pan out, before HBO makes a decision, if there’s anymore in Perry Mason’s future.
You directed episodes of The Americans and Brothers and Sisters, so if the show continues, would you like to direct an episode of it?
RHYS: I would, and I wouldn’t. This show is such an enormous show. If there was an episode whereby it was condensed or reduced to just a few people talking, I’d certainly be interested, but with the enormity of it, it’d almost be impossible to prep a show like this while you’re shooting. So, who knows if that would even be a conversation.
Perry Mason is a man who wears a hat, and when you’re going to be known for wearing a hat, you want to get the hat right. Was the hat that you wear always the hat, or did you try on lots of hats?
RHYS: There were a lot of hats. We tried a lot of hats. I really enjoyed the process of building this guy, costume wise, ‘cause I was afforded that luxury of coming on early and helping to choose some of the key crew. The costumes were something that really mattered to me on this, and we were incredibly fortunate to have Emma Potter, who’s an incredible costume designer, and we worked together in building Mason’s silhouette. I had some strong ideas about what I wanted him to look like, and we both agreed the had was gonna be very important, so we tried on a lot of hats. I have a big head, as well, so you need a big hat to make a big head look proportionate. I tried on some big hats.
At the same time, do you develop a love/hate relationship with the hat because you have to wear it a lot? Is it one of those things where you can’t wait to get it off, or does it help you really embody the character?
RHYS: You’ve nailed it. It’s a love/hate. There are times when the hat is an absolute savior because you can take it off, you can use it as a prop, and it affords you all manner of things. If you’re in a sticky moment, it can be an enormous ally. And then, there are other times, when you do fight scenes and the hat has to stay on because, at the end of the fight, it was on, so they tape it to your head and it’s still falling off, and you’re like, “I fucking hate this hat.” And then, on other days, you love the hat. So, it’s exactly that, love/hate.
Can you also really appreciate a guy like this, who doesn’t have the fancy amenities of someone now, like a cell phone and a computer, and he really has to get out and do the leg work when he’s working a case?
RHYS: That was one of the great attractions for me. I’m all about old analog data. It’s another thing I loved aboutThe Americans. You couldn’t just text someone, or call them, if something happened. I love the real time watching of an investigation, in an old school sense. I really relish that, and I hope that’s a draw for the audience, as well. You step back into something where you see the legwork and it unfolds in a more organic way, as things used to, before our thumbs became like those of fighter pilots.
You’re also no stranger to sex scenes on TV, but the sex scenes, especially in the first episode of this show, were quite funny. What was it like to choreograph something like that, so that as you slide off the bed, you don’t actually end up getting hurt?
RHYS: The props department were very kind, in padding the floor for me. One of the great things about (director) Tim Van Patten is that he’s all about building it with the actors, so what was actually written ended up not happening, at all. You try it out and, if it’s not working and things get in the way, or it feels weird and you can’t quite get to it, you develop it and you say, “What if I do this?” The end result of that was a very organic build, between Veronica [Falcón], myself and Tim. Tim had ideas, where he wanted to see Veronica’s character, Lupe, being the more dominant one. In a way that we don’t necessarily see often, she’s the most sexually dominant partner. There were other elements that were aiding the choreography. He’s so unsure about that relationship, and a little bit lost, in so many ways, in his life, anyway. She knows exactly what she wants, which is certainly defined in that scene and in that moment. She’s like, “That’s what I want. This is how I get it. I don’t care whether you do or don’t.” And he’s always left wondering. I think it epitomizes so much about those two.
What was that relationship like between you, the showrunners, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, and director Tim Van Patten? Especially working as an executive producer on this series, what was it like to work and collaborate within that relationship, and really find that look and feel for it all?
RHYS: It was just very collaborative. The Downeys were very generous in offering me a producing role and said, “Listen, we wanna build this with you, and build this world.” Tim Van Patten was incredible about working together and building something together. He’s one of the foremost directors I’ve ever worked with who does that, and who very much trusts the actor. I think that’s years of experience, where you know what will work and what doesn’t, so you allow everyone just to do their job properly. It was certainly one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve ever had.
What was it like working with this incredible ensemble, including John Lithgow and Shea Whigham, and this whole group of really talented people? What was the fun in exploring those dynamics and getting to
RHYS: The fun certainly came from that group of people. We were just fortunate that everyone who turned up were titans of their game – John [Lithgow], Tatiana [Maslany] and Shea [Whigham]. They turned up, knowing how to throw the ball around, and wanted to play and do the best work possible. It was certainly an ego-less set. Especially with people like John Lithgow, the first time he walked onto the set, I was awestruck because he’s someone I’d grown up watching. He also comes in and just nails it. He’s one of those pros who comes in and just hits it, and you’re like, “Oh, god, I’ve gotta up my game here.” Everyone who came on set, including Juliet [Rylance] and Chris Chalk, were actors who were incredibly prepared and ready to do their best. The bar was always high on that set, which is the best motivator, ever.
Perry Mason airs on Sunday nights on HBO.