From showrunners Ron Fitzgerald & Rolin Jones, and executive produced by Robert Downey Jr. & Susan Downey, the HBO series Perry Mason, which has already been renewed for Season 2, is set in 1931 Los Angeles with Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) as a private investigator struggling to make ends meet. When the case of a kidnapped infant 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, Tatiana Maslany – who plays Sister Alice McKeegan, the lead evangelist at the Radiant Assembly of God – talked about how little she actually knew about Perry Mason before this, how relevant the series is now, preparing for the sermon scenes, the inspiration she took from Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O., and keeping Alice a bit of a mystery. She also talked about which Orphan Black clones she misses the most, her connection to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and more.
COLLIDER: When this project came your way, how much of this character had already been formed, and how much of her came from conversations that you had with the creators?
TATIANA MASLANY: She was fully formed. When I first got the call about the part, I read maybe the first three scripts, and she was so alive and so there on the page, and very much what you see in the final product. But as the season went on, there were a lot of conversations between myself and Rolin [Jones] and Ron [Fitzgerald], the showrunners, and Tim Van Patten, the main director. We all discussed her a lot, and they’d run things by me and we’d feel them out. They were super open to ideas and thoughts, and at the same time, I just felt like it was such an intriguing character that I wanted to see where they were gonna take her. It was a cool collaboration, at the same time that I was like, “Go for it, guys. I love what’s happening.”
I love that this is the most un-Perry Mason version of Perry Mason that anybody possibly could have done. Did you have any preconceived notions, when you heard about this project? Had you been familiar with Perry Mason, at all?
MASLANY: I didn’t even know the name. I hadn’t even really heard of it, which is bizarre because it is such an iconic TV show and book series, and all of that, but somehow I missed it and didn’t know anything about it. When I heard it was a procedural, I was like, “I don’t know what that holds for me,” but when it’s HBO, and Matthew Rhys is attached to it and Tim Van Patten, you know it’s not gonna be a run of the mill remake. It’s always gonna have a different edge to it. Outside of the legacy of the show, what drew me to it was that every single character has this full life that you get to witness them. They’re all outsiders. It’s the kind of show that I get excited about because I love the characters and I love character actors, so I’m really thrilled to get to be a part of it.
I’m one of those rare people that’s actually born and raised in L.A., and love when any show uses L.A. as a backdrop, but in a way that doesn’t feel like the L.A. that we always see, and this show is just so incredibly gorgeous to look at.
MASLANY: Yes. Obviously a lot of them are sets, but there’s also so many outside bits that are real locations that still have that original architecture. I’m very new to L.A., so it’s exciting to get to explore it through this show.
It’s fascinating how this is a series that has shifted its era to the 1930s, but it feels more relevant than ever. When you read this and made this, did you see how relevant it is to today, or is that something that’s sort of become more apparent recently?
MASLANY: Ignorantly, I didn’t see how relevant it was until the context of this current racial movement and all of the social justice stuff that’s coming to light right now. As a white person, I had ignorance, in terms of how prescient it was. Now, seeing it in the context of all of the calls for justice that we’re hearing, and the calls for equity, and the awareness that the police do not protect us, I’m just learning, myself, right now, how relevant it really is.
When it came to this character, what were you most excited about getting to do with her, and were there things that made you most nervous about playing her?
MASLANY: I was most excited about the fact that I just had so many questions about her. I was just so like, “I wonder why she does this, and why this happens, and what’s gonna be next.” She just opened my mind, in so many ways, and my imagination. I found myself surprised by every move that she made, and was further intrigued and chasing her, which is what I really loved about her. Where she actually stands on the things that she says and what she truly believes, all of that was really fascinating to me. Also, the huge performance aspect of her or her job was so interesting. Who is she at home? Who is she with Emily [Gayle Rankin] versus who she is on stage? What’s real? I just found that all really fascinating.
The thing that I was probably most afraid of was those big set pieces. The first sermon I had to do was the funeral of Charlie, in Episode 2. It was the whole cast, the whole crew, and 400 extras, and there was John Lithgow in the second row. I was shitting myself, it was so scary, but also so fun. It was such a testament to the crew and the cast that I felt held and taken care of, in that moment. I just felt like I was in good company and everyone was really supportive.
What did you do to prepare for those scenes, the night before? Do you take really easily to the memorization of it all, or are there tricks that you have? Is there a lot of pressure with scenes like that?
MASLANY: Yeah, totally. Embracing that pressure and knowing that it’s what Alice would have felt is helpful. And then, for me, knowing the lines, inside and out, so that I can say them backwards or in my sleep, and they’re innate, is really important. That way, I can be free when I’m up there. I was also really fortunate that I got to go into the space before it was built. It was just this empty auditorium space. I went in there and felt the space and felt how much real estate her presence occupies and got to embody that a little bit more, by myself, before thousands of people were in there, staring at me.
Did it feel a little bit like a theater hybrid, where you’re still doing a TV show and you can do another take of the scene, but you also have an audience that’s really sitting there, looking at you?
MASLANY: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll never stop saying how wonderful that audience of extras was. It’s so special when you get to do things like that, and you can feel the energy of the extras and they’re really giving it to you, and being generous and responding, just as alive as you would hope they would be. It’s just such a special conversation that you get to have with them, as a big group. And I had just come from doing Broadway, so to continue that connection to the audience and feeling that huge energy is just such a joy. You really have to be on and you really have to be present, but at the same time, it’s also down to how great the A.D. team was, with the assistant director who would give them direction and empower them to make choices, as well. It was so much fun. There was nothing about it that was like, “You guys are extra, so don’t step out of line.” It was very like, “You’re just as important to this team, as anybody.” So, it was really cool.
Because it does feel very rock star, you’ve previously said that Karen O. was something of an influence. Why was she someone that you looked at, for this character? What made you see something similar in her?
MASLANY: She’s always been my reference, in terms of that raw animal energy. When I was in high school, I remember getting a Yeah Yeah Yeahs DVD, from when did a performance at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and I just remember watching it over and over and over and over again, just ‘cause I was so obsessed with her character, her sexiness, and her ability to hold that crowd and rile them up. As a huge music fan and somebody who loves to go to live shows, I feel like it’s maybe the closest thing to what people feel, in terms of a religion. Right now, with COVID and everything, the thing that I miss the most is that energy of being in a crowd and watching an amazing performance, and dancing and feeling that energy. That’s why I was looking to her. She’s so singular, in terms of her performance style, and has that shyness, but also that animal sexiness. I just love her… There’s something about her performance that’s also unabashedly joyful. She’s always laughing and smiling, even if she’s growling and raw. She’s got a sense of humor about it, too. You can feel how much fun she’s having.
When I spoke to Matthew Rhys about this show, he told me about the importance of finding the right hat for Perry Mason, Stephen Root talked to me about how much the very specific mustache he had helped him, and Chris Chalk told me that putting on the police uniform made an impression on him. Were there things that helped you, in finding this character?
MASLANY: Absolutely. I love a wig, so much. I love that it suggests something and your body responds to it, and you get to stare at it in the mirror and allow it to inform you. The biggest joy, for me, is getting to transform like that. The wig was really important. The way [make-up department head] Christien Tinsley connected the make-up to the wig, there’s just something different and exciting about looking in the mirror and seeing somebody different, and taking your cues from that and just being inspired by it. For me, the actors that I also got to work opposite were so informative. The day that I met Lili [Taylor], I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s absolutely my mom and the person that I revere. I want to be her equal.” There’s so much information that you get from that.
Do you feel like there’s still more that you’d like to learn about Sister Alice, or do you feel like you’d almost prefer to have her remain a little bit of a mystery?
MASLANY: Those characters are always so exciting to meet because you can’t quite condemn them. There’s so much more that I would love to know about her, but at the same time, it does make sense to me that she would be untouchable and unknowable.
I love how, by the time you get to the end of the season, it almost feels like you might know her less than you thought you did, a few episodes earlier.
MASLANY: Yes, and I think that’s also because all of the things that have given her context and identity have been stripped from her, and she willingly stripped them, as well. She’s about to learn who she really is, outside of the context of the church that she grew up in and the trauma that she was burying, and the connection to her mother, and all of that stuff. She’s not a blank slate, but definitely starting again.
On this show, you play one great character, but on Orphan Black, you had such a variety of great characters to get to explore, all at once. Is there a clone that you miss playing the most?
MASLANY: I think it’s Helena or Alison because there is just so much fun to be had there. They were two characters that I’d never gotten to play, in any way, before, and felt very singular to that show and very specific to that collaboration, with John [Fawcett] and Graeme [Manson], and the writers, and the hair and make-up team. I think I’ll miss those two, the most.
I also love that you’ve said that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze is a movie that changed your life. How did you first come to be aware of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and why do you think people respond so strongly to them?
MASLANY: I have no idea of that. I think that I was seven, or something, when it came out, and I got the VHS for Christmas and didn’t stop watching it. It hit the pocket, where it was goofy enough, but still cool and, I wanna say, super hot. I don’t know. I was just obsessed. I think I also related to them, for some reason. I didn’t always find characters that I really related to, as a young girl, and for some reason, the Turtles were the world that I wanted to live in. I don’t know what it was about them, but don’t you think that there was so many things from that time, like Biker Mice from Mars, or Samurai Pizza Cats, that were a fusion of some animal mutated, who has a special skill. That was a phenomenon, when we were younger.
Perry Mason airs on Sunday nights on HBO.