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, Stephen Root – who plays District Attorney Maynard Barnes – talked about his reaction to this new take on Perry Mason, playing a character in a world where it’s easier to be a bad guy than a good guy, what made this guy compelling to play, and that very specific mustache. He also talked about how special it’s been to be a part of another current HBO series with Barry, always getting asked about Office Space, voicing a character for the Masters of the Universe animated series, and how he never could have envisioned that this would be his career journey.
Collider: When someone mentioned the name Perry Mason to you, what was your immediate reaction to that? Were you intrigued about what it could be, or did you wonder why they were bringing the character back?
STEPHEN ROOT: I wondered why they would bring back that show. Even though it was the first hourly dramatic show like it on TV, I couldn’t see a way into it, from the ‘60s show. And then, they told me that they were gonna do a “prequel” to it, where he’s an investigator first and not really a lawyer, until it gets going, in the series, and I though that was interesting. Plus, any kid of period stuff is really fun and wonderful to play. So, that made me interested, when they said it was a prequel.
Knowing that the Downeys (Robert and Susan) are involved and HBO, and then this group of actors, then you’d have to know that the material must be good.
ROOT: I think one begets the other. Good material begets good actors because then they’re interested. If you’re standing around with something that’s not good, you’re trying to make gold out of straw. It’s much more fun to make platinum out of gold, which I think this script is.
How much of it were you able to read before shooting? Was it just one script, or did you get more than that?
ROOT: For me, since I’m not in the pilot, I had the first two to look at. I had the pilot, to see what they were gonna do, and then my character shows up in the second one. So, it was just those two scripts for me, but it was very easy to see what quality pieces they were. And I’d worked with director Tim Van Patten on Boardwalk Empire, so it was like, “Yes, please!”
What were you told about this guy? How was he originally described to you, in the beginning, and how much did he evolve, over time?
ROOT: I think he could morph into a different job and there are different places that you could see him. Obviously, we’re not seeing the Hamilton Burger of the Perry Mason of the ‘60s yet, in this show, ‘cause that’s not happening yet, so I’m the replacement character, for this incarnation of it. I’m having great fun playing it, obviously. It’s always fun to play the heavy, but you’ve gotta find some way to make him seem, at least, like somebody that you’d want to see again. If he’s just bad, all the way through, then he’s a cartoon. This guy, while being not a good guy, is interesting. He’s the D.A., in a corrupt time and a corrupt place, which is L.A. in the ‘30s.
In this world, it seems like it’s actually easier to not be a good guy, and that being a good guy takes a little more work.
ROOT: It does. It makes it harder. That’s why I love that ending sequence, in the pilot, where Perry Mason is at his lowest and he goes, “How can I make this all come together?” I thought that was a really important ending to that pilot. He’s interested in this and, hopefully, as a viewer, you’ll also be interested in him finding things and finding things out.
As an actor, you want to make sure that a character is layered, so that it’s interesting for you to play. What did you like about playing this guy? In what ways did you feel he was challenging for you, and how did you keep drawing on that, to make him compelling?
ROOT: It was partly because I got to work with great actors. Matthew [Rhys] is unbelievable. I also got to work with Mr. Lithgow. If you go to the backstory, we belong to the same club and we’ve had cases together, throughout the years, so we are nominal friends, even though we’re always pitted against each other, with him being a defense attorney. It’s a relationship that goes back a long way, so you can beat each other up in court, and then go to the club and buy the other guy a drink because it’s a job. It’s a job that you’re doing. So, they do have some kind of a congenial relationship, and to be able to play that, and then come in and beat his brains out in court, is great fun and adds to the levels.
One of the things that I love about the actors on this show, in general, is that you all make it look easy, when that’s the hard part.
ROOT: That is the hard part!
What’s the fun in getting to work with people, like Matthew Rhys and John Lithgow, and just playing and exploring with actors who become their characters?
ROOT: The hard part of acting is having a cameraman or a grip that’s two inches from your face, and then have someone say, “Okay, be natural. Go ahead.” But the reason this is so good is that you’ve got a whole bunch of seasoned actors that have done this for awhile and who enjoy each other, off and on set. I didn’t know John, before this, but I sure loved getting to know him, and getting to know that he’s a writer, as well as an illustrator and a great actor. When you’re off screen, you also have a chance to bond and, as the shows go on, that helps with the performance itself, and helps you relax and just be what you’re supposed to be.
You also definitely seem like a group who still loves what you’re doing, and you love acting and the craft of it.
ROOT: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s not a job, job. You’re doing it for the love of the material, the people that you get to work with, and the fun of the character that you get to play. Obviously, it is still a job, and you have to show up and do your work, but you could do that on something not nearly as well written and with not nearly the same quality of people. This is one of the good ones.
Much like Perry Mason has his hat, your character has a very specific mustache. What was it like to get to rock such a quality mustache, for this role?
ROOT: I came home with it, from doing a make-up test, and my wife said, “You’ll never see me again,” and left the room. I said, “I understand. It’s quite little Hitler.” But it was very much the style then. Clark Gable had something like that. A whole bunch of movie stars had that kind of small mustache. I got that it would be great. There’s nobody that had beards then. That wasn’t a thing then. It’s just fun to take a look that you would never have now, or even in the ‘50s, when the original came out. It’s a very ‘30s thing. It helps you, as do clothes, as does the beautiful set design, as does everything in this wonderfully done production. It gets you into the mood of being the character.
I also love that, because of the time period, these are people who don’t have computers and cell phones, so when they need to get something done, they have to go out and do the legwork.
ROOT: You betcha. You have to go knock on doors. You can see that, even in the pilot episode. You have to go do your work. We do, and so does Perry.
Barry is also a show that took everyone by surprise, in the best way possible.
ROOT: Oh, thanks. It’s another one of those, getting to work with great people and great scripts and getting to play a character who starts out as an uncle. He’s always been a bad uncle. He just didn’t know he was a bad uncle. So, to be able to go from very, very quiet, “How you doin’, buddy?,” to trying to kill him, is a great challenge for an actor and an arc that is wonderfully fun to play.
When did you realize just how special that show was, and what was it like, after all of these years in the business, to receive your first nomination for that role?
ROOT: Well, it was awesome. That was a complete surprise, and a wonderful one. And it was a shared surprise because pretty much everybody who’s the leads on Barry got a nomination, that year. It was very much a love fest, on that morning. It felt like a win, to us, that we all got nominated. It didn’t matter whether we won or not, but we were recognized for something that we thought was really good, and it was great that other people thought so, too. It was really nice feeling. I’ll never forget being able to go to the Emmys with my wife, and really having a good time.
Had you started filming Season 3 already?
ROOT: We wish we had. We were gonna start April 1st. We had our first table read on the Thursday before the Friday that everything happened. So, we had a table read for the pilot of the third season, and the next day, everything fell apart and we stayed home. And then, by Monday, everything was as you see it. So, I think we’re not probably gonna be doing back until January to do this, but hopefully HBO is going to let the powers that be write Season 4, and maybe we can do those real quick together. We’re gonna try to do that.
Had you been given hints, as to what would happen, over the course of Season 3? Are you aware of where things will go, when you do get back?
ROOT: We’re aware of where they start ’cause we were able to read a couple of scripts, that first day. So, we’re aware of where the season’s gonna start and where everybody starts. We have some idea of what’s gonna go on. Obviously, just for safety’s sake, we haven’t been allowed to look at other scripts, which I get. I think as it gets later in the year, we’ll be able to maybe have some kind of a table read again, whether that’s a Zoom table read or not. I think we’ll be able to get a little more information, when it comes closer to the time of actually doing it. But it’s such a hard thing to even imagine doing because all of the unions have gotta get together on how they wanna do it, and all of the studios have to implement the changes that are gonna happen. In Perry Mason, we had 200 extras, every day, for those courtroom seats. You won’t see that anymore. You’re gonna see smaller scenes with fewer people in them. That’s just the way it’s gonna be for awhile. But I think we’ll manage to do it. I think everybody will do what they have to do to get back to work. We all wanna get back to work. You wanna work on great projects, and you wanna get back to it, at some point, so we’d love to do that . . . We all bonded very quickly, for that show, and continue to do so, as we see each other via Zoom and see how everybody’s doing. That’s another show, where we bonded very quickly. Barry is kind of two shows, with the school and the other half of the show. We do love each other, truly, and we’re really excited about what’s gonna happen in Seasons 3 and 4.
Does it ever get old having people bring up Office Space to you, or is that something you’ve just become used to?
ROOT: No, I’ve become used to it. It started to get old, after about 2010, and then I went, “No, if this is something that people really dig and new generations are seeing it, I should just open myself up to it.” It’s Mike Judge, and I love Mike. And so, now, pretty much every set I go to has a tray of staplers for me to sign, and that’s fine with me. I so love that people are still watching it. New people constantly discover it. I’ll go and do a movie with some younger actors, and we’ll finish and then they’ll [bring it up]. You have to remember that they grew up with that stuff, so it’s great. I’ve come around.
Did you take home the stapler from the set?
ROOT: I stole one, Mike stole one, and we burned up the rest of the room. But I have mine, on my television, on a nice little pedestal, which is different than the one that they’re selling. They ended up making red ones later, but it’s a little bit different model than what our prop department put together. So, yeah, I have one and Mike has one. I hesitate to say that I have one ‘cause then maybe somebody will come and try to take it, but I do. I’ll have to keep it in a safe, after awhile.
You’re also voicing a character for the Masters of the Universe animated series?
ROOT: I’m doing Cringer, yes. My buddy is doing it, so I wanted to be a part of it. It’s not something that I grew up with, but it’s exciting. They’re having some of the original guys come in and record, and Kevin Smith and that generation all grew up with it. If they’re excited, I can get excited about it. It’s as fun as doing Adventure Time, which I didn’t grow up with either, but I think it’s a brilliant, crazy, acid kid’s show, and you’d want to be a part of it.
You’ve had a long career in this business, doing film and TV. When you started out on this career path, what kind of acting career were you hoping to have, and what do you think that younger version of you, starting out, would have thought about the journey that you’ve had?
ROOT: I couldn’t have even conceived of having this kind of career. I started out doing theater, wanting to do theater, and only did theater, until I was in my mid-30s. I didn’t really get into TV and film, until then. I had planned on being, a regional theater actor, and hopefully a Broadway actor, which I got to do a couple or three times, but that was my goal. I wanted to be a working actor in theater. And then, I did a couple of films and a couple of TV things, and that led me to L.A., where I almost had to start over again. No matter how many Broadway shows you’ve done, you’re still the new guy, who’s a guest star on a sitcom. It was interesting, getting to the pinnacle of doing Broadway, and then hearing, “Sorry, you’ve gotta start from the bottom here, on the other coast.” And I did, and that’s fine. I learned through doing film and TV. But I never had a thought, in my mind, of doing film and TV, just theater. That’s really what I wanted to do. I was able to do a lot of Shakespeare. So, I’ve had a couple of great careers, one early and one later.
And you’ve done such a wide variety of characters, over the course of your career.
ROOT: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a working character actor. Some people don’t think that’s a great term, but I think it’s the best term. It means that you can do variable things and you’re more than just be a one-trick pony. I never wanted to be that. I always wanted to do different stuff. Having a background in Shakespeare, it gives you a chance to do different stuff, from comedy to tragedy, and everything in between. So, I’m very proud to be a character actor, as opposed to just one thing.
Perry Mason airs on Sunday nights on HBO.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.