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Matthew Rhys On Going Noir And The Construction Of An Entirely New Perry Mason

So much of our filmed history glorifies the hero, knuckles raw, standing tall, victorious in their fight against the forces of evil. Fiction’s great. But as we’ve learned over the years, the end result isn’t nearly as interesting as the journey. And that’s what we’re being asked to watch with HBO’s Perry Mason (which debuts Sunday at 9PM). Known for a very different kind of fight, Mason was a master of the courtroom and a champion for the falsely accused in another life, portrayed by Raymond Burr for decades (ask your mom). This version? It’s complicated.

Played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood), this Mason is years away from the more familiar version, the center of a remake that mostly tosses aside dozens of novels and decades of established TV history to start from the ground up. Or is it rock bottom? A haunted and flailing gumshoe, Rhys’ Mason catches a case that’s as horrific as it is a winding road leading to all kinds of dark corners that he’d probably best avoid. But he doesn’t — much to his detriment. And yet Perry Mason gets back up, dusts himself off, and readies for the next setback. It’s an aspect that feels inspirational in a cockeyed kinda way and it seems like something that drew Rhys to the role — this idea of someone who has been pressed by life but who maintains his interest in the fight.

We spoke with the Welsh-born actor about that and all things Mason, the thread that runs through his work, and whether he’s feeling restless or at peace with some time off the road.

I was really fascinated by the trip you took to Patagonia and that adventure [Rhys retraced a 400-mile trek on horseback some years ago]. Seeing that, The Wine Show… With everything going on with COVID, I imagine you’re getting quite restless. And are you keeping up with your photography?

Maybe I’m saying this in spite of everything, but you spend so much time on the road in this business. You spend so much time away from your family that these days of lockdown have seemed to be a little luxury to spend that much time with the family. So I have enjoyed that, I really haven’t kept up with photography more than just the iPhone and the kids. But yeah, I’m sure, the bug will come again and I’ll pack a case. But having spent so much time being away from home, it’s actually nice just hunkering down for a moment.

Does that change your perspective going forward when things get back to normal? Are you less likely to be on the road as much and maybe try to stay home more?

Yeah. I would love to. I would love to spend more time at home. But at this time, you think you kind of got to go where the work is, really. In an ideal world, I’d love to spend more time at home, but when the green light comes again, you have to go wherever the going is.

What was your relationship to the history of the Perry Mason character, the TV show, and the novels growing up in Wales?

It was very huge in Britain. It’s strange, it was one of those shows that you’re incredibly aware of… or that I was very incredibly aware of while going, “Have I actually watched an episode of it?” It was always something that was on, you were always aware of it. And I had this vague memory that people confess on the stand and that’s about it.

The remake has a long history [with producer Robert Downey Jr. initially set to star]. When you come aboard, how does the collaboration work as you’re trying to find the character with something that maybe was already kind of sketched out?

When Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, the two writers, initially pitched their idea with Team Downey on what this series was going to be and who this person was, from the very beginning they were incredibly open and collaborative about saying, “We want to build this with you. Where do your interests lie in this character, what do you want to see magnified or bulked or beefed up and what can we change?” So that to me was kind of a revelation to be able to work in that way, very closely with them and kind of build this character with them, even the more physical aspects of the costume as well. So they were incredibly collaborative.

What’s the difference when you’re building a character that’s based on someone who is real versus someone who is an iconic character (even though you’re rewriting it)?

Well, obviously the fictional character is a lot more liberating. Especially playing people who are still alive that I’ve kind of formed relationships with, like Daniel Ellsberg (The Post) and Tom Junod (Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood). I certainly felt an enormous degree of responsibility playing them, especially the stories that they had. I certainly didn’t want to do them a disservice. And so, with the more fictional characters, you let your imagination run rampant within reason. And you can kind of — if you’re working as collaboratively as you are with the writers like we had — you can lend yourself to those elements that interest you more. So the sky’s the limit, really.

Does he have a code? Does he have a belief system at the start?

I think he has an absolute rock-solid belief system. One of the elements that really drew me to him. I think he feels he’s been served such injustice and he’s also witness to so much injustice. You always think about why shows, detective shows, legal shows, cop shows do so well it’s because I think that… and this is my own kind of schoolboy armchair philosophy, that innately there’s this great… you have this hope that justice will always prevail. Which is why I think it’s reassuring to tune in every week to see someone serve justice. And so he has his one kind of very true guiding north star, which is what’s right, and you have to do what’s right. His ways and means of doing that can be heavily criticized. But I think he’s led by that one thing, one belief about what is right. And if it’s right, then it has to be done. That was a big appeal to me about him.

I’m looking at headlines and comments about you. That you have “a relationship to playing masculine frailty and defect.” The New York Times said that. The Ringer said you’re “the king of vulnerability.” With all these things, it’s a picture. Do you run away from that? Do you run towards it? How do you feel about that general view of your work?

[Laughs] I mean I don’t… I’m kind of slightly… I have no real attitude towards it. Because at the end of the day, all I want to do is play people that interest me or [be involved with] projects and stories that interest me. The kind of more one-dimensional people isn’t that interesting.

Do you examine why those things are interesting to you? Because there is a thread that runs through some of these characters.

No, I just find the human condition interesting. And usually when the condition is in conflict, especially internally it tends to be more interesting than, you know, the outer conflicts. The outer conflicts dramaturgically tend to fuel those in a way that then it becomes interesting. But I’m not that interested in the kind of more one-dimensional heroic aspects of masculinity. I think that’s kind of been done. I’m interested in how people arrive at where they are. That was another thing the writers did, when you meet Mason, an inordinate amount of things have happened to him to present him to you in that moment. And that to me was very interesting, that whole thing of his own family and he’s presented a case about a dead boy. He’s a World War I veteran, he’s losing this kind of family heirloom in the farm. So there are all these things, and all his bases incredibly loaded when you first meet him. And I thought that would be interesting to play.

Obviously the storyline is very heavy, but this had to be a lot of fun, right? To step into those shoes and the costumes and that era.

Absolutely. It was a huge part of the kind of boyhood fantasy from growing up with those old movies and those iconic film stars. And kind of ticking a kind of Chandleresque box. I get to wear the fedora and flick the cigarette butt and drive the car and shoot the gun. And almost say, “Here’s looking at you kid.” In fact it’s hard sometimes, I found myself impersonating Bogart, and you’re like, “Oof, I got to stop that.”

Your American accent is well-traveled at this point in a lot of different roles. Is there an effort to try to change that or tweak that in any kind of way [for this]? Or do you just kind of stick with what you’ve done? I imagine it’s very hard to keep that going.

It can be, and you can fall into ruts as well, which you know, you do one thing for six years and it’s hard to kind of break. With Mason, I tried to… Tim Van Patten, the director, and Shea Whigham [who co-stars as Mason’s partner] have some very strong New York sounds naturally in their own dialects. It’s my own Achilles heel that I tend to mimic people too much because I’m always kind of trying to hold an American sound. And I would find myself mimicking their New York sound. I’d find that coming out and would have to remind myself that Mason was born and raised Southern Californian.

Funny enough, Ron and Rolin worked with a historian who kind of specialized to a degree in the kind of linguistic history. So they would pack the script at times with phrases and sayings of the time that were usually held at the time certainly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. And at times it was hard enough to be kind of pulled out because those moments… I said I was finding it hard to not to impersonate Bogart. It was those moments where finding the tone of the piece was a little difficult for me at the beginning because you’re trying to kind of skate a fine line of making these people very believable to a modern audience who will watch it on television, but ultimately reminding them that it is a period piece. And then in those moments when we would use kind of idioms of the time, it was hard not to kind of send it up and sound like you’re doing a bad Bogey impression. So it was making those moments kind of more seamless and naturalistic that took kind of extra agility.

There was such a long relationship with the character 30, 40 years from the TV show to the movies and stuff [for Raymond Burr]. Do you want to grow with this character and play him… a different version of him in 15 or 20 years? Or do you want to just stop once we get to the point where there is some public consciousness of who he is as a lawyer?

It’s like any kind of long thing. I’ve been very fortunate with the shows that I’ve done in that the writing has certainly kept evolving. I think it’s hard to do that over a number of years without kind of pushing the envelope somewhat. So listen, I will always go where the writing is, and if the writing continues to intrigue me or challenge me, then you could find me here 15 years from now going, “Who knew it would end up like this?”

‘Perry Mason’ debuts Sunday on HBO at 9PM ET