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Matthew Rhys Breaks Down the ‘Perry Mason’ Finale and Teases Season 2
Matthew Rhys might be lost. It’s not even clear where he’s going or why he’s driving, actually. He calls via the built-in bluetooth in his car to talk about the Perry Mason finale, a few days before its Sunday night premiere on HBO. There’s a couple very long, somewhat awkward pauses at the beginning of the conversation, and the trace of a just-made-a-wrong-turn huff from Rhys. God-willing, inane questions about a lawyer from a hundred years ago do not get Matthew Rhys lost on his road to somewhere.
Anyway. Rhys is shouting into the void of his car because Perry Mason, a reboot of a court procedural from the ’50s, somehow resonated with a 2020 audience. Perry Mason premiered in June to 1.7 million viewers, making it the best debut night of any HBO series in nearly two years. In the series’ eight episodes (another season is already development), we’ve followed Mason’s origin story, going from from a drunk off his ass detective to Atticus Finch, seeking justice for the murder of a baby boy in 1930s Los Angeles.
Seriously, though: How did Mr. Mason click with viewers who were already beaten to a pulp long before June? Well, Perry gets his ass beat. Quite a few times. Punched in the gut by at least five different people. At a graveyard. In a phone booth. Behind a brothel. He stress-eats. Constantly. Big munch on a giant fucking 1930s hamburger. A piece of pie, looks like apple. Yum. Food is thrown at him. Also a shoe. He has sex with such gusto that he slides off his bed, stuck in the death trap between the bed frame and the wall. Perry is so goddamn tired of the recession, done with a beyond-flawed criminal justice system, and just so sad that he stares into space for at least 30 collective minutes of screentime.
In other words: We are all Perry.
On Matthew Rhys’s great, boundless drive to somewhere, we called him up to figure out how he became the Perry Mason America needed. (And, yeah, to break down the finale.)
ESQUIRE: Is Perry Mason supposed to be a foodie? You have the massive burger, the pie at the diner, he gets food thrown on him. Was that something that was written in?
Matthew Rhys: Some were and some weren’t.
ESQ: Was the burger good?
MR: Yeah it was an impossible burger. But I had like nine. I have this thing about live actors eating on TV and film. It’s like you never really see them. Everyone’s always chewing on a bit of lettuce. You never really see the actors eat. And I said to Tim Van Patten, the director, “I really want to eat the burger in the stand.” Because he was like, “You can just be ordering it, finishing it, putting it away.” I said, “No, I want to eat, you never see actors eat!” He was like,”I want to shoot this in a two-shot which means you can’t cut away. There’s no spit bucket and there’s no cut. You could potentially eat a lot of burgers. I was like, “I’m in. Oh yeah.” I had like nine burgers that day.
ESQ: Is there a mindset to get into for being drunk as Perry Mason?
MR: No, not really. It’s one of the things I’ve always struggled with as an actor which is—and I think you see actors struggle with it—it’s a tough one to pull off credibly. So it’s all mimicry with me on the drunk stuff. I just try to impersonate more than anyone. And it’s real trial by error. I don’t actually watch myself anymore. But when I used to, the drunk stuff used to kind of haunt me because it just has to be subtle. And if you do it wrong, it stands out a mile, you know?
ESQ: The final speech that Perry gives in the courtroom is operating on two levels. One, how we react to tragedy, and two, the bit about finding truth and seeking justice. What was your experience filming that scene? Because it completes Perry’s arc in the show, in a way.
MR: It was sort of terrified because the whole eight episodes build toward this summation. And they didn’t put pressure on me, but they were like, they would quote information like in A Few Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. So I was like, Oh, Jesus Christ. I was putting the pressure on myself going, Oh they really want like a huge television moment. So [Perry Mason’s writers] kept rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. And we were getting close to the day of shooting and I was like, “Look guys, I need that information, I need to start learning it, because we’re getting down to the wire now.”
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So it was a lot of pressure because everyone’s awaiting the end of the arc with Perry. You’ve seen him go through all these things. And also you know you want to know where you can land it because you don’t all the sudden want to be somebody different than you’ve been the entire eight episodes. It has to be his natural progression. The one thing I loved about the motivation they gave him was from the backstory of his time in World War I, when he was served such an injustice that set him on this path in his life where he can’t pack up any injustice that he has a hand in potentially changing. So it is this huge moment where he’s evolved, he’s taken on this thing he didn’t want to take on, he’s a reluctant trial lawyer. And then he knows it’s his one shot at getting this innocent woman off. So, you know, as an actor it’s my one shot, trying to prove to an audience that I’ve turned into a trial lawyer [laughs].
ESQ: Do you think Perry’s demons will continue to haunt him? Or has he shed a lot of his baggage this season?
MR: I personally think he’s gonna shed a lot. The first season is a real catharsis for him. He finally finds a place. I think he’s spent a long time, especially since the war, being this loner, this outsider, which possibly makes him a good private investigator because he’s always looking in. Finally, [Mason’s] rage and resentment about injustice—I know it’s rather obvious but he realizes how he can channel all of that into redeeming himself.
ESQ: The trial ends with no justice really being served—which is interesting, because Perry Mason came out when we really started coming to terms with how flawed America’s criminal justice system is. What do you think the show says about our justice system in America today?
MR: I would get a little reticent, because I am an outsider looking in and it isn’t said with any degree of the UK having a very judicial service. In the research I did for Perry Mason, I thought, Wow, there is a number of things. Not just judicial elements, but race, and policing, and everything else. Then you think, Wow, really nothing has changed. And then the great irony was when the show came to air, there was this great movement of change sweeping the country. It’s easy to watch Perry Mason and say, God, there’s still so much the same in the 1930s. You’d be very depressed. But I think the fact that there is all this verging change I think is a great hope.
ESQ: It was an interesting choice to end on that conversation between Perry and Sister Alice because, because it’s a conversation about faith and hope. What was your read of what was going on between them in that scene?
MR: There’s been this cat and mouse—psychologically, not necessarily physically—between the two. To a degree I think they were both very intrigued by each other. Although you wrap up a number of things with the case, [there’s] this one big element for Perry where he’s like, Who was that woman? What was that about? For his own reasons, he realizes he’s becoming someone, and a chapter in his life is closing and another one opening. There’s a big part of him that just wants to know, What were you doing? Was the whole thing a scam, or who are you? Because I think he sees so much of himself in her, to a degree.
ESQ: That almost translates to the last image of him blowing away the piece of stitching he has in the matchbox.
MR: Yeah. I love that, and it kind of placed this huge clue so heavily that you keep thinking it’s going to become this pivotal thing. I love when you watch drama and you kind of go, Some things don’t work out. Some things aren’t linear, aren’t black and white and as obvious as some things are. I always love that in storytelling.
ESQ: Going forward, you have this super-team that at the end with Della Street, Paul Drake and Perry. What do you expect for the second season with that group?
MR: I kind of hope they don’t become a super-team. What I love about them is they’re this group of outsiders that are united by that fact. One more thing that draws for me about Mason was how flawed he is, and how wrong he gets things, and how difficult he finds things. I hope that continues. I hope all of a sudden we don’t see him as this incredible trial lawyer and everything’s rosy, you know?
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ESQ: You’re known to pull pranks on set—did you have a favorite one that you pulled during Perry Mason?
MR: They were all off-the-cuff stuff. When Robert Patrick was on the stand, right at the end of my cross-examination, I would go, “Ladies and gentlemen… the T-1000!”
ESQ: Has there been any progress on getting your blue Twitter check?
MR: No. Now, my mind is like, You’ve gotta get your Twitter account verified! But no. The more people tell me to do it, the more I don’t want to. I just enjoy that element. ‘Cause this weird thing a few weeks ago where like verified people couldn’t tweet. Is that right?
ESQ: Mhm, yeah. Something like that for like a couple hours.
MR: And then, someone tweeted, like, “You’re unverified, you can still tweet, you feel vindicated!” I was like, yes!
ESQ: I’ll tell you—I love the push-up videos you do for mental health awareness.
MR: I… listen. One week, everyone keeps saying, who are you gonna nominate? I was like, “I’m gonna nominate no one to do 25 push-ups.” This is all that’s happened: You’re lying in bed at the end of the day and you go, Aw shit, I didn’t do the push-ups. I spent the whole month doing that. I’m always doing yesterday’s.
ESQ: I love that. I probably could not do 25 myself, for the record.
MR: I’ve actually done so many reps of 50, ‘cause the amount of times I hit the button and think it’s recording, and then seeing that it hasn’t, I’m like, Aw, you fuck!
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