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Perry Mason Actor Matthew Rhys on How He’s Handling the 2020 Pandemic
Sweater ($850) and trousers ($840) by Canali; boots ($1,980) by John Lobb.
Every Friday night around dinnertime, the actor Matthew Rhys conducts a ritual in which he mixes himself a vodka martini. He prefers it with olives, and sometimes the big hit of salt from making it lousy with olive juice. On the rare occasion that he’s out of vodka, Rhys will opt for gin, but he’s cautious: There’s a reason it’s called “mother’s ruin.” It’s not his first drink of the week. In the past several months, Rhys and his partner, the actor Keri Russell, who joins him for this languid ceremony, have taken to drinking Pomerol, a merlot from the Bordeaux region. But the martini is a mile marker—another week of this god-awful year of pandemic and death and turmoil in the books.
“I try to keep this bizarre, futile sense of Oh, it’s Friday night at 6:00 p.m.; I’ll have a martini. The fucking week is done,” he says.
Matthew Rhys, photographed at a home in upstate New York in August, starred in one of the summer’s sleeper hits: HBO’s Perry Mason. Coat ($4,900) by Fendi; turtleneck ($1,375) by Loro Pianoa; trousers ($1,625), part of a suit by Boglioli; boots ($358) by the Frye Company.
Rhys, forty-five, is Welsh, so everything he says has a lyrical lilt, as if Dylan Thomas (minus about one million packs of unfiltered Camels) were telling you about the intimate details of his life. He’s also grown a beard, a big one, starting from the very early days of this pandemic. It lends itself in a perverse way to the type of actor Rhys has turned into. He’s come to embody characters who are wrestling with disillusionment and searching for hope. A Soviet spy who falls in love with his suburban American lifestyle (The Americans). The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers (The Post). An Esquire magazine writer in the throes of an existential crisis (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). A lowlife drunk riddled with PTSD (Perry Mason). It’s the kind of résumé that assures viewers that whatever Rhys chooses to be in must be good. There are also echoes of the American experience in these roles, which Rhys acknowledges.
Coat ($4,900), jacket ($2,200), shirt ($790), and trousers ($950) by Gucci; boots ($385) by Wolverine; socks, Rhys’s own.
“Growing up, I think we always associated America with hope—the pictures, the TV shows: Anything is possible, justice is always served, and therefore there’s hope,” he tells me when we spoke about six weeks before the presidential election. “I’m not so sure these days.”
“Growing up, I think we always associated America with hope—the pictures, the TV shows: Anything is possible, justice is always served, and therefore there’s hope,” Rhys says. Coat ($21,900), turtleneck sweater ($900), and trousers ($1,300) by Hermes.
For nearly everyone in Hollywood, including Rhys, 2020 has been quiet. Filming for HBO’s Perry Mason wrapped in late January, just before everything shut down. In March, Rhys, Russell, and their three children—one together, two from her previous marriage—headed north from their home in Brooklyn to a house in the Catskill Mountains. They remained in the mountains for six months, hence the beard.
Rhys has grown an epic quarantine beard. Turtleneck sweater ($1,375) by Loro Piana.
As it was for most families, the early part of quarantine was chaos for the Rhys-Russells, as they adapted, practically overnight, to homeschooling. “We had three kids on three screens, and it was just this perennial bargaining to keep them there for their allotted time,” he says. “Then school finished, and we felt this great sense of freedom.” There were scripts to read and Zoom calls about potential projects, but much of the time was given over to exploring the outdoors. “I feel like I’ve done my greatest canon of work in the Catskill Mountains, as I’ve played the part of more superheroes during the day than anyone I know,” he says. “To stave off screens or boredom, you’re always trying to come up with something new or imaginative. What small house can we build to catch a fairy?”
Rhys is an attentive dad. At one point his four-year-old son interrupted our interview.
“I said a bad word.”
“I said ‘shit.’ ”
“Okay, well, let’s not say it again.”
Every Friday night at dinnertime, Rhys makes himself a cold martini. Coat ($6,995) and trousers ($1,295) by Ralph Lauren; T-shirt ($68) by Taylor Stitch; boots ($1,980) by John Lobb.
He also does the bargaining with his partner that all dads know. Time has always been a precious resource for parents, but in the pandemic, with no break from the onslaught of requests from children, it has become an even rarer gem. So parents negotiate with each other. If I distract the kids for a while, can I have some time for myself? “I’ll say to Keri: ‘I’ll take them to the lake for a couple hours,’ which was basically just a precursor to saying, ‘If I take them out of this house for two hours, can I please have maybe an hour and a half, or two hours, for myself to go run up a hill?’”
Rhys says some of his best work has happened while attempting to entertain his kids. “To stave off screens or boredom, you’re always trying to come up with something new or imaginative. What small house can we build to catch a fairy?” He says. Jacket ($2,550), shirt ($735), and trousers ($1,260) by Prada; shoes ($1,020) by Thom Browne.
Now back in Brooklyn, and with Hollywood still figuring out how to make entertainment amid an out-of-control pandemic, Rhys is settling into his role as a Matthew Rhys character, minus the tragic backstory. A Matthew Rhys character for the rest of us. His agenda includes filming the second season of Perry Mason next year, seeing the kids through another school year, and finishing the renovation of his ninety-year-old boat. Not in that order.
Rhys is restoring an old boat he hopes to have seaworthy this fall. “I’ve had more setbacks than the Democrats,” he says of his shipwrighting efforts. Coat, sweater ($1,995), and trousers ($1,195) by Giorgio Armani; boots ($385) by Wolverine.
About that boat. It’s from the 1930s, and there are only four like it in the world. The most famous of them is named Pilar, which Ernest Hemingway acquired with the help of Esquire magazine. (Esquire’s founding editor lent Hemingway money to purchase the boat, then used that as leverage to persuade him to write for the magazine; it now sits in dry dock outside Havana.) Rhys’s boat is named Rabbit; he bought it three years ago and is nearly done restoring it. “I’ve had more setbacks than the Democrats,” he says of his shipwrighting efforts. With some luck, Rabbit will be seaworthy this fall. He has considered making it a charter, complete with a 1930s Hemingway experience with gramophones and cocktails. Rhys might even serve the drinks, dyeing his beard white so it becomes Hemingwayesque.
Coat ($2,995), suit ($2,545), shirt ($545), and boots ($1,445) by Dolce & Gabbana; socks, Rhys’s own.
“So, I’m telling Keri,” he explains, “ ‘Look, this beard is now a part of the charter experience. I don’t have a choice about shaving it. I have to grow it . . . in earnest.’ ”
He pauses for a moment, allowing the full weight of his Hemingway pun to land.
“She thinks that’s a terrible fucking joke.”
Photography by Sebastian Kim. Styling by Nick Sullivan.
This story appears in the October/November 2020 issue of Esquire. Subscribe here.
Michael Sebastian was named editor-in-chief of Esquire in June 2019 where he oversees print and digital content, strategy and operations.
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