'Perry Mason' Reboot Is No Rerun: This Is A 'Very Dark' Take, Says Matthew Rhys | KALW

'Perry Mason' Reboot Is No Rerun: This Is A 'Very Dark' Take, Says Matthew Rhys

Jun 20, 2020

When actor Matthew Rhys first found out about plans to reboot the legal drama Perry Mason his first question was: Why?

"Why would you? How can you?" says Rhys, who stars in the new HBO show.

This Perry Mason is no rerun of your grandfather's Perry Mason from the 1960s. He's not a sharply creased L.A. defense lawyer, with a voice that booms in wood-paneled courtrooms.

No, this is "a very dark Perry Mason to which I was instantly very attracted," Rhys says.

The series is based on Erle Stanley Gardner's detective stories. Perry Mason is a seamy and slovenly private eye in 1932 Los Angeles who takes snaps of the private lives of stars to extort studio executives. Drunk, profane and unprincipled, he seems to be an unloving father and an uncaring lover — until a kidnapping case cracks his hard-boiled heart.


Interview Highlights

On Los Angeles in the 1930s

The rest of the United States was struggling enormously with the depression. And there was this boomtown ... of show business emerging in Los Angeles. So there was this great divide. ...

The way they set Mason within that — that he was this kind of leftover of a pioneer family that's inherited this land with this encroaching monster of modernity that is the new L.A. — and he doesn't quite fit in in a number of respects.

On being from Wales and finding the American detective "exotic"

The American hard-boiled [detective] — especially 1930s private eye — is something so exotic to me that I felt there was a number of times when I was flicking a cigarette or, you know, adjusting my fedora and trying not impersonate Humphrey Bogart. I was really living out some some childhood dreams.

On having to take on different accents for his roles

[In The Americans,] Philip Jennings' American accent was a godsend and possibly the only time ever in my career where I would be playing a foreigner, trying to impersonate an American, which I've been trying to do diligently for some time. ...

I've been fortunate to play [Welsh poet] Dylan Thomas many years ago in a movie, but the dichotomy of Thomas was Dylan was obsessed with the English spoken word, and his own father, who was an English teacher, professed to him that ... he must almost lose his Welsh accent.

So Thomas would often listen to the BBC World Service and try to affect these very plummy English sounds. And I remember the first time I listened to Dylan Thomas on a vinyl recording ... I was shocked because I imagined in my own naïve way that he would have this very broad Welsh accent. But it was an incredibly rounded English accent that he worked so hard to perfect.

On the way justice is depicted in the new Perry Mason

Life lives in the gray, regardless of how much belief we have — ultimately rose-tinted or not — in the word justice, and that [justice] will ultimately always be served. The course of justice and the way it comes about is often incredibly gray. And that's certainly what I was attracted to in this project. ... Mason, he isn't this iconic servant of justice. He does a number of things in a very wrong, wrong way at times. And what I hope is that you'll challenge where right and wrong lives.

Sophia Boyd and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new "Perry Mason" on HBO is no rerun of your grandfather's "Perry Mason" from the 1960s. He's not a sharply creased LA defense lawyer with a voice that brooms in wood-paneled courtrooms. No. The origin story of Erle Stanley Gardner's character is a seamy and slovenly private eye in 1932 Los Angeles who takes snaps of the private lives of stars to extort studio executives. He seems to be an unloving father, uncaring lover, drunk, profane and unprincipled. But then a kidnapping case cracks his hard-boiled heart. The new Perry Mason is Matthew Rhys, who won an Emmy for his role in "The Americans." He's also a producer of the series, which stars Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and many more. Matthew Rhys joins us from somewhere in the Catskills. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATTHEW RHYS: Not at all. It's a true pleasure. And I don't know who wrote that hardball description of "Perry Mason," but I wish I'd had that before filming. I would've known what to do (laughter).

SIMON: Well, thank you. Coming from a great Welsh artist, that's a compliment. Perry is a hard guy to like at first, isn't he?

RHYS: He is. Certainly one of the reasons I was drawn to him on this journey when they said, we're going to remake "Perry Mason," I thought, my first - truly, my first question was, why would you? How can you? But very quickly and swiftly, Team Downey, the producing team of Robert Downey Jr. and his wife, Susan, pitched a very dark "Perry Mason" to which I was instantly very attracted.

SIMON: Well, tell us about this Los Angeles of the 1930s, which I must say is as much a star as Perry Mason.

RHYS: You know, there was this incredibly iconic city, which I think is almost at its best in that noir sense because it lends so much - and that, obviously, the rest the United States was struggling enormously with the depression. And there was this boomtown, this kind of Klondike of show business emerging in Los Angeles. So there was this great divide between what was LA and certainly what was the rest of the country. And the way they set Mason within that - that he was this kind of, you know, leftover of a pioneer family that's been - it's inherited this land with this encroaching monster of modernity that is the new LA. And he doesn't quite fit in in a number of respects.

SIMON: Of all people, it's a craven studio executive who tells Perry Mason, you need to decide what kind of person you want to be. Does that pierce him in a certain way?

RHYS: I'm not sure if it pierces him in as much as it kind of reminds him that he's struggling with that element. One of the things I loved about this script is that I think we find a very lost Perry Mason. You know, they made him a veteran of the First World War, a kind of a failing father, if you will. To my mind, he makes a good private investigator because he doesn't fit in in any way. His family have abandoned him. Or, you know, through his own failings, you know, these almost forced them to abandon him. So he's a great observer of others.

SIMON: Do you think it's possible that you have a particular appreciation for the hard-boiled American private eye because you grew up elsewhere?

RHYS: Absolutely. The American hardball, especially 1930s private eye, is something so exotic to me that it was - I felt there was a number of times when I was flicking a cigarette or, you know, adjusting my fedora and trying not to impersonate Humphrey Bogart.

SIMON: (Laughter).

RHYS: I was really living out some childhood dreams.

SIMON: Do you - of course, you were so well-rounded as Philip Jennings in "The Americans." Does taking on an accent help you take on a character, too?

RHYS: Yes. And the short answer - yes. And, you know, there was the taking of - (laughter) Philip Jennings' American accent was a godsend and possibly the only time ever in my career where I would be playing a foreigner trying to impersonate an American, which I've been trying to do diligently for some time. I found it a little hard for other reasons.

SIMON: So do you ever want to play, like, Dylan Thomas or St. Cadoc or some other Welsh guy?

RHYS: I've been fortunate to play Dylan Thomas many years ago in a movie. But the dichotomy of Thomas was Dylan was obsessed with the English spoken word. And his own father, who was an English teacher, professed to him that if he was to make his way in life in the chosen field that he wanted to do, he must almost lose his Welsh accent. So Thomas would often listen to the BBC World Service and try to affect these very plummy English sounds. And I remember the first time I listened to Dylan Thomas on a vinyl recording of my own accord. I was shocked because I imagined in my own naive way that he would have this very broad Welsh accent. But it was an incredibly rounded English accent that he worked so hard to perfect.

SIMON: What do you hope people will discover in the new "Perry Mason?" So many, you know, people remember the guy in black and white but this is a really fully formed character.

RHYS: Yes. It's something that I believe producers, writers, myself and everyone else was striving for - is that, you know, life lives in the gray. Regardless of how much belief, you know, we have, ultimately rose tinted or not in the word justice and it'll ultimately always be served, the course of justice and the way it comes about is often incredibly gray. And that's certainly what I was attracted to in this project. I - just to speak about Mason, he isn't this iconic servant of justice. He does a number of things in a very wrong (laughter) way at times. And what I hope is that you're challenged where right and wrong lives.

SIMON: Matthew Rhys is the new Perry Mason tomorrow and for weeks to come on HBO. Thanks so much for being with us.

RHYS: Thank you. Incredible pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.