When Matthew Rhys signed to play the titular role on HBO‘s Perry Mason as he evolved from a struggling gumshoe to a newly minted defense attorney, he thought it would be one season and done.
“Then they came in with a strong idea for a second season and I was very open to it,” the Emmy-winning actor (The Americans) says. “When the first season ended, all in the garden seemed rosy; Della Street (Julia Rylance) was [my partner], Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) was in the firm and it was the three musketeers. But I had no interest in suddenly Perry is this great trial lawyer and every season would be a successful trial. They certainly came in with the antithesis of that!”
Below, Rhys pleads his case for Season 2.
How much time has passed since we last saw Perry Mason? What’s the firm’s bread and butter? Do they have enough work to sustain the firm?
Matthew Rhys: About six months have passed and the bread-and-butter cases aren’t sustaining them and that’s proving problematic. Perry [has] imposter syndrome, doubting his own talent, and [is having] a crisis of faith about the judicial system itself. He’s leaving it to Della who’s trying to keep them on track.
How is the relationship among the musketeers, as you put it, when the season opens?
We find them very fractured! Large cracks are appearing, doubt is creeping in and past skeletons are coming forth.
What are those cracks?
When they hired Paul to be their investigator, they realized that, as a black man, his ability to have access is particularly hard. That becomes a point of contention between the two. But during the Depression, where can he go? What else can he do? Della would rather keep him on a more traditional legal path, but it becomes — if you can’t beat them, join them. She takes a far more leading role in the proceedings.
But something big soon comes along to shake up the status quo. According to the HBO press release, “there is a murder of the scion of an oil industry tycoon.” Why does Perry take the case?
In classical script writing, there’s the hero’s call. Something presents itself that comes with an obstacle and he’s very reticent to take that — for what will be apparent reasons. But it’s always the victim that draws Mason in, or more so, the very raw sense of right and wrong. That’s what it always boils down to for him.
Who is the victim according to Perry Mason? Is it the wealthy heir?
It is who presents as the perpetrator that gets him hooked and it starts to unfold from there. The family of the accused [two poor Latino brothers] hire him, but it’s really Perry’s choice. He’s still as stubborn and headstrong as he was in Season 1. I think his choices are always born from his own self as opposed to any kind of financial promise.
It’s 1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and there’s a growing division between the rich and the poor who live in shantytowns, isn’t there?
It parallels what goes on today. But one of the interesting things setting Perry Mason in Depression-era L.A. is that the city was one of the few boomtowns at the time. The entertainment industry was booming because people needed an escape from what was happening. It’s the divide created by wealth that becomes a kind of a mission for Mason, how the judicial system is different for wealthy people from those who aren’t and are.. the injustice that comes with that.
Does the advocate go into the slums, the so-called Hoovervilles?
Yes and immerses himself in a different perspective. He has great empathy because he has that ability to see situations from someone else’s point of view.
On a personal level, there’s an important new woman in Perry’s life, isn’t there?
Yes. Ginny Aimes (Katherine Waterston) becomes an important touchstone, confidante, and ally as he becomes more isolated in his life. She’s a teacher, in many ways, not just for children.
Hmm. Sounds like a potential romance.
Well, Mason being Mason, it’s certainly not straightforward and not without an incredibly bumpy road.
Perry looks quite dashing on his vintage Harley. Did you learn how to drive a 1930s motorcycle?
The motorbike guys brought it in and then they got one of the stuntmen to get on it … They showed exactly how you would start a motorcycle of that time, and then indeed how you ride it. And the decision was made within seconds that this wasn’t going to work.
Do you ride?
I’ve ridden them in various movies, but just starting the vintage bike and riding off would be like an eight-minute montage sequence. So they quickly decided to electrify it. Then it became a lot of fun; it was just a souped-up e-bike.
Did you get hurt?
I didn’t, but I apologize for other people’s toes.
Are you willing to do more Perry Mason seasons? There are 80 books to mine from!
If a pitch comes in for a third where something different is explored… then absolutely. And if Perry made a journey to New York, I would definitely sign on.
Where you live with your family, you mean.
Perry Mason, Season 2 Premiere, Monday, March 6, 9/8c, HBO