Home TVInterviews Interview: Perry Mason’s Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin and Shea Whigham

Interview: Perry Mason’s Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin and Shea Whigham

by Leora Heilbronn

The most important pairing, which was in this case a tripling from when Brief Take was the Canadian exclusive outlet selected to participate in the press junket for HBO’s Perry Mason, was this amazing grouping of Chris Chalk (who plays the very important role of Paul Drake, a (Black) cop in the 1930s), as well as Shea Whigham (a classic character actor from Boardwalk Empire, The Silver Linings Playbook and True Detective), and Gayle Rankin (from whom we will may hear a little bit more later). For now, enjoy but also listen closely to what Chalk has to say about the experience and gather why this Team Downey and Timothy Van Patten HBO series is absolutely necessary to be watched right now.

My sincerest efforts to have you read this important condensed and edited tripling of Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham and Gayle Rankin, from the Perry Mason Zoom junket press day.

What was your first reaction when you first read the script?

Chris Chalk: My first reaction to the script was that I was really taken aback. I read the first script and then they gave me portions of what Paul does that were written, which have evolved since, and I was really excited, not only because it was a period piece, but it was a period piece with me in it, meaning Black people and not the fact that I was in it. It’s just so specifically and honourably taken care of, both in character development, script development, the world being created that I was very much excited to read about in the script, and then even more so when I met with Tim (Van Patten) and we discussed Paul even further, and that made it even more exciting because of where he intended it for it to go.

How do you think viewers will react to the show now that it’s being released during a time of great upheaval in the world?

GR: I think it’s hard, especially with everything that’s happening in the world, and living through this reckoning that humanity is going through and not have some kind of reaction to it. It’s exciting, I think. We’re really lucky to be involved with something that is dealing in such large truth that you can’t help but relate to it, in the current moment, in relationship to the past, in relation and hope for the future. So I think people will absolutely watch this series and be ruminating and engaging with their lives as they are right now, as we all are very much facing right now. That’s answering your question, I think.

CC: I’m with Gayle. Because we tell the story so honestly, people will enjoy it. I think that we do not shy away from any of the horrible truths that we’re talking about that happen in our show. It’s kind of the best way to come into this perhaps. If you’re going to come in with some noir thriller that involves the police, best that you talk about the abuse of authority, and luckily we do. [laughs]

The show is set in the 1930s but many of the issues are just as relevant today. Are you surprised at how little has changed in so many decades?

GR: I’m heartbroken consistently and sad at how little has changed. Humanity is such a crazy thing, you know? We’re constantly trying to shed so much fear and so much pain all the time, and it happens to such a small degree. Obama talked about a ship – you can’t turn a ship ninety degrees by such small, small degrees. I would only just say that I’m sad by how little things have changed. I’m not necessarily surprised but the specificities of it are always illuminating. Chris, what would you like to say?

CC: I grew up in North Carolina, I’m not that old and that Klan used to march across my yard. The world is what it was when I was born and it was that for my mother and it was that for her mother, we were just in different forms of servitude. So no, I’m not surprised. I want to say this, the world has changed a lot, like I’m in this room with all of you. We’re all in this room together and we’re all from different places talking about a common thing without cutting, killing, raping or hurting one another. The world has changed a lot, it’s just not about things that matter. [laughs] Unfortunately, a country built on racism, it’s a hard thing to unravel. I think we are just now in this time asking useful questions to unravel said system. So as Gayle was saying, it takes time to right a ship that was hellbent on doing the wrong thing from the start…and I got lost in my answer. It’s always good to stop when you forget what you’re saying.

Chris, how did you react when you saw that the character of Paul Drake was changed to be that of a Black man?

CC: The way I reacted when I saw that Paul was a Black dude was, because I’m a child though, like “oh shit! Wow! OK”. I mean that’s the truth. I could give you a bullshit “I was very contemplative”, but no, I went “oh shit, HBO is trying to tell a real story, let me read it.” It deals with real shit that I’ve dealt with, that my mother, grandmother have dealt with. At first I was a little nervous. I was like “oh wait, I don’t know how they’re going to do it”, you know what I mean? Because ultimately it’s still a lot of white people telling this story. I’m involved in it, but Tim, an honourable and loving man, but I hadn’t known him yet, so I was like “still a white guy”. When I met Tim Van Patten, I knew I was safe. I met him in his home in New York, when I lived in New York, and we sat and we talked, and we talked about race in a way that was not self-conscious or fearful, and we talked about the placement of Paul Drake’s narrative in the story and how much weight and relevance it will hold in what he’s attempting to accomplish with this story, and I’ve got to say that he honoured his promise. He’s telling the truth and he intended to tell the truth, and I only tell the truth, I mean I’d probably get fired if someone wanted me not to tell the truth, so I’m lucky in that. But Tim is so supportive of what is honest and what is real and he always wants to peel it back, and peel it back, and peel it back to an even more honest possibility. It’s a lucky thing to be a part of a team like that. I think I ran off with your question a bit but in that moment, I felt blessed to know Tim. The show itself reflects today’s reality because there was a recession, racism is at a peak, and police violence has run rampant, and if you turn on the news, it’s the same but with not as good costumes. [laughs] It’s all the same stuff but with bigger guns, more anger, more connection, which will hopefully be the thing – that we’re all seeing these awful things. In the 1930s there was no teleconferencing, the news was more limited, but luckily, in today’s day and age, we all get to sit down and watch these atrocities and everyone with a human heart is like “hey, that’s pretty bad” [laughs], and we’re hoping to effect change. Hopefully this show is a part of a conversation that will be part of whatever evolves us to a place of…to stop pretending there isn’t more than one race.

Brief Take: Shea, on Homecoming there was a day on set in which you literally saved Julia Roberts’ life and Chris, I imagine on When They See Us and Gayle, with Her Smell and GLOW, those are very honest and collaborative sets. Can you talk a little about the atmosphere on this set and your most memorable day working on Perry Mason

CC: I love that!

GR: Aww, that’s so nice! Chris, can you go first?

CC: Oh shit! I have to go first on my most memorable day? That’s the hardest! Umm, it is nice to reflect on what you said. I’ll speak for myself, I am lucky to be a part of a lot of very collaborative sets. Of course there are some that are peppered throughout that are like “oh I’m a prop. I’m just going to do my job.” I can think of a few like that. My favourite day on set…oh it wasn’t on set. Oh shit. Oh this is so hard! I’m going to go with the table read. Our first table read, which was our only table read, where we read I think three episodes. To sit around and look and be like “I know his work, I know her work, I know her work, I know his work, oh!”, and it was another “oh shit” moment, honestly. Looking around and from top to bottom there are veterans and such skillful people in front of and behind the camera. So it’s so shitty to say but every day was a favourite day. Ooh, bad answer. Gayle, what was your favourite day?

GR: My favourite day was—and thank you for giving me some time to think about it, Chris—it sounds cliche but I think a lot of us were on set this day, the day that Matthew gave his summation. That was the day. That was a cool day, I thought.

CC: Awww.

GR: It felt very thrilling. We had come to some kind of end and everyone’s energy, we had shot it, maybe it was the last day. Was it?

CC: I think it was the last day, yeah.

GR: It was one of the few last days and to watch this incredible actor, and everyone’s incredible energy really as an ensemble, come together. And everyone’s spirit was there. Even though John (Lithgow) wasn’t there, there were a lot of people that weren’t there, but it felt thick and full and that we’d all created something great. That was my favourite day. I want to hear Shea’s!

Shea Whigham: Let’s just say the first day. I was a big fan of Matthew’s (Rhys) and I’m always interested in that animalistic thing where you’re kind of sniffing each other out. I had a chance to be with Tim, I had done Boardwalk Empire with him, and we had gone on a journey on that. So the three of us were standing there and Matthew, I remember telling Tim, right away Matthew’s generosity…I mean when you’re talking about the number one guy on the call sheet, he’s going to set the tone for how this is going to go, and he was really generous in our scene. I told Tim after: “this thing has got a real shot”. I remember that. I remember being in a building and it was where in the old days, the heads of the studio would keep the actors and their mistresses, and Tim and I were looking at the history, and you feel like something else is going on, do you know what I mean? It’s visceral. I think as people watch it, that seeps in. That was pretty cool. They’d say “that was where they kept Errol Flynn”, and Tim and I thought that was pretty cool.

Perry Mason premieres tonight at 9pm ET on Crave and HBO

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