It was an incredible experience speaking with Perry Mason (and GLOW‘s) Gayle Rankin. Similar to her characters, including the bent but not broken mother of a mysteriously kidnapped baby in Perry Mason, Emily Dodson, and of course, Sheila the She-Wolf, the riotously talented Rankin is completely immersive in ways others can only dream. (In fact, our Editor-in-Chief Leora didn’t even realize that Rankin is Scottish after watching both of her shows!)
We had been looking forward to chatting with Rankin for a while about what it meant to undergo Sheila’s metamorphosis, as well as her stunning performance on Perry Mason. Like a lot of viewers, we’re hooked on the luscious eight-part miniseries and Rankin as Emily in the series.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my phone interview with the brilliant Gayle Rankin.
Brief Take: When did you feel that this Perry Mason was a series that you were compelled to make?
Gayle Rankin: I knew from the very beginning from who was involved. From the very beginning, my agent and I, the casting director Sherry Thomas, who is one of the most incredible and has been a champion of mine for years and then Tim Van Patten, who is extraordinary, an extraordinary, creative director. I immediately knew that I was in good hands and it was something in which I had to be involved. And it was also a part in my artistic journey, too, when something fits into about what you are really curious, it’s a miracle, honestly.
BT: The characters that you play always seem to be filled with empathy for others. Would you say that this is a conscious choice?
GR: I mean, it’s really perceptive. It’s interesting because I love those kinds of people and I think they find me. I think that they find me, because I do play seekers. I play people who seek and that is certainly a through line. I play people that are trying to figure something out and I do share that with them, I definitely do. I’m sure that I bring that to them [chuckles] as much as they bring it to me. But it’s interesting, I’m very hungry to explore something different and like to play all kind of different people, but it is very perceptive. I’ve never heard anyone describe it like that, but yeah! Emily is always trying to understand people. Sheila is always trying to understand people. [laughs]
BT: When you played Ophelia in Hamlet, you said to Interview Magazine that you didn’t want to play her as a weak or as a ‘mad’ character. How did that decision affect this performance and future performances?
GR: Well, it’s interesting, when I read Hamlet, I’ve never read what I had heard about Ophelia. I had heard about a crazy, mad, waify, kind of naive young woman who ends her life and she can’t handle it. But when I read it, I didn’t feel as though I was putting anything on the character by instilling her with an amount of autonomy and rage and grief that matched what was on the page. I felt a duty to perform and embody what I read. Which, when I read it, I read rage, I read clarity, I read things that I hadn’t before seen in her. I felt a responsibility, as someone who gets the honour of being able to embody other people, she was filled with that. I do feel a duty and I do feel as though my characters, the women I’ve gotten to play, certainly have…they’re all connected in some pursuit. I feel it’s definitely a part of my career that I have explored for a while which is the misunderstood woman, the judged woman. I felt very protective over them and feel I have had the opportunity to expose the other parts and I’m very much, as I said now, I think that I’m at a point in my career when I’m really excited to explore a new challenge. I think that Emily was such a beautiful opportunity for me to swing at this thing one more time. Not that I never want to again—I absolutely do —but I’m really hungry to explore other parts of the female experience.
BT: You are such a generous scene partner. What did you enjoy about the scene partners who you were working with on this series?
GR: The word that you used is how it is. It’s that the generosity and the humility levels were so high on the set. I could not have asked to work with more generous, more talented, kinder people and artists. Truly and I mean that so deeply, especially working on something so deep and tonally specific. Everyone really had to go in with each other and everyone did it, you know? I felt just honoured. I was working with the best of the best on all levels.
BT: Who’ve been your all-time favourite scene partners?
GR: Gosh! Working with everyone on the cast, it was an embarrassment of riches, I could barely even just mention one person, because I would be: “Oh, by the way, also…“. Another person, certainly, was working with Oscar Isaac on stage. That was a thrill, a total thrill every night. And the rehearsal process, it was just an embarrassment of energy, as you say. What he brought every day, every night, every performance and to be that close to it, was so inspiring, always, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
BT: How did you feel during your transformation throughout season 3 of GLOW in which Sheila is no longer a She Wolf? What was going through your mind when you were playing those scenes?
GR: Oh boy! I mean, it gets a bit meta. Because I’m a theatre actress, [chuckles] and Sheila has that in her and the chrysalis that she was into then start to break through to become a butterfly. I was certainly feeling all those feelings. Different feelings than my own because Sheila and I are very different people. Very vulnerable…I was shaken by the unveiling, by the challenge of the metaphor of having to be done with a part of yourself. Because we’ve all in our own way have had or will have or are putting off having that experience in our life. [laughs] It is extremely brave. She’s very brave.
BT: You seemed somehow less in your own skin as Blonde Sheila more than as Wolf Sheila. How did you play this?
GR: It’s so crazy! I mean, it felt crazy! I felt weird, I did feel uncomfortable. I think that was the whole point. How uncomfortable must she feel to be herself? And that broke me. It broke me. I was: Oh, wow, this is a very exaggerated human journey of something that a person goes through all the time when you get to a point in their life the you’re: “Wow, I really want to accept myself and love myself exactly for who I am“. And it felt really crazy at the same time how I was free, but I was at the same time very exposed.
BT: You are totally transformative in your roles. What do you think is your responsibility to be a performer?
GR: I need it! I need it. And not to sound too grandiose or cheesy, but I need it in my life and I also feel it’s my contribution. It’s the way that I get to understand and hopefully help other people understand the world. It means a great deal to me. Acting and the opportunity I get to act and be an actor means everything to me. It’s all that I ever wanted to do since I was able to understand what it means to be a human, and I’m still not there. I think that was the one thing from when I was a kid that I knew I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor, but I remember sitting at Starbucks, in Glasgow where I’m from, and I was looking out the window and I was staring at people, and I remember vividly visibly wanting to do it, not wanting to leave. As a voyeur, I was so enthralled and infinitely fascinated and dumbfounded by human beings. [laughs] I will never really know what it is to be another person and I think that is why I love it this much! It is because there is a challenge and a pursuit that that is never-ending.
BT: What is something that you haven’t done on screen that you would like to do in the future?
GR: [laughs] So much! I have this kind of dream of I’d love to play a heroine in the 1500’s in Scotland who is also a Sorceress. [chuckles] That would very much play into the reality of what is a dream project in my head. There’s many things that I would like to do. I would like to play a superhero, I would like to play a doctor, I would love to play a journalist, just do it all!
BT: What do you enjoy watching?
GR: Oh man, I’m a huge documentary girl. I love watching documentaries. I don’t know what it is about them, but I’ve been eating them up lately. I also really love Lars von Trier, I love (John) Cassavetes, they’re some of my favourite films, speaking of playing with form. And yeah, documentaries. I really loved The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary, I ate that up. I love getting to know real people. I really love the narrative stuff too, but I mostly gravitate towards the more real.
BT: What did you enjoy most about being a part of the movie Her Smell?
GR: That was such an incredible experience, because again, it was an immersive experience. The way we shot the film, the way we rehearsed the film, the relationships between the three of us in the band, Elisabeth (Moss) and Aggie (Agyness Deyn) and me. It was so strong and we developed it so much that we became a band! We had to rehearse together and we did play our instruments and it was very immersive, and that’s the kind of work I really love.
BT: What has this time meant for you as a person and as a performer?
GR: It’s definitely been a time of reflection, a lot of time of reflection for me. I was working a lot up until the pandemic hit and then everything else that has unfolded and exposed itself has really demanded a lot of my attention. I think that it’s been a great time to do a lot of soul-searching and it always goes hand and hand with what I want to make and who I am as an artist. I felt really grateful for the time to be quiet and also to participate in what’s happening in our world right now.
Perry Mason airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO and Crave