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Interview: Perry Mason’s John Lithgow and Juliet Rylance

by Leora Heilbronn

When I discovered that I’d been selected to participate in a full HBO junket day (on Zoom) with the cast and creators of Perry Mason, I have to admit that the interview pairing to which I was most looking forward was that of John Lithgow and Juliet Rylance. These two stars of stage and screen are always a delight to watch, and I knew they would provide detailed insight into their characters (E.B. Johnson and Della Street, respectively) as well as into the show (a new, noirish iteration of an adaptation of the classic books by Erle Stanley Gardner, from creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, and producers that include Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey, who comprise Team Downey).

The following is a condensed and edited version of my on-camera intimate international roundtable with the charming pairing of John Lithgow and Juliet Rylance of Perry Mason.


This is a very different take on Perry Mason. Did you ever think the foundations of that story would be so relevant to the times that we’re living in now? 

John Lithgow: Well we always knew this was a period piece that has an extraordinary modern sensibility, but we had no idea. Look what has happened since we shot Perry Mason. We’re suddenly in the midst of an economic tailspin because of the coronavirus. There’s no pandemic in Perry Mason but there certainly is a backdrop of economic crisis, it’s in the Depression. It’s very smart of them, I think, to keep the Depression as the backdrop and it’s never even addressed, and yet it immediately informs everything that’s happening. Depression is when corruption can run rampant and corruption is definitely a theme in Perry Mason. These writers working with these producers, Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, I haven’t talked to them about this, but I imagine them sitting down and almost making a checklist of different contemporary themes that they could weave into this story without making it in your face, without making it polemical. It’s a great entertainment, but look at the themes. They made Paul Drake, a recurring character in the early Perry Mason, they made him into an African-American cop in a virtually all white Los Angeles police force in the mid 1930s, and they told his story, they didn’t just do a little bit of interesting casting, they made Paul Drake into a vivid character with crucial racial and family issues. They gave that character the dignity of really looking at those issues. They created the character of a Chicana aviatrix, played by Veronica Falcón, based on a real life figure from that era in Los Angeles history, that character existed and her reputation was that she was an even greater aviatrix than Amelia Earhart, but who knew?! There was that theme. There’s of course the theme of police corruption. There is the very fact that Della Street, Juliet will talk about this much more eloquently than I, but she’s the only confident person in this law office. It really is telling a story about women in that period and it resonates with the story of women right now. Juliet, pick it up from there.

Juliet Rylance: Obviously I second everything John says about the world of the piece, it couldn’t be more relevant to what’s happening today. From standing in Della’s shoes all those months of filming and working in all those scenes around L.A. and in the studio, I had a really inside out experience of what it must have been like to be a woman in that period. There was this tremendous push for people to think about having a career, rather than just a job, and you have that wonderful juxtaposition against the fact that there’s this recession that’s eating L.A. from the inside as well. For Della, this feeling of no matter what she does, she cannot open that final door into being an actual lawyer in L.A., even though, as John said, she’s more capable than most. And then obviously she comes into contact with all these other women within the show who are in a similar position. You have Emily, who is at the centre of this case where her son is kidnapped, and yet she’s not listened to, she’s not heard, she’s not believed by anyone who’s investigating the case, and she has no power in the situation. And then you have a character like Tatiana Maslany’s character, where she has become a star by creating this evangelical Christian movement, and that’s where she’s finding her power, in this sort of extraordinary way. I find the women the focus of the writers, and our director Tim Van Patten, and they really explore the journeys of these women in this time. It’s really fascinating and an excellent mirror to what’s happening now. And Perry Mason, at its centre, is a man searching for the truth, and our Perry does that with all the characters by his side throughout the series. That search for the truth in a corrupt world is paramount.

What drew you to the project and at what point in the script were you drawn into the story? 

JL: You really do know when you’re reading a good script and you know when you’re reading a bad script, it’s very very clear almost immediately. You saw the opening moments of this show – it’s so captivating. You don’t know where you are. There’s the Angels Flight, the elevator and the baby and the kidnapping, and then suddenly you’re involved in some nonsense with a lewd movie star and the whole Hollywood movie system in the 1930s. Impressions come at you page by page and your head is spinning, you don’t know where you are, but you feel like you’re in good hands, you feel like there’s great storytelling going on here and you’d better pay attention because everything is going to pay off. There’s a particular skill to that and these guys have it – Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald – they are just fantastic storytellers. They come from playwriting, they’re both playwrights, and they know dramatic structure, they know how to take surprising U-turns and take the audience on a real roller coaster of events. You know you read it and it’s incredibly exciting, and your own character is a mystery. I didn’t know what this character was, page by page, but as it went on you learn more and more. Even in those early stages, you think “oh my God, this is going to be fun”. When it captivates you like that, you know you’re going to do it. “If they ask me, I’m going to say yes.”

John, you’ve played your fair share of ‘baddies’ in your career. Do you use the same techniques when you’re playing larger than life villains and then playing morally upstanding people like E.B. Jonathan?

JL: That’s a very good question. I don’t know, I guess the most interesting thing about characters when you approach them is to look for their contradictions, their dualities. Playing villains is always interesting because villains do terrible things, and trying to figure out why they do those terrible things is a fascinating puzzle for an actor because they themselves don’t think these are terrible things, or if they do, perhaps they’re deeply ashamed by them, or perhaps they’re in the grips of a compulsion that they perhaps wish they didn’t have. That’s what I mean by duality. In the case of E.B., you approach E.B, and he’s a man who’s kidding himself. He’s past his prime, he’s grasping terribly for a comeback, he needs a big case so badly to regain his self respect and the respect of others, so this is the stuff of melancholy, it can be the stuff of tragedy, but it can also be the stuff of marvellous comedy. There is something about him that is an old fool. I just love to investigate all of those things in collaboration with writers and directors and the other actors I’m working with. The process is always “do you think I should try this? Well what about this for a moment where you really see how sad he is?”, or things like that. You have all seen this so help me out, make sure I don’t spoil anything for viewers, but E.B. is a suicide. How do you figure out how to motivate a man killing himself? What can be a more fascinating challenge than that?! And yet make him a charming, buoyant, comical character all at the same time. It’s a wonderful challenge and the writers did so much of my work for me. People ask: “wasn’t it difficult?”. No, it’s exhilarating.

JR: [laughs]

Perry Mason is a hugely popular property. Do you think that mass popularity is going to be the case for this iteration as well?

JL: It’s going to be interesting to see how this is received, I have to say. A lot of people have great affection for Perry Mason just the way it was, and this is so different from just the way it was. I have a feeling it’s going to take off and people are going to be engrossed and go on this ride, mainly because it’s so different from what they expected.

JR: Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but the one thing I question is, growing up in England we’re constantly talking about the Blitz, it’s the last sort of thing we feel proud of, getting through the Blitz, so it comes up a lot. My grandmothers and great Aunts talk about how they got through the Blitz. And one of the things that’s talked about is that the theatres stayed open and what was playing, and the programming was all comedy because obviously people were in a dire situation, and what did people want to do? They wanted to go out and laugh. I have a fear, with everything happening this year, that “oh no, our show is really dark and depressing.” [laughs] “People aren’t going to want to see that, they’re going to want to see a comedy.” And then I actually got sent some of the episodes and I’ve been sort of watching through my fingers, and I forgot how much of it is funny. I forgot how much humour there is, and it has a wonderful balance of light and dark. And to answer the question from earlier on what drew me to the script, specifically on this one, it’s exactly that – that Shakespeare has the same thing, the extraordinary ability for extreme joy and absolute sorrow all in the same scene or the same play, and I felt that about this. It’s His Girl Friday and then Death of a Salesman, it has this fabulous polarity and I think we’re experiencing that same polarity in terms of the current world situation is awful and yet we’re having these amazing moments too. There’s a mirror effect that happens in our show, and that light and dark, and I think that will resonate with people now.

Perry Mason premieres tomorrow night at 9pm ET on Crave and HBO

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