As part of a jam-packed (virtual) junket day for HBO’s Perry Mason, for which Brief Take was specificially selected, we had the opportunity to chat with the show’s titular star (and executive producer) Welshman Matthew Rhys and Saskatoon’s (and let’s face it, all of Canada’s) Pride and Joy, Tatiana Maslany (who yes, also stars in the new show as the enigmatic Sister Alice), and they did not disappoint. For a pair of Emmy award-winners, the thespians were surprisingly quite self-deprecating, but also down-to-earth, witty, and highly intelligent in their musings on the current political climate as well as the seemingly indestructible power imbalances in every institution shown in the series.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my very intimate international roundtable discussion with Perry Mason‘s Matthew Rhys and Tatiana Maslany.
This is a very different take on the previous iteration of Perry Mason. At its centre is a white man who is called out every time he doesn’t realize his privilege. Matthew, I was wondering if you could talk a little about that and how it relates to what we’re seeing in the world nowadays?
Matthew Rhys: Yeah, I mean it’s equal part depressing and the similarities with what we see in terms of what hasn’t progressed in 90 years. But I’m glad that in some small way we remind people of those moments. It’s part of our responsibility in what we do, so I’m glad it’s there and I’m depressed that it’s there.
What was your process like in terms of preparing to play Perry Mason and Sister Alice, respectively?
MR: It was more to do with the research in terms of the time period and things that informed me such as the First World War, which was pivotal for Mason. So that was something I researched – the kind of trauma, the unrecognized PTSD that they brought back with them. And then Los Angeles in the ’30s, the Depression in America, and the difference that was going on in L.A. at that time, as a kind of emerging boom town during an incredibly difficult time. And then [laughs] there was a Defence Attorney on which Stanley Gardner loosely based Mason, I researched some of his early cases around 1910, 1920. Those were the three big research modules for me.
Tatiana Maslany: I mean I grew up Catholic, I went to a Catholic school, so I was aware of the ritual of religion and the way it becomes part of your worldview and part of how you process things. But then there was also a wealth of research I was able to do on the woman this character is based on, who was a preacher in the 1930s named Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. She’s had stories told about her in the past but she’s had this amazing legacy and lore around her. She was such a mystery and at the same time she was super public. I find all of the themes around her character, in terms of her relationship with her mother, in terms of her relationship to her faith, in terms of her relationship to God, to Perry, there was so much there to sink my teeth into. And then ultimately to find who she is outside of all of those things, when all of that is stripped away, who is she? There was so much there to dig into.
What drew you to playing Perry Mason?
MR: There were a number of elements of this character that were incredibly attractive to me. I found him to be someone who is very lost initially. He’s found himself in this job, more because he’s an outsider. I think one of the reasons he does well as a Private Investigator is because he’s so untethered, he’s always looking in on people. He’s so misplaced too. He’s inherited this land that he doesn’t necessarily want to farm. There’s this encroaching circus that is Los Angeles that he feels no part of – that great displacement that veterans feel after coming back from combat, I think that played into that. So he’s this lost character that I go on the journey of him finding a vocation, and I found that interesting. In a very base way, I’ve always had a childhood love of detectives and I’m interested in why it is, especially in today’s day and age, that the legal shows do so well. Why Law & Order does so well is because regardless of everything, we have to have this hope that however marginalized someone is or oppressed they may be, that ultimately justice will happen. Some people like me live with this romantic notion that in a world that is so tyrannical at times or stacked in the wrong way, there has to be some element of hope, that justice will ultimately come through, and I think that’s part of Mason too.
Matthew, you not only star in this series but you also executive produced it. What was your experience like working with fellow executive producer Robert Downey Jr.? Were there any character details that he wanted you to include?
MR: The short answer is no, because he’s an incredibly gracious human being. I think being an actor, and now producer, he understood full well, and being gracious, that “the part is yours, you do with it what you will and how you want.” And that was truly all he said on the matter. His own take on who Mason is was never mentioned, and that’s all he said – “go forth and prosper.” He was incredibly gracious in that respect.
And I was incredibly surprised to be offered the producing title. I was incredibly flattered. It felt very inclusive because they said ‘this is something we want you to be a part of’, and it was a rare treat to be involved in a number of the decision making elements such as story and with key figures such as crew. I wanted to have a hand in the storytelling, so it was an incredibly generous and collaborative gesture on their behalf that I enjoyed enormously. When they said, “we want Tatiana to star in this”, I said, “we’ll never get her! She’ll never say yes!”, and she did!!!
TM: [giggles] That’s not true.
Brief Take: What did you like best about working with each other?
TM: I mean I’ve been such a fan of Matthew’s for so long.
MR: That’s not true!
TM: Yeah it’s very true. [laughs] I’ve said this to everyone who’s asked what it’s like to work with him, he’s the best number one that I’ve ever worked with because every day he comes to set with so much joy and playfulness and presence every time he’s working. There’s just no ego, and it trickles down. The whole set was joyful and creative, and everyone wanted to do well by him. It was just incredible because it’s a heavy piece and it’s a huge undertaking. That character is laden with so much backstory that is so heavy, and Matthew has such a light touch in terms of how he approaches it, never giving away how much is boiling underneath. It’s such beautiful work and I had the most fun time. And then getting to watch it, I was like “[swoon] I want to go back to that. I want to do that again.”
MR: Do you want to be my publicist, Tatiana?
MR: I said it earlier and I was sincere, when the casting process happened, first off, everyone said, “we want Tatiana to do this”, and I genuinely thought we wouldn’t get her. And then we got her and I felt like Jimmy Connors will now have to play McEnroe, do you know what I mean? We didn’t have many scenes together, which I was disappointed by because I would have liked to have hit the tennis ball a bit more with Tatiana, but what I was very lucky to have been a part of was that there’s a couple of scenes where Mason watches Sister Alice, especially at the funeral. And I remember watching her during the first take and I was like “oh, this is something else.” So I hope it happens again.
Matthew, what do you think Stanley Gardner would say about your portrayal of Mason, if he were alive today?
MR: I think he would be thoroughly confused.
MR: Thoroughly confused, borderline disgusted. No, you know we worked very closely with the Estate and I know there was a number of concerns and reservations because there were a number of things that we wanted, and they were so collaborative at every step. They embraced the reworking of Perry Mason as much as we wanted it, so we were blessed with their blessings. If he does have any problems, he should take it up with his own Estate.
Now that this chapter of Perry Mason has been completed, would you like to explore the character of Mason further?
MR: Absolutely! By giving him such a checkered and colourful backstory, the foundations they’ve put in are deep and very rich for what could be tilled in the future. So yeah, absolutely. They’ve set up this incredible person, so who knows what could happen. But I’m happy as long as we can keep telling interesting stories, I’d be more than happy to jump on that.
Perry Mason premieres tomorrow night at 9pm ET on Crave and HBO