It’s been weeks since I’ve binge-watched all of Perry Mason (thanks, HBO!), and I still can’t stop thinking about Veronica Falcón’s sultry and fully lived-in portrayal of Lupe Gibbs, based on (real-life) aviatrix Florence Lowe. Falcón, known for her roles in Queen of the South and Perpetual Grace, LTD, and prolific actor Stephen Root (who plays prosecutor Maynard Barnes) were paired on a recent junket day in support of Perry Mason, and the duo did not disappoint. The following is a condensed and edited version of our international Zoom video roundtable with Perry Mason‘s Veronica Falcón and Stephen Root.
What was your first reaction when you read the script and its opening on the graphic death of a baby?
Veronica Falcón: It moved me and it shocked me, you know? It’s dark and it’s based on a true crime. But I think one of the things about our Perry Mason is that it’s not only that, it’s not only a character study, it’s not only about solving this crime, it’s a very well rounded show. It starts with a very shocking, violent act and it brings the audience right in, and I think that’s when you start seeing what’s happening with Matthew Rhys’ character. That brings you right in and you want to make it right, both as an audience member and within the show.
Stephen Root: They really go very deep into the character’s backstory immediately, which is unusual I think. Any time I pick a script that I’d be interested in doing, the writing is very well done, and I think it is in this case. Is it shocking? Yeah. It’s even more shocking to see that picture of the baby with the eyes sewn shut. That’s real life. And since this was a show that was the first weekly crime drama on tv, we’re kind of stepping into those shoes now.
What was it like playing your respective characters?
SR: For me, it was finding some sort of humanity in a person that’s not very nice. [laughs] This guy is a peacock, he’ll show his colours and he’ll strut and he’ll say how great he is in public, and then you get in a private space with him and he’ll spit on you. He wants what he wants when he wants it and he’ll go to any length to get it, including corrupting police and anybody that stands in his way. So it’s always fun to play the heavy, but he’s not a very nice guy. But it’s a blast to play as an actor.
VF: For me, Lupe was one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve ever had the chance to play, and the reason is that it’s based on a real person, it’s based on Florence Lowe, who was known as Pancho Barnes, and this woman was ahead of her time. She broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record and she was the Founder of the film stunt pilots’ union, and she flew planes in Howard Hughes’ movies. This woman existed. When I read the script I didn’t know this. I just found that it was a phenomenal character because it’s a strong woman who was ahead of her time and who was absolutely free and unapologetic, and she’s fun! She has a backstory, a strong story, and she’s a fighter, especially in those days – as a Latina, as a woman. So I love characters like that because she’s also intelligent and kind. I was blown away when I read her, and I really, really wanted to play her, and it was a pleasure to get to do so.
How familiar were you with the Perry Mason property before you were cast?
SR: Well since I’m ancient, I remember the show from the ’50s and ’60s. Raymond Burr was an icon when I was growing up and he continued to be through the ’80s and ’90s because after the tv show was over, he kept doing tv movies of this. But for me, it’s a black and white world. This was not set in 1931, the original series, and ours is set in the early ’30s in a time when everything was happening. The oil boom was happening, pictures that actually talked were happening, and LA was getting discovered as a place to be and it wasn’t as hard hit in the Depression as a lot of places were. It’s always great to do a period piece as well. I was able to do Boardwalk Empire with Tim (Van Patten) a few years ago, that was set about ten years before this, so it’s nice to be able to come into this decade and see what’s going to happen.
VF: For me, the first time I heard about Perry Mason was because of my father. He was a huge, huge, huge fan of Perry Mason, so when this opportunity came, I told him right away and I said “listen, they’re doing a new Perry Mason.” He was very excited. He was like “is it going to be like this? is it going to be like this?”, and I had to tell him “no, this is actually a new take on it.” And he said “am I going to like it?”, and I told him “I think you’re going to love it”. That was an iconic show, so to be able to be in a show like this that so many people think about, like my father, to this day, is very excited about seeing it. My only worry is that I don’t think he’s going to like some of the scenes that I do as Lupe. [laughs]
Brief Take: Is there a particular moment or scene that you’re most proud of?
SR: Ooh gosh, that’s a hard one. [laughs] I think what is satisfying about it is being able to play with other great actors, such as John Lithgow, Veronica, Tatiana Maslany. I mean it’s a cast that you would die for. I think the most fun you can have, probably, as an actor, to me, was to able to do the court room scenes and being able to really see…there were 200 extras that were working every day, so we were able to play off of them as well as the major characters. So it was a huge effort. As they say, it takes a village to make a show. So I think the most fun I had was in the court room.
VF: For me, all of my scenes were fun. They were really fun to play. I was fortunate enough to do most of them with Matthew, who’s not only a phenomenal actor but he’s also a gentleman, and one of the kindest and most generous performers that I’ve ever worked with. It would have been tough for me if Matthew wasn’t there and Tim wasn’t there because I’m a fifty-something year-old actress and I had to do some nude scenes, which I didn’t do when I was young when everything was higher [laughs], so that was challenging. But the fact that I got such gentlemen and I felt so secure with them, that made it fun. I also thought it was an important scene and it was important because it’s not for the sake of nudity. Lupe is an empowered woman, she’s someone that doesn’t stay in a little box. She lives the life the way she thinks it should be, and I think it’s important to put images out there of women who are empowered. I didn’t think it was gratuitous. That’s one of the reasons why I’m very particular about doing scenes that have nudity – they have to have some meaning. I think Lupe is a very free, very proud, and very empowered woman and I think it’s important to portray images like that. I wouldn’t have been able to do that scene, honestly, if Matthew and Tim weren’t as kind, as generous, and as fabulous to work with.
SR: I can guarantee you that Maynard Barnes will not be doing a nude scene.
Veronica, even a few years ago, a character such as Lupe would just be essentially a prop on screen. Do you think the industry is moving towards more positive representations of women?
VF: You know it’s funny, when I read Lupe, I think she was ahead of her time and she’d be ahead of her time even now. You know things are changing very slowly. I think we’re working towards change, we’re understanding more what inclusion and what equality is, but it’s tough, you know? Change is coming but we have to work really, really hard. I think part of that change is presenting characters like this, characters with substance, and I think Perry Mason does that. Every character has substance and every character is well rounded, and that is rare. You know that usually, in most cases, the main character is well rounded and then there’s all the other characters revolving around them. In this case, every character is well rounded and I think that helps the audience connect with us. Women like Lupe existed in the ’20s, in the ’30s, there have always been women who were empowered and ahead of their time. So I think things are changing but I think we still have far to go.
Is there a moment from the set that has stayed with you?
SR: I can tell you that Matthew Rhys is a terrible driver.
SR: We would get on a golf cart to go from base camp to the set and Matthew would never let anybody drive but himself, so he’d get as many people as he could in the golf cart and then he’d take off about 50 miles an hour through the winding streets and sets of Paramount, screaming his head off and also at any visitors we may have had. So that was great fun for people just touring the studio to see Matthew Rhys screaming “hi, how are you? Gotta go!”. That was a blast, being on the golf cart with Matthew.
VF: I agree, Matthew has a fabulous sense of humour. He’s carrying this show and you wouldn’t know it because he’s always fun and relaxed. For me, one of the anecdotes, it actually has to do with a dog. The real Lupe, the person she’s based on, Pancho Barnes, she was a bit of an eccentric and she had a little Chihuahua named Chicita, and she used to fly with this dog. So when I did the research and I found out about that, I was talking to Rolin (Jones), Ron (Fitzgerald), and Tim, and I was saying “you know she flew with this dog”, and they said “calm down, Veronica. The show is not about the dog.” But I was very excited about the dog! Eventually, what they did was we decided that Chicita was dead, and in Lupe’s speakeasy, she would have a figure of Chicita like a stuffed animal. I’m like “well she loves this dog”, and I love pets, I love animals, and when they die their owners go to the taxidermist. I wouldn’t do that but some people do, and Lupe does. So they gave me that, but I didn’t know they were going to do that. So I walk onto the set, onto the speakeasy, and I’m fascinated by the whole thing, and when I saw Tim he said “there’s Chicita”. I was like “what are you talking about?”, and he said “just look”. So I turned and sure enough, Matthew was playing with the dead dog, the stuffed animal, and that was one of my highlights. I loved that they did that because it was a generous thing for them, they just knew that it was this eccentric thing about Lupe, and they gave me that surprise. It was beautiful.
Perry Mason airs on Sundays at 9pm ET on Crave and HBO