Matthew Rhys won the first Emmy of his career for his lead performance in The Americans, a drama set in 1980s D.C. He dialed back to an even earlier era for the latest role to put him into Emmy contention, as the titular character of the reimagined Perry Mason. The HBO series finds Mason in Depression-era Los Angeles, working unsavory cases as a private eye, well before achieving status as a crackerjack defense attorney. The show earned stellar ratings, prompting HBO to order a second season. As Rhys looks forward to resuming production, he discusses Mason, speaking Welsh to his son, and sprouting a lush beard.
DEADLINE: Do you remember how old you were when you first saw the original Perry Mason TV series? Was it when you were growing up in Wales?
MATTHEW RHYS: I’d say it’s like a number of classic television series, it’s like Columbo or Matlock. You’re very aware that you’ve seen them, and then you’re like, I have no idea when the first one was or how old I was or where I was standing… It’s like the Rock of Ages. It’s been around.
DEADLINE: You must have felt some trepidation about taking on such an iconic character.
RHYS: When I went into the pitch, the producers were like, “It’s for Perry Mason.” And I was like, “Oh, should you touch Perry Mason?” But right from the get-go they said, “This is a re-imagining. We’re not remaking, and these are the things we want to do with it. And here’s why,” and that kind of buoyed me with more confidence to go, OK, this will be our own original take. We’ll probably offend a great number of people. But on the same hand, it may also engage an entirely new audience, as to who this loved TV character is.
DEADLINE: How would you describe your Perry Mason, how you saw him?
RHYS: When I first read the first episode I became excited, like a young, giddy school boy. The reason I got into acting was to live out a number of these fantasies of kind of Raymond Chandler or James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, old school movie stars. And I was like, Oh, I’m going to get my opportunity to play out those fantasies now. I get to play the fedora and smoke a cigarette and have a witty parting one-liner, as I flick the cigarette. All these things. I got excited by that, but most of all, the script drew me in enormously. It was a real page-turner. I’m sorry to use a cliché, but it really was. I wanted to know who is behind this. It struck several chords for me, so I was in from the get-go.
DEADLINE: Setting modesty aside, why do you think the executive producing team, including Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey, chose you for the part?
RHYS: I truly think that’s a question for them, because I don’t know. Did they watch The Americans? Philip Jennings [in The Americans] was a number of things that I think Perry is too. He’s incredibly troubled by his past, Perry is, Philip was. So, I wonder if they saw The Americans and went, “There’s a lot of similarities there.” I saw Perry straightaway, their version of him, as more an outsider, a loner, because he’s an outsider. So, there are certain similar characteristics and traits.
DEADLINE: I’m speculating, but one of the other reasons the producers would have thought of you is that you can do historical or period parts very well. A number of pieces you’ve done are set in some earlier era. Do you sometimes think you were born at the wrong time?
RHYS: I do think that. I think I’m in far too modern an age. As we’ve begun our conversation, it’s kind of galloping past me now, with a sense of dread—this kind of charge of technology to me is depressing [laughs]. There are many times I wish I’d lived in a simpler age. I mean, just a couple of decades—in the ’70s would do it. Just landlines. That’s all you need. Not even the answering machine, just the landline. That’s it.
DEADLINE: Imagine that. Well, I grew up in a time of rotary phones.
RHYS: So did I. I remember showing the kids on The Americans, the two who played our kids, how to use a rotary phone. They were like, “What is this?”
DEADLINE: Many of the parts you’ve played require doing an American accent. You grew up speaking Welsh—do you think speaking two languages makes you more attuned to speech so that you can adopt accents more readily?
RHYS: I’m not sure. I know the Welsh language is a very muscular language. So, I think that’s a great help in the kind of acrobatics sometimes you have to do inside your mouth. But I think more so my parents are very musical, and I think it’s the hearing of a sound that helps me, possibly more than anything else. I think I would attribute that to being a great help to me.
DEADLINE: On an episode of Live with Kelly and Ryan you talked about your son learning Welsh. How’s he doing in his progress with the Welsh language?
RHYS: I only speak to him in Welsh, and he understands everything I say. He’ll always answer me in English. He’ll pepper a few words sometimes in Welsh, I think just to please me. But he’s very clear about his Dada’s language and then there’s Mama’s language. So, he knows very clearly about whose is whose.
DEADLINE: Why was it important to you to share your native language with your son, such that he would understand it?
RHYS: Well, I grew up in a time where, and still, to this day and age, the Welsh language was under a considerable amount of threat, certainly in the ’80s. And I saw my parents do the marches and the protesting, in order for it to be recognized as an official language. And it’s only in the last 10 years it’s been taken off the endangered language list. So that was as normal in my house as breathing. I guess I was just born with it, this idea that we have to preserve this language at all costs.
DEADLINE: What did you think of your countryman Anthony Hopkins winning the Oscar?
RHYS: He was at home in Wales when the Oscars happened… I was so happy for him. I’ve had the privilege of working with him, and he’s a talent of which there’s probably not a second. His dedication to what he does is breathtaking and thoroughly deserved. I know it was a little contentious, and I understand why. But knowing who he is—regardless of whether you know him or not—his performances, I think, speak for themselves. And his performance in The Father was incredible.
DEADLINE: In the Perry Mason off season you are sporting a full beard, as you did in your unscripted TV series with Matthew Goode, The Wine Show. I feel like if left to your own devices your beard might be down to your knees.
RHYS: I would love nothing more than to tie a knot in my beard at the beginning of the day.
DEADLINE: You’re just not somebody who enjoys shaving?
RHYS: I think it’s a number of things. I’ve had so many jobs where I’ve had to wet shave every morning. When the pandemic started it was a novelty not to shave. Then I became lazy, then probably slightly depressed, and I’ve been in that kind of rut ever since.
DEADLINE: Well, hopefully it’s a good rut, if there can be such a thing as a good rut.
RHYS: All ruts have peaks on either side.
DEADLINE: Season 2 of Perry Mason, when will production start up? Do you know yet?
RHYS: That’s an ever-moving set of goalposts. It’s been moving steadily like an iceberg for some time. And I think we’re just basically looking at winter now.
DEADLINE: Will you shoot that in LA again?
RHYS: We will. We’ll be back among the angels.
DEADLINE: One of the pleasures of the series is seeing the city in this earlier time, almost 100 years ago. I know you shot some scenes at the Angels Flight funicular downtown.
RHYS: It’s the original—I mean, heavily green-screened, because you’re surrounded by modernity now. We used the original car and track, but we basically banked either side by green screen.
DEADLINE: The first season really sets up Perry Mason on his way to becoming this paragon of the legal profession.
RHYS: He doesn’t become an attorney until Episode 5, Episode 6. By Episode 4 I was like, “When is he going to become an attorney?” And then they made it a moment where he could not not become an attorney. He had to do it. And that’s what I loved, that he was driven to it, because of something [unjust] that was done to him in the past and he couldn’t sit back and see it done again. And so that moment, when they talked about it to me and they explained what happened in the First World War [to Mason], I was like, “Oh, that’s great. It’s so deep and resonant. That’s amazing.”
DEADLINE: Where do you see the character of Perry Mason going, now that you have a second season?
RHYS: I’m yet to be a party to the big conversation, because I know they’re busy working on it. It’s kind of great, because at the end of Season 1, Perry begins an entirely new chapter in his life. Yes, you are picking up where you left off, to a degree, but you’re also beginning something completely new and different. Being the person he is, experiencing the judicial system and its obstacles, I think will be very interesting, hopefully.
DEADLINE: Perry Mason is really an extraordinary achievement in all facets of production—the writing, the casting, the production design. How proud are you of the work you and your colleagues did on it?
RHYS: Incredibly proud. I was incredibly fortunate that I was asked if I wanted to produce on this, and I leapt at the chance. And it was humbling and eye-opening and exciting to be part of the decision-making processes of every element. And you had a voice and this input too. And the one thing everyone went for was detail. And I think if the details are right, a number of things will fall into place. And I think that’s what everyone strove for. Every department head across the board had a perfectionism for detail. And if that is done, then you’re off to the races.
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