Matthew Rhys is on a roll. It’s very charming. The Welsh accent is lilting along, as if ricocheting off the hills and dales of Wye Valley, as he stammers, jokes, and tells vivid stories about his time shooting HBO’s new reboot/prequel/reimagination, however you want to describe it, of Perry Mason.
But he abruptly stops himself mid-thought, a fast-talker slamming the brakes so hard it almost sends the listener careening. “I’m trying to reel my pretentiousness in…” he says.
A version of the apology, a sort of self-conscious, self-aware moral speed bump, arrives a few times in our conversation. Read any number of interviews with the actor, whose recent credits include the Mr. Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and an Emmy-winning run on The Americans, and you’ll see it pop up often, like a chorus of cognizance.
The Daily Beast’s Obsessed
Everything we can’t stop loving, hating, and thinking about this week in pop culture.
He’s an actor who likes acting and gets excited to talk about acting, but doesn’t want to telegraph any delusions of his own importance or any significance he might put on himself or his presence in the public sphere. In other words, Matthew Rhys hopes you know he is not, in any way, insufferable.
The thing is, when you star on a series as heralded as The Americans, which wrapped its six-season run last year, or gather a résumé of characters that could double as a tribunal for troubled souls, conversation about your job quickly hurtles into heady space. Rhys, buckled in with his Celtic gift of the gab, is happy to go along for the ride. Just, you know, he can hear himself. He knows when it sounds like a bit much.
Since March, Rhys has been hunkered down in the Catskills, about two hours outside the Brooklyn home he shares with his partner, actress Keri Russell, and the three children they have between them. Days have consisted of Toy Story marathons, and the ensuing crying over Toy Story marathons, as well as press for Sunday’s premiere of Perry Mason, and the ensuing crying over fritzy WiFi connections and spotty cell phone signals.
A reboot of Perry Mason is a surprising choice for Rhys’ first television series after The Americans, at least gauging by critics’ opinions and even Rhys’ own.
It’s been a little jarring to learn that people put so much stock in what he was going to do next after playing family man and Russian spy Philip Jennings for six years. The “why this” has been a frequent question, he says. “I possibly haven’t given it as much thought as I should have.”
The easy answer is that he liked the script. It passed his litmus test for these things: He wanted to know how the story ends.
When he was first approached about the series two years ago, he immediately recalled original Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr’s booming voice delivering courtroom arguments in the background of visits to his grandparents while growing up. It was an immediate “no.”
But showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald courted him, selling him on the idea of a prequel that explores, with a grit and grimness befitting a prestige HBO production, the backstory of how the unflappably upstanding Perry Mason of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and the classic TV show came to be: PTSD from his time in war combat, a self-defeating track record when it comes to love and family, a compass pointing towards doing the right thing, but a macho indifference towards rules or propriety in pursuit of it.
“There were similarities with Philip Jennings from The Americans in that there was a lot of baggage for both characters that I’m drawn to,” he says. “Humanity is, to me personally, infinitely more interesting when you’re kind of looking at the cracks and how people deal with them, as opposed to, you know, the underwear on the outside and the capes.”
Coming after a project as culturally and personally significant as The Americans—a drama argued as among the best there’s ever been on television, on which he met his partner and mother to his children—Perry Mason has allowed Rhys to see how people engage with certain tenets of pop culture and also how they engage with him.
The Perry Mason fedora has become a kind of homing device, then, of passionate public opinion, and how much Rhys will engage in it.
Take, for example, the early fascination from critics with the timeliness of Perry Mason’s staunch anti-cop vibes.
The Los Angeles Police Department, as portrayed in the series, is corrupt. They doctor and omit police reports, investigate cases with their own racist and sexist agendas, and act in cahoots with those who fund and bribe them over the interests of the people they’re meant to serve—physically assaulting those who get in their way.
Critics have commented on the show’s “pleasant ACAB synergy,” hailed it as “the cop-hatingest show I literally have ever seen,” and zeroed in on the shocking resonance of a scene in which an officer murders a man by stepping on his neck.
In the premiere episode, after a character says, “I don’t trust the Los Angeles Police Department to do the job that’s needed,” Perry responds, “Neither would I.” If he were a real person today, you could imagine Perry Mason joining calls to defund the police.
Rhys is glad that watching those scenes against the backdrop of the current climate of activation and calls for change play in that way, as opposed to being a depressing reminder of things that might stay the same.
“It’s kind of ironic that, yes, we do deal with those themes and it’s coming to precedence now,” he says. “To me, Mason is just someone who can’t really abide injustice. He doesn’t know much and he’s kind of lost in many ways, but that’s one thing he does know. And I think that is a healthy aspect we could all take away. That he can’t stand for it anymore.”
Perry Mason is very much a period piece, and, for all the suaveness and cinematic heft that modern filmmaking techniques afford it, the series relies on the hallmarks of the ’30s detective noir.
“Humanity is, to me personally, infinitely more interesting when you’re kind of looking at the cracks and how people deal with them, as opposed to, you know, the underwear on the outside and the capes.”
If not exactly the Perry Mason that fans of the old series recognize—this project tracks his life before he became a lawyer—this is definitely a type we’re meant to recall: the crumpled, grizzled detective lurking in the shadows, eyes nearly entirely masked by the brim of his fedora.
That’s the thing about a period noir. It forces you to confront harsh truths about yourself: for example, do you look good in hats? Can you pull off a fedora?
“You have this weird relationship with the hat where some days you can catch yourself wearing it and you go, oh, this is not so bad,” Rhys says. “Other days you go, ‘Oh my god, I look like an idiot.’”
It was both a helpful ally in scenes—a handy prop when he otherwise didn’t know what to do—and a pain in the ass. “It can just become, what the fuck do I do with the hat?” But it also lent an element of glamor for someone who grew up watching Spencer Tracey and Humphrey Bogart.
He got to flick a cigarette, put on a hat, and swagger through their iconic footsteps—even if that meant having to resist the temptation to replicate their indelible, antiquated speaking cadence, too.
“There were times when they would pepper [the script] with these period idioms and sayings that were incredibly hard to deliver in a way where you weren’t impersonating Humphrey Bogart,” Rhys says. And then he does it. He does his own Bogey: “Hey, listen here, sweetheart.”
Rhys is also aware that people have a lot to say about how his series approaches the iconography of Perry Mason, which is to say the ways in which the dark and tortured character is starkly different from the thundering pillar of morality in the TV drama from the ’50s and ’60s.
Overwhelmingly, he would say, “I’m doing a project called Perry Mason,” and the person he’s talking to would have no idea he is referring to something that already existed. But when it comes to people who are going to have an opinion based on the original, he can usually tell how it will go by the person’s age.
“To me, Mason is just someone who can’t really abide injustice. He doesn’t know much and he’s kind of lost in many ways, but that’s one thing he does know.”
If a person seems to be in their forties, there’s usually some sort of recognition. “Oh yes, I’ve seen that.” Add a decade or two to that age, and he can barely get “Perry” out of his mouth before some sort of pop-culture history lesson starts: “Well you know, Raymond Burr…” (It’s important to note that all these quotes are delivered by Rhys in the same Humphrey Bogart impression.)
Then there’s the middle ground of people who know roughly who Perry Mason is and have a strong opinion on who he should be, despite having never seen the show. They’ll go on about how Perry Mason was a righteous, clean-cut lawyer, Rhys says, to which he would reply, pleasantly surprised, “Oh, so you’ve seen the show?” They’d inevitably respond, “No.”
It’s baptism by fire into the quintessential 2020 phenomenon: Having strong opinions about something you actually don’t know anything about. “Yes,” he says, laughing. “I should only pop on Twitter to reiterate that…”
The laugh is frequent, but also a little surprising. Maybe it’s a virtue of the roles he’s played recently, especially Philip on The Americans or the broken, soul-searching journalist in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. There’s been a preoccupation by those who write and talk about Rhys’ work with the way he so subtly and profoundly captures men in the throes of melancholy.
On the one hand, it’s a natural fascination, attempting to understand why he’s so good at playing troubled people. On the other, maybe it’s an attempt to learn whether or not he’s troubled himself. Or is it just a byproduct of being Welsh?
“I am on record saying if melancholy was an Olympic sport, the Welsh would be gold medalists, along with the Irish and the Scots on the podium,” Rhys says. “I think the Celts do melancholy very well. I’ve always been drawn to those slightly more human interest stories.”
Suddenly he seems to hit another one of those self-aware speed bumps. There’s a pause. A little cough and a giggle, and with it a clarification.
“I’m not discounting people that have a joyous disposition or saying they aren’t part of that human interest story,” he says. “I just, I haven’t been given that joyous opportunity yet.”
It’s as clear a call as there could be for opportunity—in this case a casting agent with some joy—to come knocking.