Juliet Rylance is running late to our interview, but she’s got an excuse straight out of the show she stars in. “I’m so sorry,” she says over the phone to New York. “I got caught in the aftermath of a bomb scare in London, so it was a bit dramatic.” It’s a new one on me, but not her: “I seem to find myself in these situations quite often, which probably says more about me than anything else.”
Rylance’s life as Della Street, the brilliant secretary-turned-partner of Matthew Rhys’s title character on HBO’s gorgeous, addictive Perry Mason reboot, has been pretty thrilling this season too. When Della takes over the cross-examination of a witness from Perry — revealing how the murder victim at the center of the season’s case was a sexual predator, then driving the point home by wrapping his belt around her own neck — she delivers a massive hell yeah! moment on a show where such victories are few and far between.
But even as she fights for respect as a woman in 1930s Los Angeles’s legal system, she’s a lesbian living in the closet. This season, the issue looms large thanks to the emergence of two new characters: her glamorous screenwriter girlfriend, Anita St. Pierre, and her powerful potential future employer, Camilla Nygaard — even as shadowy figures involved in the case appear poised to exploit her secret. With only one episode remaining in the show’s second season, all of these shoes are ready to drop at any moment.
Talk to me about Della’s courtroom scene, which literally had me yelling “ooooooo-whee!” at the screen.
[Laughs.] It was something Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, our showrunners, brought up at the beginning of season two. We discussed, “Should Della get up in court or not? If so, how? Is it even possible?” Matthew and I were both really excited about the idea for her.
It’s such a perfect Perry Mason moment, in the old-fashioned style of the original show. And it’s a very poignant moment for Della in her arc. This is a woman who’s worked as a secretary but was basically running the office for years, then found a way for Perry to become a lawyer even though she knows more about the law than he does. She gets her moment to say, “This is who I am.”
When she wraps that belt around her neck to demonstrate how the victim was strangled, it conjures a very different image than it would if Perry had done it.
Ever the research gal, Della puts the line of questioning together the night before. But on the day, when she sees the female jurors uncomfortable with this sensitive line of questioning from Perry, she realizes that this is one of the only times that being a woman, a woman in front of that jury, that witness, might win them the day. The course is set, and she makes the decision to brave the floor, realizing that if she uses the belt she gives an immediate picture to the jury of what happened. It’s a very bold choice, and one that I love that she makes.
Della is doubly marginalized, in that she’s both a woman and queer. Even as she’s fighting not to be dismissed by men, she’s still keeping a major part of her life a secret.
Yes. It’s strange: When I take on a character, there are certain things I decide about how I want to play them, and then there’s a whole other element where the character arrives with you in ways you didn’t expect. That dichotomy, that conflict — Della of needing to be seen and also needing to hide — is a fascinating element of her that I really only became aware of maybe four or five episodes into season one.
I kept thinking, “Why am I being quiet in this scene? Why am I pushing to be seen, and in the next moment, I’m trying to hide?” Then you become aware of those two things. With only three percent of lawyers in L.A. at that time being women, while being discovered as a gay woman would have meant arrest, loss of her profession, disgrace … Della’s pushing and pushing to be seen, then constantly on the back foot, hiding and being careful not to draw too much attention to herself.
It’s not something that feels very natural to me. She and I are very different. I’m quite a free spirit, very much myself, and don’t mind being sort of out there, yet she’s constantly walking this tightrope. That whole dichotomy gave Della her own life, really. It creates a conflict within her which I love exploring.
This season introduces two characters who are almost role models for Della in terms of how comfortable they are in their own skin: her new girlfriend, Anita, and also Camilla, one of the town’s most powerful people.
Anita changes everything for Della in an instant. Della has been a gay woman in this town for a long time; she moves with a small underground scene, careful not to get found out. She plays it safe. Anita’s this Hollywood writer, she’s successful, she’s bohemian, she’s part of this whole other world in L.A. that Della knows a little about but isn’t connected to. This love story quite literally demands that Della begin to imagine a world where she is no longer on the periphery but at the center.
Camilla is a self-made woman, and their first conversation, about how to be a powerful woman in a very male world, sets up everything that follows between them. Della is fascinated by her: She’s ballsy, she takes no prisoners, she is who she is, with no apology — something Della’s never been able to be. The fascination with Camilla is huge from that first meeting, and continues to be.
What do you do, as an actor in the 2020s, to get ready to play a person in the 1930s?
It’s funny: I grew up watching a lot of 1930s-1940s movies. I loved that period. So I often felt more at home in my imagination there than where I was in England.
But one of the great joys of working on this show is the detailing of the costumes and props and production design. The minute you put on the period shoes, you walk differently, so Della has a different walk than I do. The wig is such a completely different look that the minute it goes on, I feel like, “Oh, this is definitely not Juliet, this is Della.” The last thing is when you walk into the courtroom, where every detail is perfectly 1930s. It’s a delight to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
On this version of Perry Mason, the characters openly debate whether justice is an illusion. They criticize the system. Your courtroom scene aside, they don’t score slam dunks or have happy endings. When you were first preparing for the part, was it tough for you to reconcile all this with the style of the old franchise?
It’s what drew me to the project. If we’re making a show about the law, we have to look at that in the context of where we are today. It would feel irresponsible to make a legal show at this moment in time that didn’t.
For me, it felt like a challenge, but also a really necessary, essential part of, Why do this? That was my biggest question to Tim Van Patten, who was directing at the time: “Why? Why are we doing this now?”
Della is someone who really believes that the law will carry us through. In reality, with how corrupt the LAPD were at that time, it’s not that simple. Because Perry, Della, and Paul are such outsiders, they’re more invested in getting to the heart of the matter, supporting the underdog, getting to the truth.
It became clear that as well as making an entertaining show, we were hoping to mirror what’s happening around us. We’re dealing with women’s rights issues, race issues, LGBTQ issues. We’re hoping to move people to think differently.