In the post-Golden Age of TV anti-heroes, it’s hardly surprising when a protagonist faces the consequences of their actions, especially when their show airs on the Home Box Office. But in Perry Mason, the iconic defense attorney played by Matthew Rys is a hero in the truest sense. Though sassy and antagonistic, the well-meaning Mason always sticks up for the marginalized and helpless, even if every other character in the show’s Depression-era Los Angeles would describe him as the absolute worst: a drunken murderer sympathizer.
Despite his hard edge, Perry is a big softie who will do whatever it takes to get the best deal for his clients. In season two, while representing two young Mexican brothers charged with the murder of a prominent oil heir, “whatever it takes” gets the lawyer himself locked up: In the final moments of the finale, Perry walks himself into prison to serve a four-month sentence for concealing the murder weapon in his office safe, a crime he was willing to commit to ensure a fair trial for his client. For perhaps the first time in the entire series, Perry Mason is at peace. “There is a pride to it,” Rhys says of Perry’s decision. “It’s like, I did something that I needed to do, and therefore I’ll serve my time. I have no qualms about it and certainly no shame.”
The season finale opens with the characters learning the big twist in the case: Camille (Hope Davis) was the mastermind behind McCutcheon’s murder; she coordinated and paid for it so he’d get out of her way. Then comes the real twist: Perry going to prison for four months. As a producer and star, do you feel any pressure to execute these reveals in a show that relies on them?
I don’t feel that pressure. I apply pressure on the writers and say, Well, everyone’s going to be expecting some big, juicy stuff, so bring it. It could have gone in a few different ways, and they were toying with a different ending.
It’s so much pressure landing these shows, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. You build up so much that people are like, Okay, we want the tie-ups, but we also want the twists. You have to deliver so much. It’s more anticipation from my point of view — it’s them that have to deliver it. The expectation from us is like, Okay, I hope they do bring the juice.
If they were toying with a different ending, when were you first presented with the idea of Perry going to jail?
It was about halfway through shooting the season. They were saying, “What if Mason does something that ultimately helps the case and serves justice, but he has to pay the price?” That to me is classic Mason: “I will do whatever it takes for the right person to get punished and the right person to get off.” His means are always dubious, but he has a strong sense of right and wrong. He’s like, “I can happily tell my son I’m in prison because I did the right thing, therefore my conscience is clear. I did something that’s ultimately seen in the eyes of law that’s wrong, but it got one innocent man off and the man who did the crime is now serving his time.”
What motivates Perry to go to such extremes?
I really tacked it onto his experience in the First World War. In the first season he’s presented with this excruciating moment where three heavily injured men can’t escape and will inevitably be executed by the Germans or die very slowly. He takes it upon himself to shoot them in the head in order to expedite a less painful death. For that he is tried by a military court and comes off the worst for it. He lives his life according to that thing: There’s right and wrong and everything else in the middle is what gets you in trouble. In his heart, he sees these things as black and white. His sense of justice is very basic, but his means are wherein lie the complexities.
Perry is also quite the modern thinker for his era. He’s not overtly racist. He sees women beyond their expected roles of the time.
That was a very conscious decision. If you’ve been to rock bottom, your judgment of others won’t necessarily be as extreme or objective. His empathy for humanity opened up as a result of him being wronged so enormously. There was a whole backstory I gave about his family and the farm and what they went through, those pioneer families where the mothers are so incredibly strong. He’s seen the absolute worst of it and nothing’s going to phase him. It’ll enrage him, but his shock comes from when people lie.
Earlier in the season, when Perry learns the brothers are directly connected to the murder weapon, he’s really upset. He visits the brothers in prison and screams at them. But he quickly moves on and is still willing to fight for them.
Yes, because he understands why they did what they did. He has that empathy. His understanding of the human condition is very astute.
The courtroom scenes in the finale and throughout the season are so well executed: They’re very theatrical and every scene feels like it’s moving the story forward. How do those logistics compare to shooting other scenes?
The logistics are a nightmare because everyone has to have a reaction, so they take so long. It takes a lot out of you. I find it hard, in a way, to pitch it sometimes. And then I remind myself, Well, Mason is still new at this. He’s not an experienced trial lawyer by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a real luxury as an actor.
In his closing argument in the finale, Perry explains to the jury that they have a bias and justice is an illusion. It seems like difficult dialogue to deliver because it could easily come across too preachy or too angry. How did you decide to play that?
That’s all Mason. He’s very unsentimental, which is why he’s a good trial lawyer. He’s not into the theatrics, he’s not dramatic, he’s very matter of fact. And that boils down to his ethos, which is, If you’re presented with what’s true, I don’t have to imbue it with anything. Any intelligent person should be able to see what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s where he works from. I’ve never tried to be too theatrical with him because I don’t think that’s who he is.
Can we talk about the scene at the Japanese restaurant? I very much appreciated your food acting in that scene. Did Shea Whigham’s unparalleled commitment to eating onscreen rub off on you?
We both come from the same school of thought. We were so tired of watching people nibble on a piece of cucumber. It’s our pet peeve that no one eats properly. You just have to commit to it. I remember there was a scene in The Americans with me and Noah Emmerich eating pizza. You’ve got to eat so the people go, “God, I want a piece of pizza now.”
That scene for some reason took hours and hours and hours. And I ate so much beef I had the meat sweats. I was like, Whoa, I must be getting old because this one’s getting to me.
I really enjoyed the arc between Perry and Strickland this season, even though it was painful to see them fight. What was it like filming that fight scene in the penultimate episode?
It was meant to be this messy, stupid fight between two people who love each other and hate each other at that moment. There was meant to be no whiff of great choreography and execution; it was meant to be the mess it was. And it was written that Shea throws up afterward. I loved it.
The little vomit was really funny.
And that’s what it should be. It was so hot. Shea will smoke and smoke and smoke. He smoked so many cigarettes and then we do the fight, do the fight again, then do the fight again and the two of us are just like, “This is not pleasant in 95-degree weather.”
Season two took a bit of a pivot from the first season and lightened up the tone. Perry was very sassy. How do you strike that balance in your performance?
I rely heavily on the writing. Showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler said in the beginning of season two, “Look, we don’t want to take away anything from season one, but we do want to open it up a bit lighter this season.” Which did worry me! You can’t turn these people on their heads and all of a sudden there’s a comedic element. But they struck the tone perfectly. It’s this heavily sardonic, sarcastic humor — caustic almost. It’s a gallows humor that gets Mason through the darker hours. I was glad that was the tack they went down because it was kind of the only way.
How do you think Perry might change after his four months in prison?
I don’t know and that’s the beauty of it. I love the fact that we didn’t start season two with him being some comfortable lawyer going, “Yeah, let’s take on another case!” He was all crumbly. Four months in prison is going to affect so much of where we find him in the beginning of season three, if, God willing, there is one.