Matthew Rhys explains his damaged character’s need for justice in ‘Perry Mason’

TV networks have a knack for revisiting timeless characters.

Perry Mason, a popular character in Erie Stanley Gardner’s novels, has been adapted for the big and small screen over several decades.

And the story of Perry Mason, a detective-turned-criminal defence lawyer, is revisited by HBO

The eight-part period drama, which has been renewed for a second season, stars Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”, “The American”) as the titular character.

Set in 1932, the former war veteran ekes out a living as a private investigator. He gets results but his methods are questionable.

Interestingly, the role was earmarked for executive producer Robert Downey Jr. But he had another commitment and the exceptionally gifted Rhys bagged the part.

During a virtual junket, which was held in June, Rhys admitted to being hooked on the re-imagining after meeting with Susan Downer, one of the executive producers and the writers.

“What piqued his interest is the story approach – the writers were exploring the protagonist’s earlier life as a down-on-his-luck private investigator.

Rhys explained: “There is so much going on with this Mason. He’s a very damaged individual who’s come through World War One.

“He’s a veteran who’s going through an inordinate number of life problems when we meet him but there is this one element to him which I think is garnered from the injustice of the war.

“He can’t abide injustice. He can’t sit by and see that happen, so when a perversion of that happens, he has this great north star.

“I wasn’t interested in someone who was just going to serve justice wearing his underpants on the outside, I wanted a fully-fledged, well-rounded human who was very fallible.”

In the series, Mason is roped in to look into the kidnapping of the Dodson’s baby boy, who is later killed.

Running parallel to his case is Mason’s strained relationship with his ex-wife, Linda (Gretchen Mol), which has resulted in him having very limited access to his son.

The actor added: “It does twist and turn in the way a crime thriller should. I also enjoyed the more suspect ways he goes about investigating.

“He’s not guided by surface morals, he’s more interested in the end game of justice, so the way he goes about it isn’t necessarily the most moral way and he has a number of his own demons brought up by the case that he has to overcome.

“He is reluctant and reticent about becoming a defence attorney.

“It’s not an easy choice for him to make. So there are a great series of obstacles that have to be overcome.”

On also wearing the hat of producer, he laughed: “It makes me feel like a grown-up like I should be taking it more seriously!

“No, I do take it seriously. It basically came from the kindness of HBO and Team Downey; the intention was that it should all be very much a collaboration.

“They said, ‘We’re interested in you building this character and us making this project so you should come on as a producer so that you have input into the story, casting and crew and everything that is important to you, in making this’. They were incredibly generous and inclusive in that respect.”

As for his most challenging scene, Rhys revealed: “ I found the courtroom scenes very challenging.

“I was allowed a great luxury in that you don’t discover Perry Mason as a fully well-rounded defence attorney at the beginning, you see him grow.

“So I had this grace period where you are finding your feet and figuring out when to lean into the more dramatic play-acting of courtroom drama, where the attorneys themselves are play-acting to the jury.

“It’s like there’s a double audience, one is the jury and the other is (the people watching on) TV, so you’re figuring out when to ramp it up and for who, and at what time.

“Pitching the tone of those courtroom scenes was what I found most challenging and then, obviously, the great summation.

“We’ve seen so many iconic summations – these great courtroom moments from Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to Tom Cruise in ‘A Few Good Men’ – that you go, ‘Oh god, I’ve got to pull it off’.”

Perry Mason is a wonderful throw lead. back to the ‘30s with Rhys delivering a compelling performance in the lead.

“While his character muddles his way through a conflicted existence; when it comes to fighting the good fight, he has complete clarity, focus and unyielding drive.

“Perry Mason” starts on M-Net on Tuesday, July 28, at 10 pm.

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