Matthew Rhys On Reinventing ‘Perry Mason’ Again, ‘Cocaine Bear,’ And Saying Yes To Adventure

It’s been almost three years since we last checked in on Perry Mason (season 2 premieres tonight on HBO at 9pm EST) and nearly as long since Matthew Rhys‘ face was on our screens if you don’t count his oh-so-brief hello at the start of Cocaine Bear. What have they been up to? Well, for Mason, the milk truck has been replaced by a Harley and criminal law has been put aside in order to pursue a career in civil litigation. Why? We’ll get to that this season, but it’s important to note that Mason is still aching to fight the good fight and that Rhys is still protective of the character’s simple but laudable belief system when it comes to what’s right and what’s wrong. (Slightly less important to note that there are less amazing mustaches this season, but Rhys was rocking a pretty fantastic one of his own on our Zoom call, so at least there’s that.)

As for Rhys and his own belief system, well, we get into that after talking a bit about Perry Mason’s evolution – from his penchant for adventure to his side hustle running a vintage boat charter, and a work/life balance that seems to explain why his IMDB page is less chaotic than others with his experience and talent.

I moved up when I was going to see Cocaine Bear for this interview, specifically to see the cameo. That was a lot of fun. Very quick, unfortunately. I wanted a little more movement, a little more karate, a little more dancing, but it’s very, very entertaining.

I did do a whole day of it, but I don’t know if it even warrants a cameo. I think it was a blink, a blip.

So now we know, for the DVD extras. Is there a want to do more fun stuff like that for you?

Yeah, to me that is exactly what I would love to do. I grew up watching Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. Physical slapstick to me is almost like the height, but it takes a certain skill set. I’m not saying I have that skill set, but I’m in awe of those who can do that well. I think I’d love to explore.

It’s so long between the first season and the second season of Perry Mason. Almost three years. Do you feel like you have to refind the character after that long away?

Leading up to season two, I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to creak into this one.” But I was very, very kindly invited to the adult table to exec produce on this. So all the conversations leading up to season two, we worked a lot with the writers. We’ve talked a lot about breaking the story and then who are we going to find for new heads of department? Our new costume designer, new production designer. So in those conversations, especially about where Mason was going to be, we weren’t kind of picking up (exactly where we left off). We needed to evolve a bit. So in those conversations, in the run-up to filming, I was like, “Oh, I know where I am now. I know where he is.” But also in the same respect, it is a new Mason. He is in a transitional period. So there is a degree of not quite knowing where he is and how it would land, which I enjoyed as an actor.

What was behind the want to change up certain things to evolve him in certain ways rather than just picking up from the end? Did the time difference (between the production of season 1 and 2) have something to do with it?

To a degree. There are a lot of questions as to what do we do? The great fear of the second season pickup, it’s like something you did in the first season warranted a season pickup, a good audience. So do you do the same thing again?

And how do you know what that thing was, also? Like, how do you figure it out?

Exactly. And look, no one has a fucking clue in Hollywood, otherwise, everyone would be billionaires. So it’s all such alchemy. But one thing they kind of thought was, we saw him at the end of season one, rolling up his sleeves, nice suit, name on the door, everything in the garden is rosy. And they said, “Let’s not pick up there. Let’s pick up a little bit later with Mason in a different place.” And I liked it immediately. I think what they came in with was a great idea that he’s suffering from this imposter syndrome. He’s realizing it’s possibly not what he wants to do. He’s realizing it’s not what he does well. He’s haunted by the results of what he thought was the right thing. So there is a lot of change in his life, which I like because then you’re never going to be compared. You can’t go, “Well, they tried to do the same thing, didn’t work.”

Perry Mason

One thing with the notion of Los Angeles, especially in this season, is that it’s this new place building itself into something where anybody can be anything that they want to be, essentially. I think we saw that a little bit in season one. I think we see it in season two with the baseball team narrative and everything. Obviously, Mason is in the same boat, he wasn’t a lawyer at the start of this. He’s become this other thing. Is that part of his imposter syndrome: the pressure of this new city and feeling like you can be anything and is he being the right thing?

Yeah, it’s all of that. I’m glad you touched on that. It’s all of that. I think placing it in Los Angeles in 1933. Going back to the source books was a great idea because the city itself is this evolving boom town, this Klondike in the midst of a depression that was actually fun; one of the only places it was. So it’s evolving. We’ve seen that transition in season one where he goes, “I can either dig in and get covered in dust or I can try and evolve and stay with it.” So he has this great love-hate relationship with LA, which I loved. And I think he has this old-fashioned view of justice, where it’s just right and wrong, and it’s everything in between that messes him up.

So he thinks he’s doing the right thing and he is going, “But I did the right thing for that woman. I’m doing the right thing because I’m tired of the bullies and tired of things going wrong.” And then he finds it’s like, “Well, it’s not that simple.” And then all those questions start crashing. You know what I mean? Kind of dramaturgically, for him, it’s great.

Nearly three years have passed. The hierarchy of things, as far as work/life balance, has that shifted at all (for you)? Because your IMDB page isn’t as full as it was.

Believe me, I feel and find myself incredibly fortunate to be doing Mason, but it does take me away for six months at a time. And two seasons is a whole year. So that’s a fifth of my son’s life where I’ve missed bedtimes and everything else in between. So yes. After this season I said, “Look, I’m going to take a bunch of time off because I have been away for six months. I need to remind him who I am.”

You live a fascinating life. I’m sure that’s weird to have somebody say that to you. But I read about the boat. I’m curious, is there an operating philosophy? Was there a point at some point in your life where you’re like, “I’m going to prioritize things that maybe most people wouldn’t do.” I don’t know that a lot of people would say, “I’m going to sink $30,000 into a wooden boat and four years to renovate it,” and all this stuff.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t go, “Oh, I want adventure.” I mean, I do love it.

No, I’m sure you’re not like, “I’m Captain Adventure” No, I understand.

It’s when opportunity collides with possibility. With the boat, I just saw this thing, and I went, “Hang on a minute.” There are so many elements to this that make it right. The fact that I love Hemingway, it was built in Brooklyn. It’s a relative business opportunity. It’s something I’ve never done. The one thing I do is that age-old thing of saying, “Do something that scares you.” And I do that. When I went across Argentina, it was like I was terrified, but I was like, “But that opportunity is so unique, it will never again come in my lifetime.” So I suppose it’s those unique opportunities. I just want a few good stories at the end just to go, “Yeah, yeah, I did that.” So when those things come, which I’m genuinely interested in, I just think you’ve got to do it.

You have these opportunities and say why not. And I think a lot of people think, “Well, I can’t because of these reasons.” It’s pushing aside the fear and then those reasons why not, right?

Yes, it is. And listen, believe me, there are enough reasons in those moments for me to absolutely talk my way out of it. With the boat, I was like, “I really shouldn’t do this. This is madness.” And it was. But then you have those moments, in the end, you go, “Oh, I’m glad I did that.” I don’t know. I look back and I go, “Fucking hell, why did I do that? That’s mental.”

Do you have a wishlist of other things you want to do? Other adventures you’re looking for? Or is it just fate that they just find you?

I do put it in the hands of fate. I’m always like, “If something comes across my path and it’s too good to turn away, I’ll do it.” And yeah, that’s how I kind of how I’ve always been, I think. To be honest, I do find myself getting older and going, “You know what, I don’t need to do that. There’s no need.”

Risks of time, risks of soreness, things of that nature.

Yes, yes. Financial ruin, time away from the kids, all the same old shit.

There are so many celebrity travel shows, I’m sure you could take the boat out, sell a show on that. And now it’s a write-off.

Oh yeah, that’s good. I’ll just join people who are renovating old boats and just tell them how fucked they are. A lot of people told me that, they’re always coming to see the boat going, “Oh dude, you’re fucked.”

What do you say when they say that?

I say, “Don’t say that.”

‘Perry Mason’ returns to HBO tonight at 9PM ET.