Perry Mason's Matthew Rhys On Season 2's Unexpected Direction [Exclusive Interview]

Season 2 of HBO's "Perry Mason" is set to premiere in mere days, and has gotten strong reviews (including from /Film's Chris Evangelista) as being a slick and stylish follow up to the episodes that came before it. The show takes place in 1930s Los Angeles and stars Matthew Rhys as the titular character, a relatively new lawyer that is flawed in all kinds of ways.

I had the chance to talk with Rhys in the lead up to the season's premiere about what it was like for him to come back to the role after a multi-year hiatus. (This project, like many, was delayed due to the pandemic.) "Mason is having this crisis of faith to do with his own imposter syndrome. And he's not sure whether he wants to be doing it, whether he's qualified enough to be doing it," Rhys told me about his character. He added later on that the upcoming episodes "takes us in a direction I wasn't expecting," in part because of the conflict between Mason and his two partners, Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk).

Read on for that full discussion, which includes how Rhys brought horses into the series and what "new experiences" are in store for Perry Mason in season 2.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'I had a fair amount of trepidation or concern as to where it picks up'

I had a chance to watch the second season of "Perry Mason," and it really picks up after season 1 in terms of character development. For you as an actor, what was it like getting back into the role after everything that happened in season 1 and the aftermath of what your character is dealing with at the beginning of season 2?

I had a fair amount of trepidation or concern as to where it picks up. Everyone loves a season 2 pickup, but the concern is, now what do we do? We have an audience, hopefully — how do we keep them? What happens to these people? Because at the end of season 1, it was a nice ending. The name's going on the door with Della, he has a nice suit on, and the Charlie's Angels triumvirate is looking like it's going to be great.

But in the beginning of season 2, there's a factious element to the three. There's division creeping in. Mason is having this crisis of faith to do with his own imposter syndrome. And he's not sure whether he wants to be doing it, whether he's qualified enough to be doing it. Della is pulling him in. Paul is feeling betrayed that the work he was promised hasn't come through. So there was real conflict between the three, which I was very glad about. It takes us in a direction I wasn't expecting.

There's a line in the trailer about just how broken your character is. He doesn't have everything figured out, let's say. How did you get into that mindset or prepare to play someone who has those fractures Mason has?

The majority of the research I did in season 1 was to do with returning veterans from World War I because it was such an instrumental part of who he was. I thought it was a shrewd dramaturgical move on the writer's behalf, and it's had this profound effect on who he is as a person. I always profess Mason lives his life, at times, with a very simplistic right and wrong outlook on the world. And I think if ever there was one, you can look at World Wars I and II and go, "Well, that's wrong. That's right. And I shall do what's right." And you won't necessarily return the hero that you think you will. So Mason, I do think he lives with right and wrong, but it's the gray in between that always messes him up and makes him who he is, which I'm not even sure can ever be fixed, but it certainly makes for interesting playing.

In season 2, we get to explore his relationship with his son a bit more. What was it like exploring that part of Mason's character in terms of him as a father?

It was great. It was a softer side of Mason that you got to explore. Like so many elements in Mason we've seen in seasons 1 and 2, a lot of these are new experiences for him. Becoming a trial lawyer is new, becoming this person he didn't think he was is new, becoming the responsible father that he thought he wasn't capable of, was new. So it's just great discovery. And I suppose in a way, as an actor, it's a luxury to do it in real time, because you're discovering at the same time as him.

'I got to get on a rearing horse, which was a real great moment for me'

Without getting into spoilers, I noticed you get to ride a lot of horses this season and a motorcycle as well, which we see in the trailer. What was it like for you? Did you have to practice a lot for that?

The writers said, "What do you want to do?" And I've always ridden horses, but I've never been able to do a job where I ride horses. They very kindly wrote that in for me. I got to get on a rearing horse, which was a real great moment for me. But I think also just the motorcycle element, I love that because it brings something to Mason. We've seen his farm background. You understand where the horses come from. And then the motorbike comes in and Della says to him, "Why do you even ride that thing?" At one point, he goes, "Because it's fun." They became private moments for Mason where he gets to relax. So he gets to have fun. You see hopefully a side of him you don't usually see — he's not as browbeaten when he's on his motorbike.

I live in L.A., and just seeing Los Angeles in that time period is really interesting to me. Were there any amazing locations you went to or sets where you just felt really transported back into that time?

I lived in L.A. six years myself, so seeing a new L.A., and just the time period of L.A. in the '30s, I think, it's so glamorous to me anyway. I can't remember the name, but there was an incredibly old burger bar in San Pedro that just so many movies had shot at. Almost daily, you were allowed to experience these little moments, these nuggets in L.A. that I had no idea existed, even the tram car in season 1, which is still operational. You forget, as much as it's the modern city we think it is, it has incredible history.

Season 2 of "Perry Mason" premieres on HBO and HBO Max on March 6, 2023.