Perry Mason's Chris Chalk & Juliet Rylance On Their Characters' Big Changes [Exclusive Interview]

"Perry Mason" is coming back after three long years. A lot has happened in those years, and if the trailer is any indication, a lot has changed for the core characters in the aftermath of the events from season 1. Matthew Rhys plays the titular character of the show, but the series is more of an ensemble affair with Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk's characters, Della Street and Paul Drake, filling out the triumvirate of leads.

I had the chance to talk with Rylance and Chalk in advance of the season 2 premiere, where they discussed where their characters are now compared to when we last saw them. "We begin the season as three very isolated people trying to figure out how to work together and be in the same room," Rylance explained, and also shared that Della in particular "is trying to find a new way."

Chalk also teased that at the beginning of season 2, his character Paul is "completely shattered" and that he must decide "what he is willing to lose to gain." Read on for our full discussion, which also touches on how they prepared to play characters living in 1930s Los Angeles.

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

'Where does he break and what is he willing to lose to gain?'

Chris, obviously Paul is in a different head space from when we first met him in season 1. How did you prepare to get into the mindset of Paul again, given everything that happened in season 1 and in the lead up to what he goes through in season 2?

Chalk: I think once we started to get to know [the new "Perry Mason" showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler] and get their ideas of the season coming in, that's what prepared me to deal with what was coming to Paul. I had my ideas — and extra time to think about it because of the pandemic before we came back — of what I thought I wanted Paul to go through. Adding that to Jack and Michael's vision definitely took steps because we're all just getting to know each other and getting to hear each other's voices. I'm trying to squeeze my idea, they're squeezing their idea. So once it became clear that we all agreed that Paul would be completely shattered, then it was a win no matter what they brought. And they would always be much more devastating than I would think.

Really, my prep work was season 1 because I know Paul very well, and so I was just excited to not repeat, "Black guy hates racism." We got it. And that's no disrespect — we got to set the world up. But that second season was like, what else? Where does he break and what is he willing to lose to gain?

Juliet, one of the things I love about your portrayal of Della is that she's so poised and together, but we get to see her emotions bubbling underneath the surface in various scenes. When you're playing those scenes, how did you portray your character differently depending on who she was talking to?

Rylance: Della's one of those people that has built her life on being the one who's together and holding everything together and caretaking a lot, and dealing with difficult people and being the sensible one. I think what's wonderful about this season is that all of those aspects of her are there, but obviously there's a reason why someone takes on that role, often because they don't really feel that sure about what they're doing or what's driving them at home. I love this season that Della is trying to find a new way. She's been that person for so long, but she's trying to break out of that mold and also dealing with a home situation that's not really going anywhere and meets this new person and really falls in love.

So it's this strange, vulnerable Della this season of trying to change and be heard and get clear about what she wants to say. I think that's a really fabulous thing to play this year. Old Della hasn't really worked for her, and yet she doesn't really know how to make that change.

'Death is closer than it is now'

"Perry Mason" is a character-driven show — that's the core of it — but it's also a show that takes place in a certain period of time in a certain place. I think the era really comes across here. What was it like for you to get into the headspace of pretending to live in that time? Did you do anything to prepare for that? Were there any specific set locations that really made you feel like you were in that time?

Chalk: There was the place where all the poor people live, Hooverville. I was there when there was nothing. And then coming back another day and there's a giant community of very, very impoverished people. Amazing. Where Paul lived, the circumstances — the script would say, "Oh, Paul's sleeping on the floor." But when I saw the compression, the tightness of that space, it really does help support how hard it is during that time. Because we're still navigating a lot of the very same issues here 90 years later. However, we have a lot more freedoms and privileges of how we can express our disdain. There's an outlet. You can say it out loud. And back then, even whispering it is horrifying. So just working on the danger element of navigating, "What can I get away with without being possibly killed — not reprimanded — killed at any moment?" Death is closer than it is now.

Rylance: And obviously for season 1, we did a lot of research and read up about law and policing and L.A. in that period. For me, playing Della was thinking about women's etiquette and where am I from? Most people have come to L.A. from somewhere else in that period of time. So it's like, "Well, where did she come from and what kind of strata of society?" So all of those pieces, the foundations were laid I think for all of us in that first season. So this just felt more like we began to really inhabit the world in a much more visceral and real way. And because of all that isolation of Covid and being off for so long, I think it filtered through into the writing and into our performances. We begin the season as three very isolated people trying to figure out how to work together and be in the same room and what happens when you collaborate and what change can be made.

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