The Simple Reason Matthew Rhys Considers Perry Mason Such An Easy Role

Back in 2020, HBO took author Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and gave him the prestige drama treatment. The character, originally created in the 1930s, had already been adapted for film, TV, and radio numerous times in the decades since his novels became popular, but HBO's effort brought him into the streaming age while remaining faithful to his origins. The streamer wisely gave the private detective turned lawyer a harsher, more adult spin, and now, Season 2 of the decidedly gritty "Perry Mason" is upon us. And with season 1 providing a satisfying origin story for Mason, there's plenty of stories left to tell.

But it isn't just the irresistibly uncompromising glimpse under the carapace of 1930s Los Angeles that made this series so compelling. Star Matthew Rhys gives a suitably weary yet layered performance in the lead role that adds much in the way of dimension to the story of a PI who's forced to become a defense attorney. Aided by Juliet Rylance's legal secretary Della Street and his dedicated PI partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), Rhys' Mason was a troubled war vet who found purpose in uncovering the truth in season one's tale of kidnapping and conspiracy.

As Rhys told /Film, much of his performance came down to the research he'd done on returning World War I veterans, with the actor saying, "it was such an instrumental part of who [Mason] 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." And it seems Rhys' appreciation for the writers has continued with season 2, where he recently credited them for doing a lot of the work he would otherwise have to do.

'You see it on the page'

Matthew Rhys had already proven himself a versatile actor prior to "Perry Mason," with his Emmy-winning performance in FX's "The Americans," alongside numerous other film and TV roles. He then received a Golden Globe nomination for his "Mason" and it was well deserved. But if you ask the actor, he maintains a lot of the hard work was already done for him. Speaking to the AV Club, he was asked how he gets into the headspace of such a "sad and vulnerable" character, saying:

"When the writing is as good as on 'Perry Mason,' it's very easy because you see it on the page. All you have to do is honor that writing. You don't have to work or do the heavy lifting. And that goes for 'The Americans' and 'A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.' I look up at the [studio] lights for a while, which makes my eyes look watery. The other great thing about 'Mason' was that in season one, they kept saying we were going to load on his backstory, and they did. The luxury was you saw his backstory; it was presented on screen. The hard work was done for me. All I had to do was wear the hat right."

Some of that backstory came in the form of World War I flashbacks that depicted the difficult decisions Mason had to make in order to spare his fellow soldiers from suffering after being wounded in battle. That played a big role in the character's internal conflict, which plagues him throughout the first season. As Rhys told /Film, "it's the gray in between that always messes him up and makes him who he is."

Rhys deserves credit

In reality, the success of Perry Mason is a combination of the writing and the actor's ability to render it convincingly. Supported by some seriously impressive set design that seamlessly constructs an engrossing vision of 1930s LA, Rhys was able to convey some real depth in the lead role, helping to separate HBO's take on a frequently-adapted character from the multitude of TV shows and movies that had come before.

The trailer for "Perry Mason" season 2 promised a broodier run of episodes and so far that's pretty much been the case, with the show severing all ties from the previous season's mystery while telling a similarly unsettling tale — though the violence has been toned down slightly. That all works within the noirish world created by the show's writers and production crew, with Rhys' jaded aura adding much to a show that's unapologetic in its depiction of LA's criminal underworld.

While the writers undoubtedly helped the actor in bringing that energy to the seires, Rhys deserves much of the credit for his performance. He manages to project a sense of solid morality beneath the world-weariness that gives his flawed protagonists a redeeming quality, and that isn't just a result of the writing, as good as it is.