Perry Mason's Diarra Kilpatrick On Clara's Investigative Season 2 Arc [Exclusive Interview]

This post contains spoilers for the seventh episode of "Perry Mason" season 2.

The second season of "Perry Mason" is heading into its finale next week, and if last night's penultimate episode is any indication, things will come to a head with consequences not only for Perry Mason's clients, but for Mason (Matthew Rhys) himself.

The latest episode is also one in which Paul (Chris Chalk)'s wife, Clara, gets more deeply involved with her husband's investigations, and all the risk that entails. I spoke with Diarra Kilpatrick, who played Clara for both seasons of the show, about this new experience for her character. "I think she loses herself for a moment in doing that," Kilpatrick told me about Clara's decision to help Paul by entering a well-to-do Beverly Hills home unannounced. She later added that, for Clara, "it's nice to be out in the world and doing something that feels important and dangerous and thrilling."

Read on for our full discussion, where Kilpatrick reveals what she turned to for inspiration, how some developments in the second season conflicted with the biography she had established for Clara in season 1, and how Paul and Clara have the healthiest relationship on the show.

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

'I've just thought of Clara as the conductor of her family'

I realized that Clara and Paul really have the only healthy relationship on "Perry Mason." It's a very positive and strong one, especially in the latest episode. When you first got the part back in season 1, how was it pitched to you? And did you know her relationship with Paul would be such a crucial part of the show?

No, I really didn't. I read for it and then I sort of forgot. And I think I was up north on a hike and my agent called and was like, "Oh, I think you're going to get this thing." They didn't pitch me anything. They just said, "Come play." So I was really pleasantly surprised how she's grown in the universe and how she's become such a bedrock of support for her husband.

I think from the beginning — and it's really continued in the second season — I've just thought of Clara as the conductor of her family. At that time, you really couldn't conduct your family like a conductor would with both batons wildly flailing about, you have to do it with your eye. You have to do it with your energy. I feel like the old folks always say that the man is the head of the household, but the woman is the body, or the woman is the neck. And the neck turns the head. So I think part of the reason that they work things out is because Clara knows how to do it to a certain degree. She knows when to push and when not to push and when to wait. So yeah, they do reach a great place because I do think they're true partners and there is a tremendous amount of love there, and it's really just a lot of fun to explore a healthy relationship and find the dynamics within that.

'It also made everything crackle a little bit'

In season 2, Paul and Clara and their baby move in with Clara's brother. I interviewed Chris Chalk [who plays Paul] earlier and he was saying how that set was claustrophobic, as it's supposed to be. What was it like for you shooting in that space?

Some of it, you don't have to think too hard. It's like you have to take up less space. You could think about that as a woman, you take up less space, but literally, your clothes are tighter, the threads are made by hand, the fabric is more delicate, everything. It just makes you a smaller version of yourself. So it is true. It was tight. And if you ever looked at houses that were built in the '30s too, you're always like, "Did they not have shoes?" There's just less space. People had less things. So there's a simplicity to the movement. But also the other part of that is you can feel people's energy really closely and you can't just go, "You're driving me crazy. I'm going to go downstairs or I'm going to go over here." And that does help with their interconnectedness when she says, "If you're stressed, I'm stressed," because we really are right on top of each other and everybody's energy's got to be right. You could hear a pin drop and know that something's off or someone's off their routine. It also made everything crackle a little bit because we were just literally so close to each other and to each other's energy fields.

'I think it is sexy for them'

Clara does a lot more stressful things this season, like when she starts taking part in Paul's job in certain ways, such as walking up to that house in episode 7. Can you talk through what it was exploring that side of Clara and approaching how you thought she would deal with those types of situations?

I don't think Clara thought she would be walking into that house when she got up that morning. That made it a lot easier, because in the opening episode of season 2, I'm like terrified just to pose for a picture [while helping Paul out on a project]. And it's so nice that by the end I'm like, "I'll go in and I'll pretend to be a maid."

But I think it is sexy for them. Part of the way that they made up is plotting this thing and doing this thing together and stepping into his world and proving to him how much she's in it with him and how much they're in it together. I thought that was really great. And I think she loses herself for a moment in doing that, because it is nice to have an afternoon away from your baby. So there's a little bit of that happening with her, too. It's just like, "Gosh, it's nice to be out in the world and doing something that feels important and dangerous and thrilling."

At that time, a lot of times you had to marry your avatar. You had to marry the person that was going to go out in the world and represent you, and do the meaningful thing. I do think that she takes a lot of pride in that and being the bedrock of a person like that. But it's nice for her to get her hands a little bit dirty, too.

If there's a season 3, do you think Clara would be doing more of that? Would you like to have Clara be doing more of that?

I would hope so. Paul is really smart, but he's an emotional wreck. So I think it would be nice for him to have her support to some degree.

One thing I noticed in episode 7 is you do a lot of scenes in the car. I don't know how much of that was Hollywood magic versus you actually driving in an old-time car like that, but did you have any experience driving in one of those old cars while you were shooting?

I never got to drive, but Chris [Chalk] did. Chris drove, and when we were driving away from the house, we were on the rig so we're not literally driving, but he is driving when we're first coming around the corner. I will say it's very cool. I'm from Detroit, so I feel like I've been to every car museum, heard every story about every car ever. So it was pretty cool to be in there.

It was pretty smokey. It was hot, so it wasn't so glamorous. But because normally I'm in the house, just as an actor it was nice to just literally be out on the street and be in the field.

'Who's got something to say? Who wants to roll?'

Was there anything else about playing on the show in terms of getting ready for that time period?

Yeah, I love to read. So I really love "The Warmth of Other Suns" because Clara's from the South and came up. So in crafting her story of when she would've come and why, it was a lot of fun to dig into those old stories and decide.

It was also funny because I had written her biography for season 1 and then it was like, "Oh, she has a brother" for season 2. And it just shot my entire idea of how she came to Los Angeles and who she had been with and what had happened. But I was like, "Okay, we'll change that up." But that's really fun for me in crafting that backstory, because I kept being like, "We're so old to be having our first child, I would think we would've had a kid at 20," or whatever.

Then I love just talking to people in my family and getting those stories. [Famous acting teacher] Stella Adler always talks about blood memory — play things that are literally coursing through your DNA. So I like to hear those stories of how my family in particular got to Detroit and what those women were like. I feel really fortunate that my dad's a little bit older, he's in his 80s, and so he has a lot of memories of women who were alive at this time. Then the third thing is actually pretty spiritual, where I like to bring — I have it on my ancestral altar, I have a picture of my family that was taken in South Carolina in, I think it's 1911 or something like that. And I'm always like, "Who wants to play?"

I love to just open it up to the ancestors, like, "Who's got something to say? Who wants to roll?" And I would be really surprised what kind of mannerisms and things, line readings that will come out of me, that I just have to say, by magic, I hope represents the women who I love, these nameless, faceless women that got the Black family to where they are now in these really quiet acts of love, of raising their family, of supporting their husbands through hard times, of speaking life into their brother, of telling jokes with their sister-in-law, doing these jobs, working as maids, until progress happened.

I think they're just as important as Martin Luther King and all the people that we've heard about. I'm getting emotional because I do really — I'm so grateful for them to have lived by our measurements, small, quiet lives.

That's amazing. If this is too personal, you don't have to answer it, but is there anything from your history that made it into your backstory for Clara?

When I was young, we went to South Carolina to a family reunion, and I was with my aunt, and what she remembered was burying her mother before she moved. That was the last thing, they buried her [and] the family moved to Detroit. And we spent a long time in the heat looking for this marker, this gravestone of her mother. She's like 90-something and she's like, "I know we put the marker down. I know we did. It was the last thing we did before we left." And everybody's out there, and finally we found it. Her mother, Mary Campbell. So I did borrow that piece of burying my mother and that being the last thing that was keeping her there and then moving on to what was hoped to be a better life.

The season finale of "Perry Mason" airs on HBO next Monday, April 24.