Perry Mason's Paul Raci On Channeling The Nastiness Of Lydell McCutcheon [Exclusive Interview]

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

The latest episode of "Perry Mason" has this season's mystery close to wrapping up, and in doing so has given us insight into one of the show's meanest characters — the hardboiled, sometimes-violent businessman, Lydell McCutcheon, played by Paul Raci ("Sound of Metal").

I had the chance to talk with Raci about playing Lydell, including what he used for inspiration. "I had to look to my grandfather, who was a racist S.O.B.," he told me about one of the major influences on his performance. "I grew up in the '50s and he was trying very hard to teach me how to be a racist [...] He wore the same clothes, the same hat in the '50s, and was a racist because he was full of fear. Just like Lydell is."

Our conversation delved deeper into his inspirations for portraying the part and also covered his time on set (some crucial scenes, for example, were added in the middle of production). Read on for the full discussion.

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

'I didn't really realize that he was as nasty as he was going to be'

To kick us off, I'd love to hear about how this role got into your lap. How did you hear about it and what attracted you to it?

I think my agent submitted me for the role. And I don't mind telling you, even though I was an Oscar nominee for "Sound of Metal," you would think I'd be on the map by now, but I actually had to audition for the role. Which is fine. I understand that. I am the new kid on the block. I might be the oldest kid on the block, but I am the new kid on the block.

But I auditioned for it and then was called back. And for the Downey team [Note: "Perry Mason" is produced by Susan and Robert Downey Jr.'s production company], I had to come back a third time. Part of that reason was I had not seen the script. This is why every actor wants to get a script — they want to see what the arc of the character is. I auditioned for it and got a callback, but I didn't know it was for the bad guy. I had no idea. So they asked me to add something to see if I could be nasty. I was like, "Okay." So we did that and then I was called back again and we did it again.

So I got the role, but I didn't really realize that he was as nasty as he was going to be. That's how that all came down. And it just shows you, just when you think everything's going to be on easy street or you think, "Now my life is going to be easy," hey, it's competitive out there. We're in Hollywood. There's a lot of people, a lot of very talented people. So I had to come back for the role and it turns out it was in my favor and I just loved doing Lydell McCutcheon. It's just a great role. He has a great suit, great hat.

'They actually wrote some more scenes for us in the middle of the filming'

He definitely has a good wardrobe. So when did you know Lydell's full arc, like all of the details of the plot and his role in the mystery?

That was unfolding as we were filming it, but I knew by the time we did the first day of shooting that he was going to be a pretty bad guy. But the interesting thing is, the very first scene that you see me in, in episode 1 [of season 2], when I'm talking to my son — when I call him over at the seaside resort — that wasn't filmed or written until about halfway into the shooting, when the showrunners realized that they didn't have enough between Lydell and Brooks, his son. So they actually wrote some more scenes for us in the middle of the filming.

That's interesting. In the episode 7, there's that flashback we have of Lydell telling his son to go to Cuba. Was that one of those scenes that was added?

Yes, it was. Which we were thrilled about because I guess they just saw that the story was missing something between Lydell and his son. So they added I think three or four scenes, which is thrilling for us. And it did flesh out the story, I think, because you could see what the stakes were with them.

Nice. What were the other ones? Do you remember offhand?

I can't really recall right now, but there's three they added between the two of us.

Did they have to call back [Tommy Dewey, who plays Lydell's son, Brooks McCutcheon]?

Yeah, because me and Tommy, we said goodbye to each other weeks ago. And so you can imagine, anytime when they call you back to do another scene, we were both thrilled to be there. And when you got a happy actor that's thrilled to be there, we had the electricity.

'I had to look to my grandfather, who was a racist S.O.B.'

You mentioned you found out through the process that your character was a not great guy. But "Perry Mason" is also of a very specific time and place, as well. Did you do anything to prepare to play a person from that time period?

Listen, this is crazy. I grew up in the '50s in Chicago with black-and-white television. Not that I modeled anything off of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson, but I did kind of. I loved them as a boy. I loved the hats. So I couldn't believe I was getting an opportunity to bring that genre into a realistic format. Because when I look at James Cagney — I just watched "White Heat" two nights ago — 1947 James Cagney. One of the worst movies ever made. One of the worst performances he ever did. But I look at them and think about how I was impressed with him as a boy. So I just wanted to bring more of a realistic feel to it for "Perry Mason."

For me, I had to look to my grandfather, who was a racist S.O.B. I grew up in the '50s and he was trying very hard to teach me how to be a racist. And that's who I really modeled Lydell off of, my grandfather. He wore the same clothes, the same hat in the '50s, and was a racist because he was full of fear. Just like Lydell is. He's afraid he's going to be stripped of everything that he's worked so hard for. And that's my grandfather.

That's interesting what you said about how fear drives Lydell, because episode 7 is the first time you really see what's going on beneath the surface with him. We've obviously seen him before and it's very clear he's a tough guy. But in episode 7, there are a few scenes where the audience starts to see another side to him. The first is the business lunch with Camilla [the business magnate played by Hope Davis]. What was it like filming that scene and just making it clear how much Lydell didn't like Camilla?

Well first of all, Hope Davis is a great actor and a beautiful person. So I got to hang with her a little bit, had never met her before. There's a lot of prep that goes into getting these scenes together because it's such a gorgeous set. But we got to talk, I got to see that she was a very serious actor. So I just knew that we were going to get along. She's focused, she's on it. I'm very focused and I like to be on it myself. So just the respect that I have for Hope Davis and working with the Japanese actors that we had in that room, that was a great day of shooting.

It was just delicious to work with her and also finally get a chance to show some softer edges to Lydell, because all this time he's such a rigidly mean character. When you get to relax into some softness, it's like, "Finally." Because what's under the underbelly of Lydell is that he loves his family, but it's the fear. I was relieved that I was able to just soften up a little bit. Plus being with the grandkids, you got to be a little bit softer, too.

'That's one of my greatest memories is being on that set'

Speaking of the grandkids, you have the scene closer to the end of the episode where Lydell is shooting clay pigeons with his grandson and Mason shows up. It's a key moment in the season because people are probably thinking Lydell killed his son. And it's revealed that's not what happened. I would just love to hear what was it like shooting such an emotional scene for Lydell, also while holding that gun.

That was fantastic, to work with Matthew [Rhys, who plays Perry Mason] in that scene. And for all the takes that it took to get all the angles, yeah, that gun was very heavy. When I watched it, I'm thinking, "Wow, Paul, that's a heavy shotgun in your hand." But it was thrilling.

That's one of my greatest memories is being on that set. Everybody behind the camera is so supportive. And it seemed as though they were into it as much as I was, as much as Matthew was. We were all shooting that thing together. I can't tell you how satisfying that was. When we were done shooting that, it seemed like everybody on that set was like, "Yeah, we all nailed it together." That's how I felt. And boy, I mean, just thinking about it now makes me want to go back and do some more, because that was a very supportive set because everybody was happy. Everybody was totally happy. So I have great memories of that shoot.

For my last question, was there any particular scene when you were playing Lydell where you were just like, "This is the guy — I'm really digging into what makes this guy tick"?

Yeah, there's a scene that I shoot with Perry Mason at the Santa Anita Raceway where he comes out and I have him dragged over by these two goons. I didn't really know what my cadence was going to be until the moment we started shooting that. They really gave me time to relax into what I was doing. I was in charge. I had him dragged over by my two gorillas. That's the scene when I knew who Lydell was. And I was very grateful and gratified that they let us breathe. This is not like a TV show, it was shooting a movie. So that scene is when I knew who Lydell was and the power that he had. Because you look at the look on Perry Mason's face — he's not afraid, but he certainly is thinking about being afraid. So that's when I knew. That's when I fell in love with myself.

The season finale of "Perry Mason" airs on HBO next Monday, April 24, 2023.