His American Way
As a wee boy in Wales, Matthew Rhys was already working on his American accent when he and his pals played The A-Team. Some three decades on, that accent perfected, he awed audiences in The Americans as a Russian spy in deep cover. Now, in HBO’s new Perry Mason, he returns to TV with the origin story of the dogged defense lawyer, a staple of U.S. pop culture for almost a century.
Matthew Rhys would like you to know that he is god-awful at teaching math.
"It might as well be brain surgery in front of me, because I have no idea what's going on," he says with a laugh. The subject of English? A bit better: "I enjoy the storytelling and creative writing. But I'd leave it to the professionals."
Educational strengths and weaknesses would normally not be a prime topic, but Rhys is calling during a designated lunch break as he and actress Keri Russell attempt to homeschool three kids.
It's mid-March, and the family has temporarily uprooted from Brooklyn to their home in the Catskills mountains of New York to ride out the Covid-19 pandemic. Every day since has been an adventure in learning.
"My parents were teachers, and I'd be such a glib little brat to them," he says. "If they'd ask about my Plan B if acting didn't work out, my offensive retort would be, 'Well, I could just teach.' But now my respect for them has skyrocketed."
Fortunately for everybody, Plan A has been a rousing success.
The Emmy-winning Welshman has proved a remarkable and durable acting force, capable of generating deep empathy as a cynical journalist (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), a persnickety sibling (Brothers & Sisters), a government whistleblower (The Post) — and, of course, a conflicted KGB agent, as he did for six seasons on FX's The Americans.
He could teach a master class on how to perfect an American accent.
Now he's quite literally wearing a new hat as the lead in the eight-episode limited series Perry Mason, available on HBO and HBO Max. And let's just get this out of the way right off: this is not your grandfather's Perry Mason.
Unlike the by-the-book defense lawyer Raymond Burr played in the 1957–66 CBS series and 26 subsequent TV movies, Rhys's Perry is more a weary, wary backroom fixer than a polished officer of the court.
Still ravaged by his tour of duty in World War I, he's struggling to get by in Depression-era Los Angeles. He lands his first big case as a private investigator after a young couple's baby is kidnapped and killed.
(FYI, this mystery is not based on any of Erle Stanley Gardner's 82 Perry Mason novels, published between 1933 and 1973.)
"I loved that there's an aimlessness to him and that he's not committed to anything," Rhys says of this origin story. "He fought in the war, where he suffered a great injustice. So now if he sees something that's unjust, it rankles him, and he has to do something about it."
And though Perry is a flawed hero — like other small-screen titans of recent years, The Americans' Philip Jennings among them — "He has an overriding virtue that he will do the right thing, regardless of how he does it."
There's one more key difference between the two Perry Masons: "In contrast to the old one, which was very procedural in nature, Matthew brings his heart," says Tim Van Patten (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), who directed all eight episodes and is an executive producer.
"You feel Perry's journey, and you feel his sadness. It looks beautiful because you see the character blossom over the course of the series. You see him become Perry Mason."
Rhys was not originally slotted for the role, and he's the first to admit it.
Instead, it was a Robert Downey Jr. vehicle; he and his wife, producer Susan Downey, had been attached to a Perry Mason theatrical film for nearly a decade.
"It was presented to us as a modern-day version," Susan explains, "but Robert was interested in going back to the source material, because 1930s Los Angeles is such a rich world."
When the Downeys realized the concept would be more effective as a series, he recused himself because of scheduling conflicts. But they stayed on as executive producers under their Team Downey banner and had a hand in casting. "We were wondering who could pull off this layered character," she says.
Enter Rhys, who was approached soon after he wrapped The Americans in 2018. His only reference point for the character: his grandfather, of course.
"He watched it, and I remember that there was always some big confession at the end. My grandfather was like, 'He did it again!' I was very reassured when I heard this version would be HBO-ified."
Signing on meant that for the first time in his 23-year TV and movie career, Rhys would be number one on the call sheet, while also executive-producing. (With Rhys, Van Patten and the Downeys, the series' other executive producers are Amanda Burrell, Joe Horacek, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones; the latter two are also writer-showrunners.)
As ever, Rhys didn't take his responsibility lightly. "I knew there was a great degree of pressure that was squarely sitting on my shoulders," he says. "Not to sound pompous, but there is a responsibility in having to lead. You're setting the tone and decorum on set."
How'd he do? Put it this way: Van Patten says he rarely does interviews but couldn't resist the opportunity to marvel about his leading man.
"Sometimes you meet an actor or actress and you have an opinion about them, and then they get to the set and the behavior changes — but with Matthew it never changed," he raves. "He's totally prepared, totally professional, and you can feel his passion and positive energy.
"He just leaves it all on the floor and embraces everybody in the process. It really had an inspirational effect on the cast and crew, because they had someone to rally around."
Count costar Juliet Rylance (The Knick, McMafia), who plays secretary Della Street, among the inspired.
"He was always the first to the set and first to hair and makeup," she says. "And he's aware of everything happening on set — camera angles, sound, what mood people are in and how to make the whole thing work. And at the same time, he's beautifully imaginative, open and playful."
Rhys explains that he learned by watching the greats. Start with his London stage experience in the 1990s, when he worked with Corin Redgrave. "He really took care of his company," he says.
He also singles out Sally Field and Tom Hanks, with whom he costarred in the 2006-11 ABC series Brothers & Sisters and the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, respectively. Those American icons, he notes, have four Oscars and zero ego between them.
"They're cut from the same cloth and have this enormous work ethic and demand-slash-expect it in everyone else and truly look after everyone," he says.
"You see them in the movies, and you go, 'We're safe and this is going to be incredible,' but you don't realize the work that goes into that. They're two of the greatest examples I've ever seen of leadership. I did put that on myself." ...
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine.
Go under the emmy magazine cover shoot here!
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2020
See who got nominated for Emmys this year.
Watch the replay and get all the details.
Our continuing series of opinion pieces from industry leaders and professionals, sharing ideas, fostering dialogue, and inspiring change.
A lively panel discussion of African-Americans in the world of post-production.