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In 'Perry Mason,' Matthew Rhys Lives Out His Boyhood Noir Fantasies

"I was getting to fulfill a number of romantic notions in my inner child," Matthew Rhys says of playing the title role in the new HBO series <em>Perry Mason.</em>
"I was getting to fulfill a number of romantic notions in my inner child," Matthew Rhys says of playing the title role in the new HBO series Perry Mason.

As a child, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys fell in love with old American noir films — so much so that he'd sometimes channel iconic movie stars.

"There were moments when I was pulling the last drag on my cigarette and then ... trying to casually throw a one liner," Rhys says. "[Humphrey Bogart] was in my head a lot vocally."

Rhys plays the title role in the new HBO series, Perry Mason. His version of the iconic criminal defense attorney is younger and more hardboiled than the one Raymond Burr played in the popular TV show from the '50s and '60s. The new series focuses on Mason as a divorced private investigator in the early 1930s in Los Angeles — before he became a lawyer.

"He's a man who kind of lives on whiskey and cigarettes," Rhys says of his version of Mason. "I was getting to fulfill a number of romantic notions in my inner child."

Rhys lost weight for the role. He says it wasn't a significant amount — just enough to thin out his face: "It was one of the things I remember seeing a lot of in the photographs: There's a very sort of haunted look in those veterans that returned [from World War I]," he says. "In some very minuscule way, I was reaching for that with weight loss."

Interview Highlights

On pretending to be American and masking his accent in auditions

A number of times my agent said, "Look, just go in as an American, because if you go in as a Welsh person, all they will do when you audition is listen for when you slip up." But it weighed so heavily on my mind, because it felt so fake and I just thought I was gonna be found out. I just felt like I was lying — which I was.

I tried it a handful times and I would fall apart more often doing that than being myself and then going into [the] American [character]. I hated the facade. And also, I was panicked, because you're improvising in an American accent, where usually you say the lines, you learn the lines at the same time you practice the dialect, so you have a fair shot at it. When you're improvising in a dialect — in an already ... tense, heightened situation — I was just that more prone to making a mistake. And then in those moments you can see on their faces like, "Where is this kid meant to be from or where is he from?" I soon gave that up, because I couldn't deal with it. The pressure got to me.

On Welsh, his first language

It's certainly an enormous part of who I am. And it shaped my identity, because it was a struggle for this language to survive. And certainly then in the 1980s, when the language was threatened enormously, and I saw how my parents and my family and friends around me protested to the point of arrest in order for it to survive, for Wales to remain a bilingual country. ... But it's made a comeback. And that's a great source of pride, and now I speak to my 4-year-old Brooklyn son.

On using different disguises when he played a spy in The Americans

It was fun. For an actor, it was this gift. It was like the dress-up you did as a kid. ... As soon as you look at yourself, weird, other characteristics would kind of present themselves that you would latch onto. It really informed me on who I was playing. ...

The lady who was in charge of disguises and wigs for the CIA, she commented on us saying our disguises are incredibly elaborate in comparison to what the CIA [does], whereby they use disguises just at a distance so it can be just a wig or a hat or glasses. It's something to kind of change the characteristics, where we were doing very intricate and detailed disguises that in real life, that if you're were face-to-face with an operative from the opposition, you know, and they see your mustache peeling, that's your cover blown. ... It's so, so layered because you're playing someone, playing someone, playing someone all the time. And the temptation was to go further, to be a little too extreme.

On being star struck working opposite Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It was terrifying, because he's a true hero of someone I've grown up watching. I did a small part in a Spielberg movie called The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and we crossed paths very briefly in the movie. ... And I just remember how starstruck I was with Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks walking around or being in the same room as them. ...

The terrifying aspect of Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [was] you had these ideas, big scenes with this truly, to me, one of the last movie stars. I grew up with movie stars, and Hanks is one of the last, I think. So my mind always gets in my way, it's always my greatest enemy. ... I can't stop looking at Tom Hanks going, "My God, there's Tom Hanks." And then ... I become incredibly nervous. I have this incredible urge to impress him, because he's a hero of mine. I'm constantly worried that he's thinking, "Oh my God. How did this guy get the job? We've made a terrible mistake. We need to recast." And then, on top of all of that, you're trying to give a performance. My mind was just this whurr of everything — and he's grace personified.

Heidi Saman and Joel Wolfram produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.