TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Matthew Rhys plays the title role in the new HBO series "Perry Mason," and his Perry Mason is nothing like the one Raymond Burr played in the popular TV show from the '50s and '60s. The new series tells the origin story of Perry Mason before he became a criminal defense attorney, when he was a private investigator in the early 1930s in Los Angeles. He's divorced, living on his dead parents' failed farm, unable to pay his bills and dealing with what we'd now call PTSD - feeling guilt and despair, haunted by what he had to do as a soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I in France.
Matthew Rhys is from Wales. He became well known in America starring in the critically acclaimed FX series "The Americans." He played a KGB spy living in the United States during the Cold War as part of a husband-and-wife team pretending to be travel agents. He won an Emmy for that role in 2018. Last year, Matthew Rhys starred in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" as a cynical journalist who's assigned to profile Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, and is moved to change his life because of Rogers.
Let's start with a scene from the third episode of "Perry Mason." He's investigating a crime that involves people connected to an evangelical church in which the preacher, Sister Alice, claims to be guided by the voice of God. Mason is cynical about the church and the preacher. In this scene, he's meeting with the leaders of the church, including Sister Alice, played by Tatiana Maslany. She speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PERRY MASON")
TATIANA MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) You should come by when you have an hour. I'm on 21 times a week.
MATTHEW RHYS: (As Perry Mason) You should save that seat for someone who's buying.
MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) Maybe you don't know what you need until you see it.
RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Oh, I've seen it, Sister.
MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) But you haven't felt it - not in here. If you had, you wouldn't think you were so alone.
RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Is this when you tell me you have a message from my dear departed mother?
MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) I do. She said you should be ashamed for leaving the house with your nails like that.
RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Thank you for these. Is there someone in the choir I can talk to? That's where they met, right?
MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) God is with your work.
RHYS: (As Perry Mason) God left me in France, Sister.
MASLANY: (As Sister Alice) God is with you whether you acknowledge him or not.
GROSS: Matthew Rhys, welcome to FRESH AIR. I am just loving "Perry Mason" and loving you in it. So thank you for coming to our show.
RHYS: Not at all. Thank you (laughter) for saying such a thing.
GROSS: (Laughter) So I used to watch the old "Perry Mason" because my father was a big fan and always tried to, like, solve the murder before Perry did (laughter). And then - but I have to say, the Raymond Burr "Perry Mason" was so straight-laced, and he never reflected on things like having been abandoned by God (laughter). That was not that "Perry Mason." So the TV series is actually based on the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, and he wrote, like - was it, like, 80 different "Perry Mason" stories over the years?
RHYS: Yes, it's enormous.
GROSS: Did you go back and read any of them?
RHYS: I didn't for some very specific reasons. I've made adaptations from books in the past, and the first thing I've always done is to dive into the novels. And, inevitably, I start mining things in the novels that aren't necessarily in the script. And more often than not, I find myself usually on set thinking that I'm kind of playing something that's in the novel, you know, not necessarily on the script page, and it gets - I muddle myself (laughter) very easily.
So I deliberately told myself not to this time, that I was going to stick strictly with the source material, and because the - you know, the writing team were adamant that we were creating our own very new "Perry Mason," thankfully with - you know, with the blessing of the "Perry Mason" estate, who were incredibly open to these enormous changes. So I wanted to keep it as linear and as straight and as easy for me as possible, to just - just to work on the script.
GROSS: So your character is a World War I veteran, and we see flashbacks about how he was nearly killed in a trench by a German soldier. And he ends up killing two American soldiers who were shot in the trench and were dying, and he basically shoots them to quicken their death so that their deaths aren't prolonged and even more painful. And that is weighing on him so much. What's something that you learned about trench warfare in World War I that was helpful for you in developing the character?
RHYS: The one word that I kept, you know, reading and rereading was - you know, I know it sounds incredibly obvious when you're fighting in a trench, but I think sometimes the heroism - you know, the heroics of what they achieved sometimes overwashes the abject fear that they went through when they would be siphoned on and off, you know, the trenches because they would serve X amount of days or weeks on the front line and then, you know, would be rested, as it were, and the build up to that fear. And then as the officers were desperately trying to placate and calm, you know, the lower ranks - because they took it upon themselves to be these calming mediators for the troops.
And I wonder what - I tried to find source material of especially the officers who felt almost an overwhelming fear that they couldn't actually do their jobs or let alone speak. And that was something I really hooked into. It may not necessarily have come through in - you know, when you see - in those brief flashbacks that I did, but it was something that I was certainly carrying when I was acting the scenes.
GROSS: So did you lose weight for this role? Because...
RHYS: I did.
GROSS: Your character just looks drawn.
GROSS: So was that intentional?
RHYS: Yes, I did.
GROSS: Yeah. Why did you want to lose weight for it?
RHYS: It was. And it wasn't, you know, an enormous or significant amount of weight, but I did try and lose a little bit of weight just for the simple reasons - you know, he's a man who kind of lives on whiskey and cigarettes, and it is the Depression. He doesn't have much money. And I was trying to lose some weight to my face so that there was a gaunt. And 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. And, you know, in some very minuscule way, I was reaching for that.
GROSS: Your "Perry Mason" is pretty hard-boiled, with some great dialogue. Are you a fan of hard-boiled fiction or noir films?
RHYS: Absolutely. And, you know, one element of this job for me was, in a very childlike way, I was getting to fulfill a number of kind of romantic notions in my inner child of, you know, growing up while watching old American movie stars who wore, you know, trilbies and fedoras in a very Chandler-esque way.
There were moments when I was, you know, pulling the last drag on my cigarette and then flicking it away and, you know, trying to throw - casually throw a one-liner and desperately trying not to impersonate, you know, Humphrey Bogart or someone - Bogart mainly; he was in my head a lot, vocally. And at times, I could hear myself kind of unconsciously mimic him in some way 'cause (laughter), you know, you - clearly, those people have gone in deep somewhere many decades ago and had stayed, and then I was finally being able to play out these boyhood, you know, hard-boiled types. It was - I loved it.
GROSS: You smoke a certain way on the show, with the cigarette cupped by your hand. Where'd you get that from?
RHYS: That was something the - both writers, both Ron and Rolin, were big on, as did a number of veterans at the time smoke - you know, they smoked with the cigarette cupped so that no ember was showing to any enemy sniper. And also in the rain, you know, it would keep your cigarette dry. So to some veterans, it's a knowing tell of how they used to smoke in the trenches. And that was something that's kind of stayed with Mason.
GROSS: I have to say - and people probably say this to you all the time - it's just so disorienting to hear your Welsh accent because I'm so used to hearing you speak American, you know, in "The Americans" and in "Perry Mason" and "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." How did you learn to speak American? Did you learn to speak American before coming to the U.S.?
RHYS: Yes. I think as kids growing up kind of - it seemed to me universally in my world, we would watch "Starsky And Hutch" and "The A-Team" and all these American TV shows and go out into the schoolyard and try and replicate terrible American accents as we were, you know...
RHYS: ...Trying to play these TV shows at school. So from this very early age, you're pretending to be American cowboys or American GIs or, you know, American cops. And that's, I think, certainly where it started. Your ears are tuned to it. You're introduced to American sounds at a very early age.
And then in - you know, went to drama school, and the training there on vocal and accent work - dialect work - is intense. So you know, it's slightly honed there. And then I did - I was lucky I did a play that ran for six months. I did "The Graduate" (laughter). I played Benjamin Braddock, where I had to kind of get the right sound down. Otherwise, you would be found out quick.
GROSS: When you came to America and went to auditions, did you go in as if you were American so they wouldn't think, like - well, this guy can't do it because he's really from Wales?
RHYS: Oh, that was the perennial argument, where - a number 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's this - it weighed so heavily on my mind because it felt so fake. And I just felt I was going to be found out. I just felt like I was like lying, which I was. I did - I tried it a handful of times, and I would fall apart more often doing that than kind of, you know, being myself and then going into American. I kind of - I hated the facade.
And also, I was panicked because you're improvising in an American accent, whereby usually you're sent the lines. You learn the lines at the same time you practice, you know, the dialect, so you have a fair shot at it. When you're improvising in a dialect in an already very heightened situation - tense, heightened situation - I was just that more prone to making a mistake. And then, you know, in those moments, you can see it on their faces. They're like, where - where's this kid meant to be from, or where is he from? Yeah. I soon gave that up because I couldn't deal with it. It was - the pressure always got to me.
GROSS: So you went to drama school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
GROSS: So did you have to learn an English accent, which is different than a Welsh accent?
RHYS: I did. You know, one of the big things they kind of pushed - I say pushed on us, but one of the things that we were taught a lot was this dialect which they refer to as Received Pronunciation, RP, which to me sounds like a very posh English accent. It was the - it was the the accent of the moneyed English. And it's strange because the psychology behind it, for me, was a great struggle.
You know, I think one of the things that certainly helped me in my accent work is that I have two very musical parents. Music was always a big part of our household. So to me, accent work is kind of like music. You're replicating sounds that you can hear. And this English accent to me, psychologically, has represented something of - something we were always opposed to growing up. You know, it was always the voice of the Conservative Party, the Tories - you know, the ruling classes of England. It was always a sound that I associated with (laughter) someone I didn't like. So to mimic that, it's one of the accents that I've always struggled most with.
GROSS: Do you feel better about an American accent?
RHYS: I do. I have to say, for some reason, it has no psychological hold on me, the American accent. To me, it's still - it was always the accent that was exciting. It was exotic. It was - you know, it was Bogart. It was John Wayne. It was - it was all the movies I watched. So it still has that. I still catch myself. When I'm doing an American accent, you know, I have that feeling that I'm just impersonating actors like I did as a boy, you know, when you'd be alone in your room trying to be Al Pacino (laughter), you know, anyone like that. So it still has this wonderment to me.
GROSS: So we have to take a short break here. Let me reintroduce you before we do. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rhys, who's now starring as Perry Mason in the new HBO reimagining of "Perry Mason." He also starred in "The Americans" and in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." We'll be right back.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rhys. He stars as Perry Mason in the new HBO series "Perry Mason," and he also starred in "The Americans" and in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." Let's talk about "The Americans," and this is the role that really made you famous in the U.S.
It starts off in 1981. Ronald Reagan has just been elected president. And you play Philip and your wife Elizabeth, they're both Russian spies living in a suburb of Washington, D.C. They've lived together 15 years as man and wife. They have two kids. And this is like a marriage arranged for them as spies. It's not supposed to be a real marriage. It's a marriage as part of their cover. And they've just found out that their new neighbor Stan Beeman works for the FBI.
So your character, Philip, thinks that the U.S. is onto the fact that you're spies, but your wife Elizabeth thinks that this is just a coincidence. And in the scene, you're in the garage with your wife talking about your new neighbor, and in the trunk of your car is a KGB operative named Timoshev, who you've captured on orders from the KGB because he defected to the U.S. And your wife is played by Keri Russell, who is now your life partner in real life. So here's the scene. You speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")
RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) Look - maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe this is the perfect time for us just to think about living the life we've been living but just really living it, just being us.
KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) What are you talking about?
RHYS: (As Philip) I'm saying we might be blown. I'm also saying we are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. We have been for a very long time. So why don't we get ahead of this? And why don't we make the first move and offer ourselves to them? We could get a lot of money - $3 million for Timoshev, $3 million for us. We just get relocated, take the good life and be happy.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) Are you joking? Is this a joke?
RHYS: (As Philip) No.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) You want to betray our country.
RHYS: (As Philip) Well, after everything we've done, I don't think it's such a betrayal.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) Defecting to America?
RHYS: (As Philip) America's not so bad. We've been here a long time. What's so bad about it, you know? The electricity works all the time. Food's pretty great. Closet space...
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) Is that what you care about?
RHYS: (As Philip) No, I care about everything.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) Not the motherland.
RHYS: (As Philip) I do, but our family comes first.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) So Paige and Henry - what does that do to your plan?
RHYS: (As Philip) We'd have a great life - because we would have money.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) What would you tell them, Philip?
RHYS: (As Philip) The truth.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) You swore. We swore we would never tell them, to let them grow up and live their own lives. They're not to be a part of this.
RHYS: (As Philip) They're not to be a part of this. They will be American, and you can't stand that. I see it every day.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) I'm not finished with them yet. They don't have to be regular Americans; they can be socialists...
RHYS: (As Philip) They're not going to be socialists.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) They can be trade union activists. But to...
RHYS: (As Philip) This place doesn't turn out socialists.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) This would - to know that it was all a lie, they would never speak to us again, Philip. And what are we even talking about? There would be no future for any of us; they would kill us all.
RHYS: (As Philip) They'd never find us. They would never find us.
RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth) Have you looked in our trunk?
GROSS: OK, that's Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in a scene from the first episode of "The Americans." That was your audition scene, too, right?
RHYS: (Laughter) Yes, it was. For those listening who don't know, there's a - that slapping noise was Keri slapping me in the face, which she did with great aplomb during not just one audition but, I think, three auditions. And the wonderful director, Gavin O'Connor, very silently whispered to Keri during the first audition, slap him as hard as you can for real. So, obviously, the stage direction says she slaps, but I didn't think she would. And she wound this thing up that must have started the week before...
RHYS: ...Because they both said, you didn't even react (laughter). And I wanted to say - except I was trying to be far too cool. I said, she hit me so fast and so hard, I was - those moments after, I was just stunned in amazement that, A, it had happened, B, it'd been that hard, and, C, I hadn't done anything. But they said, oh, yeah, your reaction was great.
GROSS: The showrunner and creator Joe Weisberg had worked at the CIA. Did he tell you interesting things about spycraft that you were able to use?
RHYS: He did, and more so, he kind of did these (laughter) - did these spycraft clinics with us, with Keri and myself and Noah, obviously, who was in counterintelligence. So he would take us out on - into the street and kind of show us the way they were trained to see if you were being followed without looking and all these sleight-of-hand skills almost, to which I thought I would be incredibly good because you spend your - you know, I've spent decades in film and television with a camera where the whole point of this is to be incredibly aware of something but ultimately ignore it.
So I thought - for counterintelligence work, I thought, oh, this is great, you know, to be - you have to be aware of someone following you but not obviously show it. But I was absolutely terrible. It is an incredibly different skill, and I learned very quickly how bad of a spy I would have been. But he was very good. He was incredibly meticulous about - all the intelligence work had to be pinpoint accurate. He was very selective in what he told us and what he was allowed to tell us. He was still very diligent in that respect.
He always told us it was the CIA who read the scripts first because if you go - if you are - have been in the CIA and then you write about the intelligence community, they basically have first dibs on the reading of the script to make sure you're not giving away any national secrets.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here so we can take another short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rhys, and he's now starring in the HBO series "Perry Mason." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "PERRY MASON")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Matthew Rhys. He stars as Perry Mason in the new HBO series reimagining the story of Perry Mason, the character that was portrayed by Raymond Burr in the TV series of the '50s and '60s. "Perry Mason" is on Sunday nights. Rhys also starred in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," playing a journalist whose life is changed after interviewing Fred Rogers. Rhys became famous for his role in the FX series "The Americans" and won an Emmy for his performance. He played a KGB spy posing as an American living in a suburb of Washington during the Cold War.
So you were told that everything had to be authentic in terms of the spycraft in the spy series "The Americans." One of the things that you are trained to do in this series is to have sex with people who you need to get information from. So there's a flashback scene of you getting trained and you have to sleep with a beautiful woman and then with a much older woman and then with a man, who I have to say is really, you know, quite unattractive (laughter).
GROSS: So were there actually training sessions in the KGB? Of course, this is KGB spycraft and not CIA spycraft, so maybe the CIA was less concerned with authenticity. But do you know if the KGB was trained to do that? And do you know if the CIA is trained to do that?
RHYS: I don't know (laughter) I don't know about the CIA. If they will, Joe certainly didn't give that one away. But the KGB did have something very similar. I think it was called the Romeo project where operatives were trained in seduction - mainly men in the seduction of women with low-level intelligence clearance - would try and seduce these women. I think, if I remember correctly, like, there was some Englishman living in Moscow who was giving these tutorials of - about female seduction. It always struck me as strange as to why have a man teach other men about the seduction of women. Surely, it'd be better to have a woman impart some knowledge. This was something that the KGB did. And one of the other storylines in "The Americans" was that I was living this other marriage with this secretary for the FBI, and that was part kind of the Romeo project that the KGB did where they were trying to have operatives, as I say, marry low-level clearance intelligence officers in order to gain access.
GROSS: Yeah, so you're living a double life in that part of the series. And when you marry this other wife, you look - you change your name, but you look completely different, too. You're dressed in, like, a polyester suit with kind of stiff hair and aviator glasses. And it's - you look so different. And, of course, it's one of many disguises that you wear during the course of this series. What was it like to look in the mirror each time you changed who you were?
RHYS: For an actor, it was like - it was this gift. It was like the dress up you did as a kid. I know I always seem to refer to my childhood, but I think it's such a strong element of it that you could kind of really change yourself in those moments. As soon as you look at yourself, it's weird. Other characteristics would kind of present themselves that you would latch on to. It really informed me on who I was playing. And the great temptation I think for us, you know, we're also doing fiction. We're doing drama.
So we had this - the lady who's in charge of wigs for - disguises and wigs for the CIA. She commented on us saying, you know, our disguises were incredibly elaborate in comparison to what the CIA do, whereby they just - they use disguises at a distance, so it can be just a wig or a hat or glasses. It's something that, you know, to kind of change the characteristics where we were doing very intricate and detailed disguises that in real life, you know, if you were face to face with, you know, a member of the opposition, operative from the opposition, you know, and they see your mustache peeling, that's your cover blown. So ours was a little heightened.
But I loved it. It was like - it gave you this imagination to kind of start reaching and stretching out into kind of other little performances. You know, it's so layered because you're just playing someone playing someone playing someone all the time. And the temptation was to go further, to be a little too extreme, certainly in my case. You know, you want to do an eye patch and a hump and a limp. And Joe Weisberg was always saying, you know, listen, if you are going to lie, keep it as close to the truth as possible so that it's believable, which I thought was a great acting note as well.
GROSS: Yeah. You said you were playing somebody who was playing somebody who was playing somebody. So you're an actor playing a spy and the spy is playing all these other characters as part of his spycraft, you know.
GROSS: And you were learning to be American, just as your character was learning to be American. So that's like another parallel.
RHYS: Yeah. Yes. Yeah. There were a number of great parallels for me and Philip. One of the most forgiving, I think, was basically Philip was a foreigner trying to pretend to be an American, which is all - these are all I've been trying to do for years. So that element was very comfortable for me and very forgiving 'cause, you know, if ever my accent got picked apart, I could always say, yes, well, he's not American, is he? He's Russian.
RHYS: I think it's the only time - it'll probably be the only time in my career where I have that luxury that I'm a foreigner pretending to be an American. So it was the greatest safety net of all.
GROSS: Let's talk about "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." You played a journalist - a magazine journalist known for, like, your takedown pieces. You're very not only skeptical but cynical. And then you're assigned to profile Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, for an issue about heroes. And your character thinks the assignment is almost a punishment. But he has to do it, and he approaches Fred Rogers with a great deal of cynicism but ends up having a really deep relationship with him that really opens him up emotionally. It's based on a true story. Did you know the show "Mister Rogers" having grown up in Wales?
RHYS: Not at all, not in the slightest. However, it was pointed out to me, you know, when I - when the script came through and I immediately said to Keri - I was like, who's Fred Rogers? Who's Mr. Rogers? She went, get out. Get out of this house. She said, well, Sam, our son, watches this cartoon called "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." And she said that's an offshoot of "Mister Rogers," what Sam was watching. You know, and then she obviously went into a long, lengthy explanation as to who he was. But I think certainly we were far - we were poorer for not having Fred Rogers in Wales. That's for sure. I think the whole world could benefit from a little Fred Rogers.
GROSS: So in "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," you worked with Tom Hanks. He played Mr. Rogers. You were the journalist profiling him who becomes, you know, his friend. What was it like working with Tom Hanks? Do you feel like you learned things from him, or...
RHYS: I did, enormously. It was terrifying, you know, because he's a true hero and someone I've grown up watching. And then the terrifying aspect of "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" was you had these big scenes with this truly - well, like, to me, one of the last movie stars, you know? I think, I grew up with movie stars. And Hanks is one of the last, I think. So you're not just acting, it's - my mind always gets in my way. It's always my greatest enemy.
But it's like, there's 10 things going on. It's like, one, I'm incredibly star - I can't stop looking at Tom Hanks. I'm like, God, that's Tom Hanks. And then, the second part is you get - then I become incredibly nervous. I have this incredible urge to impress him because he's a hero of mine. He - you know, 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, you know, a performance. My mind was just this wealth of everything. And he's grace personified.
GROSS: If you feel that your mind gets in the way of your work, how do you try to quiet your mind?
RHYS: I have no idea.
RHYS: I have tried for decades. I've done concentration (laughter) exercises. I've tried everything. I just have one of those busy brains that won't shut itself off. And it doesn't leave me alone. And, I think, having the American - doing the American accent actually helps me in a way because such a large part of your brain is working on something in a way that has nothing to do with the performance. It's just sound. You're working on creating the right sounds.
So there's a massive swathe of my brain that's kind of going, OK, how does that - like, every time you open - before you open your mouth, you engage. And your brain goes, OK, that's the sound for this. Like, if I see - if there's a word like murderer coming up, which I know is, like, a bump in the road for me, I'm very focused on that word. So what I think it actually does, in some strange way, it helps me because it leaves me alone. I'm thinking less about acting. Doing an American accent helps me in that respect in that it quiet - there's not enough room in my brain...
RHYS: ...For all the madness and for me to concentrate on doing the accent.
GROSS: Well put. Why is murderer a difficult word?
RHYS: Oh, it's the double R, double R. Dark L and R, like world. This is a - like, if I had to say, this is a world of murderers, I'd be like - can we change this to a planet of killers? - because that's...
RHYS: ...Almost suicidal for me.
GROSS: Is it R in general or the American R that is the problem?
RHYS: I think a lot of us from - who aren't from the U.S. struggle with R, the American R, making it authentic. I think my tongue, possibly because I'm a Welsh speaker - I don't know. But, you know, my tongue placement for a dark L, like world, I struggle with. World - I always feel like I'm swallowing my tongue. World - (laughter) I'm doing it now - I struggle with. So it's a number of things. And, I think, also, psychologically, as soon as you get a sound - you think a sound trips you, then it's kind of with you for life. You're always wary of them. You're always like, aw, shoot. I got to say world in this scene.
RHYS: And then you have the niggles. And the voices start.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rhys. He starred in the FX series "The Americans." He starred with Tom Hanks in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." And now he's starring in the HBO series "Perry Mason." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN AND PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "NIGHTMARE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rhys. He stars in the new HBO series "Perry Mason," which is a reimagining of the "Perry Mason" story. And he starred in the spy series "The Americans." And he starred in the movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" opposite Tom Hanks, who played Mr. Rogers.
Let's talk about growing up in Wales. What was your neighborhood like?
RHYS: It was great. I think the older I get, the more rose-tinted my glasses. But, you know, it was one of those lovely, you know, suburban neighborhoods where all the mothers knew who the bike gang boys were. And, you know, when the streetlights came on, you went home. And we were right on the cusp of kind of nature. If you went one direction, you'd sort of head into town. But if you made a right, you'd head into the woods and the canal and the field. So I felt like we had this canvas of play that we could do - we could play out any movie we wanted to, which, inevitably, will we always did.
There was an innocence to it, I think, you know, without sounding too twee. My parents were from rural areas and one - west. My mother's from west Wales, near the sea. And my father's mid-Wales, from an agricultural background. So some holidays, we were always on farms or, you know, at the seaside. It was a very - I had a great childhood.
GROSS: What kind of farm was it, animals or agriculture?
RHYS: Yeah, livestock. Yeah, sheep farms. I had a number of uncles - still do - who had sheep farms. So we would - my sister and I would inevitably try and get in the way under the thin guise of helping them or work. But, you know, we were the city kids who didn't really (laughter know anything. I - wild imagination. So the sheep, to me, were always cattle. And I was always - in my mind, I was always a cowboy kind of herding - working cattle. Except I was just an 8-year-old trying to move sheep. So they served a different purpose. They were - you know, I had my - I had the safe version of cattle. If there was a stampede, my hope was I wouldn't die.
GROSS: When you thought of cowboys and cattle, did you think of the TV series "Rawhide?" Did you know the series?
RHYS: Yeah. Well, you know, the theme tune is kind of firmly rooted in my mind. But, yeah, you know, "Rawhide" and then the John Ford Westerns, certainly, "Lonesome Dove." All those things that I watched growing up - Westerns were huge. I loved Westerns particularly. So it was - that was my opportunity to grow up living out (laughter) my cowboy fantasies. But we also - you know, there was a lot of culture in our household as well. My mother was a music teacher for the blind. And my father's headmaster. But they're enormous lovers of music.
And in Wales, there's this ancient tradition of - called eisteddfod, which is a cultural arts event - happens twice a year - for the youth of Wales where we all meet up. And there's - you compete in poetry, recital and musical instruments, singing, dance, drama. So my father was a national winner. I think my mother was, too. My sister did very well. But I - there's this prize in the big eisteddfod, first week of August, called the Richard Burton Prize because he competed in them. And it was the big thing to win the Richard Burton. And (laughter) I never won it. And it is still a great source of pain for me.
GROSS: But you did get to play a role onstage that he played on screen in "Look Back In Anger."
RHYS: I did. In fact, it was one of my - it was one of the hardest things I've ever done because I'd - in some respects - because I'd watched Burton play Jimmy Porter in "Look Back In Anger" a million times, over and over and over and over, and said to myself, all I want to do is one day play Jimmy Porter. And I got this incredible opportunity to do it in New York. Like, all my planets were aligning. I could not, for the life of me, get Burton's voice or intonation in the delivery of those lines out of my head. And I could not but mimic him during that performance.
But it was that job, really, that led me to "The Americans" because the casting director Leslee Feldman (ph) came to see "Look Back In Anger." And she came backstage. She said, I've got this project called "The Americans" I'd like you to look at. And the rest was history.
GROSS: So one more question. The plot of "The Americans" and the plot of "Perry Mason" are pretty - they're pretty complicated (laughter). Do you ever...
GROSS: ...You know, I often watch movies and TV shows for the characters and the atmosphere because it's sometimes hard for me to follow plots. So I'm wondering if you ever lose track of the plot because it's so complicated.
RHYS: I notoriously and famously am the person who's always going, wait, what...
RHYS: ...Explain this to me again. Who's that? What? Sorry, what do they mean to me? Why am I here? What's going on? What time is lunch? Yes, I - "The Americans," at times, I was always going to Keri through gritted teeth kind of going, I don't understand what's going on. Who are these people?
RHYS: And her being far more intelligent would always very kindly explain it to me. So yes, (laughter) I certainly struggled with "The Americans" at times. I was a little more on board with "Perry Mason" in the development of the script. So I felt like I was in real time with the writers. So I could ask questions without giving my hand away that I was not the sharpest tool in the room.
GROSS: Matthew Rhys, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
RHYS: A real pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Matthew Rhys is now starring in the HBO series "Perry Mason." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Earlier in his career, he won the Thelonious Monk Competition and made an appearance on Kendrick Lamar's landmark "To Pimp A Butterfly." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BENNIE MAUPIN QUARTET'S "PROPHET'S MOTIFS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.