Interviews

Interview: John Lithgow on "Perry Mason" crime series revival

Writer: Naseem Randhawa

John Lithgow plays Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan, mentor to Perry Mason.
John Lithgow plays Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan, mentor to Perry Mason.

It is undeniable that almost everyone loves an intricate and well-plotted crime series, and so it is about time that a popular character from the 1930s was resurrected for a new adaptation for the masses.

If you aren't familiar with Perry Mason, all you need to know is that the American fictional character is a criminal defence lawyer that was the subject of more than 80 detective novels and short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Between the years of 1957 to 1995 there have also been two TV series and about 30 "Perry Mason" TV films.

The new HBO series produced by Robert Downey Jr. (Yes, Iron Man himself), stars Matthew Rhys of "The Americans" fame as the titular character. Set in 1932 Los Angeles, viewers will learn more about the origin of Mason post-World War I, and how he comes to be a popular lawyer via trying to solve a sensational infant kidnapping-murder case.

Joining him are familiar faces Tatiana Maslany ("Orphan Black") as an overzealous preacher of an Evangelical church, and John Lithgow ("Interstellar") who plays attorney Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan, mentor and father figure to Mason.

As the series is currently at his halfway mark with four more episodes to go for the finale, we managed to chat with John Lithgow and what he thinks about bringing the series to life for today's audience.

New episodes premiere same time as the U.S. every Monday at 9am on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch 411 HD) until 10 August 2020, with a same day encore at 10pm on HBO.


Matthew Rhys ("The Americans") plays the titular role, Perry Mason.


Tatiana Maslany of "Orphan Black" fame, plays a preacher of an Evangelical church.

What appealed to you about "Perry Mason" and how did you come to be involved?

John Lithgow: The first I heard of it was when it was offered to me and there were lots of things already in place including Tim Van Patten, a director I've always wanted to work with. It turned out I was right - he's a perfectly wonderful man and a great director. The whole notion of Matthew Rhys playing Perry Mason fascinated me; that automatically made it a very different project. It was pitched to me as a very bold reimagining, and in a sense, a completely new series. When they sent me the script, it was clear within pages that these guys [the show's writers, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones] were ingenious and original. The fact that it was set in Los Angeles in the 1930s also made it very exciting to me. It's a great era. Los Angeles is a wonderfully corrupt town and it always has been. [This show] has all the elements of Chinatown, one of my favourite films.

What was your previous knowledge of "Perry Mason"?

JL: I'd never read the books, for me it was all about the [1960s] TV series. It's been the template for legal procedural dramas ever since. It was a fun show, but you look back on it now and it seems very old time; nothing like what we've made out of it. The show's writers have plunged into Los Angeles' history to find extraordinary characters to turn into characters in the series.

E.B is not a character from the original stories, but he is significant to the series as "Perry Mason's" mentor. What else can you tell us about him?

JL: E.B. is not young; his best days are behind him, but I think even in his best days he wasn't all that great an attorney! He's a little over the hill and thinks back to the days when he was one of the grandees among Los Angeles lawyers, when he knew everybody, and he knew which strings to pull. He was slightly corrupt and really made things happen for rich clients, but it's been a long time since he's had that kind of vehemence. He needs a big case badly. But then the case turns out to be much bigger than he can handle. He completely relies on two people – one of them is Perry Mason and the other is [his assistant] Della Street.

Did you model E.B. on anyone in particular?

JL: I kind of modelled him on myself. He's sort of an old fool and I'm afraid my self-esteem is gradually alluding me in old age! While everyone else is thinking about how different Perry, Paul Drake and Della are from the originals, E.B. is a brand-new character, so it was wonderful. You learn an enormous amount about E.B. in the trajectory of his story. At the beginning, he seems very self-assured, commanding and powerful, but bit by bit, he begins to unravel. The idea, in this origin story, is that Perry Mason takes the place of his mentor E.B., and so they had to create quite a fascinating character who eventually gives way to Perry.

What made the shoot stand out for you?

JL: The production and costume design were so extraordinary, it was great to enter into that world, but it was also great to enter into that world in my hometown. Seeing parts of the city I've never seen before. It was like a historical field trip around Los Angeles every morning! There were these buildings downtown – thank God they hadn't been torn down like most of them have been – where it was very exciting to create that world. I read a marvelous review of the show which says it's the most beautiful series that has ever been created, and I think that's because it's a gorgeous thing to create if you do it right.

Cinema Online, 21 July 2020

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