BEST IN SHOWS

Perry Mason’s Matthew Rhys Obsesses Over Documentaries

The Emmy nominee on the importance of being Ernest.


Matthew Rhys as Ernest Hemingway from ‘Hemingway.’ Photograph by Matthew Rhys.

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Matthew Rhys would prefer to watch a documentary instead of binge-watch the latest dramatic must-see TV. Perhaps that’s because he’s spent the majority of the last two decades starring in drama series of his own, like Brothers & Sisters (which explored the complicated dynamics of a family in Ojai, California) and The Americans (in which Rhys and his partner, Keri Russell, starred as KGB spies undercover in Washington, D.C.). And is there anything more dramatic than Perry Mason, HBO’s latest spin on the pulp fiction lawyer-turned-gumshoe? Still, Rhys and his family spent the pandemic watching documentaries of the nature and biography varieties. The Emmy-nominated actor took a special liking to Hemingway, the three-part PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the complicated literary giant. But even before the series aired, Rhys’s fascination with Hemingway led him to make a very specific purchase. Here, the Welsh actor explains.

What are some television shows you binge-watched early on in quarantine?

One of the problems with our family is the age spread of the kids, it’s like 5, 9, and 13, so it’s hard to get something that everyone will watch. One thing we did find, and went back to a lot, was Seven Worlds One Planet, which was the David Attenborough [docuseries] for the BBC. That blew my mind.

Is your family big on documentaries?

Yeah, pretty much docs over anything else. Docs over drama in our house. I thought about portraying My Octopus Teacher for the portfolio, and I thought about dressing up as an octopus, but it was too much to find an octopus outfit or make one.

What was it about the life of Hemingway that was interesting to you?

I’ve always been a big fan. I suppose what struck me about the documentary was I was seemingly looking at a subject matter that I didn’t know about and I think that’s what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do so well, they steer away from the obvious. They mine very interesting things from their subjects. I felt it was fresh, new eyes on Hemingway.

What’s the most fascinating thing that you learned through watching the documentary?

I was a bit surprised, there were elements about his sexuality that were alluded to—or not his sexuality, but what he enjoyed sexually was very interesting to me, especially with his third wife. I hadn’t realized really, as incredibly successful as he was, there was a degree of him living off his wives that I was quite surprised at to be perfectly honest. I don’t think you can write like that without being kind of troubled, and learning of how troubled a person he was, and how that manifested itself, was very eye-opening to me.

You took your self-portrait on a boat. What’s the story behind that?

Three-and-a-half years ago I saw on eBay that a boat was on sale. It was a Wheeler Playmate and I knew Hemingway had a Wheeler Playmate. I did some research and found there were only four of them left. I bought it and restored it over three-and-a-half years. I launched it about two weeks ago, and I painted it the same colors as Hemingway’s. That’s the boat I took the picture on. That was my ode to Papa.

There have been many iterations of Perry Mason, but your show is a fresh take on the iconic lawyer. How do you balance the tension between taking a very classic character that a lot of people know and injecting something contemporary into it?

When I was first told about Perry Mason, I was like, why would you remake Perry Mason? I was told very quickly it wasn’t a remake, it was a reimagining. When I sat down with the two writers about how they perceived Mason, and what they wanted to do with him, I was hooked pretty much from the get go. They said, Look, there’s a lot we want to do with him, we want to load his bases in a way, we want to layer him incredibly deeply. The thing was to steer away from the Mason that people thought they knew.

Rhys as Perry Mason. Photographed by Merrick Morton/HBO.

Did it feel daunting to take on such an iconic character, or did you feel immediately confident?

Oh my god, no I never feel that! What I liked about the script was there was never going to be any kind of question of comparison. In fact, as soon as they said we’re doing the origin story I was like, that’s a great idea, I’d love to know what his origin story is. What I was confident about was that they were setting up very different characters, that gave me confidence, but I certainly didn’t think like, Oh I’ve got this.

What types of shows did you watch as a child?

In Wales, or in the U.K., what we do is we watch a lot of American television. We watched Starsky & Hutch, The A-Team, Airwolf. Those were big staples in my life growing up. They certainly influenced what we would play as kids in the backyard and who we were impersonating from a very early age.

You’re also a cohost on the unscripted The Wine Show, in which you travel to different vineyards across the globe with actors like Matthew Goode, James Purefoy, and Dominic West. How drunk do you get drinking all of that wine on camera?

Absolutely wasted. Wasted! That first season, it was such a shock, especially Italy. When they do wine tasting, Italians firmly believe that you do not spit the wine like the French do when they do tastings. The Italians insist you take two long drafts of wine. The first long sip clears the palate, and then you taste the second sip. So, if you imagine we start at 8:30 in the morning, we would stop at like 6:30 in the afternoon—by midday, we were on our knees! All the producers would say, “You’ve got to stop slurring, you’ve got to say something more than, ‘Oh, this is nice!’” They started scheduling that into the day because around 2 o’clock we wouldn’t have a single linear thought in our heads, and they’d give us time to sleep for a little bit, and see if they could get any more out of us in the afternoon.

What’s the most interesting fact you’ve learned in your journey of tasting global wines?

[Laughs] A few people have asked me that and I always say, I can’t quite remember anything if I’m perfectly honest. The one tip I remember from [The Wine Show cohost] Joe Fattorini, he was kind of our “Obi Wine Kenobi,” is that he said: If you’re ever in any doubt about what wine to take anywhere, you take a Chianti Classico, and you make sure it has the black cockerel on the label. That’s my rule of thumb in the world. Chinese takeaway, a nice dinner, anything—usually nine times out of ten, a Chianti Classico will serve you very well.

What excites you the most about television right now?

What I’m constantly in awe of, especially in television, is that we keep saying, “This is the golden age,” and each year it’s maxed out. The bar can’t get any higher, but it’s a testament to the creativity of people that it keeps evolving, it keeps us drawn in. Yes, there are repetitions here and there, but pretty few and far between. It continues to evolve as this incredible medium, and it’s truly, I know it’s a cliche, it’s only limited by the imagination and we keep seeing all these storytellers, the writers, the directors that come through, they can still reinvent it. They can still reshape a new canvas. I’m so excited and in awe of that fact, that it’s incredibly impressive.