From Team Downey, the drama, which has Emmy winner Matthew Rhys in the title role, is set in 1930s Los Angeles and serves as an origin story of the famed criminal defense attorney based on the books by Erle Stanley Gardner.
Rhys, who is also a producer on the series, was joined by co-creators and executive producers Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, executive producer Susan Downey, executive producer and director Tim Van Patten as well as co-stars Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, and Shea Whigham for the opening night marquee conversation.
Downey kicked off the conversation, speaking about the almost 10-year journey of the project.
She shared that Team Downey was initially approached to do a Perry Mason feature adaptation. They had this idea where they wanted to do like a present-day feature and Robert [Downey, Jr.] heard it and he said, ‘I love the Perry Mason title, what an opportunity, but I want to set it back and go to the origins, the book.'”
“We played around with it as a feature, but quickly realized that, in a great way, there was so much material. Like we couldn’t contain it in two hours. So we decided to pivot. And at the time we had our deal at Warner’s, and that’s all under the same parent company as HBO, and brought it over there and started developing it as a TV show.
The creators wanted to make sure this new iteration differed from previous adaptation and added new characters that weren’t part of the Perry Mason universe but were mined from other works of Gardner.
“Once we made the decision to do a prequel, we started going through Gardener [work], said Fitzgerald. He was a maniac. This guy was writing what, 5,000 words a day, something crazy like that, 80 Perry Mason novels, tons of other novels. We started looking at all his stuff. He wrote for the cheap detective magazines. He has tons of contributions to those. That’s where we pulled,” he added. “We tried to make as many names as you’ll encounter in this world something that if you wanted to do a deep dive, you’d come up with somebody.”
Like many, Rhys was familiar with the Perry Mason character though he admitted that he “no real memory of it.” Despite his lack of memory, once he heard Team Downey and HBO were developing it, he said he instantly felt “it’s not going to be the Perry Mason a number of people know and love.”
“I was immediately intrigued as to who they were going to present,” he said of his character who he described as “very dark” with “a lot of baggage.”
He shared that viewers will be “introduced to an enormous amount of his backstory from his time as a world war one veteran, his family problems, his inherited land problems, the encroaching maternity of the new Los Angeles emerging. He has a lot on his shoulders.”
At the request of HBO and Team Downey, the creator made sure this version would be more inclusive and feature strong female characters.
Maslany’s character Sister Alice certainly fits those descriptions. She the leader of the Radiant Assembly of God, who acts as God’s conduit to the City of Angels, and wields great power when she speaks. When it comes to that power, Maslany teased, “Alice has it in spades, in the beginning, so we assume, but there are so many factors that are controlling her, whether it’s her mother or the expectation of the church.”
Maslany added that she “fully took inspiration from the time,” and found that many themes from that period still exist today. “It doesn’t feel like such a huge leap to go.”
Today’s session ended with a surprise appearance by Robert Downey Jr. who was listening in on the whole interview and joked that thanks to the wide-ranging discussion, “I actually understand the show now.”
The series takes place during the time when the rest of the country is recovering from the Great Depression and L.A. is booming. Oil! Olympic Games! Talking pictures! Evangelical fervor! And a child kidnapping gone very, very wrong! When the case of the decade breaks down his door, Mason’s relentless pursuit of the truth reveals a fractured city and, just maybe, a pathway to redemption for himself.
Perry Mason debuts June 21 on HBO.