Gayle Rankin on the Many Faces of Humanity in 'Perry Mason'

Keely Weiss
·10 mins read
Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

From ELLE

A fusty, nearly century-old franchise may not seem like an obvious vehicle for a show about inequality and police corruption, but HBO’s new series Perry Mason has managed to turn a 1930s pulp-fiction protagonist into a mouthpiece for our time. Granted, it takes some liberties with the source material: The titular criminal defense attorney is downgraded to a private investigator (Matthew Rhys), hired by defense lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) to dig up dirt that will vindicate clients Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin). As a longtime fan of the original books, I approached the new show with caution, wary of the possibility that the reboot’s whole dark-and-gritty vibe would turn my favorite character into someone I didn’t recognize. In fact, it did—and I realized that was exactly what Perry Mason needed.

Within a few episodes, it becomes clear that Rankin’s Emily Dodson is the key to understanding this reimagined version of Perry. The mousy housewife is the first person we see in the series: She and her working-class husband Matthew are arranging a ransom pickup over the phone with the kidnappers who took their infant son Charlie. Viewers watch panic, hope, and fear flash across Emily’s face in quick succession as the couple hurriedly pull together $100,000 in ransom for Charlie—a pretty penny, and even more so in the show’s 1931 Los Angeles setting. Through their window, Emily and Matthew catch a glimpse of one of the kidnappers on the Angels Flight Railway, wide-eyed baby Charlie in his arms, and we feel the relief wash over Emily as she realizes her boy is safe. We watch her race out of the apartment and onto the railway, desperate to hold her baby in her arms, only to dissolve into an animal sort of grief when she discovers that every mother’s worst nightmare has come true: Charlie is already dead, his eyelids stitched open with black thread to give the illusion of life from a distance.

After that kind of tragedy, it’s hard to imagine Emily finding salvation in a divorced, drunken private detective like Perry. From the beginning, he's disinclined to treat Emily with the same kid-gloved care as everyone else, and when Matthew is accused of orchestrating Charlie’s kidnapping, Mason gladly throws Emily to the wolves to vindicate her husband. Over time, though, Perry becomes Emily’s fiercest advocate—and it becomes clear that each is the other’s perfect foil. Rankin agrees. “They see each other,” she says of Emily and Perry. “They recognize that they are connected.” I caught up with Rankin over Zoom to discuss Emily and Perry’s bond and the experience of releasing the show in the middle of our current moment.

It’s a really interesting time for this show to come out, because it’s a detective show that isn’t from the perspective of the police. It feels really suited to the moment.

I feel so thankful we are promoting something that is in discussion with exactly what’s going on. It’s been a good use of time and a good use of being an actor. I’m always looking for my way as a human being to be engaged in social justice and trying to find ways as an actor to contribute. This feels like I’m a part of something that is engaged in the conversation of exactly what’s going on in the world.

Has the upsurge in momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement affected how you view the show?

Yes and no. I don’t think it’s possible to be alive right now and not look at everything with an even more urgent sense of the need for action, and I can understand why this show suddenly seems very relevant. But our approach was never [to try to be relevant]. Our approach was to always tell the truth. Unfortunately, the truth can be really painful and we’ve repeated history so much. There’s still a lot of work to do.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

Did you have any knowledge of Perry Mason before you got involved with the new show? Did you dive into it at all once you were cast?

It was important to get an understanding of the general time period, and I dove into a lot of movies of that period to get a general sense of the tone and style of the time. I grew up in Scotland, so Perry Mason wasn’t a staple in the U.K., but I did jump into watching old episodes [of the original show] as soon as I knew I was going to be a part of it. It was an important step to go back to the source material, even though I knew this was an origin story for Perry and we weren’t going to meet the same man.

I think his relationship to Emily Dodson is such a huge part of that—in this version, I don’t think he would become anyone close to the original Perry Mason if he hadn't met her. How would Emily reconcile the fact that Perry basically ruined her life, but then turns out to be the only person willing to fight for her?

In some ways, I think Emily wants to be outed. I think that Emily, too, is interested in the real truth, and she also doesn’t want to be in her situation. I don’t think she wants to be living her life in the way she was: She isn’t comfortable in her marriage, she engages in an affair, and she wants out. In some very backwards way, I think, Perry actually helps her—even though she goes to jail, even though her life is ruined. But then her life is also in pieces when her child is taken from her and murdered—that’s when her life is really over. I don’t think the affair is the part that destroys her, and I think Perry in some ways knows that. It sounds cheesy, but the truth is really the only thing that is going to set you free, and I don’t know if Emily would actually survive if all this didn’t happen. In some very complex, human way, he does her the biggest favor of her life, and they recognize they are connected. They go through such wild injustices to then hopefully reach a higher peace.

The show takes us back to this incredibly stylish, stylized place and time in American history, this sort of noir-ish old-L.A., but at the same time it’s peeling back the curtain a little bit: This is what it was like to be a woman, this is what it was like to be Black, this is what it was like to be gay at that time.

Yeah, it is. I think we are very lucky in this moment to have people’s eyes on it at a time when we as human beings are now absorbing entertainment with a keener eye and higher standards and greater expectations of the media at large to represent life as it has always been. I was watching Disclosure last night on Netflix, and it’s extremely eye-opening, just how long it’s taken for the media to catch up with the idea of representing things truthfully. I’m very proud of how representative this show was and how truthful it is.

What was your favorite part of working on the show?

I really loved the challenge of this role. This woman’s journey is really complicated, and I always really enjoy unpacking that and bringing my own brand of complexity to everything I work on. I really love the challenge of having to play a woman in the 1930s and actually do it and not wink or nod at, like, “I’m a woman in the 1930s, but I’m a feminist.” The amount you can learn from women then—it took me aback. You look at it on paper, and a young wife in the 1930s is not what I want to be doing in 2020, you know? It was such an honor to play her. I learned a lot from the amount of grace, strength, intelligence, complexity, and fight she had in her, and that was actually surprising, because I was being judgmental before I came into the process. I was like, oh, she’s got a lot to learn from me, but actually, it was the opposite. It was emotionally the hardest job I’d ever done, but we had a lot of fun, and we laughed a lot. Matthew is the greatest leader of all time, in my opinion—I haven’t worked with another actor this intimately for this length of a period on television who was so generous.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

All the female characters on the show are so complex, and you sort of have these three main female characters—Emily and Sister Alice and Della—who are all living such different lives. And the dynamics between them are so interesting.

The power dynamics within the female storylines are—chef’s kiss. I’ve never worked on a project where the female dynamics had very complex power exchanges. We should go back in time and try and learn from some of these women, because we don’t give them enough credit. I certainly didn’t. When you’re living in a generation, you’re always assuming that we’ve learned more, that we have progressed more, we are more powerful. That’s why I love working on period pieces.

Do you know anything about Sister Aimee, the real-life televangelist on whom Sister Alice was based?

I mean, I read books about her, because I had to understand why the church is such a huge part of who Emily is, and why Sister Alice. They have a kinship, and it’s not totally dissimilar from Emily’s relationship with Perry. Something happens when they all meet one another: it takes one to know one, and these three people have certainly experienced real trauma and injustice, and they’re all fighting in different ways.

Photo credit: Niall O'Brien
Photo credit: Niall O'Brien

Did you go into lockdown right off Perry Mason? Or had you already started production on the next season of GLOW?

We were a couple episodes into season 4 of GLOW, and then we had to shut down because of the pandemic. It was a quick transition between shows. I was like, “I’m gonna go on holiday—oh, okay, I’m gonna go straight to training.”

It’s difficult to imagine that transition, because Emily and Sheila are such different characters, but now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot they have in common, too.

[Laughs] No, you’re onto me! I was talking to someone the other day who said he’d seen a throughline in my work about playing characters who have a lot of empathy, and he’s not wrong. That’s definitely something I look for in characters and work, but I’m actually kind of hungry to change direction and attack some other ways of experiencing humanity.

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