Matthew Rhys vaguely remembers Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason playing in the background as a kid, but when it came time for him to play the famed defense attorney in a version set in 1930s Los Angeles, the actor stayed far away from all previous iterations. “I have a slight tendency, consciously or unconsciously, to imitate,” he says. “If I went to see (Raymond Burr), I don’t know how or where he would manifest, but I do know he would.” Rhys instead focused on the character presented in the script – a scarred war veteran who found his calling against the backdrop of the Great Depression. “As soon as I read the first World War I scene, I remember being very shocked. Where is this going?” Rhys recalls. “They’ve reached a defining moment that put him on a very clear path about what’s right and what’s wrong.” However, there is a strong continuity between Rhys’ Mason and other versions, in the staunch sense of justice established by author Erle Stanley Gardner. “He was the first founder of a system where people who really felt they had nowhere else to go were set up with a legal team to help them. That’s who Mason is after all; when you think all hope is lost and the odds are so unfairly stacked against you, there is someone out there to help. While Rhys can see himself playing the character as long as there’s meat on the bone, he doesn’t see this becoming the long-running series it was before. “One of the biggest challenges of this is redefining the show, not just going to court with a ruling to presume,” he says. “It’s what we do differently that keeps it fresh.”
When West Philadelphia teen Will Smith pulled out a gun in the pilot of Belair, the actor who played him knew that this was not his mother’s Fresh Prince. “I was like, ‘OK, this is different,'” says Jabari Banks. “That was the moment that took the show to 2023. Unfortunately it happens every day. I’m glad we don’t shy away from that.” Since that opener, he separated his character from what made Will Smith iconic in the 1990s NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hasn’t been difficult. However, the pressure to reimagine one of the most famous characters in TV history is another conundrum. For example, imagine him saying words from the famous theme song (“I got into a little fight and my mom got scared”) as dialogue when he arrives at his new home. “I was very afraid to say those words. There’s a fine line between bullshit and the truth,” says Banks. “I reached out to Morgan (Cooper, creator of the series) several times because I thought, ‘Is this brutal? Is this serious?’ He was like, ‘Just be sincere. That’s his truth.’ Banks says he wasn’t just aware of the original sitcom — it was the first thing he remembers as a kid. “It is a great responsibility to carry the weight of this show on your shoulders. I definitely had impostor syndrome,” he says. “But life comes at you fast, you know? Sometimes you don’t have time to think. So I focus on one line and say it as best I can. Then the scene is the best it can be. And the episode will be the best it can be. It also helps that the real Smith shared some words of encouragement. “He told me they chose me for a reason. He made my light shine,” says Banks.
Before reading a word of Alexandra Cunningham’s expansion of Fatal attraction, Joshua Jackson had doubts about playing the character created by Michael Douglas in 1987. “It felt like a trap, honestly,” he says. When Cunningham explained that her version was not a retelling but a starting point, Jackson was intrigued. “What captivated me is that men, especially white men, are going through a moment of crisis right now. I’ve played several characters who struggle with rights and privilege, and when it’s pushed back, they lash out in toxic ways,” he says. “Dan Gallagher is the fragile product of the modern male ego. When that ego construct is repressed a bit, it starts swinging. What immediately sets this Dan Gallagher apart is an evolution in both culture and storytelling. “The lack of remorse around having an affair wasn’t something I thought would be helpful in 2023,” says Jackson. “If he tells his wife, she’s holding him accountable, which to me is the core of (this show).” Despite a modern lens and a wider canvas, he didn’t completely shake off the incarnation of Douglas. “I wanted to embody the swagger and charm of Michael Douglas because that was an interesting counterpoint to who Dan becomes after he’s incarcerated.” Jackson knows it’s not his fault how people perceive his character – and he knows who’s watching, too. “I ran into Glenn Close before we started, and what she said essentially boiled down to, ‘Just don’t screw it up.’ I like a direct woman. “Yes, ma’am, we’ll do our best not to screw it up.” ”
Fionn Whitehead may not have read the classic Charles Dickens novel Great expectations before the chance to play the protagonist, Pip, came, but that doesn’t mean the 25-year-old didn’t feel the pressure of his legacy. “You can get caught up in the seriousness of a piece of literature that everyone so adores,” he says. Whitehead initially decided that not looking at previous iterations would be the solution to creating his own version of the orphan who, through an eccentric apprenticeship, tries to transcend his class. “I didn’t want to emulate anyone else, so I didn’t try to study them,” he says. “But in the end I watched a few versions in a moment of weakness.” For Whitehead, the best way to become a well-known character was to take his cues from Steven Knight’s scripts, whose candid exploration of class gave Pip and his cohorts a bit of a contemporary edge. “Steven said that when Dickens was writing, social norms prevented him from talking about a lot of things, while Steven wrote in all the nasty little details,” he says. “There is also an element to Pip that is universally recognizable: young men don’t talk about how they feel and think they have to stand on their own two feet without any help. That really had something to do with me, seeing someone going through that and struggling because they don’t realize that we all need each other.” Add in contemporary language and a diverse cast, and it wasn’t hard to see the production stand out from its predecessors. “Period dramas sometimes allow you to take a little distance. What was important to me was making sure people could interact with Pip in a non-dissociative way,” he says. “To really make an audience go through what the character is going through, sometimes you need a slight contemporary feel.”
This story first appeared in a standalone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.