Growing up in Asheville, Chris Chalk remembers seeing reruns of “Perry Mason” on TV but not paying a lot of attention to them.
“It was on the TV at my grandmother’s house, my aunts’ and uncles’ houses, reruns were always on,” Chalk said. “My intellectual understanding was it was not particularly thrilling.”
In part, that’s because he didn’t find anyone to identify with on the show.
Now, Chalk is taking on the role of one of the main characters in the series, who is black in HBO’s revamp of the almost 90-year-old franchise. He plays Paul Drake, who would go on to become Mason’s right-hand man. But the new “Perry Mason” is a prequel set at the start of their relationship during the Great Depression, and Drake is a beat cop who becomes involved in the same case Mason is working on.
“I really appreciate what this reimagining is doing,” Chalk said. And he sees a purpose in changing Drake’s ethnicity. “It’s not doing it to do it, it’s doing it because in 1930s Los Angeles we still existed, black people were there,” he said. “The country was where it was.”
Chalk, 33, is an alumnus of UNCG. When growing up, he did a lot of community theater. As the first person in his family to go to a four-year university, he said, “I thought I was going to major in math.” Then he learned that some people made a living acting, and found his true calling.
After graduating, he moved to New York to pursue a career, which at first didn’t work out the way he had hoped. “I can look back and see it was difficult, but when I was young I was just doing it,” he said. “I got stressed, tired and scared. I didn’t work for six or eight months, something like that. ... Coming from very small Asheville to very large New York — it’s big.”
He eventually got a job at a theater as an assistant director, and began building a career that has included stage work — most notably the 2010 Broadway production of “Fences” — as well as film parts, including “12 Years a Slave,” and TV roles in such shows as “Homeland,” “Justified,” “The Newsroom,” “Complications,” “Underground” and “Gotham.” Last year, he played the older version of Yusuf Salaam in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” about the aftermath of the 1989 Central Park Five case.
HBO’s reboot takes Mason, Drake and other characters back to the beginning, showing how they first meet. The story arc in the first season, which began June 21, involves a botched kidnapping that results in the death of a toddler, with Mason as part of the defense attorney’s team trying to prove their client wasn’t the killer.
Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” plays Perry Mason, who is struggling with alcoholism and PTSD from his service in World War I but trying to find his purpose in life. The case gives him focus and helps him rise to his true calling. John Lithgow plays his complacent boss, defense attorney E.B. Jonathan, with Shea Whigham as Mason’s disreputable but roguishly charming fellow investigator Pete Strickland and Juliet Rylance as Della Street, Jonathan’s secretary, who acts as a moral compass and pushes Mason to do the right thing.
The series was produced by Robert Downey Jr., who at one point was attached to star when it was considered a possible movie. It is for a mature audience, with profanity, nudity, violence and an unflinching look at the racism of the 1930s.
Mason made his debut in crime stories by writer Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s, with sometimes-lurid titles such as “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” “The Case of the Lucky Legs” and “The Case of the Curious Bride.” Those led to a series of forgettable theatrical films and a 1940s radio show. But Perry Mason grew in popularity with the legal drama “Perry Mason,” which aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966.
Raymond Burr played Mason, with Barbara Hale as his trusted secretary and confidante Street, and William Hopper as Drake, Mason’s towering, droll private investigator. When Chalk first got the call to audition for “Perry Mason,” he thought back to the episodes of the original 1950s and ’60s TV series he had seen growing up.
“I thought ‘he has to be a white dude, let me go back and see.’ And I could tell they were doing something different, because I’m not 8 feet tall and 60.”
In the HBO version, Drake joins the story in the second episode, airing this Sunday on HBO, when he is handling routine matters in the black Los Angeles neighborhood where he has been assigned. He is well-regarded by some in the neighborhood, and viewed with suspicion by others, but gets little respect outside the black neighborhood, even from his co-workers.
To the other officers, Chalk said, “You’re still black, and you don’t matter. You’ve got a long way to go.” He also has a keen eye for detail. Drake gets a tip and finds a gruesome crime scene tied to the case, and a clue of interest to both Mason and police detectives who appear to be trying to cover up the truth.
Though Drake wants to live a quiet life as a dutiful husband and maintain the peace in his neighborhood, he finds evidence that there is more to the story than anyone realizes.
“It shows how something so horrific calls you to action,” Chalk said. “With Paul, he starts as this guy who wants nothing to do with it. ... This man wants his wife and wants to be quiet and be undisturbed. I’ve got my piece of the pie and I’m good, I’m content with where I’m at. (The case) challenges if he is OK with being complacent.
“You get to see how this horrific thing that happens in the case, how that makes him change.”
Chalk has mostly done period piece work in plays, not in filmed production.
“Those costumes are just the best of the best, they certainly had fashion down,” he said. But that is more than countered by the overt racism Drake has to deal with, with his findings being questioned by condescending fellow officers.”
Mason, however, sees a kindred spirit in Drake in the quest for the truth, and their relationship builds over time as the case deepens.
“It’s obviously Perry Mason’s show, but we’re his support system,” Chalk said. He appreciates that the show is taking a full season to explore a single case, establish the characters and chart their growth. “By telling just one case per season, you get to dig into the specifics.”
Though there is no word yet on the show getting picked up for a second season, Chalk is optimistic. “What a second season has to offer is doing a good job expanding on everyone’s life,” he said.
Chalk’s wife, actress Kimberly Dalton “K.D.” Mitchell Chalk, is from Rural Hall, and they visit North Carolina frequently, going between Asheville and the Winston-Salem area. Chalk said that he misses the pace of life back home, such as just sitting on the porch and reflecting.
“There’s a great comfort,” he said. “It’s nice to go back and recharge sometimes.”
Tim Clodfelter writes about television for the Winston-Salem Journal. Contact him at email@example.com 336-727-7371.