‘Perry Mason’ Is Crafting a Revolutionary Lesbian Love Story

‘Perry Mason’ Is Crafting a Revolutionary Lesbian Love Story

A year before Raymond Burr first played Perry Mason, he was romantically linked to Natalie Wood. Dates to avoid scandal was a common tactic in Hollywood (and probably still is), and this gossip benefited Burr and Wood. The latter was trying to hide her relationship with Robert Wagner, and Burr would never star in Perry Mason if his sexuality were made public.

More than 60 years later, HBO’s gritty—and queer—reboot of the Erle Stanley Gardner stories features some art imitating life, using similar tactics to link Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and District Attorney Hamilton “Ham” Burger (Justin Kirk) in order to protect their reputations. Set in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, this mutually beneficial arrangement shields Della from prying comments about her lack of a husband—and Ham about his permanent bachelor status—allowing her to pursue a legal career alongside associate Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys).

For a show located so close to Hollywood, the glamorous movie-making biz had so far only existed on the seedy periphery when Perry, in his PI days, took snaps of stars in compromising positions. Tinseltown edges closer when successful and self-assured screenwriter Anita St. Pierre enters the series in a puff of Turkish cigarette smoke, offering Della respite from the dark cloud hanging over the office and the routine of her relationship with hand model Hazel (Molly Ephraim).

“This is my lesbian period piece fantasy,” Jen Tullock tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about the Palm Springs getaway in a recent episode of Perry Mason. It has been a busy 12-plus months for Tullock, who is currently shooting the highly anticipated second season of Severanceand cannot reveal anything other than saying it is “nothing short of mind-blowing.”

Tullock was in a celebratory mood when she talked to us over Zoom from her West Village apartment, as she had just returned from the final leg of award season in LA, where Severance picked up two WGA awards. In the twisty Apple TV+ drama, Tullock plays Mark’s (Adam Scott) supportive sister Devon, and is one of the only characters not privy to the inner workings of Lumon Industries.

Perry Mason is a world away from her work on Severance, in more ways than its grounded historical setting. “I haven’t gotten to play many queer characters as a gay person, so that was personally special,” she says. Tullock mentions the “crazy combination of personal variables” this job represents. Not only did she watch the original Perry Mason with her grandparents when it was in syndication, but she also “grew up on films made in that era.” Stepping onto the Warner Bros. lot in full ’30s hair and makeup was “the most tangible version of childhood dreams coming true.” That coupled with telling “a queer love story in that period was wild.”

Capturing the realities of someone from the LGBTQ+ community living (and loving) during this time was at the forefront of the conversation. “I’m so grateful for the reminder of my foremothers—for lack of a better term,” she says. Tullock also reflects on the chasm between then and now, but with a caveat: “I hope [this] is a reminder of how far we’ve come but also how far we still have to go in making sure that any person under the queer banner is able to live loudly and safely.”

Perry Mason’s fourth episode is a breath of fresh air because it allows us to see this couple relaxing in Anita’s secluded residence, where the pervasive threat of being discovered is forgotten. The episode is about “what does it look like aesthetically to crawl inside of an experience that is suddenly warm and tender and not afraid and cold,” Tullock says.

The Real-Life Inspiration

Several characters in Season 2 of Perry Mason are inspired by real figures. Tullock’s character is loosely based on the formidable Anita Loos, a novelist (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), playwright, and screenwriter in the heady early days of Hollywood. “She was a total badass and had to fight tremendously to work her way up. As such, [she] had to play a bit like one of the boys,” says Tullock.

The actress read Loos’s memoir A Girl Like I as preparation for this season. To her knowledge, Loos was not queer.“I know she was married thrice to men. I wouldn’t be surprised If she had some lady lovers on the side—she gave me kind of a queer vibe.” (A conversation in Interview Magazine also confirms that Loos went to at least one lesbian cocktail soiree with the likes of Elsa Maxwell, and Loos’s remarks speak to the queer coding of the time.)

Tullock worked closely with costume designer Catherine Adair on Anita’s look, especially thinking about when Anita would be in pants: “The only time we see Anita in trousers is when she has left work in her vehicle and then goes to her home. We had to be specific about when she was in pants because what would that signal?”

Anita St. Pierre is, therefore, an “amalgamation of queer women in 1933 and this specific historical character,” who paved the way for women screenwriters in Tinseltown. Tullock tried out Loos’s “iconic, very short post-flapper jet black bob” in the hair and makeup trailer, but it ended up looking too contemporary. “I looked at the mirror; I said, ‘Friends, this is a beautiful wig. I look like Kendall Jenner. You can’t fight me on that because now none of you can unsee it,’” she recalls.

Instead of trying to emulate Loos, co-star Rylance suggested Tullock use her own hair “because of the curls.” As a Brit, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tullock’s pitch-perfect impersonation of Rylance’s English accent, “She has a very posh one. It’s very specific, ‘Hi, hi everyone, how are you, hi, hello.’ I would roast her endlessly on set by impersonating her.” Tullock admits this choice has pros and cons: “It felt authentic, and I think it informed how I walked and carried myself because when you’re wigged, you are conscious of it. But it did mean I was called two hours earlier than everyone else.”

The Bathroom Meet-Cute

Turning back the clock to ’30s Los Angeles isn’t only about dialogue, costumes, and production design; it also informs the logistics of this burgeoning romance. “Juliet and I talked a lot about where Della and Anita were in their incredibly secret love lives,” she says. “How that secrecy and danger of being outed informs how they flirt, how queer coding works in 1933, and what a flirtation could even look like in that way.”

Take their first encounter in a plush restaurant powder room. “There were looks, glances, and moments that queer people used to signal, and we worked hard building those in—they’re subtle, but they’re there,” Tullock says. On Della’s way to the bathroom, she holds Anita’s gaze, and “that was all Anita needed to get up and follow her in.”

This is also not Anita’s first rodeo, and Tullock uses a contemporary reference to her character’s lothario approach to dating. “I imagined she has had many lovers, probably most of them actresses, probably most of them young actresses—I think she’s a bit of a Leonardo DiCaprio if I’m honest,” she says. Before this meet-cute with Della, Anita has “kept herself from connecting with someone.” In part, this is “a safeguard around being found out as a gay woman.” Over the course of the season, Tullock depicts how Anita quickly falls for Della, which is a departure from her self-assured,“curated male sexuality in the way that she flirts.”

Late-night phone calls turn into late-night visits to Della’s workplace with much-needed fuel (cigarettes and dinner), and deadlines are forgotten. Then there’s the kiss. Tullock talked to director Jessica Lowery about the character’s unexpected reaction to this first kiss, which happens in Episode 3. “What happens if she walks in there with all of this gusto, bringing her food, and the second Della kisses her, she is so scared and taken aback?’” Anita’s “you made me blush” comment was improvised by Tullock “because I was blushing, I felt that in character.”

The Palm Springs Getaway

The intimacy and tenderness of this scene are at odds with the danger that this location possesses. Much like the restaurant powder room, the office gets a lot of foot traffic, and Della doesn’t want to give ammunition to the powerful forces they are fighting. Their trip to Palm Springs points to how they can break free of coy subtext, while still acknowledging the era’s realities. “I think the way in which we see them enter a relationship in that time is both respectful of how people would have had to do it, and also still allows us to step into their intimate world as they become a couple,” says Tullock.

My mind goes to Carey Mulligan’s “Lesbian Period Drama” sketch on Saturday Night Live, and Tullock immediately cites the washing carrots moment. “That SNL sketch was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen because it was all too accurate. The idea that two female people falling in love with each other is just furtive glances,” she says. While she quickly notes that she is a big fan of the movies referenced by SNL, she also speaks about her experience working on Perry Mason. “I was so grateful we had four brilliant directors, and two of them happened to be queer women,” she says. “All four directors handled the story with such care, ease, and respect in equal measure, but it was special to have conversations with two queer female directors [Lowrey and Marialy Rivas] about this.”

Tullock recalls her first conversation with Rivas (who directs Episodes 5 and 6), who said she was keen to depict sexuality and “vulnerability that isn’t a tragedy.” Again, it is about balancing the reality of 1933 while giving space to playful (and sexy) moments, like waking up in bed together the next morning in a state of undress. Let’s not forget Perry got fucked off a bed in Season 1 and is now engaging in a new romance with his son’s teacher (played by Katherine Waterston).

Anita’s house in Palm Springs allows this couple to open up because it is “the first time we see them in a space that’s safe, where there isn’t the threat of people walking in, or being found out.” This translates in various ways, from the softer color palette to the “big, gorgeous, classic Hollywood sunset kiss.” Lowry also directed this installment, which moves the relationship from the office smooch to cooking breakfast (or attempting) for a new lover. “We want this to feel like it’s about two people that are actively having sex with each other,” says Tullock.

“Ultimately, love is love. I feel so warm and tender about this little love story that we incubated together, and I’m very proud of it,” she says.

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