Perry Mason: Detective Ennis Finally Takes the Stand

Perry Mason's most elusive opponent never got to testify, but Andrew Howard confesses under cross examination.

Perry Mason Andrew Howard Ennis
Photo: HBO

The following contains spoilers for Perry Mason season 1.

Perry Mason ended its introductory season with a hung jury for the accused, and never got the chance to put the main culprit on the stand. And, boy did defense attorney Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) want that. He fantasized about the confrontation, roleplaying it in front of an audience of legal authorities who all disagreed with his opinion. Mason wasn’t only robbed of a pure victory in the case, his true prey was stolen.

Detective Ennis was sentenced to death by his own partner, and with him went one of the most interesting characters on the series. This guy could have evolved into one of the great HBO villains, a bad cop who kept getting worse. The ends only justified the means but he wasn’t born mean. Andrew Howard brought more than moral ambiguity to the role. He captured the series’ time period with more enthusiasm than any other actor on the show. He had the street swagger, Golden Gloves fighter stance and patter down. He could have played pool with James Cagney in Public Enemy, broken out of San Quentin with Humphrey Bogart. And he’s not even American. Howard hails from Wales, like Ray Milland, the first Welshman to win an Oscar, Howard is happy to tell you. Ask that the next time you’re playing a movie trivia game.

Howard is a veteran of Watchmen, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hatfields & McCoys, Boardwalk Empire, and the newly released espionage thriller Tenet. He built his character actor credentials on stage, including playing Alex in a theatre production of A Clockwork Orange, and screen with parts in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave. He made his breakthrough getting exsanguinated as Gennady in the 2011 sci-fi thriller Limitless. Howard spoke with Den of Geek about reuniting with fellow Welshman Rhys, getting back on HBO and receiving signed portraits from legendary costars.

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Den of Geek: There’s a moment in the series where Ennis says he does not like what happened to the Dodson child. But do you think Ennis enjoyed the violence?

Andrew Howard: I think Ennis got to a point in his life where the sociopathy got away from him and he got too deep. I don’t think he did enjoy the violence, I think he was traumatized by it. There were moments in the show that weren’t really picked up upon where you saw sort of a more human side of him, which you see in the scene where he’s tending his car. But no, I don’t think he did at all. I think he’s in trauma from the First World War. But I guess those kinds of guys, when they get into violence, I know from my upbringing and going to see football matches, when you see that red mist come over guys and the violence begins, it’s all or nothing. The rage comes out from deep within.

But he’s a father. It might be quite contentious saying this, but I was quite disappointed. There’s a scene with me and Matthew when Perry discovers I’m at the Elks Lodge, and he comes and sits next to me and I say, “My daughter’s on stage singing. She’s the blonde girl with the curls.” That was my actual daughter in real life. And they really should’ve focused on her, because I think there would’ve been much more ambivalence and it would’ve been interesting to actually see his child’s face. And also the fact that she looks exactly like me. It would’ve humanized him a little bit more.

There was stuff to mine with him. He wasn’t just this out-and-out villain. Although I do enjoy and love playing that villainous type, and it was so much fun with the violence and the big stabbing at the end. I haven’t yet watched my drowning because I was so annoyed that I’d been kicked off the show.

I read that the scripts were constantly evolving. When did you learn Ennis was going to die?

No, I knew all along. Because I was contracted with Watchmen at the time, and we weren’t sure whether Watchmen was going to go along. So I knew that Ennis would have a demise. But I also knew that Ennis was the fun role in that first season. So I was all on board and thrilled to get it.

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I talked with (director) Tim Van Patten, who I think is a genius, and I’m so grateful to him for getting me on board the show. The great thing about him is that, once he’d seen, he knew I’m a competent actor, we just sat down and talked. And when I met him I’d just got off a plane from Boston, and went straight to Paramount and we just sat and talked about family, nothing about the script. And he could see that, even though I have this face, I’m quite a sensitive soul. And I think he wanted to tune into that, rather than just be the archetypal villain and wanted Ennis to have layers. I think initially he was worried that I just looked too on-the-money for the role. But once we met and talked and we just talked about food and family and kids and life, and I think that’s what sold him. So I’ll be forever grateful for him. He’s a legend, a genius.

I’m very proud to be part of this ensemble. The way the show gears up from when E.B. dies, masterfully played by Mr. Lithgow, who, by the way, is one of the kindest, nicest men you’ll ever meet. He drew a painting of me one day and gave it to me on set. We were in the van going to work and he’s like, “Andrew, I have something for you.” And he pulled out of his satchel this beautiful painting of Ennis, signed by him, and I was blown away.

I think the reason why he gave it to me is we were on set one day, waiting for them to light, and I started telling this Richard Burton story about Winston Churchill, him going to see Burton play Hamlet. And halfway through the story I suddenly realized I was going to have to do a Churchill impression in front of the man who’d just played him in The Crown. And so I stopped midway through the anecdote and went, “Hang on. Fucking hell. Sorry John, I think I’m about to burn a Winston Churchill impression of you. My apologies, please.” But he loved it.

It’s a good old story about Churchill watching Burton play Hamlet and knowing all the words and reciting all the words to Hamlet in the front row. Burton was on stage doing his thing, and he’s like, “Who the bloody hell is this fucking old man in the front row?” And then he realized it was Churchill. And halfway through, after the first interval, Burton went to the spyhole on the side of the proscenium, and he looked and he saw Churchill’s seat was empty, and went back to his dressing room in a complete rage. He was like, “Fuck, I’ve lost him. He’s gone. Bollocks.” And he had his two pints lined up and drank the pints, and he was in a rage because he’d lost Churchill. And there was a knock on the dressing room door and Burton was like, “Fuck off.” And the door kept on knocking. And then finally he was like, “What? What do you want?” And then the door opened and Churchill was standing there, and Churchill went, “My lord Hamlet, may I use your lavatory?” And then they had a shot of whiskey and then he went back to his seat and watched the rest of the play. So I think that’s why I have a John Lithgow painting.

When you do a role like Richard the Lionheart in Lion in Winter, do you ever think, “Oh shit, Anthony Hopkins is going to watch this?” And does that make it more fun?

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Oh Christ. Yeah, yeah. Christ. I mean, stepping into big, old, dirty boots, that was, yeah. And I was pretty young back then. I think it was the same for all of the cast. Glenn [Close] stepping into Katherine Hepburn’s shoes, and Patrick Stewart into Peter O’Toole’s. Yeah, it was big boots to fill. But, for me, personally, it was such a great learning experience because just watching Glenn and learning to dance with Glenn was something that to this day I’ll never, never lose: what she taught me and gave me. Might actually be working with her again soon, touch wood.

Where do you see Detective Ennis in the HBO rogues gallery, along with Tony Soprano and “Manson Lamps” Aprile and Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, where you had a hole in your head?

I had a machete in my head. I had the whole head made. I’m not sure if they actually filmed it in the end, but my head was supposed to have been found in a dead alligator. So they did the whole death mask and made this sponge head of mine, or plastic head of mine. And I remember being in the make-up trailer and they pulled it out of a box, and there was me staring at me. That’s quite a strange experience.

I’m such a huge HBO fan, and my vision since I’ve been living in Los Angeles. My kids are American. I’m on the way to becoming American. My dream was always to work for HBO. And the fact that I’ve now done two shows, well, I’ve done some HBO spin-offs as well, like Banshee, which I guess is technically not under the HBO banner but under the same company. Watchmen and Perry Mason are really dreams come true.

I can’t not lie and tell you I wasn’t incredibly disappointed that Watchmen didn’t go for some more, because I know that Damon [Lindelof] had huge plans for my character to expand. I spoke to Damon a lot about it, and it was just I wanted to do more. I wanted to explore that guy. But I feel very lucky that then I got to jump on Perry Mason so quickly after it. And to be put in that rogues gallery of the names you mentioned is a privilege.

Very proud to be alongside those guys and part of what I did with it, and the different choices that me and Tim came up with, which was to play against the nasty. But at the same time, he does some awful, awful things. So you can’t help but see him as the villain that he is. But you always have to have sympathy with the guys that you’re playing.

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You perfectly captured the character of the ’30s, I think more than any of the other actors actually on it. You were 1932. Did you steep yourself in the films of the period?

Yeah, a lot of the actors were shying away from it, but I kind of dove into it. I had a big wall of pictures. Emma Potter, who did the wardrobe, did such an extraordinary job, down to the cuff links, everything was so authentic. So I immersed myself in that detail. And I had a big wall in my bloody spare bedroom, of the 1930s and 1930s Los Angeles. And, yeah, I did pay homage to Cagney and those boys. And I wanted to be infused by that.

Also I made the choice because, more often than not in the past, I’ve played villains so many times that the directors and the choices they make is to drop my voice an octave or two. And I made the conscious choice to just be my own tenor and keep it light. And through that lightness I think it had that effect of sounding like those old movies, without being caricature.

You had a completely different accent in Boardwalk Empire, do you have an arsenal of American accents which is fine tuned for parts, or do you approach each one from the ground up?

I think every actor’s got to have an arsenal. You’ve got to know your shit. I know my shit. And I’m lucky to have a natural ability to do it. Once I pick a voice and plan on the sound and the accent, then you go to work. And I did a lot of work on the voice. That’s part of the joy of the process.

The one thing I would say is that actors that come to America, I found it very strange initially, because I come from the theater, I’m not slagging it, but American actors can be quite competitive, like it’s a sport. Whereas I think acting’s about altruism, and it’s about dancing and it’s about jiving and it’s about finding the moments together, and I’m as chuffed if someone has a good moment than if I am. It’s about the scene, it’s about the characters, it’s about connection, it’s about life, it’s about reality, it’s about truth. So I was slightly disarmed sometimes that young American actors can be competitive, so it was almost like they have their guard up, and they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to do this scene now.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? We’re not fighting, we’re sparring, we’re dancing.” So I found that something to adjust to.

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The knifing scene is phenomenal. Is the choreography and the way that you approach a scene different when you’re doing violence with a gun or a knife? Is the knife like a sword in an Errol Flynn movie?

Yeah. I mean, I’m a good little dancer. I can hot shoe shuffle with the best. And I think that backs you up well when it comes to shooting violence, especially with the stabbing scene, because you’re working with a wonderful actor and you don’t want to damage him. I’ve seen actors over the years that get hurt and get broken up. You want to do it precise and you want to make it real and you want to make it as violent and clinical as possible. So, with regard to the knife, I’m just happy I’m adept enough to pull the punches and pull the throws, but still make it real and violent.

The thing about the scene that keeps you on your toes is that we were doing long takes. We were doing the whole dialogue, and then you have the fight choreographer and Tim there and you know you’ve got to play the scene out and play the dialogue well. So we would do the whole scene and then go into the fight. I always make sure I go in with an open book, knowing what I could offer and bring to it, but then knowing that Tim and the fight director have their own version. So you have to be malleable.You have to be ready in that way. When it comes to the violence, you’ve got to know how to dance. I didn’t want it to be one clinical thing, I wanted it to show everything is getting out of hand, everything is clustering. He’s screaming, he’s screaming, he’s screaming. I wanted it to be that over and over and over and over, and Tim concurred. And then we put that sequence together. It was great to shoot, and I’m really thrilled with how it came out.

We were supposed to chop his finger off to get the ring, but we dropped that because it was too much. I rolled him down a ditch, I kicked him down a ditch, but they cut that as well. But I thought it came out brilliantly. And then with regard to the first scene where I kill the henchmen, that was another good clinical scene where I knew the trajectory of Ennis, I knew what was going to happen. I knew that I could be very clinical and precise in that first scene. When I first read it and you see the suitcase come up and then I shoot him in the head through the suitcase when he says it’s empty and then I shoot the other guy and the other guy, and then I kill the other guy by choking him out. I knew that I could be very clinical.

Tim Van Patten gave me a beautiful piece of direction. It’s very similar to something that Kevin Reynolds said to me when I did Hatfields & McCoys, which was after I choked the guy out and then I turn around I realize that he’s gone and I have to chase after him up the staircase and then onto the roof, the first take we did it, because you get so amped up for those scenes and you have to be so cool and calm and collected at the start of the scene and then you have to do the shooting and then you get into the emotional action of choking the guy out and then turn around and realize he’s gone, and the first take I ran off after him and then we cut and then Tim went, “Don’t run, don’t run. You’ve got him. Just walk, just walk with purpose. You know you’ve got him. Just walk.”

It was also pretty spectacular, might I add, that we were shooting on the rooftop in Koreatown, in downtown Los Angeles, and those fireworks behind me were practical, they were real. There was no CGI. A block over they had a bunch of crew setting off these fireworks, so every take, when I came up the staircase and walked onto the roof, walking after him, those fireworks were real.

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It gave all the juice and history that you needed. And especially with regard to working in Los Angeles on those sets. When you work in a city hall, you’re working in all those deco places that were there back then. It’s a clichéd thing to say the city is one of the characters of the movie, but in terms of helping you as an actor perform, to be on those sets and in those buildings was great food.

You brought up that you came up through stage, and I know you played Alex in Clockwork Orange. when you’re approaching something like that, which is obviously a work you grew up with, Is there a different joy in playing that?

Yeah. That was my folks favorite thing I’ve ever done. Well it’s part of the joy of doing Perry. I didn’t grow up watching it, but I grew up knowing it was around. My grandfather used to watch it. I remember being a young kid and it being on TV, and Raymond Burr’s voice never escapes you. It was always in my psyche, in my childhood. All us kids from Britain grew up watching American shows, and I think that’s why we have quite a good ear for American accents. That’s all we were addicted to. When I first came to New York it was almost like coming home, kind of knew the streets before I’d even laid my foot on the asphalt.

You also did an episode of Ironside, the remake.

Oh shit, yeah. I forgot about that.

Raymond Burr keeps calling you back.

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That was back in the days when I was on the hustle. I mean, we’re always on the hustle. That was Blair Underwood, he was a lovely guy. I have a director, Sara Sugarman, staying with me at the moment. She directed Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and a Sundance winning movie called Very Annie Mary. We were talking about how ultimately we go on this journey and strive to work and we strive to get better at our craft, but ultimately you know you’ve learned your trade over the years. We know what we’re doing when we walk onto a set.

I thrive on it. I miss it so much. During COVID I’m really getting antsy to get back to work. One of my closest friends, Adam Mason, just directed this movie Songbird, that Michael Bay produced. And I did a couple of days on that and it was so great. It was like, “Ah. Fucking hell, I’m back then, I’m back. Back in the shitty trailer waiting for someone to knock on that door.” Except that we had to have multiple COVID tests and we had masks on the whole of the time until you actually got onto set, where you could take the mask off, stick it in your pocket. But, yeah, I really miss it. I can’t wait to get back to work, wherever it may be.

Have you seen Tenet?

No, no, no, no. I mean, that was a great experience, working with one of the masters. Jesus, him and Tim Van Patten are two of the masters that I’ve worked with. Nolan was, I mean, he’s a bonkers genius. You’ve seen the explosion, I don’t think I’m giving anything away, but there’s an explosion during the movie, and I’ve been on lots of sets where there’s explosions, and I was just bracing myself for this puff of fire and it will go away. And oh my god, it was like that bomb in Beirut the week before last. I’ve never seen anything like it. It formed into a mushroom cloud and burnt the hairs of my face off. That’s why I’m bald. And I suddenly went, “Oh, this is a whole different reality. This is a whole different ball game.”

And his approach, the different way he commands a set. There was a moment where we were shooting just in the back of the van, but they’re shooting with this 70 mm IMAX camera and it makes a ton of noise, and he doesn’t care about the sound. I mean, he does care about the sound, obviously, but it was just a whole different experience. And I’d never worked on that scale before, apart from maybe Limitless. But working with that big old 70 mm IMAX camera was pretty extraordinary. I’m a cameo in it, but I’m very lucky that I got to jump on board. And I did a good job, so hopefully we might dance again someday.

Because the project was so secretive, was it any different going in to work?

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Yeah. I mean, it’s very well documented that there are no chairs on set, so you can’t sit down. And I get that, it keeps people on their toes. And no cellphones, etc. That’s all well documented. But it’s just his way of working. He needs to be constantly moving. He has everything set out in his head. He has a team around him that are obviously the best of the best. He doesn’t want you around if you’re not required. Other shows you might want to come and watch if someone’s doing a big scene. But, no, he notices everything. He has a complete 360 perspective. And he knows what he knows and does what he does and he does it. He’s a mad genius. But, yeah, unless you’re part of his focus, stay the fuck away.

But I loved him. I loved him. He was brilliant. Funny and charming and delightful as well.

How was it going up against Matthew Rhys?

It was great. I mean, it was so much fun. I’ve known Matthew for 25 years. We did a play together at the Royal National Theatre. And then we worked together once again, which was in ’99. And then we’ve been friends ever since. I came over to Los Angeles just after him. To be working with one of your best mates was just brilliant. It was such a gas. And then Gayle Rankin and Juliet [Rylance], they’re all such a laugh, we had such a giggle. I was just a joy. And Lithgow and Nate [Corddry who played Matthew Dodson]. Rob Patrick, it was really brilliant. I was pinching myself.

Boy from Cardiff comes over, on my arse. Then I get Limitless and my life kind of changed, and then to bag a role like this. It was similar to when I did Hatfields & McCoys, working with [Kevin] Costner because my grandfather was called Frankie Murphy. He was obsessed with westerns, then to get to do that western with the late, great Bill Paxton and Costner was such a thrill. It was the same deal with this.

Also, because I was such a fan of Escape From Dannemora, it was such a thrill to be working with Eric [Lange]. I can’t wait to see what happens with Eric next season. He’s such a gracious, brilliant actor, and I was such a fan of his, so to work alongside him was great. And we spent so many hours and days, all those court scenes, where you’re sat in the background, and basically you’re doing nothing all day, just watching Matthew and Stephen Root be incredible. And we’re just sat at the back shooting the shit like two old drama queens bitching about the air conditioning and the smoke. It was just great. It was like being back in school, the two of us just delightedly bitching and moaning. But I’m such a fan of his. I can’t wait to see what happens with Holcomb in the next season.

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I feel like I’m in a good place now with having done Perry Mason, and I look forward to seeing what’s around the corner next. But I’m so proud to be part of the show, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it next season. I mean, maybe I’m not dead, maybe there’s a little air bubble that you see in the first frame of the next episode. I’m sure there won’t be, but I’m good. I’m fine.

Perry Mason is available to stream on HBO Max now.