Catching Up With Jeff Perry of Scandal

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There are many tragedies concerning last night’s episode of Scandal. We lost the fine work of Dan Bucatinsky with the death of his character James Novak. The impact of this death was brought further home by the work of Jeff Perry, better known to the Gladiators as Cyrus Beene. For many of us, Cyrus has been our favorite political animal since the first season of Scandal took off and we met this brilliantly insane White House Chief of Staff—the kind of guy to tell the President off with a monologue so heartbreaking and accurate, it’s been immortalized just about everywhere. In addition to losing James and watching Cyrus work through his grief as only Cyrus could, there’s the tragedy that this episode is airing at the end of an awards season. In the fall of 2014, one fervently hopes that Perry’s unique and complex take on Cyrus—this powerful, oft-villainous, yet simultaneously and bizarrely romantic character—starts getting the critical attention it deserves. Perry, who’s been acting since the ’70s and has a deep love for theatre, spoke with Paste today about last night’s heart-stopping episode, working with the incredible Shonda Rhimes, and the crazy Scandal parties he throws for the cast.

Paste: So, I’m a little bit of an emotional wreck after last night’s episode, but I’m trying to hold it together.
Perry: I know, I know. That was a sad one.

Paste: I didn’t tell anyone that I was interviewing you, other than my sister. And she ask me to specifically tell you that last night your performance had her in tears and—these are her words—she was sobbing like somebody stole her damn bike.
Perry: (laughs) Tell her I’m sorry. And I’m glad!

Paste: It’s been quite the experience falling in love with your work. I’m one of a few people who actually saw you in Scandal first and then went back and started watching Grey’s Anatomy. It was so fascinating seeing you as Cyrus and then watching you as Meredith’s Dad. What was it like for you, having played Thatcher Grey and then reading the script for Scandal?
Perry: The first time I read it I was next to my wife, Linda Lowy, the amazing casting director of all things Shondaland. And I loved it. I loved it. But I absolutely did not have that normal actor covetousness or burning desire in my heart because there was no scenario under which I was going to be a part of the show. As a heavily recurring character on Grey’s Anatomy, I was aware of Shonda’s policy against cross-pollination between the shows. So I was just crazy-happy for Shonda and for Linda. I was just so excited for this phase of Shonda’s work and her life. What a gorgeous evolution! I knew she could write the hell out of this, and I knew she could write the hell out of that. But this show where a political thriller meets incredible human character writing and relationship writing—it went into a new realm for her.

Paste: So how did you end up on the show?
Perry: Whenever I consider working on something that my wife’s working on, I kind of have to be triple-right for it. Nepotism does not actually work in Hollywood, so we both have to be careful. They’d seen about twelve people who they liked but they weren’t yet falling in love. Will Stewart—one of Linda’s casting partners—came in and said, “Linda, I know you can’t say it, but I’ll say it. I think Jeff could hit this out of the park.” So Will went to Shonda, and she wanted to think about it. A day or two later she said, “Well, now I can’t get it out of my brain.” So I think I got a break, because they decided to explore it. And I had two auditions. At the second one, Shonda told me to go a little more Rahm Emanuel (laughs).

Paste: (laughs) Oh, that’s hilarious. My ears always perk up at his name because we both went to Sarah Lawrence, though at very different times.
Perry: Oh, that’s great!

Paste: Now you and Gary Sinise went to high school together and started a theatre company, right?
Perry: Yes, Steppenwolf Theatre, along with Terry Kinney. Gary and I—neither of us were really academic scholars. And eventually I introduced him to Terry as “our new, co-best friend.” We started doing theater together and became completely besotted with what would be our live’s passions. John Malkovich joined in and was in our first production. At a certain point we said, “Let’s just keep doing this.”

Paste: That’s amazing. Now, one of my favorite things about Cyrus is that, technically, he’s a better president than Fitzgerald Grant. You have so many great monologues, but my favorite is the one where you talk about how you would have made a great president, but you’re not pretty enough, and you like men. We also saw it in last night’s episode right before your first kiss with James when you were outside reciting Fitz’s speech. Cyrus loves his position, but I wonder if there’s a part of him that’s tormented with the idea that he could be doing a better job.
Perry: Well, Cyrus loves being the set-up man, and the caregiver and the stage manager. This is a really authentic aspect of him. And then there’s this deep frustration here and there, like, “Goddammit, if you aren’t gonna use the gifts you have—” because I think he loves and admires Fitz. He really does. But when Fitz gets in his own way and acts particularly childish in Cyrus’s eyes, it’s kind of like, “Goddammit, get out of the way, and I’ll do this.” (laughs)

Paste: During my interview with Guillermo Díaz last month we talked about how awesome it is to have this very non-traditional gay couple on the show. I just don’t think there are a lot of villain-type characters out there who are also gay. But I also think it’s interesting that Cyrus was previously married. I know you played a big part in your character’s development. Did you and Shonda ever talk about whether or not Cyrus was more like a Daniel Douglass character and married a woman for the sake of self-preservation? Or was he legitimately in love with his wife, and then legitimately in love with his husband?
Perry: A little of both. He was a man of an era and a man about his life’s work, and he knew that as a Republican some of his constituency is downright homophobic. So there are these predictable and sad reasons why people are scared to come out. And I think Shonda and the writers have written it very authentically and beautifully. It’s what I loved about that ballroom scene—just like you guys it was all new to us! Just a few weeks ago, we were finding out how we met, and about our first kiss. And we got to see the ways in which James helped Cyrus embrace the best parts of himself.

Paste: I saw you mention on The Queen Latifah Show that your wife once broke the pact you have regarding scripts, since she gets hers earlier. And she told you there was a nude scene coming up. Did she give you any kind of insight about the death of James?
Perry: No, no. There was a preservation of the silence pact there.

And you know, we were all affected as a company. Danny and I have been friends for a long time, and I just so love him as a friend, and respect and admire him as a colleague. And any actor knows you have highs and lows. But our relationship on the show was such a challenging, beautiful piece of work. So I have deeply ambivalent feelings about this. I feel gratitude that it happened. And another part of your heart just can’t help it, and you’re like, “No! Don’t! Don’t take the sunshine away! Don’t take Christmas away!” And you go through a mourning period.

Paste: Sure, and the same is true for the fans as well. Now Darby told us that when there’s a new episode coming on, your house is like party central for the Scandal cast. I have to know what it’s like when you’re all together and just hanging out like regular folks, watching Scandal.
Perry: Oh, it’s a blast. The teasing and the yelling and the volume of chatte r… oh my God. I’ve never been to one, but I feel like it’s a particularly loving Girl Scout troop meeting.

Paste: Are there any tidbits you can give us about the rest of the season? I’m assuming Cyrus finds out the truth about how James died.
Perry: I can’t say much, but it feels like there’s a big, pulsating possibility of this question coming up—can Cyrus stomach the “official” version of what went down versus his suspicion of the truth of what went down? So that will reverberate. And in larger plot terms, we’ll see the true obstacles in Fitz’s re-election and there’s a bigger purpose— a more personal purpose for Cyrus now that he’s lost his husband.

Paste: Well I’m excited, and I can’t wait. This has been amazing!
Perry: Thanks so much.

Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.