Cyrus Beene of "Scandal" may be going through the worst period in his life, but Jeff Perry, the actor who plays him wants you to know one thing: Perry's not going to have a heart attack. Really.
In a recent interview, Perry said that people come up to him in airports and ask him if his ticker is okay. Those "Scandal" viewers -- like me -- wonder if playing the mega-intense chief of staff for President Fitzgerald Grant takes too much of a toll on the actor.
Nope. In fact, according to Perry, many of Cyrus' most intense scenes function as a mental cleanse for the actor.
"The screaming and the anger and the intensity and the anxiety -- that's mostly just cathartic. It's a purge and I'm able to leave it at work and drive home whistling," Perry said.
In the interview below, Perry and I talk about a shocking decision that Cyrus made at the end of last week's "Scandal" episode, and we discuss his period of intense grief over the loss of his husband, James (Dan Bucatinsky).
We also talked about various elements that are particular to "Scandal's" distinctive brand of storytelling. As a co-founder and former artistic director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre (the first theatrical home of actors like Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich), Perry knows a little something about how different kinds of narrative work, and he had some thoughtful insights into the ABC show, which wraps up its third season Thursday.
I've long wondered what term to use for "Scandal," and some of Perry's observations led me to start thinking of it as a frequently serious but always self-aware "screwball political telenovela." In a public panel discussion about "Scandal" at University of Chicago's Institute of Politics on Saturday, Perry observed that "Scandal" has a few things in common with the classic films of Preston Sturges, and he noted that creator Shonda Rhimes had to coach the cast to get the sped-up rhythms of the dialogue right. He also invoked telenovelas during that panel discussion, and below, we talk about "Scandal's" relationship to not just soap operas but to operas.
Below is an edited and condensed version of my one-on-one interview with Perry (the full 30-minute interview is also available in podcast form). At the end of the post is a video of a separate 40-minute "Scandal" conversation that Perry and I had at University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. (Check out their YouTube channel for other panels with actors and creators from "Veep," "Alphas," "The West Wing" and "House of Cards." All those conversations, including a group discussion among the creators and actors, were part of the Institute of Politics' first-ever TV Festival on April 13.)
The first question comes from a Twitter fan: "Was Jeff surprised that Cyrus was that evil, to let those people [in the church] die?"
Yes. And I would never question Shonda and the writers' judgment on any of these issues. So I wasn't really doing that, but I was sort of checking in, via email or text. I said, "I'm just asking the obvious, but we've all contemplated [that] there is a tremendously valuable "Cyrus is not completely bad" factor to the equation, [when it comes to] not only my identification with the character but much more importantly, to the audience's identification with the character.
So I was saying to Shonda, "You know, this really feels like a tipping-point moment, and we're maybe going to have to change the way we connect to this guy. It feels like you're saying we're going to have to successfully steer it to Iago territory -- where there's no longer any question of whether there's any good in [Cyrus], we just have to be fascinated with the bad in [him]." I said, "That's a change, for me, in my own consciousness. Does this make any sense to you?" And basically the answer I got back was, "We're completely aware of exactly what you're talking about. It'll be okay."
You make a great point -- it changes the character from "a conflicted character with some monstrous parts" to "a monster with perhaps some conflicted parts." It's very different.
It is, it's a different dramatic elixir. And I think an important one to pause and acknowledge. So it was a considered and conscious moment, I found out, and when Shonda Rhimes tells Jeff Perry it's going to be okay, it's going to be okay.
Talking about the decision that Cyrus made at the end of the last episode, I viewed that as the decision of someone who was being pragmatic, but also someone who was reeling, internally, from loss and grief. Is that how you saw it?
Exactly. That's so accurate, at least as far as my process was concerned. I thought, this is a stewpot of feelings, and some of them are uncontrollable and have to do with grief and have to do with where some vengeance meets grief.
[It was partly driven by] all of the ways in which I've tried to keep Sally a productive part of the administration. We've already seen [Cyrus] go to the place of "I'm done. I can't caregive this, I can't wrangle it, I can't blackmail it, I can't do anything with it." I'm going Jake and asking for execution, and he says no. And right after he says no, my husband is killed in what I'm supposed to believe is a carjacking. Cyrus knows better. So some of this is strategic and pragmatic, and some of it is uncontrollable.
I keep thinking about the little smile on his face as Cyrus walked away from the phone. Was that in the script?
That was in the script. There was a stage direction, "Cyrus walks down the hall, more free of burdens than we've seen him in a long, long time." That's a paraphrase but that's roughly what the directive was.
Another fan asked if maybe Cyrus is really the one in charge of B316.
That's interesting -- if that theory proved true. I don't put anything past the professional surprisers led by Shonda Rhimes. If that's true, then I'll be surprised along with the rest of you. And I won't be so deathly scared of Joe Morton any more. He's scary.
My podcast partner Ryan McGee came up with a theory that Scandal isn't just a soap opera, it's also opera. Characters like you and Joe Morton get arias.
It's opera. That's absolutely true. I haven't looked up all the definitions of melodrama, but it's usually used pejoratively. It is about the artistic intent to evoke emotion without having earned the authentic eliciting of that emotion. And I don't think that's what "Scandal" does. I agree with you -- I think it's more operatic. I get people saying "Opera is too large a canvas for me, I don't love it. I love movies that feel almost like documentaries," in terms of artistic vocabularies of storytelling. I totally get that discussion, that makes sense to me.
People have different tastes.
Exactly. I think it is operatic, it is Greek and it is Shakespearean. To me, [this show] is in Dickens, it's in Samuel Clemens territory. This is a deeply populist writer who also has real guts, real authenticity, great chararacter depictions, great dialogue and great authenticity.
Some of the speeches characters give, they are really like arias -- the characters reach deep within to tell people exactly what they care about and what motivates them. But you were telling me earlier [before we were recording] that when you have one of those big scenes -- you're not really wrung out at the end of those days.
Days that have to do with grief and with James lately -- I am effing tired at the end of those days. Most actors will tell you, when they've got emotional stuff that's hard to carry around for hours, and hard to try to do justice too, it just beats your butt.
But most days, the stuff that the audience gets a kick out of -- and [makes them] worry that Jeff Perry is in the same trouble that Cyrus is in -- at an airport, they'll say, "You're not going to have a heart attack, are you?" Those kind of [regular shooting] days -- no problem. Those are cathartic, and I get to vent all the strange things that must be inside me, and I go home calm as a bird.
The day you filmed the lectern sobbing scene…
That kicked my butt. [On other days,] the screaming and the anger and the intensity and the anxiety -- that's mostly just cathartic. It's a purge and I'm able to leave it at work and drive home whistling.
How many takes did you do of the lectern scene?
I think we had to do around four of those. There was another scene in the Oval Office, where Fitz walks out on me and I start to fight tears or cry a bit, and Mellie excuses herself -- that was like seven or eight takes. I respected the necessity, but part of my actor's soul was like, "No. Don't we have this? Don't make me do this again."
It took Cyrus a long time to be truthful to himself and find the love of his life. So now that James is gone, does that experience teach him, "Never do that again," or does it teach him, "I've got to retain that part of myself."
The jury is completely out on that, and only Shonda knows. The early returns on that question could go either way. What is he going to learn from this? Am I going to be more brittle, harsh and protective or grow and soften?
He's still got that baby girl.
Exactly. A baby girl that he bought like you'd buy a sports car, I'm ashamed to say as a person (Cyrus isn't ashamed). That girl needs either a great nanny or for Cyrus to go in the direction of the better angels of his nature.
You would think Cyrus is the kind of guy who, on some level, wants redemption -- he's done a lot of bad things. Does that have to be a possibility for you as you play him -- that he has to be redeemable on some level?
Yeah. Most actors will tell you this -- I don't really know how to connect, empathize with or make worthy of any revelation a character that doesn't have love in there somewhere, that doesn't have an idealism or an empathy in there somewhere. I admire those rarified living portraits of people who seem to have only the psychopath at home. Only the darkest, damaged soul with no ability to empathize and no conscience and only the ability to lash out and destroy. I don't deny that such people exist. So far -- I'm 58 years old -- I've had no desire to play such people. I try to empathize pretty deeply with the humans I get to visit, and I don't want to visit that.
I was thinking that there may be parallels between Gus Fring of "Breaking Bad" and Cyrus -- they're both loyal, they're good at their jobs. And possibly people respond to Cyrus in part because he's not doing any of this for his own personal gain.
He speaks of it here and there, "I hope to retire to a school or make some money on the lecture circuit." But he's mostly the professional henchman and caregiver and keeper and guarder of the gate. It seems to be what he was destined to do.
I was one of the artistic directors of the Steppenwolf Theatre, which me and many dear buddies started all the way back in 1974, and I have a lot of that in my makeup. As a necessity, as sometimes a source of joy -- [there's] a lot of caregiver, "is everything working, are people getting along." It was rendered a lot more positively in Steppenwolf-land than it is in "Scandal"-land, but I empathize a lot with that in Cyrus. The fixer.
Below is a Talking TV podcast, which is an expanded version of the conversation above (the podcast is also here and on iTunes). Below that is the U. of C. public panel discussion of "Scandal" in which Perry spoke about the show and took questions from the audience.
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