After a short first season Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama “Scandal” blossomed into an utterly unmissable series thanks to a parade of deftly handled twists and turns and the uniform excellence of its ensemble cast, led by Emmy nominee Kerry Washington as D.C. fixer Olivia Pope. While her heated on-and-off affair with the President takes center stage for much of the show, Rhimes also devoted a lot of attention in the show’s second season to presidential Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (played by Highland Park native and Steppenwolf Theater co-founder Jeff Perry, who Rhimed worked with on “Grey’s Anatomy”), and his troubled relationship to his reporter husband (Emmy winner Dan Bucatinsky).
With “Scandal” returning for its anticipated third season tonight on ABC, Perry called up Indiewire to discuss his love for the show, Cyrus’ fascinating duality, and why he likes to be kept in the dark like the fans.
Are you in the midst of shooting the third season?
Yeah, we are. We’re a few days into shooting the sixth of twenty two episodes.
Did you take a break to attend the Emmys?
We didn’t. Shooting continued in the Monday through Friday land but we had about fifteen of us gather over at my place with my casting director wife. I sleep my way into good work, Nigel, that’s the sad truth. Linda Lowy is my wife and she casts all of Shonda’s shows: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal.” Anyway, we hosted a bunch of the cast and we were here rabidly cheering for our Kerry and we had to be happy, that she was with those amazing actresses being honored. I wanted a win, but part of me was like “Wow, who decided making the Olympics out of art was a good idea?”
“Scandal” really took off in its second season in ways few could have expected. What’s that ride been like?
It is exciting. We actors are especially superstitious lot. You just assume you’re going to be out of work within a month. But watching the show there was really this growing sense of, You guys, is it like crack cocaine to you? I keep leaning forward. On the simplest page turner level I’m obsessed with what’s happening next. So we got an early inkling of, Wow, this show may have that tremendous trait in spades.
But something about that real time-ness and the cast en masse Tweeting with this rabid fan base — I think it proved gigantically important to the survival of the show because almost nobody can get big numbers anymore. It seems to me there are 70 wonderful things to watch on TV, so you kind of try and find your family of viewers. I grew up in a small to medium size theater and the kind of one-on-one relationship or a more direct relationship to the audience is a really sweet characteristic of the show.
I can’t wait to join the Tweet party when I start live-watching the show this season. I binged watched season one and two on Netflix over the summer.
Not to disparage any part of the audience because that’s what I do. I just wait till I get time in working and family life. I love watching ten episodes at a time. That’s all groovy.
The show never lets up, nor does Cyrus. He’s always scheming, thinking one step ahead of the pack. Is he exhausting to play?
It’s a forward energy and a range of passions and complications that Shonda has infused Cyrus with. Actor heaven, man. I love going to work. An there are storytelling elements that some people call melodramatic. It reminds me of Greek-sized events. There is always more than one thing to play. There always feels like there is a complication, a kind of duality in all the characters, a kind of friction.
In Cyrus’s case there is true idealism and a very educated idealistic public servant alongside Iago-like situational ethics, morals be damned, how to we fixed this kind of strategist. That friction is great. The sense of this guy who’s always been a bachelor and could not let anyone in. Shonda very quickly has him falling deeply in love with a very ambitious journalist who is on the white house press core. That very ambitious journalist whose handsome, ten to fifteen years younger and a different era than his with a comfortability with his sexuality. You can just imagine that James is saying to Cyrus half the time, “You can kiss me in public. I don’t care what Republican is watching you. It’s okay. Hold my hand, Goddamn it.” That’s a fun pressure for those characters.
I’ve been happy as a pig in you-know-what. I never quite expected this sustained level of challenge. Of deep satisfaction, respect, and enjoyment with the rest of the cast. The kind of the whole village and family that’s making the show. It was an environment that I felt very blessed to have growing up at Steppenwolf Theater with John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and on and on.
Does your mind work the way Cyrus’ does? He’s one hell of a rapid-fire thinker.
Actors usually respond to minor aspects of their own character or things that even feel disparate from themselves. As you can already tell talking to me, I like to pause and think, and you could not find anyone more ignorant politically than myself. I tried to get a bit better. It was like cramming for the final when I got the job. Just trying to devour thing — but I am a horrible strategist and a rather horrible liar.
How do you go about planning Cyrus’ arch any given season? Is Shonda one to share future plot points with you so you can get a hold on your character?
Absolutely not, and I get a big a big kick out of that. We do table reads sometimes a half a day before, sometimes the morning of what will be afternoon shootings, sometimes two or three days before we start shooting what we’re reading at the table; it’s still warm from the photocopy machine sitting in front of us. We’re gobsmacked at the revelations and the sudden switchbacks and all that.
Part of it is Shonda and the writers have mapped out all sorts of possibilities, things that they feel that they really know. I think it’s in Shonda’s smart and pragmatic instinct not to share much of that at all with any of us. Because television is unique storytelling in that every other kind of storytelling you know the beginning, the middle and the end; it’s finite. And television is this almost real time evolution of events and character development, and so you’re best off embracing the present and trying to figure out a future that you can’t quite figure out.