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Dan Bucatinsky on ‘Scandal,’ ‘Web Therapy’ and the Evolution of Gay Characters on the Small Screen

Dan Bucatinsky on 'Scandal,' 'Web Therapy' and the Evolution of Gay Characters on the Small Screen

Dan Bucatinsky is a very busy man. The actor, writer and producer is currently playing a recurring role in ABC’s Shonda Rhimes drama “Scandal” as James Novak, a former political journalist whose return to work has caused some serious, potentially administration-shaking conflicts for his husband Cyrus (Jeff Perry), the White House Chief of Staff. Off screen, Bucatinsky serves as a consulting producer on Rhimes’ other current TV series “Grey’s Anatomy” and, along with his spouse Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”), works on and sometimes appears in his producing partner Lisa Kudrow’s web series-turned-Showtime comedy “Web Therapy.” Bucatinsky’s also written a book about his experiences becoming a father with Roos, the memoir “Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?” Indiewire caught up with Bucatinsky on the phone between table reads to talk about “Scandal,” the changing portrayals of gay men on television and making a web series into something that also works for cable.

How’d you end up in the role of James on “Scandal”?

When “Scandal” was a pilot, I came in and read to play Huck, the part that Guillermo [Díaz] does so beautifully. I knew in my gut that I wasn’t that guy. It was described in his past that he was homeless, and I’m clean cut. It was an amazing part — even in the room it was a really fun scene to play — but I wouldn’t even cast me in this. Then they called to see if I would play the husband of the Chief of Staff, played by Jeff Perry — who happens to be a friend of mine, so that was a little awkward but fantastic. I of course said yes. I think at the time they just didn’t know what would happen. This is a show that’s so dense, so rich and there’s so many storylines going, they don’t necessarily know every detail of where the character is going so far in advance.

The character development and the possibility of exploring a fairly modern marriage — a new twist on a DC political marriage — became more and more exciting for them. Luckily for me, I got to play some really juicy stuff, because they got excited to play to the fabric of that relationship within the show that’s also about these other scandals, about the romance between Fitz [Tony Goldwyn] and Olivia [Kerry Washington]. And I’m thrilled because so much of my real personal life I get to draw on for this role.

I wanted to ask about that — you wrote a book about adopting your children, is that an experience you brought to the role in terms of shaping it or is it more just an opportunity to bring part of your personal life to the character?

The first episodes were really just about introducing James as this husband to the Chief of Staff. I think in the back of Shonda’s mind she always wanted the character to want to be a dad and to let that drive his character, but around that time, she and I discovered that what we had in common was our adoption stories. The way in which both of us became parents was quite similar even though that she’s a single straight mom and I’m a gay dad in a marriage. We had both read Dan Savage’s book, “The Kid,” and gotten inspired by that. She was the first person I sent my book to, and she sent me a very nice blurb which is on the book right now. But whether it’s the tail wagging the dog… I don’t think so. I think it’s a coincidence and also something that allows me to tap into a lot of stuff that I can relate to.

Like the character, you also work with your husband, in this case on “Web Therapy.” How much or how little of that experience do you bring to this much muddier, complicated on screen relationship?

In terms of “Web Therapy” — and Don and I have worked together on other things as well, I’ve produced films of his and he’s produced films of mine — we try to keep work out of the home as much as possible, because earlier in our relationship, before we had kids, it got very complicated and messy. It is definitely not easy, and there’s something about that that’s illustrated in the relationship between James and Cyrus as well in the way that you are married but your professional ambitions dictate something that will in fact impact your spouse.

There have been times in our 20-year relationship where Don and I have had things like that occur. It’s not like James where I would literally use quotes I heard on the pillow in an article, but there are times when one’s professional or creative endeavors internally criss-cross and you have to work with the tougher challenges to overcome. I’m also an actor and [Don’s] a director so we’ve had plenty of opportunities to fight on set. His shorthand when he’s directing me is a little different than his shorthand when he’s directing other actors. You’re giving everyone else compliments and me you’re just telling not to do that crazy thing with my voice that you always hate.

One of the things that makes the dynamic between James and Cyrus so interesting is that Cyrus is a Republican — and when the Vice President, who’s much more conservative, briefly comes into power there’s a real sense of how much of a conflict that could pose to the life Cyrus has made for himself.

One of my favorite lines is in one of the episodes when we’re fighting over having a kid or not — I scream out, “I can’t believe I fell in love with a Republican!” I love that it’s phrased that way — it’s not “I can’t believe I married a Republican.” It’s as though his emotions and love for Cyrus overcame him and are somehow bigger than the politics. This is a show where you’re constantly straddling that line. Are the ideas and concepts bigger than the value of a human life?

Cyrus is a gay man who probably came to be aware of that later in life than James did. The people who are out of the closet in their 50s and 60s have a very different relationship with that closet than people in their 30s and 40s. When you do flashback scenes they had just been together for a year, Fitz gets elected and I’m not invited to the Inaugural Ball. We have this screaming fight in the White House about me not going with him because he’s just not ready to be at these political parties with his male spouse — and it doesn’t even get dealt with. It’s just a fight that illustrates a greater problem that we’re having, that he’s a little more old school than I am. The differences in our politics and in the politics of even Fitz and the VP are things that would ultimately impact what we believe about ourselves and about each other.

I don’t know that I could be married to a staunch Republican. You like to think that love is bigger than all those things, but really it’s so fundamental. There are so many things that we discuss in politics that are fundamental to what we believe about our values and our rights as individuals. I know there are couples that are across those different party lines but I find them baffling.

Shonda Rhimes has a way of representing diversity in race and sexuality in such a matter of fact manner — like how James is introduced.

I think she is actually one of the most innovative creators of television in the way that her characters don’t come out of a closet in a very special episode. Her characters live in a world where there is no closet, and it’s just that way. The door opens and Olivia Pope is like, “What? No hug, James?” The audience is meant to catch up with these characters who already accept each other and who live in a world where this is how it is. Where they talk about their marriage, about adopting a baby and it’s not a point of political agenda. It’s so subtle and yet it’s kind of subversive.

James and Cyrus are part of a recent trend on TV, along with “The New Normal” and “Modern Family.” There’s this real push in portraying the domestic lives and families of gay couples.

When I moved to Los Angeles there’s no way that I would have imagined that I would be an out actor in a marriage with two kids, writing a book about and playing that kind of character on television. It was far from what I thought was possible. It feels like we’re part of something that is not finished but has definitely hit a point where you have to stand, close your eyes and take stock. The fact that the African American president of the United States in the inaugural address of his reelection spoke about freedoms of same-sex couples and parents, it’s mind-blowing. You can’t underestimate the power of every single cog in the wheel that made that happen, not the least of which was the media, “Will & Grace” and Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O’Donnell and Jane Lynch and Neil Patrick Harris.

I love the fact that there’s a trend now to include domestic life of families of all kinds of patterns and designs. I will say that I think that we can move beyond humor just in the fact that there’s two guys and they’re dads. On the comedies, I’m noticing that a lot of the jokes are about being gay — even on “Modern Family,” and I’m a huge fan, but those gay dads are Gay Dads, capital letters. I’m excited to be involved in a drama where occasionally it comes up as a natural obstacle but my fatherhood is just a fact of wanting to become a parent. The gayness is becoming almost the least relevant aspect of our characters, and that’s something that I think is really forward-thinking.

Shifting over to “Web Therapy,” I know that you’ve worked with Lisa Kudrow for a while, how did that begin?

I met Lisa on the set of “The Opposite of Sex” and we became friends, Don and I and Lisa and Michel [Stern], her husband. I wrote, produced and I starred in a movie called “All Over the Guy” and Lisa appeared in it. I was writing a lot of pilots and she was being offered what at the time was considered a vanity deal with a production company — she asked me if I wanted to partner up with her, and I did.

This year will be our tenth year as Is or Isn’t Entertainment. We produced “The Comeback” for HBO and “Who Do You Think You Are?” which was nominated for an Emmy this past year and “Web Therapy,” which is beginning it’s third season. “Web Therapy” has been this little passion project that started on the web, then, because of an interesting idea, got licensed in a half-hour format for Showtime. It’s been really fun, very time-consuming, not that lucrative but we all love it.

As you said, “Web Therapy” was initially made for the web, both in how it was structured and conceived. What was the process of shaping it into more traditional linear television like?

We really did design it for the web — by every definition. Each of these sessions with a patient was designed to be just long enough to be web content. When it was suggested to us that sessions stuck together could create a longer form of content, we put three of them together and it by itself did not feel like it would sustain a half-hour show. How could we create a storyline that would have an arc to a half-hour but also an arc to the season? How could we put titles and moments that Fiona has by herself and reorder the sessions with people so this could play out in longer format? We continue to make the show primarily in its first incarnation, playing them out as webisodes. Then for this half-hour format we create graphics and moments to tie together these webisodes, these sessions that Fiona has, and created a world where we meet her mother, her sister, her husband, her husband’s boyfriend.

The show ultimately is less about therapy and more about one really fucked-up woman. It’s hilarious to watch how this very narcissistic self-serving woman calls herself a therapist and then drags every single person in her life down. It’s just become something bigger, but we really enjoy seeing how it shapes and bends as time goes on. We keep surprising ourselves. It’s outlined heavily, we do a lot of story meetings, but all the actors improvise so when we’re shooting we just have a good time. We shoot over weekends, so each actor comes to play with us for just half a day. Luckily the cameras don’t move because we’re recreating the notion of a webcam.

I’m sure some of the guest stars you’ve had have been more comfortable with improv than others — how do you go about finding them and working with them?

We’ve never had a casting director. Our joke about the show, which isn’t really a joke, is that you bump into somebody in the valet line at some party and they’re like, “Oh, I love your show!” and you’re like, “Great! Want to be in it?” Meryl Streep was at a commencement at Vassar and Lisa also went to Vassar. Meryl was like, “I love that ‘Web Therapy’ show,” and [Lisa] was like, “Do you want to do one?” It led to a couple of emails and our being a little aggressive and making it really easy on the talent, which we always do, and we booked her. It was just a miracle.

Alan Cumming, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban — a lot of those are well-known improvisational actors, but even people like Courteney Cox, Natasha Bedingfield, this season we’re doing Nina Garcia… It’s fun to see an interest mix of comedians, people in the music industry — we’ve had Rosie O’Donnell on, we shot Meg Ryan for this season. Regardless of their improvisational background, it really is just talking and listening. Don’s a good director, and we have earwigs, so we’re listening to each other and Don as well. We make it as user-friendly and fun as possible, and so far, so good.

Both “Web Therapy” and “The Comeback” have these protagonists who are not likeable at all the traditional sense. Is there a particular draw for you in these characters who challenge our sense of empathy?

We live in a business that’s sort of misogynistic and tends to shy away from these sort of female protagonist that may have unlikeable qualities. I think Lisa is attracted to them, finds them interesting and layered to play. I think it challenges her as an actress, and for us as writers its a lot of fun. Plus, sitting in a room where Lisa is improvising, she literally can channel a different character. You just watch the hilarity come out of her in such a smart way — it inspires both me and Don.

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