By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
5:53 PM CDT, October 1, 2013
"Scandal" left fans in a frenzy at the end of its second season.
Despite the finale's startling revelation—Rowan is Olivia Pope's father!—fans are hotly anticipating Thursday's Season 3 premiere that picks up 22 minutes after Olivia (Kerry Washington) stepped into Rowan's (Joe Morton) car to escape the media horde quizzing her about her affair with President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn).
Yes, someone leaked that tidbit to the press, and as a result, presidential Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene, still recovering from his heart attack, will forge some surprising new alliances this season to "kill that horrible, untrue, hideous allegation."
I talked with Highland Park native and Steppenwolf Theater co-founder Jeff Perry, who plays Cyrus, about what fans can expect when TV's buzziest show returns at 9 p.m. Thursday on ABC.
How's your heart doing?
[Laughs.] I think it was what, maybe about one commercial break before Cyrus is fighting with the paramedics, having had some size of a heart attack and trying to get the oxygen mask off his face so that he can continue his work phone call with Olivia and Fitz. Yeah, so you'll find some of the characters wanting Cyrus to try to remember that he had a heart attack in the first episodes of Season 3.
Tell me, do you like this guy or is he a little too dark?
I love playing this guy. [Show creator] Shonda [Rhimes] imbues all of the characters and Cyrus has this in spades, such great duality and complications and dichotomies. You get the feeling that he's confirmed bachelor who is suddenly, and kind of mysteriously to him, falling in love with this very ambitious, very handsome younger-than-him journalist. There are just wonderfully telling little moments that Shonda's put in there that make you imagine James and Cyrus going into any public event and James trying to hold his hand or snuggle up and Cyrus going, "Careful, careful, careful." The repressed, almost closeted gay man versus the what-are-you-ashamed-of [gay man].
And then there's a real true believer and a lover of history and a lover of the office of the presidency in Cyrus. There's a backstory that he was a political science professor and somehow has comingled with this political strategist where any means justify the proper ends. And a kind of idealism and ruthless pragmatism are somehow in the stew pot of the character. So Shonda just creates circumstances that are heaven for actors.
I can't imagine that wouldn't be fun to play, and you do it well.
Listen, I enjoy doing it. My wife kind of has an affectionate nickname of me, there's my Mahatma Patton in talking about me. [She says,] Most of the time he's Gandhi, but once in a while General George comes out and then you would sort of want to be in the other room. So I think I'm channeling the General George side a bit more with Cyrus. It's fun; you sort of get to vent it and then I can be a wonderful pacifist when I'm at home.
He has these great murky motivations, and I was wondering if you could give any clues about what Cyrus will be up to this season?
Now we're shooting episode six of Season 3, so I've got a bit more inkling of the story than the audience can have, or it would ruin everything. And the show is completely dependent upon surprise. But one thing I could say is that Cyrus is mysteriously transported to a very ominous meeting in the trunk of a car somewhere in the first couple of episodes. I know that.
And I know that, as usual, it feels like political paramedics around there of responding to the latest threats and problems. And this is a big one. The first lady, Mellie, has already confirmed with the public, via a sit-down on TV with James, that the president has been unfaithful. She didn't name any names, interestingly. And then at the very end of Season 2, someone or more than one person have leaked that they believe it's Olivia. "You are the mystery mistress."
And so we find Cyrus in league with Mellie to a certain extent and kind of uniquely in league with Harrison on Olivia's team, trying to find out the source of that leak and to kill that horrible, untrue, hideous allegation. And that's going to consume Cyrus for the first nine episodes.
Now, literally kill?
[Laughs.] Well, you know, metaphorically, literally—somewhere in there.
Is there anything that Cyrus won't do to keep Fitz in office and protect his friends?
We kind of have seen him in one crucible moment at the very tick of the 11th hour, not be able to go through with a hit on his husband to save the administration. Cyrus I think, whether it's accurate or a romanticism, feels like saving a really destructive period for the republic in general. So yeah, when push came to shove, husbandly love won out in that moment. We kind of joke that on "Scandal," it's Valentine's Day when you call off a hit on your husband. That's romance.
He tried to make sure Olivia wasn't killed.
Yeah, there's been tremendous pressure from the only character that seems to scare the bajesus out of Cyrus, which is Rowan, played by Joe Morton. [He feels] tremendous pressure to use the nuclear bombs on keeping Fitz and Olivia apart. And in the last episode of Season 2, he reveals to Olivia that Fitz was responsible for Verna Thornton's death and reveals to Fitz that his oldest and most trusted Navy buddy was sleeping with the love of his life behind his back.
Cyrus didn't want to do that for quite a while and really wanted to resist that. And you get the feeling that two impulses are in league there. One is pragmatic, that I have to work with these people. These people have to trust me. There's kind of a dispassionate estimation of that on that level.
And then he loves them. He's just got a special place in—some people would say what heart [laughs]—but in his heart for Olivia and for Fitz. So he kind of resists doing what Rowan is telling him needs to be done and what he realizes probably needs to be done. He resists it for as long as he can.
What can you tell me about Cyrus and James in Season 3?
Now, first of all, we truly don't go much going forward. There are ways in which Shonda and the writers are figuring it out kind of on a daily basis because there's so many possible chess moves. And then there's another way in a little bit that we know that would kind of ruin the storytelling by telling.
But, having said that, what is one thing that is in play is that because of that kind of moment that I talked about before when James faced, "Do I tell the truth under oath as I know it, or do I lie and protect my love and me?" "Do I call off the hit man on the steps as James is entering to testify or what?" And in both cases, somewhat surprisingly to both of us I think as characters, love wins out.
Because of that and because of the kind of things that Cyrus was compelled to share with James in that scene when we both got naked, so that I could see if he was wearing a wire and he could see if I was wearing a wire, revealed to him things that had been in me for decades that I would never tell another living soul.
There's a growing fabric of actual honesty and trust. Maybe trust that I know you will try to lie your way out of something for days before I get at the truth. But knowledge of each other, and sort of a knowledge and the love and the trust just keeps deepening.
They're at odds with each other because James is a really good investigative journalist and he's been on the White House press corps. And now there's this burgeoning career as a TV talk show interviewer, Charlie Rose-type or something. And it's often at odds with what I need publicly. [James] is not ready to be a shill for the administration.
And so those kind of conflicts continue to happen. Can't tell you yet where we're baby land and Cyrus's aversion to fatherhood, which is thinly disguised, and James' absolute adoration to parenthood, that will continue to be a source of friction I think.
So is Dan Bucatinsky, who plays James, impossible to work with now that he's won an Emmy?
I love—no, he's a kid in a candy store. He's tremendously happy, and I'm kind of crazy happy for him. This is an actor of such real depth of ability. And he has explored the writer and producer side of him a lot over, say, this last decade. And like any of us, it felt like catching the proper platform for his acting ability was just kind of elusive at different times over the last few years. And this is such a beautiful part that he brings such honesty to and it's so much fun to play with him. And he's been a friend for 20-some years. So as a buddy and as a colleague and whatever, we're both just grinning like crazy.
Did you notice any reaction from fans or anything when everyone learned that they were together and that Cyrus was gay?
Oh, my wife is the casting director, Linda Lowy, and she's cast "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" and "Scandal" and all things Shondaland. And we have a pact that is kind of pragmatic and ethical and I don't know what else. But she's always at least 10 days ahead in knowledge of the outlines and the scripts and where some of the stories threads are going and in actual drafts of scripts.
What's unpragmatic about the actors knowing that is that they're gonna change four times before we see them and then four times after we see them at least. And so it wouldn't make sense for us working on one episode to have seven permutations that exist and then don't exist of dialogue, of stories, of scenes, et cetera, et cetera.
But, so we have a pact we can't talk about it. And at different times they'll be shrieks from a different room as I'm working on the present script and Linda's working on the next one. And I'd run in and that say, "What, what, what?" She said, "I can't—nothing, nothing. It's just some casting I have to do. I can't tell you anyway. Go away."
One of those shrieks I would find out six, eight days later was the fact that she read that Olivia coming to the door of my house for the first time in a story and James answers the door. And for about a paragraph Linda's going, "Shonda's so funny. She gave a woman the name James. That's eccentric of her, and cute." And she goes, "Oh my God. He's gay. Oh my God." Yeah, that was the source of one of the shrieks I would find out six to eight days later.
I loved how Shonda introduced that. In some ways the trace of sexual identity and racial identity, it's not at the forefront. Olivia comes to the door; James answers and says my husband doesn't work on Sundays. And this is how we learn that Cyrus is gay. And it's kind of know how I learned Cyrus was gay. And I said, "Oh, OK. Fine. I'm gay." And I thought back to the previous six or seven episodes and went, "Oh yeah, so I was a gay for those too. OK, that's fine."
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