Interview: 'Scandal''s Jeff Perry on last night's shocker, Emmy chances
Last night's episode of "Scandal" answered the horrifying question of who got the last bullet fired by new Command Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) as he faced James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) and David Rosen (Joshua Malina). If the Internet hasn't already spoiled this twist for you, don't read ahead. Big, bad spoiler alert right here, and it's the last one you get.
Yes, James took the bullet, and the rest of the episode dug into both how James and his husband Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) became Washington's gay power couple and also gave us a hint of who Cyrus will be now that James is gone. It wasn't always easy to watch -- after careening through Cyrus' shock and denial to a very public meltdown, Perry left it all on the floor. Cyrus' gasping, guttural sobs before the press room were one of those moments that Emmy voters remember.
I had a chance to talk to Perry about that horrible moment, about Bucatinsky's exit, and why the Emmys are like Christmas. I'm always struck by what a nice, easy-going guy Perry seems to be, the polar opposite of the tightly-wound Cyrus. And he didn't have to apologize for making me cry, but he did. God knows Cyrus wouldn't have.
You made me cry like a baby, Jeff. Like. A. Baby.
It is my fault, I'm sorry. We cried, too. We had a mourning period when we realized that was what was going to happen.
When did you know James was going to be killed? Did you have much time to prepare?
We're a really similar chronology to you guys, so we're maybe 3 or 4 weeks ahead of viewers. We're just as surprised as you guys are at table reads, gobsmacked and trying to take it in and think, does this feel authentic, how do I feel about this character? We have really similar emotions to the viewers, especially because we're dealing with a really rabid fan base.
How was Dan Bucatinsky in all of this? You two have worked together so closely.
What Danny and I had was a period of mourning, and then reflection and denial. We had every emotion on the spectrum except guilt.
How are you two doing now?
I'm still in a certain level of mourning about it. Dan is a friend, and as an acting colleague, I'm just such a fan of the relationship writing on the show. This marriage had such believable depth and messiness, highs and lows. I'm just crazy grateful for getting to do it, for getting to feel it, to play with him. I'm partially bereft about it. The fellow actor in me, I was just so happy for Dan's path. He's a particularly multitalented man, he produces, he writes, he acts. But he and I both felt this was great territory for our actor souls to do this, and Shonda [Rhimes] and her staff wrote such riches for this. You don't want it to end. "No no no, this is my championship ball team, don't trade me, don't kill me!" So it's hard. So I have to try to put that emotion into the work.
What Cyrus goes through is absolutely wrenching. How do you build all of those layers, as an actor?
The thing I love about television is that, with our chronology, we might be four or five weeks ahead of you guys but we still have very similar present tense evolution with it. We're reacting to the next day and the next, and that's kind of amazing and lifelike; a flowing river of story that keeps evolving and changing. We're reacting to the present tense the best way we know how. Sometimes that's in a deeply flawed way, and Cyrus has made self-perpetuating mistakes more so this season than in the past. But they seem authentic. I can see where his mistakes came from, so I don't chart it out very far in advance because I don't know too much. Trying to react authentically, and re-embrace where has Cyrus been, what's informing who is now, what the baggage he's bringing in. I kind of stay in that moment.
I was a little surprised Cyrus reacted as strongly as he did. After all, he did contemplate killing James earlier in the season.
It felt like Shonda [Rhimes], the beautiful quality she's created in Cyrus, is that for all of his sharklike machinations, there is a fair amount of self-knowledge and appreciation. This man, she even gave Cyrus words to this effect, but I can't say them because I'm not sure where we are in filming, but he's capable of saying, this man brought out whatever is the best angel in me. He gave me the courage to come out of the lifelong closet, to own the best parts of myself. He forced me to tell truths I was too scared to tell anyone. James did that consistently for Cyrus. The heartbreaking thing to me was, just like in life, the enormity of what we've lost hits us too late, when it's leaving or when it's gone. And I was trying to do some justice to that.
I'm expecting the next stage Cyrus will be going through on the Kubler-Ross model is rage.
There is an aspect to Cyrus that wants to come out with double the fury. That's so authentic in how last night's episode was constructed. We had flickers of all the kinds of authentic reactions to loss -- the numbness, the fighting back, denial, shutting down, grieving. And how they pack that in four or five flashbacks and three or four other scenes, it was really quite spectacular.
But at first, he wants to tune everything out and just work.
Yeah, it was a fundamental shift. With Cyrus, there's a way in which his comfort zone, as much as it gave him a heart attack, was to relentlessly fix leaks everywhere like a master plumber. Here, he made predictable but really heartbreakingly bad decisions, and has enough self knowledge that he knows it's on him. He did this. Whatever his intent was to do something good, the underlying moment for Cyrus is realizing he went too far and ignored crucial warnings, like when Mellie warned him not to use his husband in the plot against Sally. It's a fatal flaw in his DNA that he didn't heed that warning. It's a big mess that he knows is on him.
I know you can't give anything away, but what are the big picture themes coming up?
The election and the ticking clock looms really large in the next four or five episodes this season, and Cyrus is dealing with all the things we'd expect him to deal with -- what is his life now, I had the one love of my life and now he's gone, I have a child and the one partner who had true parenting heart and skill is gone, and what the heck do I do?
When James said "Ella" has his last word, I thought, oh crap, Cyrus is stuck with a kid he only agreed to adopt in order to pacify James.
It was like he was buying James a sports coat or a car, wasn't it? The writers are certainly going to have Cyrus dealing with that. There's an aspect to which re-election continues to be a different personal form of torture for Cyrus, because he has to believe that the bad stuff can't have been in vain. I can't lay down and lose, because then it's all just failure.
I suspect Cyrus is too smart to buy that carjacking story for long.
In the scene with Olivia and Cyrus when they were talking about 'this is the official story and it's a carjacking,' there were real moments of them looking into each other's eyes and pausing. There's some unspoken life in there. Are we going to accept this? Is this code for the narrative that may be true?
This is a short season because of Kerry Washington's pregnancy. Does that create any issues for the rest of you?
The writers, once they make a decision that this is how we're going to react to this wonderful real life circumstance, they have a long enough period to figure it out. And they had practice. The accident of the marketplace is that when your show is going to be launched, you get seven episodes. You don't know if you're just a finite series like what we find in European examples, so that was their first reality as a writing staff.
This season has really been Cyrus' season. How do you feel about potential Emmy buzz?
Who doesn't like Christmas? It would be completely fun and a complete honor, and I get a kick out of celebrating wonderful performances. I would be honored to be in those conversations. I get a kick out of it, and obviously there's shared pride and gratitude because I think the writing of Cyrus has been gorgeous. I've done a lot theater, so Faulkner, David Mamet, writers like that, and I felt like I had an embarrassment of riches on stage. The writing here has been every bit as good as any of those plays. This has been so completely satisfying. The depth of the writing and complication of the writing is good as anything I've gotten to do in previous parts of my career. It's just an amazing chapter.
It was so good to talk to you, Jeff. Really, I cried hard during that press room scene.
I'm sorry, and I'm glad.