Emmy Watch: Jeff Perry on baring everything for 'Scandal'

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Image Credit: Randy Holmes/ABC

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

Scandal is not a show for the emotionally faint. ABC’s soapy political melodrama reached dramatic heights in season 2, when creator Shonda Rhimes treated devoted viewers to a two-story arc full of murders, lies, secret identities, and an assassination attempt. But before the mole, Rowan, and Captain Jake Ballard, there was the original sin of Scandal — the election rigging.

Rhimes shrewdly structured the first part of season 2 as a series of flashbacks and present-day moments to reveal the details of Defiance, the town in Ohio that a small committee decided to manipulate to ensure the presidential victory of Fitzgerald Grant III. And in a season full of incredible character reveals and origin stories, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), the master manipulator of the West Wing, stole the show when he stripped down to nothing, literally, and for once, told the truth.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are so many great Cyrus Beene moments in every episode, but if you had to choose, what was the most significant scene for you in season 2?
JEFF PERRY: In “Nobody Likes Babies,” the scene that was one of the most revelatory, fun, challenging, and pressure-filled that I got to play was with Danny Bucatinsky — James, my husband. I know as a journalist in the White House press corps, he’s been chasing this lead. But I have no idea how successful he’s been … and I never intend on revealing this or admitting this to anyone.

You’re not only baring your soul in that scene, you and Dan also strip down to prove that you’re not wearing wires. What made this scene so powerful for you?
Shonda has Cyrus go into a reveal of motivation. And it’s probably the first time Cyrus has uttered it. “Do you know what I was meant to be? I wasn’t meant to be chief of staff, I was meant to be the president. But guess what? I’m not very tall, I’m not very pretty. So this is kind of as far as I can go. And Fitzgerald Grant was kind of my shot. And when you get your shot, you either take it or you lose, and I’ve lost enough.” I remember writing Shonda about this. I said it was such a gigantic character gift, and an actor gift, because you’ve created a picture of someone who is a very, very veteran, professional politician who’s sort of wired for only the strategic truth. The ends justify basically any means to the political animal that Cyrus is.

Shonda creates the pressure of simultaneous, dichotomous truths of what is amoral strategy meets an idealism and a real belief. And here I have the deepest secret that I hope that no one ever hears about. And the one relationship that I’ve had in my late 50s of a guy of my generation really scared on so many levels to be fully out of the closet, but also who’s never really known how to commit to one person, and I really love this man. And it’s kind of like, “Tell me the truth or lose me.” And I tell him the truth. And he listens. And I don’t know what he’s going to do. Someone so wired for secrecy and strategy forced to come clean. I thought it was really in the writing. It felt like really exquisite pressure to honor all that stuff that she built about the character.

You told us before that your wife, Linda Lowy (Scandal’s casting director), had clued you in about the fact that you were going to have to be naked in this scene. Did the advance notice help?
I mentally thought of the calendar, that we were going to be shooting in 11 days, and thought, “Oh, what am I going to really do in 11 days to make a difference?” If the brilliant James Gandolfini can walk around in his boxers, so can I. So, I let go of certain normal vanities there. Actually, in my theater life, I’ve been naked quite a few times with different roles. So that wasn’t that freaky to me. Also, the content of the scene was so fraught and prepared for and such a culmination in so many ways of some of the secrets that these characters have been carrying — especially my character — that there was a lot to concentrate on, from the sheer amount of words to the form of the scene. I think Danny and I just sort of forgot about that aspect of it.

What else do you remember about that day?
Tom Verica, one of the producers, and a directing producer, knows us all like crazy, so there’s a real ensemble shorthand and a huge level of trust. And we just kind of took it at different temperatures of tone and heat and tempo. We let a number of different versions live out there. It must have been a half-dozen takes of the different sizes and portions of the scene. And we ended up using, at least in my case, the more fraught and rather ferocious ones. I remember watching a cut of it and just not having the distance to know what was right. Actors, editors, and writers all feel a version of this, that question of “Are these the right takes? Is there too much scenery chewing? Are the choices too literal? Or aggressive?” And Shonda and Tom both told me, “No.” They said the situation just had that pent-up pressure, and they liked those takes where we were the most tortured.

It’s actually a fairly long scene too. 
The duration is a little uncharacteristic in our show and in network shows. It went kind of commercial to commercial. In that way it felt like a beautifully contained one-act play.

Did you get any feedback after people saw that episode?
Oh, it was amazing. Not to betray a confidence, but Shonda wrote me something that was kind of beautiful. To paraphrase, she said, “I’ve gotten emails from people all over town who were so struck by your work in that scene.” That’s pretty rare in our communication. We usually try to keep our heads down and continue the work. You always feel trusted and supported, of course, but she doesn’t do it that often. I was really moved by that. And I had high school friends and family members and all sorts of people checking in after that episode saying some very generous superlatives.

Are you surprised to get these sorts of dramatic opportunities on television?
I’ve been such a fan of American TV. There have been great network examples, of course, but like a lot of people, you kind of mark it from The Sopranos onward of yet another kind of golden age of TV — maybe the second golden age of TV since the ’50s, when the young Paul Newmans and the Maureen Stapletons were all working on TV and the writing was great with Horton Foote and Rod Serling. And then we had another really golden period. I don’t know if it’s the economic shrinkage of movies where you have beautiful independent movies and giant tentpole movies, some of which are good and some of which are horrible, but a lot of the middle class of movies that were so rich in the ’70s and early ’80s have shrunk and almost disappeared. The art of TV writing has been the beneficiary. And Shonda is pulling off that level of work in the more populist demands of the network.

And she’s giving them smart content in those epic monologues along with the soapy elements that draw viewers in.
Oh yeah. It’s so true. The characters have depth and complications. Kerry [Washington] was joking sincerely one day and said, “Shonda, do you know how many college kids are going to be doing your monologues for auditions?” The speechwriting is just gorgeous. It’s really an honor to work on that level of material.

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr.

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