Scandal is filled with complex characters who make shocking choices on a weekly basis. And over the past two-plus seasons, no character’s arc has more surprising than White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Rutherford Beene (Jeff Perry), who has gone from loyal presidential pitbull to aligning against his once-best friend, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington).
“I think Cyrus is kind of in hog heaven,” Perry said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “He’s a public servant and a lover of democracy who holds the values of the Republic somewhere near the core of the man, but he truly believes that the means justify the ends. He’ll do anything to protect the office of the presidency.” For Cyrus, “anything” includes putting a hit out on his own husband (reporter James Novak, played by Emmy winner Dan Bucatinsky). While he called it off with moments to spare, it’s a sign of the extremes to which Cyrus will go – and the range of emotions that the role requires. Perry, for his part, loves it.
“I’ve never had a role with range like that, maybe ever, and definitely not in television,” he says. The gig was a welcome challenge for the veteran actor, who co-founded the Steppenwolf Theater Company with Gary Sinise in 1974. “I honestly never thought I would find this level of sheer fun in television,” he adds. “[Creator] Shonda [Rhimes] has the skill that people like Aaron Sorkin and Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights have – the ability to write relationships and complications and dichotomy in people. It’s absolutely actor heaven.”
Part of what inspires Perry is that the actors don’t know what will happen. “There have been some fun shocks along the way. I thought I was the moral center. Then I get a script and it’s, ‘Oh I might be the most evil person in the world.’ When I got the job, I just assumed I was a workaholic and heterosexual. Then I read a script and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m gay.’ You just have to wait and see.” This applies to Perry even though his wife, casting director Linda Lowy, gets the scripts ten days ahead of time.
“We have an ethical pact where I can’t know any of that. But occasionally I sense something is coming. For example, this one time, it was when she just read five pages of a monologue. It was when I was on the president’s couch in the first season [“Enemy of the State”] and had just laid out his whole future from leaving the office in disgrace and Mellie divorcing him to who would do the post-funeral interview. It was Hunter S. Thompson meets Shonda’s dark vision of everything. Tony Goldwyn [who plays President Grant] was funny. He said, ‘It’s gorgeous, Jeff. But in real life I would have fired you four minutes ago.”
The relationship between Cyrus and Fitz is complex, but every aspect of their personal lives is fair game save one: that Cyrus is a gay man in a Republican administration rarely comes up. “You don’t need a big back story of why he’s gay – he just is,” Perry said. “Oprah said a beautiful thing about Shonda: there is a seat for everybody at her table. Shonda loves subverting peoples’ expectations. It’s how she sees the world.”
When asked what it’ll take to get the old trio of Olivia, Fitz and Cyrus back together, Perry just laughs. “It’s a corny but strange truth that politics makes strange bedfellows. I’ll just giggle at it sometimes, but Shonda will find a way to make people work together, because they need to, even if they hate each other. The team certainly has a chance to get back together. I don’t know if the dust has settled on where the re-election effort is going, but that might be an avenue for them to get back together.”
The only way to find out is to tune in.