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How Jeff Perry Becomes Scandal’s Presidential Henchman Cyrus Beene

Sometimes, between shooting scenes as Scandal's monstrous chief of staff Cyrus, Jeff Perry slaps himself in the face. Or he curses. It’s how he summons whatever inner tornado he needs to step into the shoes of his volatile alter ego. But one afternoon in early November, while shooting a scene from what would be last week's seismic episode, he wanted to hunker down alone in a corner with his thoughts because it was time for his character to do the unthinkable: He needed to cry. It was a rare moment of remorse for the take-no-prisoners politician, revealed last week to be the result of his husband finally catching on to how diabolical Cyrus can be — and it surprised Perry. I was waiting on set to interview him, and he asked if he could reschedule. The next day, his day off, we met up in an office in Scandal headquarters at Sunset Gower Studios in Los Angeles, a few doors down from where series boss Shonda Rhimes conjures up so much madness. I found him lounging on a sofa in a light gray T-shirt and striped short-shorts, free of Cyrus’s stately suits. Perry didn’t need to explain to me, but did anyways, that his work the day prior was “intense and fucked up,” which he, of course, meant as a compliment. “It’s not exhausting so much as cathartic. Actors vent.”

When he’s out of Cyrus’s headspace, Perry, a 58-year-old veteran of both TV and stage, is much closer to Mr. Katimsky, the stammering, big-hearted English teacher he played so memorably years ago on My So-Called Life. Series creator Winnie Holzman wrote the part for Perry after she watched him teach an acting class. (He still teaches, and fun fact: A.J. Langer, who played Rayanne on MSCL, was recently a student of his.) “Katimsky’s seven-minute pauses, those are just mine,” Perry said. And yet the actor stands out in Scandal’s ensemble of bad guys and worse ones. His take on Cyrus is combustible, a fun-house version of Jack Bauer, both amoral and idealistic, doing whatever it takes for “the country.” So far, that’s meant rigging an election to get his boss (and himself) in the oval office, killing the intern who slept with his boss, and most recently using his journalist husband to seduce and out the closeted husband of the vice president because she had secret plans to run against the president. About those great dichotomies and contradictions, Perry shrugged. “Cyrus believes President Fitz is a great man, and if he could just stop fucking around … ”

The earliest indicator for Perry that Scandal was going to be a rule-breaking highwire act, balancing the kind of dark, morally ambiguous character work you’d find on cable with soap operatic arcs, was the season-two episode in which Cyrus asked an assassin he kept on the payroll to kill his husband because he was about to testify that Cyrus had helped rig the election. “Calling a hit on my husband and then calling it off, and then calling that 'romance' … It epitomized something for me,” Perry said. “Romance on Scandal is calling off a hit on your husband.” He continued. “You know, you’ve got writers, some of them who belong only on the beach and some of them as fourth-year lit majors. Shonda’s got qualities of both, and it’s beautiful.” On the other hand, the speed at which Scandal can tear through story (faster than any other show on TV, period) does give him pause. “I’ve had the concerns that any normal person would have, I think. I want this job to go on longer, and we’re on burnout mode. You can’t keep this level of crazy up or crazy will get predictable,” he said. “But what’s amazing is that 40-some episodes in, we’re still going, and people still can’t predict what’s next. That’s pretty hard to do.”

If Perry seems more nervous than he should be about keeping his plum gig — Scandal remains a ratings hit for ABC — it’s only because he doesn’t want to jinx anything. He says he wasn’t the first choice to play Cyrus; he believes that Rhimes thought it would be awkward because he was already associated with her other hit Grey’s Anatomy (he recurred as Meredith's dad, Thatcher), and he’s married to Rhimes's go-to casting director Linda Lowy. (“I sleep my way into any good employment, and I recommend it for all actors,” he said with an almost straight face.) Lowy’s business associate insisted on putting Perry up for the role anyway after they’d auditioned a dozen or so others. Rhimes, however, tells an alternative version of events: “Jeff was my first choice,” she said after hearing the actor’s theory. “I don’t think the network thought the guy who was playing Thatcher Grey, sort of mumbly and sweet and a little ineffectual as Meredith’s dad, could be the guy who was this monster on Scandal. But Jeff Perry’s an incredible theater actor and I knew what he was capable of.” (Perry is one of the founding members of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where in 2007 he originated the role of Bill in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County.) He did get one note on his audition: “'A little less kindly processor, a little more Rahm Emanuel,'” Perry recalled. Once he read up on President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s enforcer, infamous for his Judas list of traitors and dead fish deliveries, Cyrus was born. Rhimes credits Perry as nothing less than the character’s co-creator. “I didn’t discover that Cyrus was gay until Jeff was playing him,” she said, laughing. “Jeff would be very surprised to hear that. Something about him made me go, ‘This man wanted to be president and couldn’t be president,’ and we worked backwards from that.’” Perry likened his good fortune of moving from Grey's to Scandal as “being cast as a squirrel on Winnie the Pooh right before being given Iago.”

Three seasons in, the cast of Scandal still comes over to his house — which he's christened the Scandal Clubhouse — every Saturday night to watch that week's episode in advance together. (Then they all live-tweet it separately on their second viewing on Thursday nights.) He likens these get-togethers as “an 11-year-old’s Girl Scout sleepover,” and says that even when they don't have an episode to watch, the cast hangs out in their off-hours. “We all believe it’s kismet,” he said, “the timing of it, for all of us at these stages of our careers … We’ve all been around a long time trying to do this.” He counts nine pilot seasons of bad luck since his last series regular job on Nash Bridges, which is to say, he works doubly hard to do his part on Scandal. On set the day before, I had watched him film last-minute additional scenes for episode six in addition to scenes from the next three episodes. It was a grind, but Perry was exacting. He spent some time trying to get a read from director Tom Verica on how Cyrus should feel out Harrison, a colleague of the president’s mistress whom Cyrus was bullying into a favor. Should he keep it light? Be more threatening? The new story line would kick off a mystery for the character of Harrison, and since much was still unknown, Perry decided to greet his adversary with an amused chuckle. “Right!” Perry beamed. “Cyrus always does that before he’s about to shiv someone.” He’s giddy talking about work, and by all accounts loving every minute of it. Last May, the cast did a live reading of the explosive season-two finale for Emmy voters, and Perry went over the top reenacting his post-heart-attack scene, in which Cyrus is feverishly and angrily making calls in an ambulance. The crowd screamed and roared with laughter, and when Perry got home after the show, he sent the entire cast and crew an e-mail. It read: “Tonight, we were the Beatles!”

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and ABC