Jeff Perry on Scandal and Cyrus’s Third-Season Heartbreak

Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Jeff Perry can recite Shakespeare as easily as I would read off a grocery list, but lately, the accomplished actor and Steppenwolf Theater co-founder (and former artistic director) has been bringing frenetic energy to us each week as Cyrus Beene on Scandal. Vulture talked with Perry about Cyrus’s biggest freak-outs and what drives both the character and the man who plays him.

What is your favorite of Cyrus’s biggest freak-outs? He’s a yeller.
Well, you know, with this series, there was such an exquisite vise-like pressure that Shonda [Rhimes] and the writers created. When James, in a relentless pursuit of the truth, gets subpoenaed and just sort of knows in his gut that I’m culpable in rigging the election, I remember specific lines from James. “Cyrus Beene if you love me, tell me who you are for once in your life.” And in that surreal way it causes the disrobing of both of us to see if we’re each wearing a wire. That was exquisite pressure that Shonda put on Cyrus’s character, and it lead to both a freak-out and, in a strange way, cathartic intimacy and the revelation of things he’d never uttered out loud to any human being. He knew he was ruining the love of his life. 

That was the scene when he was screaming, “I stole the White House,” which really revealed Cyrus’s ambition for the first time. We’d been operating under this idea that Cyrus was content in his role as chief of staff, but he revealed that he had wanted to be president and wanted his name in the history books.
Exactly. A giant portion of his identity and role and, apparently, mask is one of servitude. There’s plenty of ego and strategizing, but that was a very interesting revelation.

Do you think that was a moment where the viewer could be sympathetic with Cyrus? And does that matter — do you want people to sympathize with him?
Yeah, you do. What I love about Shonda’s art is that there’s such a lovely complexity and really fair-handed presentation of how dichotomous these people are, and it’s really kind of the warts-and-all approach of their most honorable and most dishonorable moments that can lead to recognition. I know about empathy, compassion, sympathy — those are attendant to some extent — but I think she’s really after recognition. What’s the beautiful Shakespeare line where Hamlet is talking to the players? “Show virtue her own feature and scorn her own image.” 

That’s a beautiful assessment of her work and your character.

Another rough moment was the process of Cyrus coming out as a gay man. I’m 58 years old, so Cyrus is, too. His generation, his job, and being a bigwig in the Republican party, you have different cultural moments where we can imagine it would have made it easier for him to come out — when he was 30, 40, 42 — and a lot of people who are scared or are hiding can understand. And Shonda even gives him a — however sincere, however misguided — previous marriage to a woman. So that was a gigantic freak-out in an interior way for Cyrus.

You create a lot of that internalized intensity. I loved that scene in season two when you tell Mellie, “You may be a political animal, but I’m a monster.” At that moment we’re not quite sure about the depth of what Cyrus will do to keep this presidency going they way they had envisioned.
It’s a preamble, a foreshadowing of things that would come later. We’re seeing what he is willing to entertain, or actually willing to ask for, or actually willing to do that would lend credence to his saying that. He came within an absolute hair’s breath of ordering a hit on his husband as his husband was heading into court to testify and bring down the administration. He almost killed a couple hundred people in the church in an effort to blow up Sally, after having asked Jake, Scott Foley’s character, to kill her. And then what really haunted him was his blackmail attempt that went wrong on so many levels — secretly enlisting his husband to try and have an affair with Sally Langston’s husband, and that led to Sally killing her husband, which led to another grave judgment error of covering up the murder. In that way, in season three, Shonda and I had been exploring these parts of Cyrus, because there’s a tug and pull between what is servitude and what is a grand design. You have little moments of Cyrus going, “You’re a flyboy with good hair” [laughs] that coexists with believing Fitz is a president for the ages. I have to be the puppet master, or I have to be the best servant in the world. 

Sometimes both. 

What happened in season three is that rather than Cyrus putting a finger in every possible dike and trying to stop cataclysm, he started to create gigantic problems that could certainly lead to his imprisonment or dismissal, but could also bring down the whole house of cards. Oh, no, I’m not supposed to promote other shows, sorry. [Laughs.]

I’ll cut it.
That was very interesting. And I think that in a general sense, that caused Cyrus another kind of crisis of the soul. It’s one thing to keep trying to put out fires caused by other people, but then he started causing them, and his own psyche and judgment came into question for himself and others.

All of that emotion seemed to come to fruition in that moment when you were at the podium after James was shot, and you let out that deep, mournful wail.  
It’s a gigantic gift for an actor, what Shonda and the writers keep creating, that range and the possibilities of this. It’s some of the most beautiful territory I’ve ever been able to explore. Television is so neat; I grew up doing theater, and I’ve done a bit of film. I know I’m stating the obvious, but it’s a unique storytelling form in that it’s able to constantly evolve. And because of its duration, when you’re lucky enough to stay on the air for a little while. It’s a different kind of access to character and possible depth of character. It’s pretty amazing.