Scandal’s Most Scandalous Character: Jeff Perry on Playing Cyrus

After many painful months without the beloved show, ‘Scandal’ is back. Jeff Perry, who plays White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene, says everything’s about to change.
The pit bull of the West Wing has his tail between his legs.

For two-and-a-half bold, twist-filled, absolutely insane seasons, Jeff Perry’s White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene has been fixing everyone else’s problems, even if it means baring some teeth and barking up some morally ambiguous (if not downright unethical) trees to reach his goal.

When we last saw Cyrus 620 years ago when the last episode of Scandal aired (OK, it was December, but it feels so much longer), there wasn’t a dog house big enough to put him in. Attempting to blackmail Vice President Sally Langston, Cyrus orchestrated a plan in which Sally’s closeted gay husband would seduce his own husband, James, only to be caught by a planted photographer. What Cyrus hadn’t bargained for was that James would catch on to his plan and take revenge on Cyrus by succumbing to Mr. Langston’s advances. As it turns out, husbands don’t like being used as a pawn in their partner’s devious machinations.

The fact that Cyrus concocts such vile plans and Scandal lovers still feel empathy for him is owed entirely to Perry’s nuanced performance. He makes it so Cyrus’s blind ambition is always at an adrenaline-inducing boiling point, while always remembering to turn down the heat before the unsavory ruthlessness boils over. If Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope is America’s favorite gladiator, Jeff Perry is certainly driving the chariot.

Now that Scandal is finally—FINALLY!—back on ABC Thursday night, we chatted with Perry about where Cyrus can possibly go from here, the progressive nature of his blessedly screwed up relationship with James, and what it’s like to play a character who is so darned stressed all the time. We’re supposed to fix everybody else’s problems. There’s pride in that job of service, and there’s also sometimes a real heartache in it.

So the show comes back tonight…tell me everything.

Well the second half of the third season is, in terms of the West Wing, determined to getting out Fitz reelected. We left off with Cyrus making a grave miscalculation as his chief of staff.

To put it mildly…

Putting it mildly. Hoping to keep Sally Langston, as far as I’m concerned, the addled, hypocritical, homophobic nut job on the ticket because we desperately need the south and we definitely need women and we need the religious right. A deal made with the devil. I concoct a plan that goes south, to put it mildly. I end up with photographs of what looks like consensual sex with my husband and her husband. These photos are useless as leverage, which is one part of the problem to Cyrus’s plan. The other problem is that my husband discovers what I’ve done. I’ve fundamentally endangered my marriage.

How does the dynamic between Cyrus and James change after all this. I’d imagine it changes, um, a lot.

There is so much repair to do, I don’t know if there’s enough marriage therapists in the world to cover it. But I know Cyrus is absolutely intent on somehow repairing this. Because despite all of his hardwiring machinations, he loves this man desperately. It’s the deepest love of his life, and the truly authentic one. He’s going to do everything he can think of to make it all right in the marriage. This is the kind of thing where Cyrus, the only territory in his life, would actually think of prioritizing marriage over the republic and the presidency. He might have to do it.

Cyrus knows that he went too far, but he did still use his husband as a pawn in his own schemes. How does he grapple with that, that it’s the bed he made and now he has to lie in it?

It’s a very uncomfortable bed. A bed of nails. [Laughs] Authentically, Shonda Rhimes and the writers take Cyrus into a little bit of the seventh ring of hell over it. So we’re going to see Cyrus in trouble. We’ve seen him take care of everybody else’s problems. That’s a chief of staff’s job. That he excels at, even when it gives him a brief heart attack. But to have caused the problem himself is new territory for the show and the character. So Cyrus is in unprecedented territory, personally.

Cyrus is a polarizing character for Scandal fans. You see him do things like this to his husband, but you’re still rooting for him, because you root for Olivia and you root for Fitz and he’s on their team. So viewers have a complicated relationship with him. What do you think about him: Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy?

He’s both. To try to do your best to inhabit a character, you judge them to the extent that you judge yourself. That shame and remorse are inevitably part of the equation when you’re capable of really screwing up, which Cyrus is. Denial and pride and ambition and competitiveness are also part of the man’s hardwiring, as are compassion and romanticism and idealism. So, like all of Shonda’s brilliant characters, there’s such authentic depth in all of the dichotomies she creates.

I’ll never forget that monologue Cyrus had in season two, where he told James, “I wasn’t meant to be chief of staff, I was meant to be 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.” I felt like that gave much-needed insight into why he is the way he is.

I thought that was a beautiful revelation that Shonda created. When push came to shove, I remember James’s challenge to him was, “If you love me, show me who you are. For once in your life, show me who you are.” That led them to into absolutely unique vulnerability together. And like you said, Cyrus said things that he never admitted out loud. That’s the kind of opportunity that Shonda creates with these characters for the viewers, moments of deep, surprising revelation.

So that scene was an eye-opening moment for us as viewers. But good lord there’s been dozens of crazy, bananas scenes that you’ve shot as Cyrus. Do you possibly have a favorite?

So many. There’s really an embarrassment of riches that I’m grateful for getting to try to tackle. I remember one in the first season, it might have been the fourth episode, where there’s a long monologue where, “As far as I can tell a woman has successfully matched the president’s DNA, is legitimately pregnant with his baby”—it turns out not to be true, but, as far as Cyrus could tell at that point, that was where we were and it was going to become public. And Fitz urges me to say, “Cyrus, I know you’re very troubled, but we’ve got to spitball. What’s next.” And Cyrus launches into a monologue of “What’s next is a predictable avalanche of bad outcomes,” basically, ending with Fitz taking a gun that his father had given him when he became governor of California, putting it in the back of his mouth and blowing his head off.

It was as dark a piece of writing as has been in the show, and an amazing aria of despair. That sticks out for me, as well as the naked scene. But those are balanced by times of real, tender commiseration with Olivia, because there’s ways that both of our jobs are very similar. We’re supposed to fix everybody else’s problems. There’s pride in that job of service, and there’s also sometimes a real heartache in it. Those moments stick out for me, too.

The relationship between Cyrus and James is so remarkable because it’s so typically the case on a primetime network television series that, if there’s a gay couple, the couple is portrayed to be perfect and happy always. But Cyrus and James are allowed to be messy and sordid and sometimes even awful to each other the way any straight couple on a series as soapy as Scandal would be. I think it’s a really big leap, strange as that may be.

Yes. Shonda has been doing this her whole television career. Really looking at the humanity of people, not in a color blind fashion, but in an inclusive fashion. This person may be Asian, black, Native American, white, privileged, or dispossessed, but they are all still people and complicated, but never all good or all bad. It’s really about meritocracy and what jobs they’re doing. In Grey’s Anatomy, are they good as surgeons? Here, are they good as fixers, in their political jobs? What are they like in their home lives? I really love that in her writing.

It can sometimes be stressful for viewers to watch Cyrus, because healways seems so darned stressed. Does playing Cyrus make that bleed into your own life, too?

Oh boy. We’d really have to ask Scandal’s brilliant casting director, Linda Lowy, my wife. [Laughs] I think mostly, Kevin, because I’m allowed to vent all of that at work, I’m pretty tired and calm by the time I come home. Yeah. So I don’t think I take it home too much!