Cyrus was a very challenged but very capable strategist and caregiver for the first couple of seasons. In the third season, the pressures of trying to keep the administration together and trying to keep the re-election intact led him to two grave miscalculations. One was using his husband as almost blackmail fodder, as bait, to keep Sally in line, because he thought that keeping the Vice President in line was tantamount to any chances they have for re-election. A further grave miscalculation was covering up Sally’s murder of her husband. For both of them, Cyrus had enough self-knowledge to realize that his intent is always loyalty to and love of Fitz and Fitz’s potential, democracy and the government.Even though it seems like he’s insane and too mean for words sometimes. You can only play that kind of mean for so long before you step over the edge, and Cyrus stepped over the edge in a grave and large way a couple times this season. It left him more vulnerable than we’d ever seen him, more bereft than we’d ever seen him, and suffering more loss than we had ever seen. I think Shonda has left it up in the air as to where this man is going to go. Is he going to become more armored or is he going to become more vulnerable? I don’t know the answer to that, but it does feel like that’s where she has left us as an audience.
It has been fascinating. Gigantic. Crucial. It may not be overstating it to say it is one of the fundamental elements that kept us on the air. From the 7 episodes of the first season to where we are now, it allowed a core audience to begin their viewership rituals and adorations that led to a larger word-of-mouth experience that led to bigger viewership that led to staying on the air, and in fact thriving. So it’s been kind of a change that way, and really beautiful that way.Growing up in theatre, word-of-mouth was exactly what you hoped would build your audience because it was the most trustworthy kind of connection. It was bigger than this almost ‘flavor of the month’ or this somewhat evanescent connection that you find through professional critics saying, “I love this” or “I hate this.” When it’s more democratic, when it’s more one-on-one between you and the audience, then it starts to become more real. Scandal’s connection with the audience is built on a beautiful, trustworthy way, via word-of-mouth which Twitter is – a new iteration of something that’s really old. Neighbors calling each other and saying, ‘did you see this movie? Did you see this play?”It’s like if you see each other at the grocery store and say, “Hey did you see this? I love this.” It’s been gigantic that way. The connection to the artist, with the live tweeting, that communication is quite funny. The bigger the world gets, the smaller it gets, in a sense. 40 years ago there were about 3-4 TV channels, now there are 60, 80, 90 or whatever it is. Now, shows that stay on the air have ratings like 2 million, 6 million, or 10 million at the very most. In years past, that wouldn’t be enough to keep you on the air. But now, the slices of the pie are much more numerous, and you can connect. You can connect with a passionate fan-base that is literally much smaller than it needed to be for the economy to work in television years ago, and you can connect in kind of a direct way. It reminds me of a subscription audience in the theatre, with talkbacks and getting to know the people who came to your shows month after month. It’s like a version of that in television now. It’s very sweet.
I don’t really perceive any misconceptions. The stuff that I get from the audience seems right on! They come up to me at bus terminals, at train stations and airports, going “Are you ok?” They’re kind of having a hard time separating reality from whomever this actor is who must be playing Cyrus. They’re basically worried if I’m going to give myself another heart attack, because the veins are always bulging out of Cyrus’ neck.I don’t find any real big level of misconception about Cyrus. In fact, I find a real enjoyment from the dichotomy of it. People would shake their heads and go “You do such nasty, dastardly, horrible things, but somehow I like you. I don’t understand that.” Shonda creates that with Cyrus and with all her characters. Just when you think they’re evil beyond repair, there’s something beautiful in there and then just when you think they’re getting a little too nice, they do something dastardly. She likes keeping us guessing and keeping conflicting elements alive in her characters.
You couldn’t have found too many people less educated about politics than when I got this job. I was like an excited and terrified kid cramming for the finals. I had C-SPAN on, about four different kinds of books on my nightstand – Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail,” and a book about Robert Kennedy called “The Last Campaign.”I also had any contemporary television talk shows about politics playing on the TV in the background. I had to try and soak up that kind of thinking, and luckily we’ve got people on the writing staff that worked on the White House Press Corps like Judy Smith, who worked as a Deputy Press Secretary in The White House. Judy, whom Olivia Pope’s character is based on and whose career is inspiration for the show in the first place, is one of my co-inspirations. We’ve got some really expert advisors here and I had to just kind of soak all of that up. Then it is like any other acting job, where you take the circumstances of that particular scene and the form and pressures of the relationships within the scene. It feels like Shakespeare and Greek playwrights – it feels kind of timeless.
I’m inspired dearly by my Scandal-mates. I’ve found inspiration from countless actors and actresses, directors and writers throughout my career. An example is, as a high school boy I had sort of a shrine that included Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Lawrence Olivier. And I had pictures taped to my wall. But everything from my Steppenwolf-mates to my current buddies in Scandal, to this amazing Golden Age of television right now, serves as inspiration. A couple of my favorite shows right now are Homeland and The Americans, and I’m finding the work in those series’ just beautiful.
If actors could go back to the beginning of their careers and give themselves advice, what would it be?
I would say most that the most hurtful thing I did for myself was fall victim to comparison, envy, and jealousy in my acting career. I think the biggest advice I would give myself is what Oscar Wilde said in one of his simple, funny quotes. “Be yourself, everybody else is already taken.”
I feel a lot of gratitude. I’m 58 years old, and I was given an absolutely rarified and fortunate upbringing through the Steppenwolf Theatre and its ensemble of actors like Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, and Joan Allen. I was learning from tremendously gifted artists at 18 years old; it was like being on a winning ball team as a rookie! I never expected to feel that level of challenge, camaraderie, ability, and satisfaction again in my life, honestly. And I especially never expected to feel it on television. But I’m feeling all of that with the group that Shonda Rhimes, my wife Linda Lowy, and Shonda’s producing partner Betsy Beers have put together on “Scandal.” I’m feeling a tremendous kind of second chapter in my 50’s that I didn’t expect and that I’m crazy grateful for.
I love acting and I’ve loved it since I was an eighth grader I think. It saved me from befuddlement in life and absolute academic mediocrity. So to be included in the conversation with other people who are doing really good work, it’s just a great honor and it makes me feel really good.
I find that kind of acting task tremendously pressurizing and very difficult because I don’t know if my nervous system and emotional wiring is going to behave on command, and “on command” is what you need in acting, whether it’s theatre, film, or television. There very well may be a large part of the world tapping their foot saying, “This is where you’re supposed to be good at pretending, what are you doing?” But because the reaction to losing my husband represented such a culmination of the many pressures and circumstances that Shonda Rhimes and the writers have given me over the course of two and a half years, it felt like the final high platform dive at the Olympics, where even for a really good diver, a perfect dive is the only thing that’s going to be worth doing. So it felt like a lot of exquisite pressure, it felt very difficult, and in the end I was tremendously relieved that my performance approached the level of emotional severity that Shonda and the writers had written. With acting, sometimes you have a belly flop and yet with this performance I felt like I got close.
I don’t know if other actors feel this way, I would imagine they do, but there is a kind of simple enjoyment in getting to explore and magnify these small parts of your personality that you would be ashamed to magnify in real life. My wife Linda has a funny nickname for me. She says, “he’s Mahatma Patton,” which means that most of the time I’m Gandhi, but sometimes I’m General George Patton from World War II. So I believe with Cyrus, I’m magnifying that little bit of General George Patton that comes out sometimes. So it’s a guilty pleasure where you don’t have to feel guilt.