Jeff Perry is best known as the evil chief of staff Cyrus Beene on Scandal, but to those of us who grew up idolizing Angela Chase and worshiping Jordan Catalano, he’ll always be Mr. Katimski, the lovable English teacher on My So-Called Life. (The series, created by Winnie Holzman, lasted just 19 episodes and premiered 20 years ago this week.)
Mr. Katimski taught Rickie (“Enrique”) not to be ashamed of himself; helped Jordan realize he was in love with Angela (via Shakespeare); and delivered one of the most memorable lines on the show, kicking off the greatest high-school hallway scene of all time.
Cosmopolitan.com spoke to Perry — who called on break from teaching an acting class for teens (an extension of his work as co-founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company) — about the short-lived series, how Claire Danes made him want to quit acting, and why Jared Leto was a handsome mystery to him as well.
I read that Winnie wrote the part for you after seeing you teach a class. Can you elaborate on that? How did the role even come about?
I guess … Winnie asked Linda [Lowy, Perry’s wife] to read the script and they were basically saying, “If we can’t find this amazing girl to play Angela, we’re kind of nowhere.” And I read the script having nothing to do with it other than husbandly cheerleading for my wife, and I said, “Oh my god. Tell Winnie what an amazing, amazing story this is.”
How did Winnie channel — absolutely, channel — her inner 13-year-old soul? It just felt so beautifully authentic and deep. It was an amazing feat of writing.
I think they approached me about this part, and then Winnie was like, “Oh, he actually teaches? I’m gonna go check it out.” And then whatever she created included the kind of pausing that you’re hearing during these last five minutes as a gigantic character trait; that’s where biography met art. Because that’s exactly what I do — I pause every six words or so and think forever and then I continue. And so that little aspect of Mr. Katimski was born out of Winnie’s imagination and a little bit of field research into how Jeff Perry behaves.
When did you find out that Mr. Katimski was gay?
I don’t remember. Jump ahead however many years to Cyrus in Scandal and it was at least four episodes in when Shonda [Rhimes, creator] either revealed to me or just decided — still don’t know — “Oh, Cyrus is gay, and his husband will answer the door when Olivia comes knocking.” But Mr. Katimski, I truly can’t remember. I think I knew that from the beginning.
In hindsight, did it feel different to play a gay character then than it does now? And by “different,” I just mean did it feel like a bigger deal because there were fewer gay characters on TV?
Because I had grown up in contemporary American theater land — John Malkovich and I had played a gay couple about a month after William Hurt and Jeff Daniels originated the parts in Fifth of July and I had played a transvestite — it didn’t … the social significance of it didn’t hit me, and the artistic enjoyment was sort of simple: Oh good. I remember feeling really, really great enjoyment being part of something that people clearly were loving. I’m sure it hit the audience differently because, god, that was a long time ago, societally. How many gay characters were around? But, I was kind of blissfully not cognizant of that. And I didn’t get much “Oh my god” in reaction.
That’s good to hear! Do you remember meeting Claire?
I remember a great thrill seeing Claire and watching some of the footage before I became a recurring character and finding the whole milieu and all characters beautiful — Enrique, Rayanne, Jared Leto, who my now 30-year-old daughter, Zoe, had a big crush on and probably joined 700,000 girls having a crush on.
I remember with Claire mostly being thrilled but, I can’t deny, [I felt] a little bit of despair — really despair, not envy — because I’d grown up getting to practice with some amazing artists — John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, so on. And Claire, I remember — I’m in my mid-30s, late 30s — and I thought, Oh my god. It’s just amazing. It’s like a baby knows how to play a Stradivarius. And thank god this wasn’t the primary thought, but honestly, one of the thoughts was, Why the fuck do I bother? Why have I practiced?
The first episode that you’re in is “Self-Esteem,” which is when the hallway scene happens. Do you know what I mean when I say the hallway scene?
Oh, I loved it — I mean, that writing. What a gift. “Nobody should hate who they are.”
Yes! Yes. Everyone remembers it because Jordan and Angela hold hands, but that line kicks the whole scene off, that’s when Buffalo Tom comes in, and it’s the best.
“Nobody should hate who they are.” That was a beautiful thing to be able to say to the beautiful heart of Wilson Cruz, Enrique. Yeah, yeah, yeah — it was great. And I got to channel some of my high school teachers. Gary Sinise and I go the furthest back of the Steppenwolf people; we were both saved from academic mediocrity as sophomores by being cast in West Side Story by this transformationally beautiful teacher named Barbara Patterson. To have a drama teacher as a mentor was just like, “Oh, what a gift.” And then, here, I can try to do a little honoring of what happened to me.
Yeah, and wasn’t your dad a teacher too?
My dad was. He was a high school English teacher.
So were you channeling a little bit of him too?
Yeah, and I found out that I loved teaching, because our high school director let us direct little plays ourselves. I don’t have much estimation of my abilities as a director but I found I loved class. And loved process and loved practice. And so I’ve put together classes of actors, oh my god, since I was 21 years old, I think. And I’m 58 now.
You actually did direct an episode of My So-Called Life, “Off the Wagon.”
Yeah, and I loved doing that. The problem with me directing is I’m not very good at [it], besides kinda helping actors see possibilities and creating an actor-loving, free environment. Everything about camera movement, about how film was made, shot architecture, and time management … I was horrible at all that. So I didn’t try to do that again.
Just because of that one experience? You could’ve gotten better.
No, no, no. You know, I did try to do it again, and not that long ago, with Bethany Rooney, a veteran, wonderful TV director. I asked if I could shadow her [on the set of Scandal] because I kept having these dreams — I think I can do this, I think things have changed. So I shadowed for about six days of her 10-day episode, and I said, “Bethany, god bless you for letting me have all this access — but I still don’t like this. I don’t like some of the main things this requires, and my brain doesn’t work this way. Love you. Later.”
What was it like directing Claire?
I remember a little moment, I can’t remember it specifically enough: I was urging Claire to deepen some emotion, make it sharper, make it more painful, basically. And she was struggling with the repetitive nature of serial storytelling. She said, “I just can’t distinguish this from quite a few other moments that I’ve had to play. So while it seems specific for you, it’s kind of getting generalized for me.” And, now, this speculation could make much too much of that, but then when a Baz Luhrmann approaches her in pretty short chronology with “Wanna play Romeo + Juliet? It’d be you and Leonardo” — here’s a person literally growing, a crazy-talented human growing in her adolescence as the same time the character is written, and something about that made sense, if I’ve even come to the right speculative conclusion: I don’t want to be in the serial form right now if people are offering me [movie parts]. I bet she had about three movies that she could consider in chronology right around that time. It’s like, Oh, I can be in this story and then I can be in this story and then I can be in this story. And in simple actor empathy, most actors would go, “I get that.”
That’s supposedly a reason the show was canceled: It was on the fence anyway, ABC had been moving to cancel it, and then once it became clear that Claire wanted out, it was a done deal.
Claire had amazing opportunities that no one could really begrudge, especially at such a young age. They were just going to come for someone that talented. If you’re in your late 20s, 30s, 40s, you have a different sense of, “OK, I don’t know how many roller coaster rides I’m going to be on; the professional response is you just gotta stick with it …” But this was a just developing artist of clearly amazing ability and — hey, I loved the show, I hated that it ended, but I never felt, Claire, you’re supposed to just stay.
You’re on a super successful show right now that isn’t under threat of cancelation, and that’s great. But there is something romantic about a show like My So-Called Life having just 19 perfect episodes.
And, you know, I think of all the European examples of storytelling that I’ve fallen in love with — I don’t know if it’s the economy, I don’t know what the combinations of factors is of their television production, but they’re much more prone to go, “This feels like a six-episode story.” Or “This feels like 10 — I’m good.” And it does pack a different wallop.
I’m curious what directing Jared Leto was like. He had a bigger storyline than usual in “Off the Wagon” because his band was breaking up. He even showed more emotional range than usual.
There was such an enigmatic — I don’t even know how to explain it. In Jared, you know that really calm, calm, calm, mysterious thing that you get off of Jared in that part? I thought that was [him]. I didn’t get to know Jared Jared real well; we didn’t get to hang out outside of work. So in a sense, I interfaced with them how they meet the character. And he seemed like that, like there was a lot of mystery there. But if you felt as a viewer that he was called upon to get more emotive, I might have had a hand in that.
This isn’t Mr. Katimski-related, but Jordan or Brian: Who do you think Angela should have gone for?
[Thinks and laughs for 13 seconds] Oh, god. Oh, well … in sheer universal wish fulfillment, I guess it’s gotta be Brian. Because that means I would have gotten lucky enough 20 years earlier to have gotten some dream girl over the rock star.
Have you seen Claire at Emmys parties or anything?
We had a really nice catch-up last year at an Emmy party. Time just drops away. I suppose that people who do sports feel this or I bet in politics, if you went through a campaign together, or people from a lot of walks of life: Time just kind of vanishes for a second. Because for both of you, it was one of the really, really sweet times. And it stands out.