“Scandal’s” Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) is as much of a fixer as chief gladiator Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) — albeit for less noble causes — but this season, the White House Chief of Staff is playing with fire thanks to an ill-advised relationship with a prostitute called Michael (Matthew Del Negro), and in the Nov. 13 episode, titled “The Last Supper,” he’s liable to get burned. Cyrus, whose husband James (Dan Bucatinsky) was murdered last season, just discovered that Michael is under the employ of RNC chairwoman Elizabeth North (Portia de Rossi) and has been spying on Cy since their affair began. It looks like the fixer needs some fixing.
Variety spoke to Perry — a veteran of stage and screen who first joined the Shondaland roster with a recurring role on “Grey’s Anatomy” — about the impending scandal hanging over his character’s head, his empathy for troubled First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) and whether he still believes in the President (Tony Goldwyn), given some of Fitz’s questionable choices of late.
It seems like Cyrus’ house of cards is about to come tumbling down now that he knows the truth about Michael; what can you preview about this week’s episode?
Perry: Cyrus knows where the leak originated: it originated with him, it originated with the young man he was growing closer and closer to and trusting more and more, and [he knows] that it’s going to Elizabeth North and it’s ending up with Mellie, so he has a hot mess on his hands, to say the least. There was a time in Cyrus’ memory when he put out fires, now he seems to be starting them — inadvertently, but still; there’s no excuse for stupidity in Washington D.C., or reckless behavior. What I can say is, it has him freaked out, and it has him trying to figure out what to do. Because if Elizabeth North basically has the contents of his phone, this is a big, big problem — private, public, everything. It could be a giant administration problem. It goes right to the core of, “can Fitz ever trust me again, and can I keep this job, and what kind of actual damage can there be?” And the answers to all of that are, “CATASTROPHIC, OMG!” So I can say that Olivia, in a very interesting turn of events, gets involved in the Cyrus problem, and Cyrus has to do some incredible tapdancing and is put in a position to try and do some very good, chameleon-like acting in public and private. And all the while, you’ve got West Angola, [which] is a local problem about to become global, and are we going to feel like we need to get involved in a boots on the ground way? And be in a war? That’s what’s going on in Cyrus’ world.
He and Olivia haven’t been on the best terms lately; what’s their dynamic like when she comes to the rescue?
It’s interesting. This tribe of “Scandal” residents, when push comes to shove, we’re kind of there for each other. I didn’t have a lot of story perhaps where Shonda was trying to convey this, but I felt in the weeks where the story was dealing most with Mellie and Fitz having lost their son, that I felt very protective of Mellie. And Mellie and I can go for each other’s throats when circumstances arise where we feel like we have to, but I felt really protective of her. And I think Liv and I, it’s played out more transparently with Liv and Abby [Darby Stanchfield] right now — [they’re] really crazy mad at each other, but if someone else is attacking the other, it’s like, “What do you need? Get away from her!”
I’m glad to hear about that protective instinct he has for Mellie. I’ve always felt that Cyrus and Mellie have more in common than Cyrus and Fitz do, in terms of their stratagems and manipulations and conniving tendencies. Is that something you’ve always been aware of, like in some alternate universe, he knows she might’ve made a better president than Fitz would’ve?
There’s always going to be this really interesting connection, and sometimes it leads to confrontation and conflict, and sometimes it leads to allegiance. But when you start with the Chief of Staff role and the role of a wife, there’s a lot of crossover. There’s a lot of caregiving, worrying about the same things. I’ve even heard from a real-life Chief of Staff, Andrew Card [who served under President George W. Bush] who said he used to keep the right kind of PowerBar in his pocket because he never wanted his boss/husband to have to make a decision when he was cranky or hungry. And Mellie and I have a lot of the same wiring. I loved when Shonda gave me that scene somewhere in the first season, I think it was, where I said, “Mellie, you may be an animal, but I’m a monster.” Basically saying, “we’re cut from the same cloth, but I need to scare you right now because you’re threatening me.”
Does Cyrus still believe in Fitz as this unassailable figurehead at this point? He’s been all over the place emotionally of late, especially since he crossed paths with Olivia again.
We’ve quietly made progress on the most liberal Republican things you could ever imagine pulling off: progress on gun control, progress on equal pay, and — it hasn’t really played out more than a mention of it — a change in our cabinet, and getting David Rosen [Joshua Malina] in there. We’ve been on different sides but we strangely trust him, and integrity, when it’s as intact as his, is at least predictable. I feel like we’ve actually been getting some stuff done. So I think Cyrus is praying that his current crisis remains private and that it is never in Fitz’s vision, and that he can show up to work and get his head back in the game — that’s what he hopes, because he thinks Fitz is really doing pretty darn well. What he’s unaware of are some of the visits to the basement of the Pentagon and wherever the hell. So that’s all interesting…
Cyrus has lived through plenty of scandals in his time, so why do you think he was foolish enough — or naïve enough — to pay for sex, in Washington D.C., of all places?
Honestly, I don’t think it was much more complicated than severe loneliness. It wasn’t a sophisticated strategy of Michael’s, but he said, “you’re not paying for sex, you’re paying for privacy; you’re paying for discretion.” And there’s a way in which that combo has been too tempting for Cyrus because I don’t know how to date and I don’t have time to date, and there’s something so contained about this kind of this relationship… except when it’s not. [Laughs]. I think loneliness, a certain amount of flattery, a certain amount of need to just feel another skin, and then this idea of, “I think this could all be handled very privately.” Bad move, Cyrus! And many audience members have said in their Twitters, “Cyrus! You’re supposed to be smart! You think this guy is hitting on you because he just thinks you’re irresistibly cute?” That’s probably a sad little percentage of what Cyrus hoped for.
Do you think Cyrus has been underestimating Elizabeth North thus far? He seemed to believe he had a handle on her maneuvering, but her master plan appears to have slipped right by him.
Oh yeah. Nothing makes Cyrus angrier than a miscalculation, [especially] one that bites his own ass. This is not pleasant territory. I can already see the veins bulging out of Cyrus’ neck.
I love that the shows Shonda Rhimes produces are so inclusive and honest in their depictions of all relationships: gay, straight, platonic friendships, the whole spectrum. A lot of media attention has been paid of late to the gay sex scenes in “How to Get Away with Murder” in particular, and there have certainly been a few intimate moments between Cyrus and Michael on “Scandal” this season. What’s your take on that sudden attention and the debate surrounding those scenes — does it just feel like business as usual because you’re in the middle of it?
I think everyone is aware on both sides, the storytellers and the folks watching, that Shonda is, to me, kind of methodically pushing this agenda — we’re not going to go backwards, and not going to shove it in your face every second. But the spigot is open and story shall flow. And I think everybody’s kind of aware of it, and I’m sure it drives some people a little nuts, but those people aren’t watching the show. And so I think people who already enjoy Shonda’s sensibility and her politics are in evidence. So for that crowd, I think it’s very inclusive and I don’t think anybody’s freaked out, which is great. And it is where television storytelling is going — friends tell me [Amazon’s “Transparent”], the show that has transgender life at its center, is so interesting — I think this is all for the good.
“Scandal” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.