Jeff Perry Interview: "Alaska Daily" Spotlights Local Journalism
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to Jeff Perry
Jeff Perry is an actor of stage, television and film. He is known for portraying Cyrus Beene on the political drama series Scandal, Thatcher Grey on the medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy, Richard Katimski on the teen drama My So-Called Life and Inspector Harvey Leek on the CBS crime drama Nash Bridges. He also appeared as Lou in the Shonda Rhimes production of Inventing Anna, a miniseries inspired by the true story of Anna Delvey, the Russian-born German con artist who posed as a wealthy heiress.
Perry can currently be seen in the ABC drama series Alaska Daily, which was created for ABC by Tom McCarthy, director and co-writer of the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. In addition to Perry, the show stars two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as a journalist seeking a fresh start in Alaska working for a newspaper in Anchorage. Alaska Daily also features Grace Dove, Meredith Holzman and Matt Malloy. Most of the episodes end by informing viewers that “In some areas of the United States, Native American women are murdered at rates more than 10 times the national average,” along with a call for the end to this injustice and a link to learn more.
"You and I – and the rest of the world, and certainly America – have watched the contraction of local journalism and local papers, and in Tom McCarthy, [Alaska Daily's] creator, you’ve got somebody who goes all the way back to his beautiful movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe chasing corruption in the Catholic Church."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jeff, how did you become involved in Alaska Daily?
Jeff Perry: I got a call from my manager and my agent on September 13, 2021. I was in Hawaii, and I thought, “Who is calling me?” This was the morning of my younger daughter’s wedding. He said, “Jeff, do you remember that pilot we’ve been chasing from the amazingly talented Tom McCarthy? You’re being offered a part, and it would be opposite Hilary Swank.” I loved that, and I was happily shocked into employment. So by October and the beginning of November, we were shooting the pilot in Vancouver and Anchorage, Alaska, then resumed here in August starting to shoot episodes. We’ll shoot 11 episodes in this first season.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: One doesn’t always expect to turn on a network TV show and learn something that you don’t see in the news every day. But I learned that there is an epidemic of violence against indigenous women in the United States, Canada and Latin America. Alaska Daily is bringing awareness to that crisis, and that is commendable.
Jeff Perry: Yeah. I think it’s emblematic of what our creator, what the writing staff and really all of the participants are gaining and growing an appreciation of, and that is that journalism and local journalism are the bulletin boards for communities and for watchdogs, activists, sometimes educators and sometimes entertainers, but serve a really important function.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In Alaska Daily, Tom McCarthy is trying to humanize journalists and also show how they’ve been attacked over the past few years just for doing their jobs.
Jeff Perry: Yes. You and I – and the rest of the world, and certainly America – have watched the contraction of local journalism and local papers, and in Tom McCarthy, its creator, you’ve got somebody who goes all the way back to his beautiful movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe chasing corruption in the Catholic Church. In fact, sexual abuse from the Catholic Church reminded us of the gigantic examples we can think of like the Washington Post chasing the story of the burglary that turned into a president needing to resign because of corrupt practices.
Anyway, that kind of spotlight, that kind of shedding light on stuff reminds us that everything from, “Wait a second. Why isn’t my garbage being picked up, and three neighborhoods away, somebody’s is?” all the way to news we need to know about like the pandemic over the last two and a half years to climate change from the micro to the macro stuff. Local journalism, in general, plays a really important part, and it’s been beleaguered, and as you and I know, there’s been some rabid voices creating the term “fake news,” and too often, that means, “It’s not the news that I like.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly. In one administration, the term “enemies of the people” was used to basically describe all journalists.
Jeff Perry: Yes. Yes. And that’s really dangerous for any free society. Every dictatorship relies on, “No, no, no. I will control the official channels, and this administration will control what people hear and see.” You don’t have a free society without a lot of competing voices.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about your character, Stanley Cornik, the managing editor of the Daily Alaskan.
Jeff Perry: I love this character, and I’ve had a number of occasions to think about my most recent TV series regular character, Cyrus Beene, created by Shonda Rhimes. Cyrus was almost a shifting power animal concerned only and completely with, “How do I get power, and how do I keep power?” Stanley Cornik is a veteran journalist, and I think what Tom loves about journalism and journalists is that these are pretty hard working, underpaid people who feel a calling. They feel a calling to the power of the free press in a democracy, and they’re trying to get at what actually happened. Between us and the readership, we will piece together our versions of how and why something happened.
Stanley’s committed to that, and he’s a veteran journalist much like the real life veteran editor of the Anchorage Daily News, David Hulen, who I’ve spent a fair amount of time with. He is a coach, a mentor, an editor. He’s a “buck stops here” kind of guy. We have certain resources and a certain number of stories, and Stanley’s got to decide how we’re going to best use those. All of that I kind of love from my theater ensemble life that is ongoing and that I started with out of high school.
Steppenwolf Theater Company started in Chicago in 1976, and your audience might know some of the actors who grew up there, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, the list goes on and on to about 52 artists these days. At times, I’ve been kind of a leadership voice. At times, I’ve literally been in an artistic directorship or co-artistic directorship.
Stanley’s version of talented people is these talented journalists. They care, and they’re willing to do it for much much less money than they could make in a different sector with their talents. How do I best use them? How do I best form a team? It’s a collaborative effort that gets the paper out daily and the online digital version out hourly. You know, how do we do it? It’s a really fun task to empathize with and try to embody as an actor and one that certain parts of my life kind of make me comfortable with.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think Stanley, as an editor, was also trying to give the newsroom a boost by hiring the big city journalist, Eileen Fitzgerald.
Jeff Perry: No question. I sometimes imagine, “Jeff, what do you know, and what’s similar to this?” And I imagined, Melissa, that, “Okay, Jeff, you’re running a much smaller theater than Steppenwolf. Let’s say you’re in Alaska, and one of your favorite artists … well, let’s say Laurie Metcalf …”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Whom you know pretty well (laughs).
Jeff Perry: (laughs) I do know her pretty well. We were married once, and we have a beautiful daughter, Zoe. She’s one of my favorite artists in the world. I imagined that Laurie has somehow gotten herself cancelled or partially cancelled, and you can entice her to come to your little theater in Anchorage, Alaska. That kind of helped my imagination go, “Okay. I think I’ve got this.” I like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I imagine it’s very interesting working with Hilary Swank.
Jeff Perry: Oh, my God, Melissa. I’ve been a fan since Boys Don’t Cry. My biggest challenge sometimes is remembering that I’m in the scene with her as opposed to just becoming an audience and gawking at the authenticity, the subtlety, the swiftness of her brain and heart. It’s a joy to get to bounce off of and a joy to watch.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You mentioned your Scandal character, Cyrus Beene, earlier. You portrayed Lou in Shonda’s recent miniseries Inventing Anna. It’s interesting to me that she uses many of the same actors in her projects. Is that something that many creators or showrunners do?
Jeff Perry: You know, it seems to me that Ryan Murphy does that a fair amount, just like really developing a relationship with certain actors and wanting to see them put on different costumes and personas. But I always loved that about Shonda. Coming from theater, I was always like, “Oh, Shonda, if your particular time and place hadn’t placed you in such television prodigiousness, you would’ve been a playwright in New York, and you probably would’ve created an ensemble company for your plays.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why does Shonda want the actors to speak so fast in her shows?
Jeff Perry: She educated herself about Washington and about the West Wing life and political life in general. I had occasion to talk to Sam Skinner who, I believe, was a Chicago-born politico and was, for a while, Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. I said, “Sam, in your memory, what was the tempo? What’s a day like at the White House?” He paused and said, “Jeff, have you ever had to drink out of a fire hose?” I said, “Oh, Sam. Oh, that’s actor gold. I’m going to keep that image in my mind.” It was coupled with something Shonda had said days earlier. She said, “You guys, I’m watching our early footage. It might’ve been our first episode before we put it together. I could probably create actor friendly reasons for this, but I think I’d be bullshitting you. All I know is, if it’s fast, it starts to sing, and if it’s slow, it’s horrible.” (laughs)
It all made sense, you know, Melissa? It just made sense that there are issues, everything from a Girl Scout troop visiting the West Wing to gigantic global pressing problems and everything in between in any single day. You’ve got to keep moving like a shark or you will die.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you’re speaking at that quickened place on one project, is it hard to adapt to a slower pace for the next project?
Jeff Perry: Oh, yeah. Tom McCarthy told me, “Jeff, believe me, a newsroom needs to get things done at a clip. So I’m kind of liking this pace. But you’re running through every stop sign. By that, will you please look at the periods and the semi-colons and even the ellipses?” I said, “Okay, Tom. I’m in old Cyrus Beene, Shonda mode of faster, faster, faster and really ignoring all punctuation and certainly treating periods as commas.” He said, “Well, okay. I understand that. Don’t do that.” This is from a veteran who spent his life crafting sentences and putting them on paper and literally has to figure out the layout of sentences and how many he can fit in how many square inches. So that punctuation is important.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you want to make this your life’s work, Jeff?
Jeff Perry: I mentioned Gary Sinise before. He’s one of my oldest and dearest buddies. We were in the hallways of Highland Park high school in Illinois. It’s about 35 minutes northeast of Chicago. I’m sure we had a confused and academically challenged look on our faces, and the drama English teacher, Barbara June Patterson, was walking through the halls. We were two of the people she said this to, “You are coming to auditions this afternoon after school for our musical, West Side Story.”
We did that. I ended up playing Tony in that musical. Gary played Pepe, a member of the Sharks gang in that musical. We fell in love hook, line and singer, Melissa, head over heels, I think, with every aspect of it, with pretending, with comradery in the same direction to tell a story, with drama, with props, with costumes, with just every aspect of it. We found our calling. Gary and I had the opportunity a few weeks back to sit with Barbara. She how lives in Nashville, and we had a reminiscent session on film for a documentary. She is an inspiring as she was some 46 years ago when we met her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re obviously a versatile actor because you were in Nash Bridges!
Jeff Perry: Yes! I got to be in Nash Bridges. I loved that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was going on in your career when Nash Bridges premiered in 1996 on CBS?
Jeff Perry: I was getting a little bit of very short-term television work, a day here and a day there. I remember talking to another beloved high school English teacher who asked me, “How’s it going?” I go, “Man, acting-wise, this transition from Chicago theater to LA trying to find work solo, sometimes it feels like the bottom of the potato chip bag. It’s just crumbs.” Along came Nash Bridges and its audition. Honestly, Melissa, I think I was at a point of emotional desperation, and it led to an interesting thing that I always remember as an actor and sometimes offer to other fellow actors when they’re feeling the blues. With that audition, I said that I’m going to try and amuse myself. I have absolutely no control on whether it’s going to lead to a job or lead to paychecks that will help me figure out groceries and rent. I have no idea. That’s out of my hands. But what’s in my hands is just trying to do something I love and doing it well that day, bring prepared to do it and trying to enjoy doing it.
I got the job. I hadn’t gotten a job of that size ever before in television and hadn’t gotten a job that size for quite a while before that. I thought, “Jeff, you were just enjoying what you enjoy doing, and you let the rest of it fall away. You don’t have control over how many actors they’re looking at and all that stuff.” So it was an interesting, important reminder for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you also doing some plays in addition to Alaska Daily?
Jeff Perry: Yeah. Steppenwolf opened a new space in Chicago, and it was a 20-year dream and 15 years of fundraising and this and that. It’s 400 seats, and we opened with a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. I was part of it a few months back. It was joyful to be with fellow ensemble members of that theater who I’d watched the last few years, but with television and LA life, I wasn’t getting myself to Chicago to be with them. So that got to happen, and it felt great. I worked with director and adapter Yasen Peyankov who has been a fellow company member and whose work I’ve admired like crazy for 20-something years. So that was a blast.
I am scheduled, and it depends on whether Alaska Daily has more life, but I’m scheduled to do a play at Steppenwolf, a play called No Man’s Land. I would do that with Austin Pendleton and Michael Patrick Thornton who is Chicago-based but has a national career both in theater and in TV and film, and it would be directed by British-born Les Waters who most recently directed a play on Broadway that won a Tony Award for Best Actress (Deirdre O’Connell). It’s called Dana H, and it’s by a beautifully talented playwright who wrote a play called A Dolls House, Part 2, which was a brilliant piece that Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper and Jayne Houdyshell and other people were in.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’d love to see you back on Grey’s Anatomy, but sadly, it would have to be in a flashback or dream sequence (laughs).
Jeff Perry: (laughs) Yeah. It would have to be a flashback. We said goodbye to my character in, I thought, a lovely episode where Ellen Pompeo’s character and my character resolved some daughter-father issues in his final days.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Kate Burton, who played the infamous Ellis Grey, is so talented.
Jeff Perry: Oh, she’s wonderful, right? And another Shondaland repertory player. Yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: All of you Shondaland residents must be great friends.
Jeff Perry: Oh, my gosh. What’s happening are text chains and things like that. Oh, Melissa, we are very much a show business family. We love staying in touch with each other. The most recent text chain was, “When’s our next live reunion? Come on. We need to be together.”
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