A word of caution to self-proclaimed busy people: Dan Bucatinsky’s schedule may humble you.
When he’s not playing James Novak on Scandal, he’s in the writer’s room at Grey’s Anatomy. Or co-producing Who Do You Think You Are? and Web Therapy with producing partner Lisa Kudrow. Or raising two kids with husband Don Roos.
“It’s a lot to juggle,” he admitted to BuzzFeed. “I look at it as different trains on different tracks running at different times, like a math problem on the SATs. And as long as the trains don’t arrive at any stations at the same time or collide into each other, I could pretty much jump from train to train. But it’s been a real lesson in multitasking.”
To say that Bucatinsky wears many hats is perhaps an understatement: He also wrote a book, Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?, about adopting his children with Roos. And he’s working on adapting the book into a series with Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
Bucatinsky’s entrance into the Shonda Rhimes family can be traced back to 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun, in which he played Rodney. The film was cast by his good friend Linda Lowy, who also happens to be married to Jeff Perry, Bucatinsky’s on-screen husband on Scandal.
“Linda finds actors that she loves, and she loves to recommend them and loves to employ them and loves to expose them to the other creators she works with,” Bucatinsky explained. Under the Tuscan Sun also featured Sandra Oh and Kate Walsh, who went on to join the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. “I think she really stands behind the sort of large repertoire of actors that she has,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Bucatinsky entered the world of Grey’s Anatomy, playing the character of Jeffrey in the episode “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked.” Shortly thereafter, Scandal began casting, and Bucatinsky was called in to audition — for Huck.
“This audition scene was so beautifully written,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t right for the part. They knew I wasn’t right for the part. But it was such a pleasure to do that monologue for them, and I remember that we all sort of agreed I wasn’t right for the part, but they were going to find something for me to do.”
Guillermo Diaz was cast as Huck, and the role of David Rosen — which Bucatinsky auditioned for next — went to Josh Malina. But by then, Rhimes was eager to have Bucatinsky on Scandal.
“Cut to they’re shooting the first season,” Bucatinsky said, “and I got a text from Linda saying, ‘How would you like to play my husband’s husband?’ And they offered me the part of James.”
The character of James, initially conceived as part of the reveal that White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene was gay, has developed over the course of Scandal’s two seasons. Bucatinsky believes that his real-life experiences began to shape his character as he and Rhimes became closer.
“[Shonda] pulled me aside and we started talking about adoption, and the fact that Dan Savage’s The Kid was a huge inspiration to her,” he said. “She’s a straight single mom who adopted but found that book very inspiring to her. And Don and I found that book very inspiring to us. So suddenly Shonda and I were connecting on this parental front, and it really began our friendship more than anything else.”
And indeed, James’ commitment to being a father and to his work do seem to reflect Bucatinsky’s personal life.
“I think that history and also the history of how I really did become a dad in life, and how I am a writer in real life, started to bleed into the stories they built for James,” he continued.
But as the role of James was growing, Bucatinsky was also becoming an active participant in Shonda Rhimes’ other series. Grey’s Anatomy producers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, long-time friends of Bucatinsky’s, asked if he’d consider consulting on the show.
“I sat down in a room with Joan and Tony and Shonda and [executive producer] Betsy [Beers], and I said, ‘I love nothing more than playing James on Scandal,’” Bucatinsky recalled. “‘I would love the opportunity to be on Grey’s. If you think that I can do both, then I trust you. But I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to get in the way of me playing this character.’ I made that clear. And they were like, ‘We’ll know where to find you.’”
Bucatinsky began work on Season 9 of Grey’s Anatomy, spending three days a week in the writers’ room.
“When I had to leave to go and do Scandal, I would leave to go and do Scandal,” he explained. “I did 15 or 16 episodes and still was able to write and produce on Grey’s. And we’re going to go along this season and try the same thing.”
For Bucatinsky, the ability to do both Rhimes shows — while juggling everything else — is a great gift in addition to being a challenge. But although he enjoys writing, acting, and producing, his first love remains clear.
“I became a writer as a means to act,” he said. “I was always an actor first. … I think Scandal has reawakened in me — and Web Therapy — the love of it. I think that this is and probably always will be my first love. But I’ve always thought that writing has made me a better actor, and acting has made me a better writer.”
Bucatinsky also credits his co-star Jeff Perry and the writing on Scandal for making him a better actor. His sincere attachment to James comes through whenever he talks about his character — he’s drawn to the relatability, and to the complex relationship James and Cyrus share.
“I’m at a time in my life where the fact that it’s so similar to my real life is something that I am actually grateful for,” Bucatinsky said. “I think when I was younger I would have been like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to play a vampire,’ or, ‘I’d love to play a character different from myself.’ But now I’m really loving the connection I feel to the character.”
As for the relationship between James and Cyrus, there are some similarities in Bucatinsky’s marriage to Roos. Like Cyrus, Bucatinsky’s real-life husband is 10 years older than he is, and Roos was more established in his career when they met. Bucatinsky praises the “truth to the politics of a younger-older relationship between two men” that Scandal portrays.
“Does it reflect real life?” he reflected. “I think in the ways marriage is a give-and-take and a compromise, and people will leverage information with each other, and they’re manipulative in different ways, even though they love each other. All that stuff is relatable. The stakes — how crazy it got and how much information I knew about my husband and how we could have brought down the presidency and how I lied to a grand jury and how he took a hit out on my life — all that stuff is the excitement of a television show like Scandal.”
Those high stakes push Bucatinsky’s acting to places he never thought possible. He referred to his most memorable scene this season, in which he and Cyrus had an emotional screaming match while completely naked.
That heightened drama — coupled with the fact that the actors never know what’s coming next — has also influenced Bucatinsky’s writing on Grey’s Anatomy.
“I am often inspired by what I get to play on Scandal,” he said. While the pacing of the shows are different, the long-running Grey’s Anatomy has adapted in response to Scandal’s success. “Shonda said, ‘We need to create episodes of Grey’s that people are saying the next day, “Can you believe what happened on Grey’s last night?”’ That goal helps push you to write more of these what I call gasp-worthy moments, the jaw-dropping ‘oh my god.’”
In terms of writing, Bucatinsky’s background is in film: He wrote and starred in 2001’s gay romantic comedy All Over the Guy, which has developed a cult following since its release. But the gay indie film — like all indie film — is suffering. The financial model, he explained, makes it impossible to continue making movies like All Over the Guy.
That’s part of what drew Bucatinsky to television, and particularly to Shonda Rhimes, whose LGBT characters have had a tremendous impact on the conversation. Bucatinsky noted that her matter-of-fact representation of diversity is part of what makes her shows so progressive.
“In typical Shonda fashion, characters just are,” he said, “and the audience has to catch up to a world where there’s no closet. … There’s something subversive about never really calling attention to it.”
And it’s not just Rhimes, of course: Bucatinsky acknowledged the influence of series like Will and Grace and Modern Family. As LGBT cinema struggles to find a means to move forward and make a profit, television has become a haven for complex, three-dimensional LGBT characters — like Scandal’s James and Cyrus.
“You’re meeting gay couples on television and they’re having romances on television and they’re getting married on television and they’re having babies on television,” Bucatinsky said. “So it becomes less and less innovative and less and less groundbreaking to tell those stories on the big screen.”
In playing James on Scandal and in writing for Grey’s Anatomy, Bucatinsky has been able to articulate his own LGBT sensibility. While juggling these roles, he can help promote the art he wants to be making, which he believes is essential as LGBT audiences continue to yearn for increased and varied on-screen representation.
It’s important work. And as busy as he gets, Bucatinsky remains grateful for the privilege to accept new challenges.
“There are things you don’t know you even have in you,” he said. “I think that’s what’s exciting about working on a show like [Scandal], where you turn the page of a new script and you literally don’t know where you’re going to go. And you just have to jump off the cliff.”