James Roday was a lot of fun to interview during a recent set visit on the set of Psych. James plays Shawn Spencer, fake Psychic detective with a keen observational skills and a penchant for goofing off. While the real James loves pop culture and films, he is serious about his job on set. Whether it be acting, directing, or writing (or all at once), James is incredibly busy and incredibly talented.
Which role have you found the most challenging – writing, directing, acting?
James: I think directing is definitely the most challenging, because it’s sort of like my newest toy, that I know the least about. And at least, especially within the context of Psych, I feel like the acting is sort of second nature at this point. I mean, I don’t think there’s a whole lot left to throw at Shawn that he’s not going to know what to do with.
And then the writing [is] just a fun collaboration. It’s like, having a putt putt course behind your house. You just go out and mess around, and that’s fun. But the directing is something that I’ve always been very serious about. I take the opportunities very seriously. I really want to get better. I want to be able to go back and watch each episode and see that I’m moving in the right direction.
Do you think it’s a natural progression for an actor in a long running TV series to turn to directing?
James: I think it depends. I mean, I think sometimes a show will run so long that it’s sort of a like a “What the hey,” situation. “Let me see if this is something I might be interested in doing,” and if you run long enough, you might get a shot. For me, you know, it’s something that I’ve known I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. And it was just matter of getting the opportunity and making the most of it.
And then there are some actors that I don’t think have any interest in directing. I mean, if you ask Dulé, when is he directing, his answer is probably “never.” He’s just not inclined. But I grew up a cinephile, and I love movies. And I love European cinema. I love different styles. And I love having my breath taken away in a movie theatre the way I love being transported when I see live theatre.
I heard that there’s going to be a Twin Peaks themed episode.
James: Hell yeah, there is… Steve [Franks] and I have been talking about doing that since the first season, actually. And it took a while, I think, for us to a) build up our confidence to actually go for it, and b) establish enough of a sort of cult audience that we knew that the people that watched our show would also appreciate a show that’s riffing on Twin Peaks. But I kind of feel like the planets have aligned themselves.
A very, very dear friend of mine is Dana Ashbrook, aka Bobby Briggs. And he’s sort of been instrumental in helping some of the pieces fall in place. And I think there’s going to be some really, really happy Twin Peaks fans. Because I think we’re going to hit a home run, and I think there’s going to be a lot of faces that they’re going to be really excited about seeing.
Shawn’s matured slowly throughout the five seasons. How does that go with the progression of the show? With the darker themes that we’ve been seeing throughout the Yin Yang crisis?
James: I think they kind of run parallel. I mean, I think it’s inevitable that Shawn has to mature as he gets older, just so that he can stay endearing. And then there’s this other road where we want to keep challenging ourselves. We don’t want to get complacent. Actors want to do things that they haven’t done yet. Stylistically wanting to do things that we haven’t done yet. So, conceptually they’re very similar in that you want to keep moving forward.
I don’t know, maybe there’s a little bit of a marriage between Shawn growing up and themes being darker. Like in “Mr. Yin Presents,” for example, where his own mortality hits him, or he almost loses someone he cares about and he gets a wake up call. But for the most part I think it’s all just let’s not look back. Let’s keep feeling like we’re relevant, and that we belong on the air. And we’re delivering the goods.
It seemed like last season there was more of a focus on Shawn’s growth, and a little dark. But this season seems a bit lighter and comedic so far.
James: You know, it’s weird. Some kind of mandate comes down from Steve [Franks] every year, just because I think he feels like he’s supposed to have one. And it never holds. Like, this year it was supposed to be, “You know, we’re ratcheting up our cases. This is going to be the year of the cool, twisty, well constructed mystery.” I don’t know, we’re on episode nine and I feel like you’re probably way more on base than with the fact that we’re doing funnier stuff again.
It’s such a hybrid show, and it’s such a moving target that – especially on the writing staff. We never really know what the bull’s-eye is. We’re just throwing tons, and tons, and tons of darts, which is the greatest part of our job is that we have that many darts to throw. But yeah, this year was supposed to be, “All right man we’re going to mammotize this thing – knock people out of their socks. Show comedy writers [can] write mystery.”
It’s, like, no we can’t. What are you talking about? So you didn’t change one person in this room – how are the cases going to get 300% better? But I think you’re right, I think we’re just having – a lot of these episodes that we’ve done really reminded me of stuff we did at the beginning of the series – sort of throw backs to just Shawn and Gus acting a fool.
How do you balance the comedy and drama when you’re writing?
James: When I write, I feel like it’s an opportunity to push the envelope, I won’t lie. I feel like I get a little more latitude than some of the other writers when I write. And as a result, I kind of feel an obligation to sort of go as far outside of our comfort zone as we can. Which is why a lot of my stuff tends to be a little darker than the norm.
But this year I’m doing a Christmas episode that isn’t dark at all. But it’s still pretty left of centre in that we’re doing some pretty bizarre stuff that we’ve never seen on the show before. So I think it’s less of a balance between comedy and drama, and more of a focus on let’s do stuff that we haven’t done when I write.
How do you think Henry and Shawn’s relationship is going to change this season now that Henry’s working for the police department?
James: I admittedly wasn’t sure about this move when it first got pitched. And now I’m really glad we did it, because I think what it’s doing is it’s sort of putting that energy back into the show of, you know, Henry doesn’t let Shawn get away with anything.
And I felt like it was so strong in the first couple of seasons – it kind of grounded the show. These guys that just were missing each other, no matter what. Just two ships in the night – just couldn’t get on the same page. And then somewhere in the middle I just sort of felt like it became Shawn needs to drop by the house while Henry’s making a sandwich and get some advice, you know.
And I feel like we’re back to what we had at the beginning now, which is, two guys who aren’t going to give any ground. They’re going to stand there and they’re going to have a pissing contest every episode. And I think it’s good. I think it’s good to have it back.
What can fans expect from the Christmas episode this year?
James: You know, It’s A Wonderful Life is the template, but only in the sense that Shawn gets to peek at what life would be like if he wasn’t a part of it. But we – obviously, we never do anything truly supernatural on our show, so we had to find a different way in. Which I think will allow for a lot more fun. It’s about his – I don’t know, it’s about as risky as I think you can get comedy-wise for our show on cable. It’s a pretty big swing. And I’m sure there are going to be some people that don’t love it, but I think there will be just as many people who are like, “I can’t believe they did that. That’s awesome.”
Is there a guest star that you would actually want to see on Psych that hasn’t been on before?
James: I have a couple. If we could ever figure out a way to get Val Kilmer on this show I think that would be fantastic. I think David Bowie would be awesome. I’ve been fighting the good fight to get Billy Zane on this show for a while now. We just can’t seem to get on the same page. He almost did two episodes this season, and we couldn’t work out scheduling conflicts. He was almost John Michael Higgins, if you can imagine how different that would have been.
Do you know if Cybill Shepherd is planning to come back as Shawn’s mom this season?
James We have plans to bring her back. It’s tricky with her, because we don’t own her the way we own the rest of the cast. So we can only get her if she’s available. But we do have plans to bring her back. Because we’re wrapping up Yin Yang this year. She was sort of a pretty big part of that. So we kind of want to bring back everybody that it’s affected.