“Psych” star James Roday has won over numerous fans by playing a cocky private investigator who passes off his acute observational skills as ESP. Now as USA’s hit series continues with the remainder of its first-season adventures, the actor is glad that he hasn’t made any enemies of the real psychics—or those who claim to be real, anyway.
“If there’s been an intense psychic backlash, the powers that be have done a fantastic job of shielding me from such backlash,” says Roday, who plays the show’s mischievous Shawn Spencer. “I have heard nothing. I do think, however, that I’m giving charlatans a lot more publicity than I am real psychics.”
Even though Roday plays an impostor on the show, he still wanted to be a convincing one, and thus went to the professionals for tips.
“I did meet with a couple of psychics,” he confesses. “As silly as the show is and as ridiculous as some of these characters’ antics are ... I wanted to get an idea of what happens to these people when they have their psychic moments physically. (Does) their temperature rise? Do they start to see stuff? Do they feel things in certain body parts? I just figured, you know, if these people do any of these things, then I can take it and run with it.”
While Shawn runs around claiming he’s having visions or speaking with the dead, his father isn’t so amused. Henry Spencer, played by TV veteran Corbin Bernsen, is an old-school cop who taught Shawn everything he knows—except for his whimsical talent for deception. Despite Henry’s disapproval, however, he can’t really argue with his son’s results.
“What I’ve discovered at the end of shooting the first season was this incredible conflict that (Henry) has,” observes Bernsen. “Shawn is exceeding my expectations, you know, the way I wanted him to do, what I wanted him to achieve, but he’s not doing it my way. How much I’m able to live with him doing it his way and the gap that creates, that’s what’s fascinating to me. I actually think as we grow, my problem becomes bigger because I gain more respect (for his skills).”
Don’t expect father and son to reconcile anytime soon though, since this antagonistic relationship grounds the show. Shawn has an easier time getting along with his partner in solving crime, best friend Burton “Gus” Guster (“The West Wing’s” Dule Hill). A former pharmaceutical rep, Gus is the oft-ignored voice of reason and fount of obscure knowledge that reluctantly helps solve the cases.
“Sometimes you watch your show and you’re just like, `Oh, why is Gus putting up with this guy?’” acknowledges Roday. “While our approaches may be very different, we’re both sort of addicted to this idea of living out a childhood dream. What I’m very pleased about in this next batch of episodes is Gus (starts to play) a much more active role in some of the shenanigans, albeit reluctantly. He recognizes, `Well, in order for this to work, I got to do this so that Shawn can do that.’ And I think that’s actually led to a lot more fun.”
Some of the fun in the upcoming episodes includes investigating a naked man who claims he was abducted by aliens, a murder that a seasoned police officer (Kurtwood Smith) claims he solved but can’t remember, and a haunting, horror-tinged adventure that Roday wrote himself.
Although Roday plays up to his fans’ expectations of being a funny guy, his comedy background wasn’t a formal thing, but a natural consequence of growing up. (“When I was born, I looked like a chicken, and I feel like I’ve really just sort of collected momentum from there,” he explains.) Instead, he studied drama at NYU and has even written a few horror screenplays, such as the upcoming werewolf flick “Skinwalkers.”
“Psych” creator Steve Franks convinced Roday to try his hand at an episode, which was greenlit and even landed John Landis (“Blues Brothers,” “An American Werewolf in London”) as director and Academy Award-winner Mercedes Ruehl as a guest star.
“Obviously it’s important for these shows to be funny, first and foremost,” says Roday. “So while it’s dark, for our show, it’s probably not that dark by other people’s standards. It is a bit of a departure from our normal formula in that that atmospherically there’s some scary stuff going on.”
On the whole, however, the show’s appeal is that it offers a lighthearted approach to extrasensory perception; a subject Bernsen feels is more fascinating than ever to audiences reacting to the global climate.
“This world is progressing into this place that’s sometimes not good—between the environment and war and the things we’re doing and threats and AIDS and all the other stuff,” says Bernsen. “I just believe as a human species, we’re coming around to this place where we kind of want to believe there’s something grander. We just want to believe that it ain’t what it is, black and white in the paper every day ... We want to know something a little bigger, more mysterious.”
Roday agrees, “I think we’ve always as a species been fascinated with stuff we don’t understand. On our show, I think we fully and unapologetically rode those coattails of `OK, there’s an interest for all of this stuff, now let’s just make fun of it.’”
In real life, Roday takes psychic phenomena seriously—or at least seriously enough to not take chances when professional psychics offered to give him a reading.
“I was weirded out,” he admits. “A couple of them did ask me if I wanted to do a reading, but I just kept sort of dodging the question because I didn’t want to hear anything negative.”
But what about a positive prediction for “Psych’s” success?
“Well, Dule says that his whole thing is that he wants to be surprised, whether it’s good or bad. He wants to live each day knowing that there are surprises in store for him,” says the actor. “I might be adopting that sort of lifeline because that’s worked pretty good this first season of `Psych.’ And I think if we just keep doing what we’re doing, we could have a lot of fun surprises in store for us. So I’m willing to not know.”
“Psych” continues its first season with new episodes starting Friday.