For eight seasons, James Roday made audiences laugh as he pulled over-the-top antics and got away with everything but murder as a keenly observant police consultant posing as a psychic on Psych. With excellent delivery, a penchant for physical humor and a steady flow of ’80s references, Roday put his comedic chops on full display.
But this fall, Roday returns to the small screen to take on a more dramatic role, as a breast cancer survivor dealing with the loss of a friend on ABC’s A Million Little Things.
Roday, who has spent the last several years sitting happily in the director’s chair, said getting back in front of the camera was a worthy call due to the authenticity of the script.
“The script was so good and the characters were so real. My part in particular was addressing something I had never heard of before,” said Roday. “I spent the better part of the last decade acting a fool and doing a lot of silly stuff, so this was an opportunity to flip the script and do something I thought had real potential to move the needle.”
For the show’s executive producer DJ Nash, the story of A Million Little Things—about a group of friends reconnecting and dealing with their friend’s suicide—is personal. Nash, a comedy writer, was inspired to pen the show after losing his own friend to suicide, an event that inspired him to live a more meaningful life.
The personal nature of the story made Nash, as well as the rest of the cast and crew, treat the story and topic of suicide with intense care, notes Roday.
“When you’re dealing with these kinds of things, since it hit so close to home, I had enough confidence we would be dealing with it very responsibly and thoughtfully,” Roday said.
The show isn’t just about luring viewers in with hot button issues, Roday said, rather, it aims to bring to life important and relevant stories, be it suicide, depression, cancer, sobriety or myriad other topics.
“That’s why you do what we do, in the hopes of helping people feel like they’re not alone,” he said. “If that’s making them laugh their butts off, that counts and if it’s something cathartic or healing, that also counts.”
On the show, Roday plays Gary, a breast cancer survivor who is waiting to see if his cancer has returned. The story of a man suffering from breast cancer—reality for about 2,000 men each year in the U.S.—is one not often told and for Roday, taking on the role was eye-opening.
“Breast cancer has affected every woman I know, but the truth is that men get it too,” Roday noted, adding that viewers will get a look into the emotional baggage and stigmas the diagnosis carries for his character. “We’re starting at the beginning of [Gary’s] journey. We’re going to be able to follow that trajectory and the highs and lows. That’s the sort of portrait you want to paint: this is what it is, this is real and for anyone who’s been affected or going through it, you’re not alone.”
As he deals with his cancer, Roday’s character must also cope with the sudden loss of his friend. The suicide of Jon Dixon (played by Ron Livingston) inspires the friends to not only lean on each other but form a closer bond. It’s a wake-up call for the group, which vows to start living their best lives.
For Roday, that overarching theme was a poignant one.
“Every time something traumatic happens, the immediate reaction is ‘I’m so deeply affected that starting tomorrow, I’m going to live differently.’ We keep that promise for a month, maybe two months…but time is funny in that it can heal us and help us forget, and then before we know it we’re right back to doing the same old shit we were doing,” Roday said. “We always say it and never stick to it and I’m no exception. For me the wake-up call was the truth of that statement. How do you figure out a plan to become the best version of yourself and stick to it?”
And while Roday’s newest venture finds him delving into drama—a genre the classically trained actor is well-equipped and experienced to navigate—he says he hopes to return to the pineapple-ridden Psych set soon. Psychos, as fans of the show are called, will just have to wait for it.
“We all want to do at least one more [movie]. The appetite is still there,” said Roday. “The obstacle is getting everyone’s schedule to align, but it’s not for lack of trying and lack of desire. And the one thing you can expect, when, not if, it comes back, is a heck of a lot more Lassiter for your money.”
A Million Little Things debuts on ABC Sept. 26 at 10 p.m.