breakout talent

fter starring in several failed attempts at series television, James Roday was ready for a break. The actor—who appeared in such short-lived shows as Ryan Caulfield: Year One, First Years, and Miss Match—felt burnt out. He decided to step away from the small screen to recharge his batteries and gain perspective. "My plan was to go back to New York and do a play," he remembers. "My bags were packed."

He never made it to the stage. Roday was waylaid by a clever script for a new USA Network series called Psych. He auditioned and ended up nabbing the plum lead role of Shawn Spencer, a perpetually irresponsible man-child who uses his extraordinary observational skills to pose as a psychic detective. The show, which kicks off its second season July 13, is a surprise hit for USA and has drawn critical raves for Roday's hilariously unhinged comedic performance. As Shawn, he conveys leading-man charisma while twisting his body and vocal cords into a series of spazzy knots whenever the character decides it's time for a psychic "vision."

The actor says this TV experience has been different from prior series he worked on. From the beginning, he has enjoyed a collaborative relationship with show creator Steve Franks. "Usually you just go in and you read a scene and then someone decides if they want you to be in their show for the next six years and it all happens inside of about five minutes," Roday says. "This time, there was a process. [Steve and I] actually communicated and we got on the same page, and the more we talked, the more excited I got."

Roday grew up in San Antonio and initially had designs on an entirely different line of work. "I wanted to be a football player, because I was in Texas and it's hammered into you while you're still in the womb," he says. All that changed when a 10-year-old Roday saw the offbeat teen flick Real Genius, starring a young Val Kilmer. "It was like, 'Wow, there's no doubt I need to do what that guy does,' " Roday recalls. "It was probably the single most inspiring moment that put me on the path, because I never detoured after that. From that moment on, every time anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I always said, 'I want to be an actor.' "

Roday studied theatre at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing and landed his first agent through a friend who was interning at a boutique agency that mainly represented opera singers. After signing with the agency, the actor landed the first role he went out for: a 1998 pilot that never made it to series. "It was a month before graduation, and I flew out to L.A., and my head was spinning, and I had never acted in front of a camera before," he remembers. "I had no idea what I was doing; luckily that pilot did not get picked up. But because of that, I was able to get a bigger agent [Stephen Hirsh at the Gersh Agency], which is the agent I'm still with today."

In addition to acting—including credits in film (The Dukes of Hazzard, Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking) and theatre (Twelfth Knight, Sexual Perversity in Chicago)—Roday has a budding career as a screenwriter. He co-wrote the script for the upcoming werewolf flick Skinwalkers, which will be released by Lionsgate later this month. Roday says he and co-writers Todd Harthan and James DeMonaco wanted to write a character-driven film that used werewolf mythology to explore various themes. The finished product, however, isn't exactly what the trio initially envisioned. "What we learned was, in order to actually get it made, it [needed] to have more guns, more boobs, more blood, less talking, and louder music," he says. "So it was one of those double-edged swords: Our script kept getting thinner and thinner and thinner, and we kept losing things we thought were important. Yes, it got made. But is it what we really wanted to put out there? I would probably say no."

Undaunted, Roday plans to make his directorial debut with a comic horror script he and Harthan wrote called Gravy. Roday is also becoming more involved behind the scenes at Psych; he co-wrote last season's finale and Season 2's premiere with Franks. "We just broke a story on another episode of the show that we're writing for later on in the season," he notes. "So there will be two episodes this year that I scribbled all over."

It's clear that Roday feels a deep creative connection to his character and the series. Much of that is due, he notes, to the collaborative atmosphere and the freedom the part allows him as an actor. "They give me a wonderful blueprint of where I need to go and beats I need to hit, and then, outside of that, I'm in this amazing position where they really let me do my own thing," he says. "There's a decent amount of stuff I do every episode that is completely unscripted, some of which people get to see, some of which ends up on blooper reels, some of which is never heard from again. It's the mere fact that I have that freedom week in and week out that keeps me energized and keeps this character fresh."