These days, Danny Strong is mostly known as a TV and movie writer, specializing in politically-themed projects like the acclaimed HBO movies Game Change and Recount. His latest work, opening in theaters this Friday (Aug. 16), is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the civil rights-themed epic based on the story of a real-life African-American butler at the White House.
But there’s also Danny Strong, Actor. In fact, you might recognize his face from shows like Mad Men (he played clueless junior copywriter Danny Siegel) and Gilmore Girls (Paris Geller’s long-suffering boyfriend). Of course, for many, he’ll always be Jonathan Levinson, the hapless villain on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Strong says, even now, 10 years after the cult hit aired its final episode, Jonathan is the character he’s most recognized for: “It’s like 55 percent Buffy, 30 percent Gilmore Girls and now Mad Men.”
Strong tells TIME that he had always thought he might try writing some day, even as he devoted himself to acting. Ironically, it was his success as an actor that led him to rotate toward a focus on the back-up. “I was working full-time as an actor but I found myself really unhappy. I was surprised. This is the dream, isn’t it? I don’t have to be a waiter. I’ve done it,” he recalls. “Partly, it was that my life wasn’t in my hands. I had to wait on everyone else to pick me. I started writing to get my mind off all the pressure.”
Five years elapsed between the decision to throw himself into writing and the sale of his script for Recount—and, in the two years after that success, he didn’t audition for a single part. “I had never been happier,” he says. Eventually, his manager convinced him to try acting again, with the caveat that he would only do projects he actually liked. His very first audition was for Mad Men, his favorite show, and he ended up doing an arc as Danny Siegel in 2010.
Now, he says he’s primarily a writer. When The Butler was in development, the late Laura Ziskin, a producer on the film, approached him about the project. Strong had written a screenplay about the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education but had not been able to get the movie made, so he was eager to get involved in the story of the White House butler. (He says that, to his surprise, the matter of his own race never came up.)
But that didn’t mean it was easy: the central character of Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, is a composite of real-life butler Eugene Allen and other White House staffers, and there was so much material that the story could have gone in any number of directions. Though Allen died in 2010, his family was consulted about the film and Strong interviewed many who had similar experiences. That included black White House staffers angered that they were paid less than their white counterparts: “It was quite surprising—and, at the same time, oddly not surprising” to learn of that inequality, Strong says.
“The hardest section of the story to turn into a movie was literally the entire movie. I was so overwhelmed,” he says. “It was so daunting to take 30 years of American history and interweave a character through it who is essentially a passive observer of that history and make the character not passive.”
Next up, Strong is working on writing “a small movie” with which he wants to try his hand at directing, and he’s got his hands full with the scripts for the final two Hunger Games installments, which he’s also writing. And he’ll keep acting, too.
“It’s a really good complement to the writing because it’s very humbling, an acting career, going in and auditioning for someone. After the Emmys for Game Change, a week later I was in a waiting room to audition for 30 Rock. I thought, you know, this is good for me,” he says. “By the way, I didn’t get the part.”