For actor James Roday, who was born James David Rodriguez, stepping into the “spotlight” has been a natural progression as he pursued his passion for stage, film and television.

As the very observant and psychic detective on the USA Network series “Psych,” he knew by age 10 that was the direction he wanted his life to go. And, his family then and now applauds his stage and onscreen successes. 

Jim, Irene and Lisette Rodriquez landed in Waxahachie a little more than three years ago, and even though they are many miles from the Hollywood life James leads, they stay in close touch with the 36-year-old.

His sister, Lisette, a Waxahachie High School junior, also has the acting bug and is truly inspired by watching her brother’s successful journey.

“He is a cool guy, and it has been great to watch how ‘Psych’ has progressed,” Lisette said. “I’ll never forget watching the first episode six seasons ago, and now I see how as a television series, it’s even more relatable. You can tell that James is contributing even more to the show through writing and directing, and I’m really proud of him.”    

Being involved in the WHS Theatre Department has helped Lisette stay on target as she aspires to go after a theater degree much like James did.

“Even though I’ve watched his career, I’m finding my own path and it feels good,” Lisette said. “I very much respect James’ opinion, and he’s especially sharing that with me as I search for the right college. We do a lot of emailing and texting, and he’s helping me keep a good balance on this part of my life right now.”

Getting Started

Roday earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing. He selected his professional name when he was 22 because there was another “James Rodriguez” registered in the Screen Actors Guild.

“I got my first gig about two months before graduating from college,” Roday said. “After that I spent about a year bartending in New York, and then got another gig that moved me to Los Angeles. And, the rest, as they say is history.”

Roday is also co-artistic director of Red Dog Squadron, a Los Angeles theater company he co-founded with fellow NYU alum Brad Raider. 

“By being part of this company, that means that no matter what, I’ll have an outlet  to do theatre,” Roday said. “Whether that means acting, directing or producing – it simply ensures that I’ll never stray far from my roots.

“There is nothing more fulfilling, and in truth acting on film is not difficult by comparison. I’d say theatre definitely makes you a better screen actor but not necessarily the other way around,” he said. “We’re producing a one man show in Los Angeles right now and hopefully will have something else going up this winter.”

Secret To Success

His dad, Jim, remembers the first time Roday declared his love for acting.

“He was in the fifth grade, and we had just finished watching Michael Jackson’s music video, ‘Thriller,’” said Jim. “When it was done James turned to me and said he was going to be a movie star someday. There was a moment of clarity, and I could tell he was serious. So from that point we got him into piano and voice lessons, and James never lost a talent contest.”

At the time, Jim and his first wife lived on the military base in San Antonio, and as Roday’s talent progressed, the elder Rodriguez realized there was a bigger picture that needed to be experienced, and it was outside of the military boundaries. 

“So I started doing my research, and San Antonio’s Taft High School had an amazing program, so we built a house in order for him to be in the district,” Jim said. “And, then everything fell into place because James’ high school theater teacher, Mr. Buchanan, was a graduate of NYU and best friends with Alec Baldwin.

“Throughout James’ high school theater career he won medal after medal for the various performances, and his senior year I got a phone call one day from a guy saying he was Alec Baldwin,” Jim said. “I thought it was a prank call at first, so I got kinda smart aleck with him, and then he mentioned James’ theater teacher Mr. Buchanan, and I knew this was the real deal.”

Baldwin requested that James audition in Houston for NYU, and even though there would be 68 others vying for a full-ride scholarship, Baldwin wanted James to be part of the process.

“At first I wasn’t sure if we should do it, but then I looked back at all of the hard work that James had put in and how we always supported him, and I knew we had to go,” Jim said.  “So, when it got down to it, James did it. He beat out the other 68 and got the four-year NYU scholarship.

“There was one condition, however, and that was that James would need to be Alec Baldwin’s intern his senior year at NYU. And, we thought ‘darn,’ we think we can handle this, and the rest is history.”

Landing The Big Roles    

Roday will be the first to admit he has paid his dues in the acting world, but he never considered not “making it.”

“Never once have I thought of giving up,” Roday said. “I was very lucky, but I can honestly say I was at complete peace with the notion of living in New York, doing theater and feeding my soul while barely scraping by. Sometimes life happens.”

Roday explained that becoming an actor takes a 100 percent commitment and should be predicated on the reality that you simply can’t imagine doing anything else.

And, as Roday’s family watched on the sidelines, that’s exactly how his life has played out.

“He did four different television series, but they flopped after a few shows,” Jim said. “He also did a few movies, but the big break came when he was in the remake of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ When I went to watch this at the movie theater, I had to warn the guy behind me that I may be all over the place while watching this because this was my son’s big break. They guy laughed and said ‘no problem,’ and that was a good thing because he was a really big guy!”

Jim added that from that movie role, the creators of “Psych” recruited his son to be one of the lead roles, Shawn Spencer. They also let him help pick the rest of the cast.     

“Sometimes I feel like I’m living a dream because I get to do what I love, work with a talented cast and get paid to do it,” Roday said. “It’s probably the best opportunity I’ll ever get and knowing that makes every moment on the show that more special.

“I have significant (some might say too significant) input in what we do creatively and have been privileged to work along side the creator and executive producers in shaping the wild animal that is our show from the very beginning.”

He attributes a lot of the show’s success to the camaraderie that he and his sidekick, Burton Gus (played by Dule Hill) have.

“Dule is a great actor and partner,” Roday said. “After all of these years we know each other’s tendencies so well that our work comes pretty effortlessly with each other. He knows exactly what to do to make me look good and vice versa.”

Roday added that the show’s ability to constantly adapt and reinvent itself contributes to the success.

So as the seventh season for the show shapes up and kicks off this week, what can be expected?

“I think we’re going to have some nice zingers coming down the pipe and our fans won’t be disappointed,” James said. “So many talented actors came up to play this season, which included actors like Lou Gossett Jr., Anthony Anderson, Wayne Brady and Cheech Marin.”

Roday’s family is again looking forward to seeing what’s next for his zany character. They especially like the messages he sends during the “Psych” episodes.

“James will use our old home addresses in the show, but my favorite was in the episode about the spelling bee, when he had the student spell the word ‘banana.’ That’s my all time favorite fruit, and I knew that was for me,” his father said.

Living The Dream

As Jim looks back on his son’s journey, he can only add that it takes a child with a dream and a parent with unconditional support to make it work.

“At least that was the way our partnership worked,” Jim said. “I knew that if I ever half-stepped helping him, it wouldn’t have worked. He’s a great young man who has made great choices, and we’re really proud of him. His significant other is Maggie Lawson, who plays Juliet O’Hara on “Psych,” and it’s a pleasure to watch how the two make it work.”

And, don’t be surprised if there isn’t a Starbuck’s sighting in Roday’s future here in Waxahachie.

“That is one of the moments I look forward to most during the holidays,” Lisette said. “We take time out of the ‘family thing’ and just the two of us go there and catch up on each other’s lives. And, if a fan recognizes him, he’s really nice about it. But he’s not one of those who craves that attention. Again he’s a cool guy and a wonderful brother.”

“Psych” launches its seventh season at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29, on the USA Network. It is that network’s longest running original series on the air.

Contact Colleen at 469-517-1452 or colleen.horning@wninews.com