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Being on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Is the Best Job in Hollywood

Chandra Wilson is going into her 13th season playing Dr. Bailey — she would know

Milton Un
Milton Un

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

Recently, after a seven-year break, I decided to binge Season 12 of Grey’s Anatomy. Some updates for you, in case you, too, took a break somewhere between 2005 and now: Seattle Grace is now called Grey Sloan Memorial; McDreamy is dead; there are new, sexy doctors and Meredith has three children. There’s a new chief, and the medical emergencies keep getting weirder. But even after all this time, the core comforts remain: Grey still lives in a house with four roommates. Karev is still hung up on Izzie, even though she’s not on the show anymore. And Dr. Bailey still gives her rousing speeches.

That’s part of the reason a total television anomaly like Grey’s — 24 episodes a year, heading into its 13th season — is still running: It’s reliable. Grey’s offers the same stability of Days of Our Lives, or Modern Family, or even a particularly good episode of House Hunters International; you can dip in or out, but you know what will happen. Even if her boyfriends change, Meredith Grey will still be there.

So will the actors who don’t act out. Being on a show for 13 seasons might seem like the actor equivalent of an early retirement, but Chandra Wilson, who has played Dr. Miranda Bailey since 2005, swears that it’s actually paradise. As an OG cast member still hanging on (along with Ellen Pompeo, Justin Chambers, and James Pickens Jr.), Wilson is now enjoying the spoils of commitment: job security, a cast she counts as family, directing credits, and a bubble where she and her fellow actors are free from all of the tiresome parts of Hollywood (ageism, racism, sexism — everything but contract negotiations). We talked to Wilson about what it’s been like to spend 13 seasons as Bailey, and the different ways to be a very successful actor in 2016.

Hollywood isn’t an industry that generally supports longevity. Why have you chosen to stay on with this show and this character for as long as you have?

Chandra Wilson: I think the actor mentality in me is always like, “Well, you know, this will be the last season.” I’ve been saying that since Season 3, and then I look up and I’m like, “Surely, surely the last season is coming up now.” The other part of it is that over the years fans and young fans in particular say the show has impacted their lives. That’s when I started realizing the importance of television and how far-reaching it is. I love to ride this bus because you don’t get the opportunity to do what we’ve done as long as we’ve done it. Right now, I do feel like I’m making history and that’s important for people to do that. I know the day is going to come where someone’s going to go, “Remember that show? That ‘Grey Something’? And that nurse … Bailey? She was on there?” That’ll come at some point. And that’s OK.

Do you ever get sick of being Bailey?

No. Oh, no. I’ve never said, “Dang blabbit, do I have to be this woman today?” No. That has never occurred to me at all, not as an actor — but I also feel a great deal of responsibility to do this character and our show justice because people really do care about the show. They really do love the show. And I would never, ever … I know there’s an expression … Bite the hand that feeds me or whatever [laughs]. Like, no. No. I have no problem with Miranda Bailey.

What is the benefit of having worked on one show for over a decade?

We always say, “We’re working on the second decade, y’all.” You know, we’re one of the few shows that is still doing 24 episodes a season. We’re working 10 months a year, so we may be the dinosaur, but we’re reinventing ourselves and technology, rolling with technology, you know. We’ve gone through all of the phases, from, “You have to be at home on Sunday night or Thursday night to watch us,” to, “OK, you can watch it on the DVR when you get home,” to, “OK, let me catch up on Netflix.” We’ve ridden through all of those phases and have joined the social media end of it — well, except for me. I’m going to hold out, but whatever, that’s another subject [laughs]. But for me, it’s all of the lessons. I still feel like a sponge. I still feel like I’m walking around learning and observing but the opportunities that we all have had collectively to grow here, if that’s what you’ve wanted to do … I don’t know if that’s what happens on other shows. You know, Kevin McKidd [who plays Owen Hunt] and I are both directing. We have our script supervisors who [are] directing now. One of our grips, even, is directing. Several of our writers, almost all of our editors, at some point, have directed. It’s like, you can do it. I don’t know what other show gives that kind of internal opportunity.

Does being on a show that’s been on for this long change the position that you’re in as an actress?

I think it changes the perception, and it certainly changes how the IRS looks at you [laughs]. I guess that’s true. But your outward perception changes. We’re walking around, still doing the same thing, looking the same way, whatever. But from the outside looking in, you know, we appreciate that people are like, “Oh, you guys got it made,” or “What a great vehicle to be on,” so we have to be responsible for that perception and we have to handle it with a lot of care. And if, in this position, you want to try producing, try directing, try writing, open a restaurant, start your foundation, you know, and you can use this as a springboard to be able to do those other things that you love, then that is great, you can use it that way, but it’s completely up to how you want to use your life.

I think at the end of this road, the one thing — I guess this is a piggyback answer to the question you asked me before — as an actor, sometimes you don’t have a lot of options. You’ve got to take what work comes, and you’re hoping all the time that something might hit or whatever. So in this instance, when this finally does come to an end … What I’m hoping I’ll end up with, at the end of the day, is options. So I can keep working if I want, I can chill out if I want, I can go produce if I want, I can go do theater if I want. I have the option, because I don’t have to worry about, “OK, well, I’ve got to put my kids through school,” you see what I’m saying? It takes away some of the hardships and it allows me to have options. That’s what something like this can give to an actor.

Ellen Pompeo recently said in an interview that she stayed on Grey’s so long because Hollywood’s age standard makes it really hard to move on and land new roles. Do you feel that pressure?

You can’t help but think about it. My life philosophy has always been a little different, because I’ve always been on the nontraditional end of things. Even in my 20s and early 30s, I was always submitted for roles [where I was] not necessarily for what it said on the page but, “Oh, would you consider Chandra for X, Y, and Z?” Right, so, even with Dr. Bailey, it was the same thing. I wasn’t what was on the page. So because that’s been my mentality, I’ve thought, “OK, when this thing finally comes to an end, I’ll still have that same mentality going forward.” Yeah, I talk with my colleagues out there and the pickings aren’t all that plentiful. Everyone’s fighting for the same little jobs, so I know that it becomes smaller. But I know that if everything works out here the way I’m thinking, it’s OK. There’s enough room for everybody. And if I’m working on one project a year, but every project is of significance to me, then that’s OK. That’s OK. There’s room. There’s room for everybody.

That’s a healthy way of approaching it.

I try to be, child [laughs].

You’ve been with Shonda Rhimes since the beginning of Shondaland. What is your relationship with her like?

I have always kept it professional. I never wanted to lose my perception of who she was; I never wanted to make her just a girlfriend, because I knew that she was not that. It’s always been from a place of respect, a place of admiration, a place of, you know, I work for you and I’m here to bring to life the character that has been created. But then, of course there’s a partnership here, because this is the 15th episode of Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve directed and of course last year she had me go over to [direct] Scandal. There’s an incredible amount of confidence that she’s placed in me. I’m so appreciative of that, because she just grows me. She takes me out of my comfort zone, and I just appreciate the confidence that she has in me that allows me to rise up even if I don’t believe in what she’s saying. I’ll say, “OK,” you know, but I don’t know how to say no [laughs].

Did you ever think she would revolutionize TV in the way that she has? And that you would be such a big part of it?

No, goodness, we weren’t thinking about it like that at all. That first season, we were just happy to have jobs. I was like, “Oh, a pilot? OK, I can pay some bills. I can get ahead on some things.” I don’t even know if I understood what it meant to be a series regular on a series on television, and it wasn’t until way into Season 1 that I even saw the pilot. I just remember thinking, first of all, the way music was used in the episode was so different from anything else that I could remember — that it kind of drove the narrative of the show. And then I was like, “Wow, look at all these people, looking like people.” Like, looking like a hospital. It never even occurred to me all these months that we had been shooting what we had. And then audiences responded to it, like right away. And then we had our rockstar seasons, like Season 2 and Season 3, where people were like hollering at us and stuff. That was all cute [laughs]. That was all cute. And then it got to calm down for a few seasons and we could be normal.

When you started the show, you were one of the few black actresses with a series-regular gig on network TV, and now you’re in such great company at ABC with Kerry Washington and Viola Davis and with so many great shows on ABC and other networks. What has that shift been like for you as a black actress?

It’s been an absolute welcome change to see all of this — I’ll use this word, “diversity,” because it’s the only one I can come up with — on television. There’s so much television now. Oh, my God. There’s so much more. I remember when I would first do award-show submissions, it would always be in the supporting actor’s category. But we had almost nothing to submit in the lead actor’s category, so for two years I submitted as lead actress. The year I won [the NAACP Image Award] I was like, “I’m glad I won, but this is ridiculous,” because I’m a supporting character. I’m not the lead, but this is all we got. After that it started to change. Then Scandal came along and now we actually have leading actresses in that category and I could go sit back in the supporting, like I wanted in the first place. It’s been the right change. We needed to have it, because we had nothing to be able to present in that category of television.

Does Shondaland offer a certain insulation in terms of ageism or racism, or are you guys still subject to the same Hollywood B.S. that someone else is?

We certainly are insulated. Even where we shoot, it’s just us and General Hospital on our lot. We only have to deal with two of us coming through. We’re not insulated from industry things, like renegotiation and salaries and hierarchies and all that kind of stuff — that’s when the reality of the industry comes and slaps you in the face. That’s the same regardless. But yeah, we don’t necessarily have the best perspective on how hard it is to get work out there and how deals are made. We don’t. Because we have a home that we’ve been able to stay in for a while.