By Jo Berry
For 16 years, actress Chandra Wilson has comforted patients and terrorised medical students as Miranda Bailey, the firm but fair Chief of Surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital in producer Shonda Rhimes’ hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.
In that time, her character has survived an heart attack, brought her obsessive compulsive disorder under control and suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage, but the new season of the series – currently filming in Los Angeles – brings even tougher challenges on screen and behind the scenes as COVID-19 comes to the Seattle hospital.
“We are starting the story in season 17 as the pandemic started to show its head,” explains Wilson during a break in filming in Los Angeles. “Being a show that takes place in Seattle, Washington [where the first US case of coronavirus was reported] it was very difficult for us to be able to avoid the effects that it was going to have on the medical community.”
“Miranda, aside from being Chief of Surgery and being in charge of the protocol of the hospital, also has her own health to maintain as well as her mental health. These things can get pushed to the side when you are in the middle of an emergency, so it’s about being mindful of your own health while you’re in the midst of making sure you are keeping as many other people as healthy as possible.”
For Wilson, filming a medical series during a pandemic hasn’t been that different – “we are a show where PPE is built into [it]” – although there have been some changes on set to protect the cast and crew. “The crew is masked and shielded and maintaining social distancing, so that makes the environment a little different. There’s not as many people on set at the same time, so it may take longer to get the work done, but the number one priority is the safety and well being of everyone and, by extension, everyone’s families as well.”
While the lockdown in California in the spring of 2020 halted production on the final episode of season 16 (the episode was not completed, but unresolved storylines are picked up in the new season), time at home with her family gave Wilson a chance to revisit the series she has been involved with since the very first episode.
“Watching old episodes was one of the pandemic things that I was doing with my daughter,” she says. “I had gone back to single episodes before but never binged it in the way she watches television. It’s interesting to watch the show that way – the old episodes felt so familiar, like we just filmed them a day ago.”
The first episode of Grey’s Anatomy back in 2005 introduced Miranda Bailey to audiences as “the Nazi”, a tough, blunt surgical resident who would guide the careers of interns like Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) for years to come – when she wasn’t raising a disapproving eyebrow over their complicated personal lives.
“With series television you never know how many seasons you are going to have, so you start with an initial idea, which was this character who was a resident who was very goal oriented, very career oriented, and who knew at some point she would be Chief of Surgery,” Wilson says of Bailey. “We’ve gotten the chance to see her move in the direction of achieving that goal and achieving it in real time, so in a way this has made her inspirational – even though you may not like her personality!”
Bailey, maybe more so than others, has embraced her fierce persona that we first came across in 2005. “We’ve seen her failed marriage, her successful marriage, her mothering, her ups, her downs, everything about this total human being, and she is still the same driven person that you met in that first episode.”
Over the course of 17 seasons, Wilson has had the chance to play some intensely dramatic scenes as Bailey, as well as really funny ones that have helped make her character one of the most beloved on the show. “Dramatic wise, my favourite episode is the season six shooter episode, where Miranda got pulled from under the bed [where she was hiding from a gunman] and she said she wasn’t a doctor, she was a nurse, to save herself – bless her heart,” Wilson says.
“Miranda’s heart attack, coming to the realisation that she had obsessive compulsive disorder, that was absolutely amazing to play, and her ability to be maternal, especially with her interns, those are kind of the top highlights for me.”
More recently, Wilson reduced viewers to tears during harrowing scenes as Bailey learned she had suffered a miscarriage at work. Is it hard to go home at the end of the day after filming such upsetting moments for Grey’s Anatomy?
“One thing I have discovered as an actor, especially with really emotional things that we have to do on the show, is that your body doesn’t know the difference – your body doesn’t know that you are acting, so it does sometimes take a minute to calm your body down and tell it, ‘no, we were just pretending’,” Wilson explains.
It’s clear that Wilson loves playing Bailey, and while there have been rumours that the series may end for good soon – especially if original cast member Ellen Pompeo (who is, of course, the ‘Grey’ in Grey’s Anatomy) departs – Wilson has no idea how her character’s story could end.
“It’s kind of a running joke that there have been many incarnations of what the ending would be, and then it changes again with each season,” she laughs. “I have absolutely no vision for what Miranda’s ending would be. Miranda Bailey has gotten her happy ending so many times, as far as achieving things that you know she wanted to achieve from the beginning, so I’m completely open to whatever the creative minds come up with when we finally get to that day.”
Of course, if the medical drama does come to an end, Wilson could always ask Grey’s producer Shonda Rhimes if there was a role for her on Rhimes’ most recent hit, the Netflix period drama Bridgerton.
So would Wilson exchange her Seattle hospital scrubs for a corset and hoop skirt in Regency London? “In a hot minute,” she laughs.
“Yes, in an absolute hot minute, I’d do it!”
Seasons 1 to 15 of Grey’s Anatomy are available on Star on Disney+ from February 23rd in the UK. If you’re looking for more to watch, head to our TV Guide.