Actress Chandra Wilson provides a voice for front line workers
For the past year, all that everyone has been encompassed by is the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen front line workers around the world stepping up and putting themselves in danger to help save lives. In order to pay tribute to those who are risking it all, ABC’s award-winning critically acclaimed drama Grey’s Anatomy is dedicating its monumental 17th season to those front line workers’ and their heartbreaking stories.
“One of our goals that we realized early on into the season when we started shooting the first episode was that it really was our responsibility to put the stories of our front line workers and our medical professionals in particular out there and out front,” original cast member Chandra Wilson, who portrays Dr. Miranda Bailey, said. “We have the cable and daily news reports of what’s going on, but as far as what it feels like and what the day-to-day is, we immediately saw that the show would be a great vehicle for that.”
In the fifth episode of the season titled, “Fight the Power,” Bailey’s mother is admitted to the ER at Grey Sloan after testing positive for COVID-19 following a recent move to a nursing home. After having breathing problems and her health rapidly deteriorating, Bailey’s mom passes away with her daughter by her side. The episode struck a chord with many front line workers and average viewers alike who watched the emotional farewell that Bailey gave to her mother.
“A lot of the responses that I received when I took over the ABC Twitter when that episode aired was, ‘This is what happened to me and I finally get the chance to cry because I hadn’t been able to cry, and wasn’t able to get an acknowledgment that this even happened in my life. So thank you Grey’s for letting me cry,’” Wilson said. “I embrace that responsibility wholeheartedly and attack each one of these episodes and storylines with that kind of integrity knowing that I probably am speaking for someone and telling their story right now.”
Just like the pandemic and its evolution, the show also had to evolve with its storytelling in order to keep up with current times.
“Here’s the interesting thing about this season and I think I said this before, but many times I thought that by the time these stories were going to air, we would have been talking about the past, but we never quite have gotten there,” Wilson said. “So our stories have had to remain a little fluid and since our last airing we didn’t have the vaccine when we stopped [filming] and now it’s here, so I would imagine that we would have to weave that into our stories. So I know that for the most part our writers, I’m sure they thought they had an arc, but the world is changing. I would think creatively we would have to watch the world a little bit. I have learned over the years not to go to the writers room and ask where we’re going because a lot of the time we have to course correct. There are so many pandemic related stories that just happen to correspond to the life of medical professionals and it would be really difficult for our show to ignore that, so I’m glad that we’re honoring them.”
Stepping behind the camera, Wilson who has received the Screen Actors Guild, People’s Choice, Prism and three NAACP Image awards, as well as four Emmy Award nominations for her portrayal of Dr. Miranda Bailey, has also directed several episodes of the show since season six.
“I never thought of myself as a dramatic television director,” the Houston native said. “I’m from theater, so this jewel that came into my life through Grey’s Anatomy has actually been amazing. I find that I have an anal retentive personality, so editing is kind of my thing. It feels like when I’m on the floor I’m creating the puzzle pieces that will come together and make the show. I know that I’m an actress director, but I’m also a production and crew director as well. Coming from theater I have so much respect for every single department and every single person’s contribution that makes the show happen. I’m a calm director and a ‘we have to laugh on set’ kind of director, but at the end of the day I want to make sure that everybody contributed what they wanted to contribute.”
And with a show such as Grey’s that has broken numerous barriers across the board, Wilson is proud of many things about the show.
“I see the history of our show, I see folks telling me that they’ve binged all the seasons—and that’s an amazing thing,” she said. “I see the contribution to women, to young black women and to actresses of all kinds seeing a Miranda Bailey on television for 17 seasons. From the letters or information that I get about people who are going into medicine as a result of seeing her, from actors who have a better perspective of what the business is based on, committing to something and seeing a thing all the way through—there’s all of these lessons there. I’m honored to be a facilitator and we weathered so many industry and technology changes, we’ve managed to stay in there in the midst of all that. We’re an amazing story I think and it’s still being developed to this day.”
And since Wilson has been portraying Dr. Bailey for the past 17 years, she says she definitely shares some similarities and differences with her character.
“We are both goal oriented women who have had professional vision and have taken steps to try and change that vision,” she said. “I love that we’ve been able to see Miranda Bailey in real time go from her time in residency to her being a chief resident and attending, and now chief of surgery. That reminds me a lot of my own journey. The only differences as an actor is that my goal was never to be in a television show, that was just one piece of the journey. Who knew it was going to last 17 seasons? In my ‘actor’ mind, that was always a temporary thing and then you go back and do theater or voice over. I don’t talk like her or walk like her or anything like that.”
Wilson has also been a spokesperson for the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association (www.CVSAonline.org) and speaks out for organizations like MitoAction whose mission is to increase awareness and understanding of mitochondrial disease and its related functional disorders.
“My daughter who is 27 now has a chronic illness called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome and it’s associated with mitochondrial disease for the last 10 years, so I’ve been working with MitoAction for a lot of years and the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association,” Wilson explained. “I was able to direct an episode regarding cyclic vomiting in season nine. That was my one pitch in all these years was that episode. I’m also on the Western Council of the Actors Fund. It brings me a lot of pleasure to be there with the Fund.”
Seasons 1-16 of Grey’s Anatomy can be streamed on Netflix and you can watch the current season on ABC on Demand and Hulu.
Grey’s Anatomy returns from its winter finale on Thursday, March 11 at 9 p.m. on ABC.