Beyond the Screen: Reflecting Reality With the Cast of Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19
When the pandemic halted production in March of 2020, Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 showrunner Krista Vernoff had a hard decision to make. How would the shows handle the real-world news at a time when circumstances had pushed us all toward more escapist entertainment fare?
In a special presentation as part of the Virginia Film Festival’s popular “Beyond the Screen” virtual conversation series, Grey’s Anatomy and its spinoff Station 19 showrunner Krista Vernoff ---told moderator and VAFF Program Manager Chandler Ferrebee that the answer was hardly a foregone conclusion. Vernoff, who was joined for the conversation by UVA alum and VAFF Advisory Board member Jason George and castmates from both Grey’s and Station 19, said she was 51-49 against tackling the topic before she raised the issue to her writers.
“One by one, their hands went up,” Vernoff said. “Then a writer pitched a creative angle laying out how we could both entertain and elevate in a way that allowed us to engage our audience and tell the truth about what was happening in the world.” She also heard from Dr. Naser Alazari, a consultant to the show. “He said that this is the medical story of our time and something that is going to change medicine permanently and that we had a responsibility to the front line workers and to the world. He said we cannot be the biggest medical show in the world and not do this.”
The pandemic obviously brought huge changes to the way the show operates, including adding the addition of new members to the on-set family in the form of “COVID Police,” or, as George calls them, the “CoPo.” Safety meetings, once held prior to shooting only on days that included a dangerous stunt or special effect became a daily routine, held with cast and crew socially distanced in the parking lot. The strict adherence to rules has paid off, according to cast member Kevin McKidd, who plays Dr. Owen Hunt on Grey’s Anatomy and also has directed several episodes of the series. “I have heard from our compliance people that we are doing a very good job of taking care of each other, and the minimal test positive rates on both of our shows is a testament to the kind of community we live and work in every day.”
Kim Raver, who plays Dr. Teddy Altman on the show, added, “We really had to trust one another that what you are doing on the weekend protected me and what I did protected you. That is how we stayed safe the whole season. It has been a tremendously healing and beautiful thing to come out of this difficult year.”
What Vernoff and her cast could not have known is that they would be dealing with the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting. Boris Kodjoe, a former standout tennis player at VCU, plays Battalion Chief Robert Sullivan on Station 19. He called it “a pandemic within a pandemic.”
To tackle this issue, Vernoff looked outward, recognizing her own limitations and seeking out the thoughts and experiences of her cast members. “It was tremendously empowering when Krista asked us to share in our own words how we want the show to represent this world and this climate in as authentic a way as we possibly could,” Kodjoe said.
She did this partly by allowing herself to be confronted with a truth she could not possibly access. “I remember writing this one monologue,” Vernoff said, “and presenting it to the writers. I went back to my office, and Kasha Foster, who was my assistant at the time, came in and told me that she had been working for me for 4 or 5 months and thought me to be a decent human being. She went on to say the power dynamics made it almost impossible to tell the truth to a white showrunner. If you are willing to hear the truth, she said, I am willing to tell it to you.”
The conversation was a game-changer. Foster was hired to make sure issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion were handled with the proper care. “Krista basically gave someone the job of calling her to task, to call her out on a regular basis,” George said. “In 25 years in this business, I have never had a showrunner really own mistakes, talk to the cast about it, and then turn it into a beautiful piece of art that we are able to put out into the world.”
That piece of art was the highly-acclaimed Station 19 episode “Stand Up,” which dealt with the issues head-on. “It was super powerful once people decided to change their mindsets from being colorblind,” Kodjoe said, “which really doesn’t serve anybody, to being color-conscious, where we truly want to practice empathy and understand each other moving forward. Everyone has their own experience with this ‘other’ pandemic, and representation alone is just not enough. That just scratches the surface of who we are in terms of our versatility and our diversity.”
Of course, the cast pointed out, their show has always been about finding the light moments to balance out the serious ones. “There was a mandate,” Vernoff said. “If we are going to do a pandemic within a pandemic, we at least have to find a way to laugh sometimes. We have to find a way to be sexy sometimes. It is just that now the sexiness happens in a supply closet with masks on.”
Those same masks that made life and work difficult at times, George said, did have their benefits. “It was much easier to flub a line because you knew they could fix it in post.”