Monday, July 6, 2009

Living The Dream

Another Monday, another new old interview. This week's interview is from Los Angeles Magazine, originally published in 2005 in their September issue. Here is an excerpt:


By Stephen Rodrick

Dr. Preston Burke: I'm glad we have an understanding.

Dr. Cristina Yang: I'm sure you are.

Okay, YOU WOULD THINK THERE WERE A LIMITED NUMBER OF WAYS TO deliver a line. Especially one as simple as "I'm sure you are." That's just four words and an apostrophe. But that's why Sandra Oh is Sandra Oh, and we are watching her on the Prospect Studios set of Grey's Anatomy, ABC's midseason hit that killed the notion that the medical drama will ever be played out even as ER staggers on as a gerontology experiment. Oh, who plays Yang, is a bundle of energy as she twirls her hair around delicate fingers. "Do I want to come across that bitchy? Or is that too whiny?" she asks director Peter Horton. The two talk for a minute. A few days earlier both scored Emmy nominations for their work on the show last season. Horton smiles and says, "I think you are just so frustrated. Try it frustrated."

Oh furrows her brow and hops back to her mark next to Isaiah Washington, who plays Burke. Although Ellen Pompeo plays the lead, Meredith Grey, the series succeeds because of its ensemble cast. In Oh, whom most people discovered in Sideways, and Washington, the heart and soul of four Spike Lee films, there's skill and electricity rarely seen on the tube.

Let's get caught up. Last year Yang, a hard-driving surgical resident, had an intense relationship with Burke, a deputy chief of surgery candidate at Seattle Grace Hospital. Well, intense in the sense that they had sex a few times in the doctors' break rooms. In the second season the two are coping with the fallout from an unwanted pregnancy In this scene, Yang is pissed that Burke wants to perform a liver transplant on a wife abuser. Sure, they are fighting about the case, but it is more about the two's inability to communicate.

Horton shoots their exchange handheld, with the camera often lingering on the character not talking or on the one fumbling for the right words. How Oh utters the last line of dialogue will determine how viewers interpret the scene. She does a series of takes. In one, she ups the bitch quotient to a malevolent level that has the crew recoiling in mock fear. Then she does it with despair, the line reading like she may break into tears. Finally she finds a middle ground. She says, "I'm sure you are," in a tiny, resigned voice that will ring true to anyone who has ever faced a loved one and felt like there were no more words left to say.

"Wow, she's a Ferrari," says James Parriott, the episode's writer and one of the show's executive producers. "It's easy to look good when you have actors like that. We just have to keep it going."

There's the rub. One of costar Patrick Dempsey's favorite lines around the set is the only slightly ironic refrain "We're living the dream." It's pretty much true. Fortune shone when ABC debuted the show in March 2005 as a midseason replacement for Boston Legal, scheduling it to follow the pop-cultural phenomenon Desperate Housewives. Then a funny thing happened during its four-week run: Grey's outdrew Legal by 5.3 million viewers. The network extended it five more weeks, and the drama finished the season as the top ABC show in the 10 p.m. slot on any night among adults 18 to 49.

But that was all of nine episodes. Rarely has a show become part of the hype machine based on so little. Now Pompeo is live with Diane Sawyer saying "re-tah-ded" in her Boston accent, while Dempsey is doing painful live-at-the-Indy 500 celeb interviews. The question is, Will anyone care this time next year? Will Pompeo be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or back in Barcelona doing Spanish movies of the week with Billy Baldwin?

"I try not to think of the future too much," says Pompeo, who seems overwhelmed by the endless interviews and the people at Gelson's staring. Already, she parses every sentence, asking me not to mention anything about where her sisters live. Not that she is complaining. "This could be gone tomorrow," she says with a weary shrug. "We're just living in the day-to-day."

One OF THE GREAT PLEASURES OF BEING ON A HIT TELEVISION show is that you are allowed to say all those things you always wanted to say but were afraid to because you thought it might get you labeled as "difficult" and prevent you from scoring that guest slot on According to Jim that could change your life. Then you realize, "What the hell, I've been biting my lip all this time in hopes of getting a scene with Jim Belushi?" Talk about soul crushing.

So it's life affirming to find the stars of Grey's Anatomy in a feisty mood. Although the show involves nine characters, much of the plot centers on Pompeo, a first-year surgical resident, Dempsey a menschy adulterer, and Oh's and Washington's characters. All four bring world wariness to the show, both on and off camera.

While Grey 's Anatomy isn't exactly reinventing the medical drama, it's radical in another way: It stars a helluva lot of blacks, Asians, and women. What makes the show unusual is that the characters' angst is not anchored in race or ethnicity "There was no reverse conspiracy to hire a diverse cast," says Rhimes, who is black. "We're all post-civil rights, post-feminist babies. It is not remarkable that a black man is head of surgery."

For Oh, that alone is enough. "I'm happy to be working on a show where if you're not white, you don't have to explain your existence," she says. "I'm really tired of that. I want the networks to see that half our cast is not white and our show is a hit. Take that, people, and fucking run with it. They can't keep saying, 'We can't take a chance because we have no proof it can be a hit.' Well, now you do."

IF THE ACTORS AND STAFF ON Grey's Anatomy need a reminder--and they don't--about the randomness of network television success, all they have to do on a I4-hour day in July is make the short walk from their set to the writers' bungalows. Along the way is a line of actresses with visions of residuals dancing in their heads. It seems that ABC has picked up the sitcom What About Brian for midseason but not the lead actress. Now the show must find a replacement. Actresses shuttle in and out, one with tears in her eyes.

"Can you imagine going through the whole pilot process, and the show gets picked up but you don't?" asks Parriott. "I had to do that once. It was one of the worst conversations of my life."

Parriott gets an appreciative nod from Horton, coexecutive producer of Grey's and director of many of its episodes. "Now that I don't miss about acting," Horton says.

Despite a successful directing career, Horton is best known as Gary Shepherd, the hunky, bike-riding professor man-child on thirty-something. Horton is now in his early fifties, but you can see why he was successful as Gary; he is Gar?; with just a little gray in the sideburns. There's a sincere smiley face on the back of his director's chair, and he plays Taj Mahal on his iPod between takes. His afternoon is interrupted when a messenger delivers chocolate-covered strawberries that the show's writers sent as congratulations for his Emmy nomination for directing the Grey's Anatomy pilot.

"The fact that Peter got nominated is wonderful, because he really went through the wringer last year," Dempsey tells me. "They had us adjust the tone to make the show work after Desperate Housewives. We had one tone on a couple of the shows. They stopped us, shut it down, and said, 'Retool.'"

Let's go back a year, to the point when Lost and Desperate Housewives keyed ABC's ratings rebound. On the surface these shows have nothing in common. Lost is a contemporary Gilligan's Island played straight, while Desperate Housewives, originally positioned as a drama, skillfully maneuvered into satire when viewers began laughing in the wrong places (see Melrose Place). But they share a certain ethos. Both feature hip ensemble casts filled with smart, contemporary characters who invariably find themselves entangled in preposterous situations. They talk like modern bold and beautiful people talk, all edge and irony, with just enough vulnerability to make you think they are not robots (except for Nicollette Sheridan, who still seems like an alien).

ABC grew thirsty for more. Enter Shonda Rhimes. She was a 35-year-old screenwriter whose credits straddled the line between quality (HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) and commerciality (the Britney Spears disaster Crossroads and the instantly forgotten The Princess Diaries 2). Rhimes had a development deal with Touchstone Entertainment when she and Parriott cowrote the pilot for Grey's Anatomy. Her deal was helped when ABC named Touchstone boss Steve McPherson president of prime-time programming in April 2004.

In the Horton-directed pilot, Meredith Grey makes her first appearance by tossing her one-night stand out of the house and racing to the hospital for the start of her surgical residency Of course, when viewers see it's Patrick Dempsey being tossed out, they're fairly certain he'll reappear, and sure enough, he turns out to be Grey's boss. In another complication, Grey's mom, played by Kate Burton, is a legendary surgeon whose mind has been lost to early-onset Alzheimer's.

In an act-off with Lost or Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy would win by the mercy rule. However, one of the temptations in working with good actors is that you want to place them in complex situations where they will be able to act. After Grey's was slotted to follow Desperate Housewives, Rhimes and Horton began work on the second and third episodes. But after a week of filming, the network suspended the series and gave the producers a mandate: less grit, more soap.

"The success of Desperate Housewives created a cornerstone for ABC," says Horton. "Steve McPherson was very deliberate in going for a specific tone on the network, and he was very clear about it." He offers a wistful smile. "I think if I heard 'The tone we're going for is "Sex and the Surgery"' one more time, I was going to have to strangle somebody. But clearly it worked."

Rhimes plays down the changes. "I don't think of it as a medical drama," she says. "It's a relationship show with some surgery thrown in. That's how I've always seen it."

At first the show lurched like an airplane that's losing engine power as it pitches headlong toward an uncharted jungle island. The second episode features a subplot in which a rape victim bites off and swallows the penis of her assailant. Grey must lug the severed penis around in a cooler as she waits for the police. Cue requisite wackiness as various male characters shudder at her cargo. The plotline played like something from the dying days of Ally McBeal.

The show regained its footing, as viewers became invested in the characters Parriott and the other writers were beginning to embellish. Particularly intriguing has been the clash between Yang and Burke: She's ruthless and he's socially awkward. The show captures smart climbers lavishing so much energy on ambition that they have no clue how to be with other people. All this is often accomplished with the subtlest of touches. In a later episode, Burke switches to a flowery surgical cap in a sweet but pathetic attempt to show some humanity. He does it without remark, but the characters are so sharply drawn, you notice on your own.

On set the battle for Grey's Anatomy' s soul is present but acknowledged with jokes rather than rancor. In a future episode, Grey and colleagues are confronted with a massive train wreck. Oh has just read the script and hugs Krista Vernoff, who wrote the episode. "I loved the dialogue," Oh says. "'Hey, aren't you supposed to be my boyfriend? Then help me find the leg.' That's great." Vernoff, though, has bad news. The show's medical expert has informed her that an accident that yields four or five severed limbs that can be reattached is a little far-fetched. "Now we're down to just one," says Vernoff with mock disappointment. "So much for the double amputee."

Oh and the other actors are not oblivious of the show's contradictions. "It's difficult to do excellent work on network TV," says Oh. "There are too many factors working against creativity. If you agree to do it, you have to understand that you're going into the belly of the network beast. I think so far we have done a good job handling that." When I ask her whether she or her costars have conversations about the financial freedom a long series run with syndication payouts could give them, she looks for a nearby piece of wood and knocks furiously. "Once you do that, you're dead," says Oh. "Things can change so quickly."

But that's a worry for another day. Tonight the cast is gathering for a welcome-back barbecue. There will be congratulations for Oh's Emmy nomination. Pompeo will bring her poodles in her purse and talk about her recent trip to Crete. Washington will talk about his efforts to raise money for Mac, a hip-hop adaptation of Macbeth, while Dempsey will bemoan being beaten by Frankie Muniz in a celebrity road race. For the moment, Dempsey is right: They are living the dream.
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