The Scotsman

‘I’m one of the luckiest actors in this business’

◆ As the 20th season of the hit US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy airs in the UK, James Pickens Jr, who has played Dr Richard Webber since the beginning, speaks to Kerri-ann Roper about the show

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The hallowed halls of fictional hospital Grey Sloan Memorial have spawned character favourites on the small screen like Dr Derek Shepherd, aka Mcdreamy, and Dr Mark Sloan, aka Mcsteamy.

Alongside them, ever since the first episode of ABC’S medical drama Grey’s Anatomy aired in the US in March 2005, characters like Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), quickly became household names.

The TV show, created by Shonda Rhimes and originally set in the fictional world of Seattle Grace Hospital (which later changed to Grey Sloan), now also boasts the title of the longest-running primetime medical drama in American TV history.

And its success has not been limited to the US, it rapidly gained popularity in the United Kingdom, even boasting some homegrown talent with Scottish actor Kevin Mckidd becoming a show regular in the role of Dr Owen Hunt.

More recently it returned for a 20th series, streaming on Disney+, and a 21st series was also newly-announced.

The show’s popularity is a blessing, says cast member James Pickens Jr whoplays Dr Richard Webber, and has been there since the beginning.

“I think after we hit maybe season five, I said ‘Oh OK, we might have something here,'” he says. “Anytime a show lasts this long, and has had the staying power this one has had, you count it as a real blessing and we’re very fortunate.

“Most of us actors will go our whole careers and never experience anything like this. So to be a part of something like this for 20 seasons and have audiences who are still engaged, who still want to take this journey with us, is a testament to, first of all the brilliance of Shonda Rhimes, and also an amazing writing staff, crew, one of the best crews we have and in the business anywhere, and an amazing assembly of actors.”

With numerous nomination­s and awards, it won the Golden Globe for best TV drama, and two spin-off shows (Station 19 and Private Practice), viewers have seen their fair share of nail-biting medical emergencie­s, eclipsed only by the personal crises faced by the doctors and medical teams themselves.

The last series stunned viewers when Meredith Grey bowed out as a permanent fixture, with the character returning in episodes of the 20th series.

There are also pivotal decisions to be made by Pickens Jr’s character, who over the years has faced up to his addiction

nd issues, which have challenged his sobriety on many occasions.

“Well, he’s gone back to AA, because he had a near relapse but thank God he didn’t,” explains Pickens Jr as he talks about one of Dr Webber’s season 20 storylines.

The 69-year-old, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio and has also starred in The X-files and Roseanne, says his character’s sobriety storyline has been an interestin­g dynamic.

“My father battled alcoholism for years up until his death, he fought it valiantly,” he says. “And so I had first-hand knowledge and experience of watching somebody take that journey.

“So I was able to kind of utilise that, in how that looks in my world and Dr Webber’s world.

“One of the things I’m most proud of, there’s many (things) with the show, but is the fact that the impact it’s had on people who are in recovery, I have had countless people come up to me and say ‘Your storyline has impacted me in such a way’.

“I feel good about that. And that’s kind of the takeaway from me with this storyline, and I’m very proud of it.”

Over the years, Dr Webber has been the Chief of Surgery, the head of the hospital’s residency programme and his personal life and connection to Dr Meredith Grey came into sharp focus, to name but a few of the rollercoas­ter moments faced by the character.

But its all of these plot twists that keep Pickens Jr enticed in the role.

“I’m probably one of the luckiest actors in this business,” he says. “To have the writing team that has created this character, ‘a mature Black man’ who started (at) the hospital… was responsibl­e for everything that goes on there.

“They’ve written some incredible stuff for me over the years.

“I look around at my counterpar­ts and contempora­ries and I feel pretty lucky that I’ve had a chance to take what they put from pen to paper, and then to give it to me to take that and translate it into a way that is digestible for our audience.

“We see him (Dr Webber), at his victorious times, and also we see him at times when he’s in the valley, and how he’s navigated that, so I’m very proud of that character and the way they’ve written him and the landscape that they’ve given him.”

Another constant in Dr Webber’s life has been his friendship and profession­al relationsh­ip with straight-talking colleague Dr Miranda Bailey, played by Chandra Wilson.

“I love Chandra. First of all, she’s a brilliant actress, just really very profession­al. But I think the thing that strikes me most about her is her attitude,” Pickens Jr enthuses.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her angry, or put in a place where she’s off kilter, so to speak. And it lends itself to the relationsh­ip we have, as we play these characters…

“It’s been a joy to work with her. She’s always very giving as an actress. She also, because she directs as well, she’s got a different insight, she’s a wonderful director.

“She’s an actor’s director. But everything she does there’s an atmosphere of optimism with her. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and I appreciate that most about her and our relationsh­ip here in these 20 seasons. She’s gotta be my favourite.”

I think after we hit maybe season five, I said ‘Oh OK, we might have something here’

Grey’s Anatomy is streaming on Disney+ in the UK, with the final episode due to air on June 13

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 ?? ?? James Pickens Jr as Dr Richard Webber, main; Chandra Wilson as Dr Miranda Bailey, above left with Scott Speedman as Dr Nick Marsh, above; Ellen Pompeo as Dr Meredith Grey, below
James Pickens Jr as Dr Richard Webber, main; Chandra Wilson as Dr Miranda Bailey, above left with Scott Speedman as Dr Nick Marsh, above; Ellen Pompeo as Dr Meredith Grey, below

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