Once upon a time, Shonda Rhimes had a very different vision of Miranda Bailey.
Bailey, played by Chandra Wilson, has ruled over Grey's Anatomy ever since the pilot, when Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and her fellow interns learned to be very afraid of the woman people called the "nazi." In a new Black History Month interview with Good Morning America, Wilson and executive producer Zoanne Clack recalled the audition process and the fact that originally, Bailey was "a tiny blonde with curls who was underestimated." She was actually the only character with a specified ethnicity in the script, but Wilson won the role
"I wasn't 'ingénue.' I didn't have whatever that look was, and casting always likes to give you a type," she said. "I was always the thing that they called 'non-traditional casting,' so I would just go in for anything and just say, 'I know that the role says this, but let me show you how I would do this,' and see if that's OK."
Wilson added that she knew she never fit in, so she "never cared."
"I was just like, 'I know you're looking for her, but here, how about this?'" she explained.
Kelly McCreary, who plays Maggie Pierce, had a different experience. Both of McCreary's parents are Black, but on the show, she plays the biological daughter of Ellis Grey, a white woman played by Kate Burton, and Richard Weber, a Black man played by James Pickens Jr.
"So I'm a Black woman and, because of my complexion, I was mostly going in to play mixed girls," McCreary shared in the GMA interview. "These are roles that I wouldn't have been able to audition for and book, possibly, if my complexion had been darker. That's my light-skinned privilege."
Earlier this season, McCreary and Wilson shared a scene, written by Clack, that allowed the two women to speak openly about the pandemic's effect on the Black community. Bailey's mother, who had Alzheimer's, was dying of COVID-19 and the hospital was full of others like her.
"We hadn't had a national day of mourning yet, we hadn't had a national acknowledgement of the losses that have been occurring during the pandemic," Clack said. "So I understood the need to facilitate that and to be able to give a conversation to our audiences that maybe they aren't having, that they don't know. That as Black women, as Black children, as Black physicians these are conversations that we have."
McCreary also saw the moment as an important one for the relationship between Maggie, a young Black prodigy in her field, and Bailey, the Black female chief of surgery.
"For maybe for a long time in her life, Maggie thought of herself as the only—she was, maybe, in a lot of those spaces—and finally there's somebody else here sharing the space who is also a Black woman who has achieved a lot and has probably faced a lot of the same struggles," she explained. "Here they finally have this chance to get to know the ways in which their journeys may have been similar or different."
Ultimately, Clack wants the show to be aspirational for whoever may be watching.
"Hopefully our show is giving people hope," she said. "Hopefully Grey's Anatomy is, by addressing our humanity and acknowledging us in our experiences and living our lives as Black women and Black people, somehow giving some inspiration to the young people, 'cause there are some young people who watch."
"Over and over again, by the way," Wilson added, and she's definitely not wrong.
You can watch the full interview above.
Grey's Anatomy returns, along with Station 19, March 11 on ABC.