Chandra Wilson has spent the past 16 years portraying Dr. Miranda Bailey on the long-running television series “Grey’s Anatomy” that’s set in Seattle — Season 17 returns to ABC on March 11. Over the years, the show has been lauded for its diversity in casting and for how it’s tried to use its characters and story lines to give more representation to women of color in medicine and in positions of leadership. We caught up with Wilson for a phone interview on Jan. 6 — the day an insurrection took place at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. — and talked to the actor about a wide variety of topics.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been playing this powerful woman on TV and started out doing so when there weren’t that many. I’ve seen articles about how empowering it is and how it’s a sign of change to see you in this role. How does that feel in moments like [the Capitol insurrection]?
Power is a really interesting word in entertainment. Because I keep thinking of power as someone who provides jobs, someone who opens doors for someone to come and follow through. To the extent that I’ve done that as an actor and been inspirational and made people say “you know what, I am going to go through with this career” or “I am going to go to this audition” or even those who aren’t in entertainment to say “I am going to go to medical school because I’ve seen Dr. Bailey on television,” that’s as real to me as anything else.
I 100% feel the responsibility of that and am glad to honor that every single chance that I get, but people also conflate that with a strong woman in the way that Miranda Bailey is. I’ve always been one of those people who has a different use for “strong woman,” because I find it difficult to find a woman who isn’t. Anybody that gets up on a daily basis and has to live their life. You don’t know the strength that it takes to do what someone does on a daily basis until you’ve walked in their shoes.
You said the day of the Capitol insurrection was a powerless feeling day. But some are saying that this goes deeper than one day. Is that intentional? Are you feeling like “this, too, shall pass?“
I feel like I basically can only go from moment to moment. Maybe there’s some self preservation there so as not to be completely disappointed by something that may occur, but we bring the past with us wherever we go in order to proceed forward. The hope is that we can take this and turn today into something better tomorrow. [The Capitol insurrection] is the culmination of at least four years of this ramp up — if not the eight years before that — where America has shown herself for what still hasn’t been taken care of. This past year, 2020, has just brought to light the things that were there that we either suppressed or we say “we’ve dealt with it” or tried to sweep it aside. We never deal with the original sin of our nation in any collective way. It’s given voice to speech, especially from [former President Donald Trump] that is resonating with … 74 million Americans.
I don’t want to walk around this world as an angry person. I don’t want to be looking at people who don’t look like me and be mad, wondering what’s going through your head. … I’m looking at what’s happening today and then I’m thinking, “Now what do we do?”…. I want to see today in its purest form and then how do I fix tomorrow?
How much of your own philosophy do you bring into your portrayal of Dr. Bailey? When you first started portraying this character, it was a character that hadn’t really been seen on TV before. A Black woman doctor? That was the first time I was seeing it. Where did you draw from for a character that hadn’t really been seen before?
Miranda Bailey was so not me, so not me that I wasn’t recognizable on the street, because my demeanor, everything about me in my opinion was really different from her. The things we have in common was our work ethic and being goal-oriented … and wanting simultaneously to have family, to honor family, to be in family, to take care of family. That’s about where our similarities ended.
I didn’t even recognize in the beginning the significance of a Miranda Bailey being on television until I finally saw the first episode of “Grey’s” and I looked at it and I was like, “I’m looking at something familiar,” because this is what hospitals look like. And that was really exciting to me as an actor and as someone who saw that we’re going to be providing a mirror.
What do you feel is the power of the arts and theater in moments like this?
We always look to the arts to provide mirrors to us. We look to the arts to give us an excuse to feel what we feel. For instance, the episode with Bailey’s mom passing away, many people during coronavirus that have lost family members, because of all the noise, because of all the bureaucracy, because of not being able to have a funeral, haven’t been able to mourn the way they need to mourn and it won’t be acknowledged in any kind of national way. Things that were sent back to me in letters or emails or tweets were “I cried today. Watching Bailey and her mom, I got to cry today.” That’s what the arts does, it gives you permission to feel, and to see, and to think, and to do whatever it is that you need to do without being preached at.
Outside of “Grey’s Anatomy,” do you engage in any work for inclusion within Hollywood?
I had not raised my voice until the movements that came about in the summer. My conversations were more when somebody reached out to me and would say “let’s have a conversation about what you see,” “let’s have a conversation about the tone you see around your set,” “let’s have a conversation about things that we have sent you on auditions for and if you think that’s right.”
My effect on the culture, my hope, was that it was coming from the fact that “Grey’s” was still here and Miranda Bailey was still here, and we still had the fan base that we had. That we were still a show to study to say “how do we get to be Grey’s?” and if you can figure that out for your show, then we’re affecting the culture.