Chandra Wilson as Mama Morton in "Chicago"
Grey’s Anatomy fans remember this moment well: In the season 3 episode “Staring at the Sun,” somewhere between Mer and Der’s bathtub-makeout session and George’s paternal cancer crisis, Chandra Wilson’s Dr. Miranda Bailey calls her son and softly sings him a lullaby, “God Bless the Child.” TV viewers who know Wilson only as the whip-wielding doc who keeps all the bed-hopping, emotionally unstable Seattle Grace MDs in line thought, Wow! She can sing! But theater fans weren’t a bit surprised to hear that Wilson was swapping her scrubs for a sexy black pantsuit as Matron “Mama” Morton in Chicago. We’d seen her as the perky Dotty Moffet opposite the steely Tonya Pinkins in the 2004 musical Caroline, or Change; she popped up in several roles in Central Park and briefly on Broadway in George C. Wolfe’s late-90s On the Town revival; she even did a short stint in Avenue Q, understudying celebrity superintendent Gary Coleman. A couple days after her debut at the Ambassador Theatre, Wilson called Broadway.com still brimming with opening-night energy. The Houston-born actress and mother of three (Serena is 15, Joy is 10 and Michael is 3) talked about tabloids, Tony Awards, and the perils of asking her for street-side medical advice.
How was your first night in Chicago? It must have been great to have so many people there for you [Grey’s co-stars T.R. Knight, James Pickens and Sara Ramirez; Anika Noni Rose from Caroline, or Change].
I had a lot of friends out in the audience. There was a lot of nervous energy in the room and that, I think, helped everyone, including the rest of the cast, have fun. They say usually things drop off on the second night. But I felt we were even tighter and even more into the groove, cause we got all the nervous energy out of the way.
You were nervous?
Oh, goodness yeah! That kind of stuff never goes away. I would have been concerned if I wasn’t nervous.
How did Chicago happen? Did the producers just call you up and say, “Hey, how about playing Mama Morton for a few weeks?”
Yeah, basically they did! I had worked with [Barry and Fran Weissler] on another show that was coming to Broadway six years ago—The Miracle Worker, starring Hilary Swank—but we ended up not bringing it in. So we already kind of had a relationship. It was all aboutwhen. We first started talking about it last year before the [writers’] strike.
Have there been other offers since you’ve been on Grey’s, things that might have brought you back to Broadway sooner?
There were workshops or things in process that likely would have taken a longer commitment. Logistically it’s hard for me to do things like that.
When did you get cast in Grey’s Anatomy?
I did the pilot in March of 2004. We knew in May that the show was getting picked up as a mid-season replacement, so by the time Caroline ended at the end of August we found out they wanted us to start production at the end of October. The timing couldn’t have been better.
The show really took off from the start. Did you have any clue what a huge hit you had on your hands?
We had actually finished season one before the first episode aired on Easter Sunday. We were only supposed to be on for four Sundays after Desperate Housewives, but I think the numbers did a little better than Boston Legal’s numbers so they extended us to nine episodes. After we finished, they immediately sent us into reruns, so we were one of the only new things around over the summer. That’s when our audience built up for season two.
Bailey was an instant fan favorite.
People certainly liked her spunk and the way she dealt with the interns.
Even in this past season, which had some ridiculous story lines [the resurfacing of dead Denny, Cristina’s abusive non-boyfriend], Bailey always had good material. She struggled with her marriage, she tackled pediatric surgery…
She got back to being a doctor this year, trying to put the personal aside and work on that on her own time. And I think it’s so interesting—as much as she tells her students not to get emotionally involved, it seems like she’s emotional all over the place! [Laughs] Especially with the children.
The season ended with Bailey in tears—a rare sight!—revealing that she’s leaving her husband because he made her choose between the hospital and him. What’s next?
Usually our first table read is a cold read. We don’t get the scripts ahead of time. So we still have a good month before we have any idea what direction the show will be going in. I don’t think anybody knows what the studio and the network has in mind for any of the characters going forward.
What do you want to happen with Bailey?
For all five seasons, I haven’t set one foot into the writers’ bungalow to give them one direction whatsoever and it’s worked out pretty good for me [laughs]. I’m one of those if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it actors, so I will continue not to go anywhere near that writers' room and offer any suggestions whatsoever.
Over the five seasons, Grey’s has gotten a lot of ink for its offscreen drama, including the feud between Isaiah Washington and T.R. Knight. Does that affect the working environment?
I know what the truths are, and I know what the stories are. And I get that it’s important for whatever reason for people to write all that sensational stuff. We’re fortunate in that we work on a lot that’s very isolated; it’s just us and General Hospital. We’re kind of insulated from all the stories. We learned early on not to go to each other asking questions about stuff that was written—those aren’t fact-based things. Because of that, it doesn’t bother us at all. I figure everybody gets a turn.
We’ve never seen you in the tabloids!
[Laughs.] It’ll be my turn sooner or later. I don’t know what they’ll come up with but they’ll come up with something!
One of my favorite things about Grey’s is getting to see stage actors every week—T.R., Sara, Kate Burton—and the same goes for Shonda Rhimes' other show, Private Practice, with Audra McDonald and Taye Diggs. Had you seen any of your co-stars on stage?
I saw Sara in Spamalot. I’ve seen almost everything Audra McDonald has done. She’s doing Twelfth Night [in Central Park]; I’ll look forward to seeing that. James Pickens just did a benefit for a foundation he started; they mounted a production of Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! that he narrated [in L.A.]. Shonda has a lot of respect for theater actors. During the writers’ strike, the Grey’s and Private Practice casts did a benefit for the Writers’ Guild called Good Medicine. That day we got to see everybody exercise their talent.
What did you do?
I sang “God Bless the Child.” The extended version.
How does it feel to be back in New York?
You immediately realize just how unique a place it is once you come back and join the pace again and confront people on the street. You’re not living in the bubble of your car going from one destination to the other. You actually have to be a part of society. I haven’t done this much walking in years [laughs]. It’s a welcome treat.
Are your kids with you?
They still have to finish school. They can’t wait to see Chicago on Broadway. Their only frame of reference is the movie. They can’t wait to see the original source. I think they’re going to get a kick out of having to use their imagination with the stage production.
How about the rest of the family—have they seen it yet?
Not yet. Everybody’s coming at some point. They’re coming in groups. My mom’s group, my aunt’s group…they’ll make a whole vacation out of it. I had to do all the footwork.
The things we do for our mothers! And it was your mother who got you into acting in the first place, right? When you were a little girl?
Her main goal was for me to have hobbies so that I wasn’t idle. She just felt like if I was busy then the less opportunity I would have to get in trouble. Fortunately she got me involved in things that kind of stuck. She never said, “You have to be an actor.” I was in a theater company in Houston, Theatre Under the Stars, and I was involved in about 10 of their productions. They had a training wing for the children where I had classes three days a week—singing, dancing—and they would pick kids from the school to be in the mainstage productions. My first show wasThe King and I when I was five. And then I went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, and from there Tisch [School of the Arts at NYU].
You got your first off-Broadway show, Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me, in 1991, pretty much right out of NYU.
While I was at NYU I did a play at the Public called The Forbidden City, where I went in as an understudy and got my Equity card. Right before my senior year I did a Young Playwrights Festival at Playwrights Horizons; that’s where I met [director] Mark Brokaw, and he brought me in for The Good Times Are Killing Me. And that’s when I won my Theatre World Award. We started at Second Stage and moved down to the Minetta Lane. We did have a really nice run.
Now, you didn’t wait tables like a lot of actors. You worked at a bank.
I worked at Deutsche Bank for about eight years on their overnight shift. I was working consistently in the theater. I just wanted to know that my rent was going to be paid on time! So I was working overnight shifts in their word-processing department. And I stayed with them consistently; I worked straight through every show I was doing. Even if I had to go away or come back, I did.
If you did shows at night and worked overnight, when did you sleep?
During the day. Cause my girls were old enough to be in school. I’d work the overnight shift, they’d get off to school, I’d go to sleep, and then we’d go on with the rest of the day [laughs]. After I left, I realized how sleep-deprived I was. You don’t think about it at the time!
I have to ask you about being a presenter at the Tony Awards—first of all, what did your mom say about your performance?
She told me I “spoke real good.” Quote unquote!
Did you have a good time? You had a huge smile on your face.
I did, cause I announced the Jersey Boys[performance] almost at the end so I got to sit there and watch the whole telecast. That was my first time at the Tonys.
Wait—you didn’t go when Caroline was nominated for Best Musical in 2004?
No, only the actors who were nominated. The rest of us were over in a restaurant on top of Sbarro pizza watching it on the big screen.
Well you looked beautiful.
Bless your heart.
And was it my imagination, or did the Hair cast haul you up on stage at the end of the opening number?
They absolutely did, and what am I going to say—no? You have to go! [Laughs.] There I was, trying to maneuver my way up in that dress with all those panels. It was a hoot. It’s kind of a blur.
Do you enjoy all of the awards-show hullabaloo? You’ve certainly walked your share of red carpets thanks to Grey’s.
Enjoy? Let me see. To be absolutely truthful, it’s kind of like doing a job. You’re not really there as a spectator or a fan, watching like you do on TV. There’s work involved in doing the interviews and standing how people want you to stand. And everybody’s on the go, so it’s not like you can even have conversations with people you’d actually like to speak with. That said, I’m always absolutely honored to be there.
Three consecutive supporting-actress Emmy nominations must be pretty fulfilling.
They really are a treat. I certainly appreciate anytime that this character in particular gets recognized because I think it’s great that she’s on television. She stands for a lot, but she’s very much a human being. I love the fact that so many people relate to Dr. Bailey.
Since so many people relate to you, do they stop you on the street and ask for medical advice?
They do. In a joking fashion. “I’m feeling such and such.” And I just pull out my phone and dial 911 and say, “Do you want me to press send?” That’s all the medical help I can give. That’s all I got.