Grey’s Anatomy’s Kelly McCreary on That Surprise Finale and How Grey Sloan Might Handle COVID-19

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Grey’s Anatomy’s Kelly McCreary on That Surprise Finale and How Grey Sloan Might Handle COVID-19

After a few moments of chatting, it’s clear that Kelly McCreary and the brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon she plays on Grey’s Anatomy aren’t terribly different. From the moment she answers the phone ahead of this year’s season finale, she is warm and friendly. She is the kind of person who uses first names in a way that seems like she’s known someone forever. She’s also anxious. Seriously. Literally 29 seconds into our discussion, she admits the current COVID-19 pandemic has set her on a bit of an emotional roller coaster.

“Every other day I’m going absolutely nuts inside. One day I can be a little bit productive and focused. The next day, I can be drowning in anxiety and depression,” she says with an nervous laugh. McCreary, who joined the series at the end of its 10th season, has a charming candor reminiscent of the emotionally honest characters who define the series on which she stars. In a time when the perils of real medical trauma are scarier than scripted medical trauma, there’s something strangely comforting about a Grey’s Anatomy doctor being worried, too.

In her onscreen world, McCreary’s character, Dr. Maggie Pierce, has had quite a taxing few months herself. Throughout Season 16, tragedy and misfortune have plagued Dr. Pierce’s personal and professional lives. The mid-season finale left the fate of Dr. Pierce’s career in question after she missed a crucial step in an important surgery. Because of production issues related to COVID-19, the April 9 episode will serve as the season’s finale. In the episode, Dr. Pierce has rebounded only to have the fate of her biological father, Dr. Richard Webber, hang in the balance. In short, both McCreary and Pierce could use a break from the insanity.

Kelly McCreary has played cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Maggie Pierce (left) on Grey’s Anatomy for the past seven seasons.

Jessica Brooks

Although this global pandemic put a rush order on Grey’s Anatomy’s final episode, Season 16 ends in classic Grey’s Anatomy fashion—with a twist and a bang. McCreary spoke with Esquire about the big finish and what’s to come for Grey Sloan Memorial.

For this to be a finale the series didn’t have in mind for this season, the conclusion was so, so strong. Congratulations on such a successful year.

Well, honestly that was kind of just pure luck. So that was episode 21 out of what was supposed to be 25, but when that episode was produced we had no idea what was coming. We actually wrapped production in the middle of the next episode, so the episode wasn’t finished and it was just lucky that [episode] 21 happened to have these elements that wrapped up a storyline and left us with really great juicy cliffhangers. I guess it’s just how the writing has been over the course of the entire season. We’ve been able to take people on these waves again, like these roller coaster rides. We haven’t been holding back waiting for mid-season finale and the finale, it’s all drama all the time. So we just got kind of lucky.

That’s so crazy. It felt so purposeful—like a real classic Grey’s Anatomy finale.

That’s so awesome to hear because obviously they had other plans in the writer’s room. I don’t even know myself what all was entailed for the finale of this season, but I’m so glad that it’s a satisfying story for the audience, that’s all I ever want to do is, tell some good stories, so I’m really glad that it feels that way.

I’ve been so excited for you and your character this season because this is Maggie’s sixth full season, I believe.

That’s a whole first grader! Maybe even a second grader.

The way that Grey’s Anatomy has persisted, there is potential that a current first grader is going to come up to you in 15 years and say, “I’ve been watching you since I was in first grade,” because the show just persists. What is it like to be a part of that?

Sometimes I become aware in these moments… like, there was no social media and streaming and all of that stuff when I was coming up as a kid and in my early professional days, so I couldn’t have imagined the longevity. You know how there are some shows that are classics: I Love Lucy and Mash. People still talk about and reflect on [those shows] firmly but it’s not as like bequeathed and available for generations of people the way that Grey’s Anatomy is. I couldn’t have imagined the stickiness of this job. I’m smacked with this idea that for some people I will always be Maggie Pierce forever.

I’m so intrigued by this season because I’ve been waiting on a season where Maggie really has a reckoning and she’s had I feel several in one season, particularly with her medical expertise being questioned.

I definitely think that she is coming out of it stronger with time. Personally, I’m a big believer that every breakdown is an opportunity to have a breakthrough and sometimes it takes stillness and self medicating with television and whatever people need to do to sort of like be able to receive the lesson of the moment, be able to take out the time to figure out what the next great step is.

I think it’s only interesting to watch somebody be great at something all the time for so long. Even in your own life, even when you’re sort of going along succeeding, everybody looks for ways to be challenged and find a way to grow and see if they can be better. That’s been so much fun to play. I love seeing her coming out on the other side of it as a better teammate, even more critically thinking doctor, as a member of this community who can relate to her peers on an even deeper level now.

Is there anything that you hope that Maggie gets a chance to do or encounter that maybe she hasn’t yet? Are you looking for your big explosive, oh gosh, what happened to Maggie moment?

This season wasn’t enough of a big explosion? [laughs] It was so much fun to shoot the episodes where Maggie’s got to have her love at first sight moment—this romantic comedy experience. Maggie is a perfectionist, and I can relate. People who are perfectionists sometimes miss out on being in the moment when they’re looking so hard at analyzing the moment. So that was a real thrill. I’m looking forward to seeing whether and how that progresses in the next season.

I have to ask you a silly question, especially in these times. How often do you get solicited for actual medical advice?

Oh God, I don’t. But sometimes I give it out for some reason. Like, I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’ve still practiced at speaking with authority about medicine on the show that I am very quick to offer my opinions to friends and some family. Oh no, you can take this supplement and make sure you see your doctor about that. And like, what do I know?

In a different world, how do you think the doctors of Grey’s Anatomy would handle the situation we’re currently in?

Oh man. I’m sorry, because when you say that, I get this image in my head of all the things I’ve seen on the news and reports I’ve read and heard from medical professionals. They’re so tired and they’re so scared and they’re so under resourced and yet they are still pushing through. They’re isolated from their families sometimes. I think about the sacrifice that they’re making and it literally goes through to my eyes every single time.

I like to think that the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial would be like them, and the doctors at Grey Sloan are also for some reason all total prodigies at solving major problems. So hopefully they’d be able to figure out the problem of the resources and come up with some inventions that could help. Use the might of the Catherine Fox Award and the wealth at that hospital to find a vaccine.

I would hope that they would be leading the charge for this, but at the very least, I would hope that they would be as good as the people who are out there in New York City and Michigan and all these places where it’s so scary and unrelenting right now.

Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.

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