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The anatomy of a hospital in a pandemic

The hit drama has seen many plot twists, but no one saw this one coming, writes Sarah Caden

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Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, chief of surgery at the Seattle hospital

Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, chief of surgery at the Seattle hospital

Kevin McKidd, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, and Ellen Pompeo

Kevin McKidd, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, and Ellen Pompeo

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Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, chief of surgery at the Seattle hospital

Chandra Wilson's fingernails announce that Grey's Anatomy is on a break. Long and pointed, painted black and white in a bold geometric pattern, they are not the nails of a surgeon, or even of someone acting the part of a surgeon. They are most definitely not the kind of nails you would see on Miranda Bailey, the chief of surgery whom Chandra Wilson has played since Grey's Anatomy first appeared on our TV screens 16 years ago.

Yes, it's been 16 years.

"We have become this generational show," Wilson says, "where people who watched us from the beginning are now watching with their children and their children's friends and starting all over again."

She agrees that it could make a person feel aged to contemplate the time past and all that water under the bridge. All those assignations in supply closets and break-out rooms, all the hook-ups and break-ups, births, marriages and deaths. The McDreamy and the McSteamy, and everyone in between.

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Kevin McKidd, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, and Ellen Pompeo

Kevin McKidd, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, and Ellen Pompeo

Kevin McKidd, Jesse Williams, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, and Ellen Pompeo

Now, into its 17th season, Wilson's Bailey is one of the few cast originals left standing, along with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr), and she still loves going to work every day. When we spoke, however, via Zoom, Grey's was on a break.

"We're in our winter hiatus," she says, "but we're holding for a little bit before going back, because the Covid numbers are on the rise.

"We have strict protocol for making sure we keep each other safe," she goes on. "That's the number-one thing, to make sure to maintain the safest environment possible so that we can create content and get it out into the world."

In this latest season, the hospital is portraying the pandemic as accurately as possible. How to proceed with a medical drama is a tricky proposition in these Covid times. On the BBC, that other long-standing hospital drama, Casualty, has been off our screens for almost a year, while its spin-off Holby City continues with scant use of masks or social-distancing, and barely any reference to the ongoing crisis.

Grey's, however, is hitting it straight on.

"One of the biggest honours that we have right now is to be able to tell the story of the pandemic from a medical-professional point of view," says Wilson. "If you're not in the hospitals, you really don't understand what's happening there, and you don't understand the toll that it's taking - not only on the patients and the families, but also on those doctors, on those nurses. We want to honour those stories and share those stories."

This is no easy narrative to plot, given none of us know where the reality is going - but the roller-coaster of life is what this show has always been about.

Wilson says she still loves the work and her character after 16 years.

Miranda Bailey was the hard-taskmaster surgeon when the show first began in 2005, the one tasked with whipping into shape the intern gang led by Meredith Grey.

Bailey was the diminutive tough nut, but over the years we've seen her evolve into a more complex character. No one gets an uneventful life on Grey's.

"It has been a natural evolution with getting to know us as characters," Wilson says. "With season television, having more seasons gives us the opportunity to reveal that more.

"We are never a show that hits people over the head with what we want you to think about something," she says. "We just show you. It's about that honesty - and if the audience ends up relating to or seeing themselves through a character, then that's a bonus.

"Bailey has provided a lot of bonus moments as far as being a role model and an inspiration. That's, you know... kind of like the icing on the cake."

Through playing a character for so many years, you wonder how much an actor's own personality comes to merge with the part they are playing. Wilson laughs at that idea.

"I still find her - to this day - to be very different," she says. "Our personalities, our sense of humour. The thing we have in common is we are goal-oriented people. We set goals for ourselves and then go about the work in order to achieve them. But in the way she talks, you know, she... like, she hits people too much."

Wilson mimes Bailey's persistent pushing and pushing and laughs to herself. "I don't think that's me," she says, "You know? But, yeah, ask my kids!"

Wilson has three children with her partner of several decades, though he and she have never married. Her eldest daughter, Sarina, now in her 20s, suffers from cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS), which began to show as severe nausea and vomiting when she was a teen. Achieving a diagnosis of CVS can take years, but Wilson was dogged in her pursuit of an answer for what was happening to Sarina and got one relatively rapidly.

She has since become active in raising awareness of CVS and even directed an episode of Grey's Anatomy in which a mother stuck to her guns on her child's behalf. That's the kind of thing you get to do, Wilson says, when you're in a long-haul show.

She laughs when she tells me that she meets people who are on their fifth go-around of the full show, from the first season to the present day. She doesn't quite "get" that level of devotion - but she is chuffed about the arrival of seasons 1-to-15 on Disney+'s new Star entertainment brand. From Tuesday, Grey's will be on Star within Disney+, along with other classic TV series, movies and Star originals from the creators of Big Little Lies and This is Us.

It's great to think of a new generation getting up to speed with Grey's Anatomy, she says, laughing at how no one, coming to it new, could ever guess the twists and turns.

This past year alone has thrown up its twists. Last year, in the middle of season 16, the show came to an abrupt halt thanks to Covid. One minute, the biggest tragedy was coming to terms with the departure of Alex Karev (another character who'd been there from the start), and the next moment, the season was cut short.

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"Our producers came to us on stage in the middle of shooting a scene," she recalls, "and the wording was 'out of an abundance of caution, we are going to stop working today. Right now.' The hope at that time was that we would be out for maybe two weeks or so with this little... you know, 'pandemic-y thing' - and then we ended up ending the season prematurely."

It was the longest time Chandra Wilson had been at home and not working for many years.

"But everything's about 'from home, from home'," she says with a laugh, "but I haven't had to do Miranda Bailey from home yet."

Not yet, hopefully never, and definitely not with those nails.

Season one to 15 of 'Grey's Anatomy' will be on Disney+ Star from February 23

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