From the start, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes hoped the large ensemble cast would keep the show, set in a teaching hospital, fresh.
“When I came up with the pilot, it was about this group of young people and the people who taught them, and it just evolved,” Rhimes says. “In the first season, we were only telling stories about the interns and their relationships. We still are, but to a greater extent, the show has expanded to where we tell full stories about (characters such as) Bailey now, which is something we never did in season one.”
Creating storylines around Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson), the Chief (James Pickens Jr.), and newer characters like Sloan (Eric Dane), Lexie (Chyler Leigh) and Callie (Sara Ramirez) has other advantages. Each character brings new conflicts for existing characters, which prevents the show from growing too dependent on any of its core players.
This technique has proved successful for other long-running series like “ER,” and could help propel “Grey’s” far beyond Thursday night’s 100th episode.
“For keeping a show alive, you really have to be able to adapt and be flexible and figure out new ways to introduce new characters that the audience is going to care about,” Rhimes says.
“Every single season is slightly different,” adds “Grey’s” executive producer Betsy Beers. “The characters are growing at different paces. Some you get to know very quickly, like Meredith (Ellen Pompeo); then there are people like Alex (Justin Chambers) who we’re still getting to know.”
As for new addition Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), Beers says, “We’re just scratching the surface with him. Won’t it be interesting to get to know him?”
Casting director Linda Lowy, who’s been with the show since its inception, says the key to hiring the right actors is to make sure they fit with what she calls the “‘Grey’s’ world.”
“They need that certain kind of humor: not overly melodramatic, not overly funny in a sitcom sort of way, but in the ‘Grey’s’ way,” Lowy says.
The tone was set with the original cast: Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey (Derek), Sandra Oh (Cristina), Isaiah Washington (Burke), Katherine Heigl (Izzie), T.R. Knight (George), Chambers, Wilson and Pickens.
“The original (members were) well-cast all around,” Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan says. “There were people whose faces you’d seen before, but you might not be able to name them. When you’re not overwhelmed by their previous resume, that’s the ideal thing. You want them to know what they’re doing, you want them to have chemistry with their fellow actors, and you just want to get into the story.”
Rhimes, Beers and Lowy and her colleagues John Brace and Will Stewart strive to cast the right actors for recurring characters and guest stars.
“Our best moments are when we bring on somebody who already has a prior relationship — like Addison (Kate Walsh), Mark Sloan or Lexie — people who are already mired in the story,” Rhimes says. “I can’t tell you how many people we met for the role of Lexie Grey. Finding just the right person was extremely difficult, but when you find that person, it’s magic.”
Occasionally roles are tailored to specific actors. “I was looking for a girlfriend for George, but it was in the infancy stages, so I had no idea what I was looking for,” Rhimes says. Then she met Ramirez. “I got to shape the character around this person I knew I wanted to have in the cast.”
Some guests have caught on so well they’ve become regulars. Walsh was initially hired for a handful of episodes, quickly became a regular and soon had a spinoff, “Private Practice.”
“You can’t forget about McSteamy,” Lowy says, “We cast (Dane) for one episode, and I think the women across the nation went kind of crazy. Everyone was talking about him, so we decided to make him a regular.”
Not every character is so fortunate.
“They’ve had some misfires,” Ryan says. “Mary McDonnell (as autistic heart surgeon Dr. Dixon) is one of the finest actors working on film or TV today, but I didn’t respond to her storyline at all.”
Ryan also notes that some characters who felt like they’d be around awhile — notably Melissa George’s Sadie and Brooke Smith’s Erica Hahn — suffered abrupt departures.
“But they’ve had more successes than failures,” Ryan says. “Kevin McKidd is definitely a case of success. They cast someone like Kevin McKidd and I have to watch.”
“Look at the performances and the incredible actors we have working, and the way they interact,” Beers says. “It’s their watchability and their charisma that keep people coming back week after week.”