Debbie Allen rose to fame with “Fame,” serving as a director, producer and choreographer. She was also the first black woman to be Emmy-nominated in the dramatic lead actress category. More than three decades later, she has a recurring role on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and is a frequent director — and now exec producer of the show. “It’s a little crazy, but what a great life,” Allen tells Variety. “I’m like a cat on a hot tin roof that somehow landed on all fours.”
What are your new responsibilities on “Grey’s Anatomy” Season 12, being a director, actor and exec producer?
I’m very involved in every episode, in terms of production design. I’m selecting the directors this season, looking over everything from makeup and hair to the actors’ concerns. I spend a lot of time with the writers, which I love.
How do you balance acting in an episode that you’re also directing and producing?
It’s actually how I started on “Fame.” I trained in acting, literature and theater, so talking to actors is something I’m really used to doing. That gives me a little bit of an edge sometimes. I know how to speak the actor’s language. On “Fame,” I started as Ms. Lydia Grant and I was the choreographer, but I soon became their favorite director because I knew how to shoot the dance and then I understood the acting. Doing it all at the same time is how I came into it.
Have you noticed a big change in your role on “Grey’s,” now that you’re an exec producer?
Very dramatic change. I’ve always been there as a director and somewhat of a den mom — it’s interesting; so many of them grew up on “Fame,” and I’ll never forget the first time I directed, Patrick Dempsey started singing “Fame” and doing jetes, and I’m like, “Stop it already. Stop it!” — so now, there are things that are my responsibility or things that I keep my eye on or things that I can mitigate. I’m responsible for a lot of things, which is a wonderful position to have. I’ve done this once before on “A Different World.” I was the executive producer and director on that show for five years. But this is different. It’s an hour, it’s in its twelfth season, but it feels like it’s brand new.
Speaking of Patrick Dempsey, how is the set different without him?
We had a great relationship. My nickname for him was “Dash” — Dash was the kid in “The Incredibles” that was running fast. He would come through the set like that. He was on the move. Racing cars defines him for real. Patrick is not there so it changes the dynamic of the story for Meredith.
How much will you be featured in this season?
Catherine Avery is still a guest star. She’s not a series regular, but I’m there so when they need me now — last year, they had to go and try to find me — they can take advantage of me, and it’s okay! I’m not mad about it.
Will you direct more than just episode two during the season?
Yeah, I will.
What do you like about being behind the camera?
Exploring and discovering the truth of the moment and capturing it on film … As a director, you enjoy the quality of the writing and the actors. You have the A-team; how do you bring it to life?
Last season, you directed a number of shows — “Grey’s,” “Scandal,” “How To Get Away with Murder,” “Empire,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Survivor’s Remorse.” Was it difficult running from set-to-set?
That was a challenge in itself because every show has its own tone, its own cinematic style and I have enjoyed it.
What was your experience like on the “Jane the Virgin” set?
“Jane the Virgin” was so much fun. I was able to get that zoom lens out and zap to that fabulous father, Rogelio! And then Gina Rodriguez, she’s just amazing.
How about “Empire?”
“Empire,” oh my god. I directed the season finale. The ratings were like through the roof — of course, I will take all the credit! But that Terrence [Howard] and Taraji [Henson] and the entire cast and Lee Daniels has really given America something wonderful.
And “Survivor’s Remorse” on Starz?
“Survivor’s Remorse,” I did with LeBron James, and I had to wait for him to finish the playoffs. I’ve loved everything I’ve done.
What has your experience been like directing all three TGIT series?
“How To Get Away with Murder,” you really had to read every episode and be on top of that because that show happens in the present, the near future, the past, the recent past and then the past, past, past. It moves back and forth in time in a way that is so cerebral, but it just keeps you on the edge so I enjoyed that. It’s such a fresh cast, and then Viola Davis, lord have mercy! I directed that episode where she fired her assistant [Bonnie, played by Liza Weil] — her assistant was on her knees, honey!
And of course, “Scandal” is my favorite. I was so in love with Olivia Pope and the president. The idea of that affair was just so hot and steamy. I was like, if I don’t get to direct this, I’m gonna get Shonda Rhimes in the parking lot! Who do I have to see? But then she did call me to come and I had a wonderful time.
Will you direct more “Scandal” and “HTGAWM” this season?
Not this season. They’ve asked me. I made a choice — I was offered this wonderful opportunity and I love Shondaland, and I said this is home-base. I’m going to do this because I love “Grey’s Anatomy.” I love it. I had a banner year last year so it’s okay. I’m happy.
You are so in-demand. How have opportunities for women changed since you started in the industry?
They’ve opened up. It’s still not broad enough. I can remember going up for movies that I could have directed with my eyes closed, and never getting the opportunity. At the end of the day, we just have to continue to network. Over our 24 episodes [on “Grey’s Anatomy” this season], 10 of them are directed by women, and I’m still looking.