When the “Grey’s Anatomy” cast visited PaleyFest at the Dolby Theatre to a packed house of 2,500 fans, the panel was an affectionate look at where the characters have been and where they might be headed in their thirteenth season on ABC. Fans got an early look at the episode Ellen Pompeo directed, which will air March 30 and contains a heartbreaking development.

The cast paid sincere respect to their fearless leader Shonda Rhimes for giving them rich characters to play and for her endlessly creative mind. Chandra Wilson said, “Her mind never stops. I’ve learned from her.”

Now that TV legend Debbie Allen is both acting and directing on “Grey’s,” she’s also been a guiding force. Pompeo credited Allen for encouraging her to direct an episode, “She’s the most incredible mentor and I work with the most incredible talent.”

Allen also got one of the biggest laughs of the panel when she was asked what she loves most about her character, Dr. Catherine Avery, and replied, “That I get to have mad old sex with Dr. Webber (James Pickens Jr.).” Even more chuckles ensued when Justin Chambers tried to think of which dead character he’d want to bring back to life. Pressured, he finally answered, “McDreamy, McSteamy, I miss them!”

As for what’s on the horizon, Jesse Williams said he’d love to work more with Eric Roberts, who guested in last week’s bottle episode and was revealed to be the father his character, Jackson Avery, never knew. Williams said, “I was excited [about the episode.] It was a big cloud hanging over the character.” Kevin McKidd, who directed the episode that added to the rare number of times that viewers get to leave the hospital confines. McKidd said, “I wanted the episode to feel like an independent film. I was happy to get the chance to tell one story.”

As for the relationship between Jackson and April Kepner, actress Sarah Drew sounded optimistic, “There’s so much love and respect there. They’ll always be each other’s person, even if they’re friends. Everything is hopeful.”

As the panel wound down, Allen was asked what she thought was special about “Grey’s” and she answered eloquently, “It’s about characters that are real and real life stories. Our writers look at journals for cutting edge medical stories. Our show is saving lives every week.”

“Grey’s Anatomy” airs 9 p.m. Thursday nights on ABC.