There’s a new name to add to the “Shondaland sisterhood”: Jaina Lee Ortiz, who stars in the new “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19,” is joining the ranks of Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington and Viola Davis. Ortiz plays Andrea Herrera, a first responder in the fire department near “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Seattle Grace hospital — which means she’ll make her debut on March 1, introduced first on “Grey’s” and then taking center stage in “Station 19,” which will run for 10 episodes, starting on March 22.
“Just to be part of TGIT is super exciting in itself. I can’t even believe in it,” she says. “That I got to work with Ellen Pompeo was like an actor’s lottery ticket. I felt super proud and grateful and honored.”
Here, Ortiz tells Variety what it means to her to join the Shondaland sisterhood, how she trained for the role (yes, she does her own stunts), and the one piece of advice Washington offered her.
What made you want to take this part?
As soon as they mentioned Shonda Rhimes, they didn’t even have to finish the sentence. I said, “I am in, what do I have to do?I’m there. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care what it is, I am in.” And so when I heard that it was a story about these eight firefighters, I said, “Well, I’ve only played bad-ass characters. This is just another one to add to the resume, so to speak.” It was fascinating that all my roles have been rookie cop, homicide detective, marine and now a firefighter. So I feel like a natural superhero. I’m playing these strong, tough women on TV, and that’s very rare.
What does being on a Shonda Rhimes show mean to you?
There’s no recipe, there’s no formula. It’s just good storytelling surrounded by strong characters and high stakes. It’s fast-paced. Shonda’s shows are the types of shows that you can’t watch while you’re doing your laundry or you’re cooking or cleaning in your house. You have to sit down and pay attention because if not, you miss it.
Not to give anything away, but you have a great scene with Ellen Pompeo in the first episode, where you really let the tears flow. How did you get yourself in that headspace?
That was a little difficult. Emotional scenes are tricky. I’m not the type of actor that can turn it on in a few seconds once they call action. Tears can’t just come down my face automatically. For that scene in particular, I had to imagine all the female firefighters and what they have gone through working in the male-dominated workplace. I remember meeting two female captains as research before starting production, and one of them shared with me some stories and she bawled. She started crying and I felt for her and I just took that experience and brought it with me in that scene because I can’t even imagine the pain and the treatment that she experienced while on the job. And I kind of shed tears for all the female firefighters that have been mistreated and disrespected and sexually assaulted.
What other research did you do to prepare? You did some physical training as well.
I met with two female captains, I went on ridealongs, and I took the CPAT, which is a candidate physical ability test. It’s a physical test where it measures an individual’s ability to meet the qualifications of what a firefighter would go through. And it was eight different tasks conducted one after the other and I passed, which was great. It was very hard.
What were the tasks?
It starts off with a stair climb for three minutes, where they put about 50 pounds of weight on you, and then you have to do the hose drag, the equipment lift, the ladder extension, forcible entry, search, rescue, and ceiling breach and pull. Not every man can do it. Not every woman can do it. It definitely measures your physical strength, your stamina, your balance, your grip. And if you don’t pass it, you don’t make it.
It’s amazing that you passed it!
Yeah, it was hard. But I wanted to see what firefighters have to go through. Just wearing the uniform alone, it weighs about 70 pounds. In the test, they give you things to simulate that feeling of when you’re in a fire and you have to get out fast. I don’t even know how they do it. It’s given me a deeper appreciation and respect for first responders. I remember in one of the scenes we were rehearsing, they didn’t show it to us before we did the scene, and the fire got so high it came up to the ceiling. I kid you not, I was so close to running away and running off-set. So I can’t even imagine the act of risking your life or knowing that you will die in any situation. That is the most selfless. I have so much respect.
How much of your own stunts do you do yourself?
With certain fires we use a stunt double but for the most part I like to do my own stunts because since I have a dance background I’m very quick to picking up choreography and knowing exactly what to do. I love that stuff. I have a thrill for it.
And what about sliding down the pole?
It’s not as fun as it looks because if you hold on too tight you can burn your palms. But it’s really fun. We did it in the pilot and we did about 20 times over and over and over. I don’t think any of fire stations have the fire poles anymore because I think it’s a hazard. But in “Station 19,” we definitely have a fire pole.
It took a while to settle on the name “Station 19” [it was “the untitled Grey’s spinoff” until recently]. What do you think of it?
I love it. I think it represents who we are as a team, as a family. I think it really represents all the characters and who we are as a group.
What does it mean for you to be a Latina lead on a primetime show?
I can count on one hand how many Latinas are the leads on any show right now, besides Gina Rodriguez and Justina Machado and Jennifer Lopez. I think it’s very empowering. Growing up I didn’t really see a lot of Latinas on TV and they had the role of the maid or the pregnant teenager or the mistress. This is someone who I feel like every woman can look up to. She’s an Alpha female. She’s super strong, she’s smart, she’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. She doesn’t think males are better than her. I actually would love to be more like my character.
Did you get any advice from the other Shondaland sisters?
I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kerry Washington, and she is the sweetest, most down-to-earth, genuine woman. We grew up in the same neighborhood. We are both from the Bronx. I think the best thing I took from her was she said, you have to treat yourself like an athlete. Drama TV is a very hard schedule and you have to put yourself first and take care of yourself first. Make sure you’re getting rest and you’re eating right in order to bring your best self forward. And what was even more special that she shared with me is that yes, we are the lead, but we have other females on the show and if we don’t lift them up and support them and truly are there for them to make them shine, that’s the only way a show like this could work. Because when they have their scenes or when they’re heavy in certain episodes, we want them to bring their best performance and best self. And that synergy creates really good energy on- and off-screen.
Do you know what’s coming up for your character?
This is the thing about Shondaland: They tell you nothing. It’s scary and exciting at the same time, but I am dying to know, and this is the one of the rare situations where the writing is so good that the actors can’t wait to get their hands on the next script because we are dying to know what happens with our characters. You never know what to expect and the fact that they keep everything secret makes us more anxious to find out what’s going to happen.
Are there things that you want to see for her?
I want her to fail and get back up. She is all about work and all about being successful and being good at her job, but her personal life, all of her relationships are, for lack of a better word, they’re just crap. Her personal life is s–t. And so that’s a great balance. I want her to be challenged. Of course she’s going to try to be a captain, and be the best at her job, but I want more issues for her personally. Anything bad, I want to see happen. That’s good TV.
I read on your Twitter bio that you like to do flower arranging.
I started it to do some self reflection. I’m an introvert and I like to stay home. I like to hang out with my family and friends. I’m not a social butterfly that likes to party. So at home, I have an obsession with organizing. If I wasn’t acting I would be a professional organizer and I love to put flowers together in different vases and spread them around the house. It’s therapeutic in a way. It just makes me feel good — even cleaning and organizing. I have an obsession with towels. I have a s–t ton of towels in my closet. It is bananas! I’d like to be more adventurous. My character Andy likes to rock climb as a hobby and I realized I don’t have any other hobbies but dancing.
You began your career as a dancer. How did you transition into acting?
I started out as a professional salsa dancer for 14 years and I traveled the world teaching and performing, but it would only last for three minutes. I was asked by some students from NYU if I’d like to be in their five minute short film and I said why not? It was a great experience. But when I saw the screening I sucked. I really sucked and I said, you know what, I really loved this experience, but if I want to do this, let me take it seriously and let me get some training. So I hung up the dancing shoes and I did a two year conservatory, I studied Meisner in New York City and as my part time job, I was a makeup artist to pay for my acting classes.
Any chance we will see Andy break out into dance?
I would love that! I’m not too crazy that she’s a beer drinker. Kerry Washington’s character is all about wine. Ellen Pompeo’s character does the tequila. But I drink beer. I really hope that she knows how to dance really well. I’m going to try and squeeze that in some way. I don’t drink in real life, I don’t drink, don’t smoke. Every once in awhile I’ll have a champagne. But one thing I do love is playing drunk for some reason. I play a good drunk, I gotta be honest.