Debbie Allen Breaks Down Directing ‘Grey’s Anatomy’s’ Season 15 Sexual Assault Episode: ‘Every Frame Was Me’

Debbie Allen Variety Facetime Interview
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Debbie Allen first rose to acclaim in the 1980s when she starred in, directed and co-produced the arts high school-set series “Fame.” More than three decades later, she is still showing of her trifecta of talents on “Grey’s Anatomy.” In addition to portraying a doctor living with cancer, she also helms some of the series’ most socially relevant and emotionally complex episodes, including Season 15’s “Silent All These Years,” about sexual assault.

You started directing “Grey’s” almost a decade ago. What keeps you inspired to stay with the show, and still wear so many hats on the show, all these years later?

I was a a “Grey’s Anatomy fan” before I even started directing the show. And I think what keeps me inspired is our ability to be relevant and to be creative and that we are just expanding the footprint every week. I was in the rainforest in Cuba and a woman almost fell off her bike because she’s like, “It’s Catherine Fox and Debbie Allen!” The penetration and what we do, I’ve been involved in three shows that have had that impact. First it was “Fame,” which created performing arts schools all over the world. Then it was “A Different World,” which tripled the enrollment historically of black colleges, everybody wanted to go to college — black kids, white kids, Latin kids, everybody. And now “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has fueled a whole generation of incredibly young women that want to go into the medical profession. Really “Grey’s Anatomy” has saved lives. Some of the stories that we do that put the real medical situation on the line for everyone to see, has made people realize their own medical condition and done something about it. So there’s a lot of reasons to love what I do, and I think all of those coupled with I really, really, really like the people I’m working with. Every day, from Ellen Pompeo to James Pickens, Justin Chambers, Chandra Wilson, Jesse [Williams] and Linda Klein, who’s our medical expert and producer. Our head writer and our showrunner, Krista Vernoff, and the entire writing team. And my crew, I really love those guys. I wasn’t there from the very beginning, but I was like, “I’m so glad y’all found me before it was over.”

When you first got the script for “Silent All These Years,” what did you break down as the most important elements of when you needed to solely focus on Abby, through close-ups or other stylistic elements so the audience truly understood her frame of mind, not just her experience?

When I sit down as a director, I really go from beginning to end, I don’t compartmentalize. I go from beginning, this scene how does that flow into this scene to that scene. And I decided right in the beginning to start out of focus because we’re dealing with something that is a gray area, something that a lot of people can’t quite get a handle on. This is my own subtext. Abby was so disoriented, it said to me that I would have her talk directly into the camera, which was not the style of our show but it was right for her. To let her be off in what she sees, her perspective. And then you know, when she’s in that ER, the emergency room trying to just get through it all, to just hurry up and get it over with. She was crying for help but she didn’t know how, that’s what I felt. Then Jo gave her the confidence; she never let her hand go. That was scripted, so that was a detail for me that I continuously put the camera on in a graceful way.

And of course to you took the camera down that hallway of women to show more support.

You wanted to see Abby’s perspective: What did she see? What was it that was going to make her feel that she could go through with whatever it was? To look and see all women, and then to see their faces as they went by and for them to see her. It was just how the script spoke to me. Somebody said something to me about, “But Debbie, you weren’t in the scene.” I said, “Yes I was; every frame was me.”

As powerful as the image can be visually, what did it feel like on set?

It was kind of like what I always hope for [but] don’t always get, which is to stay in the scene. Just because I say, ‘Cut,’ don’t go on your cell phone, don’t go chitchatting about your date or your food or something. Stay in character, stay in the scene. The best actors are like this. Everybody stayed in it, and it was quiet, and we took care of people that needed to be taken care of. This wonderful lovely woman, Khalilah [Joi], she’s just beautiful. I took care of her to make sure that she always felt protected and she could freely let go and play this role.

What were some of the things you wanted to do for her to make sure she felt free to perform yet also protected?

You make sure that it’s quiet, that nobody is yack-yack-yacking in the corner. And also when there’s any kind of nudity, you close the set down. When we did the whole scene where Jo is seeing her for the first time in the exam room — the bites on her body, we saw a lot of it before we even did the rape kit, so to be truthful you just have to be in the moment. And you can’t do it with distraction, so everyone was on their most professional game ever during this episode.

Not everyone in that scene was series regular, let alone a professional actor at all. When you have rotating background players or crew members stepping into such sensitive and heightened moments, what do you feel you need to do to make everyone knowledgeable about what you’re doing but also comfortable with the more sensitive material?

You have to just explain, you always explain what the scene is about to the background artist, whoever they are. The last thing I like to see is extras walking around like a freeway. And they have to be engaged in what’s happening [such as] if this seven foot tall woman is just walking through the lobby, somebody’s going to notice her. Or if a man comes in with a gun screaming, you can’t just be over here on your phone, you have to hear that. The background artists are so important because they can destroy a scene or really make you believe it’s really happening.

And after the fact, are there things you felt you needed to do for yourself, your cast or your crew to healthily shake this incredibly traumatic episode?

No, because everybody is a professional and they’re not like little kids, like if it was in my dance school I might have to bring in a psychiatrist. You need to understand how to let that go. But these are adults, and they are professionals.

How do you feel this episode changed the perception or tone of the show?

“Grey’s Anatomy” Season 15, people kind of feel like they know what it’s about, and maybe they pulled back from watching it, but [this] reminded the world how powerful the show is and how it is like brand new week to week. And that there’s room for more stories that are relevant to women, families, men. Last year, Catherine, my character, had to take on the whole #MeToo of it all because Harper Avery had abused a lot of women, and I had to be the one to face that. That was last season right in the middle of everything that’s been going on in the world. But we’ve done so many things that are so relevant.

How do you approach jumping back into Catherine’s arc, which can also be very emotional at times, even though you’re not acting every day?

It’s not hard if you are really a pretty good actor, [and] I think I’m pretty good. I think the feedback is pretty good so far. And it’s well written. When it’s so well written it’s not so hard to learn, even though it’s complex and has a lot of medical jargon in it. I multitask [because] I’m always doing three shows at the same time: whatever we just did, the one we’re doing and the one we’re getting ready to do. And then hiring all the directors and choosing interesting and capable people that need opportunity, it’s a lot.

And how do you approach what other jobs to take, even while you’re so busy with “Grey’s”?

Directing is very hard and producing is very hard; it takes your breathe, your soul, all your energy and your focus. If you’re really doing it well you have to be focused on it. I enjoy the singularity of being on this show, but I snuck away into “SWAT” because my niece Angela Allen is a writer on the show and they wanted me to play Shamar Moore’s mom and I like him. So I said, “OK I’ll come over there.” I can’t lock down anywhere; I really can’t. But I finally did “Grace and Frankie,” and right now I’m off doing a big musical with Dolly Parton for Netflix, choreographing and directing.

Those both seem like huge tonal shifts from “Grey’s.”

I’m on fumes right now, it but is good to have a little something else, I have to say.