A Hollywood Game Changer

by Rory Evans
Photograph: Illustration: Kagan McLeod

I hear you write the season finales of your shows first, then work backward to create the episodes’ arc. Has that been your approach toward life as well?
Definitely. My mother always said that she would get calls from me in college, and when most kids would call needing money or wanting to talk about a boyfriend, I wanted to talk about my plan. On a weekly basis. I’ve loosened up in my life, but I have to say that my OCD about organizing really helps with the shows.

What intrigues you about medicine?
The idea that the body is a machine that you can open up and rearrange and put back together is a magical thing to me. What makes an hour of televised medical drama so good are the stakes: It’s life and death, and emotionally transformative for the patients and the doctor, and there is also a moment where you just laugh at the absurdity of life.

Your shows are known for being racially diverse. What’s your casting process?
I really don’t imagine that people are a race before we cast. Ninety-nine percent of the time, even with the guest casts, it’s not about “These people are Asian.” It’s just, “Bring in some actors, and let’s see who’s good.” Linda Lowy is my casting director, and she pushed agents around town to bring in people of color. We are looking for chemistry. Or someone would come into the room, and we would fall in love with them, like, “OK, they’re that character.” That’s what happened when Sandra Oh read for Cristina [on Grey’s].

You’ve said that the networks have a responsibility to show a diverse world. Do you think they’re doing their job?
I don’t know if the other networks are, but ABC tries: I get the memos, and I know that they are really making an effort. I just think the world on TV should look like the world we live in. I remember watching The Cosby Show and being transfixed not just because it was a funny show but because, oh my God, finally there was a family on TV that looked like me—a typical American family that also happened to be black.

Did you ever feel that doors were closed to you as an African-American woman?
I’ve never felt like that. Part of that is because I wasn’t expecting anyone to treat me differently, so no one did. I think people treat you how you tell them to treat you.

What prompted you to adopt?
I had always been such a careful planner, and after September 11 I was like, “What am I waiting for? If the world is going to end tomorrow, what is the thing of all the things I’ve ever wanted?” Being a mom was one of those things. And my daughter was born nine months and two days after September 11. That was the day the plan changed.

Has being a working mother gotten easier as Harper has gotten older?
It’s never going to get easy. Your kid is always going to look at you and say, “I wish you didn’t have to go to work today, Mommy.” That will always kill you.

Does it kill you more as a single parent?
I don’t know, because I’ve never been­ a married parent! But I do feel it ­keenly—my kid and I are a little tribe of two, and it’s painful for me to feel like she’s not getting all of my attention. But all of my friends feel this way with their kids. I think I’m luckier than most, because I live 15 minutes from work, and when I travel I can bring her, and when I go to work I don’t leave her with a caregiver—I leave her with my older sister, Delorse.

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