James Pickens Jr. stars as the chief of surgery, Dr. Richard Webber, on the medical juggernaut Grey’s Anatomy. Without the Chief acting as the hub of the hospital, Seattle Grace would not run as smoothly as it does. Pickens brings over two decades of experience in acting—on stage, in film and on television—to his multi-layered performances on Grey’s Anatomy, and BuddyTV was lucky enough to have him on the phone today. He spoke about the use of pig intestines when filming his scenes in the OR, what he thinks of Gizzie and how he likes to cowboy it up to unwind when not on the set of Grey’s Anatomy. Below, you will find an audiofile and a complete transcript of the interview.
Hey everybody this is Debbie at BuddyTV, and I’m talking to James Pickens Jr., who stars as Dr. Richard Webber on Grey’s Anatomy. Hi James, thank you for talking to us today.
My pleasure, thank you for having me.
My first question is about the WGA strike. Production has stopped on the set, and how many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy are there going to be left?
Well, we shot 11, and I think they bought 22 or 23, so do the math and I guess that’s 11 or 12 left to shoot.
For viewers at home, how many will we get to see on TV?
I think there may be two or three original, unaired episodes left to air, and after that they’ll most likely go into reruns, I would imagine.
Do you have any idea what might happen with this?
At this point I don’t think anybody knows. They went back to the bargaining table last Monday, a week ago today as a matter of fact, and they talked up until I believe it was Thursday. The producers came back with a proposal that was rejected by the writers, but that’s usually kind of par for the course when you’re talking negotiations. They suspended talks until tomorrow and then they’ll go back to the table, so I guess the positive note on this is just the fact that they are talking. A proposal has been presented, it wasn’t what the writers wanted, and that’s okay, so they can go back and forth now. We’ll see what happens, but they are talking so that’s a good sign at this point.
Let’s talk about your character now, Richard Webber. You get to show a lot of depth in your portrayal because you’re kind of the father figure of the other doctors, but lately you’re also starting to loosen up.
I’m so grateful to Shonda Rhimes, who is our creator and obviously head writer, and the rest of the writers as well. I think they’ve done a great job in terms of fleshing out this character. My character and characters like him are usually shown in just one light, that of an authoritative figure who pretty much doles out orders and you do them or else you suffer the consequences. But I think last season they really started to flesh this character out with his own problems, obviously his deteriorating marriage, his thoughts of retiring and trying to fix that. We got a chance to see the human side of him, the side that you don’t see. Obviously now he’s moved on to very separate land and is living out in a dinky trailer now. He’s kind of reinventing his life at this point. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s something he hasn’t had to deal with for a long time because he was in a marriage for quite a few years where mostly everything was done for him. Because he put the job first, he has had to pay the price for neglecting his life in a lot of ways. Now we see him back out into the deep water here, trying to navigate, tread water, and swim, or whatever he’s trying to do. It’s just really interesting to watch him try and make some sense of his life right now.
It’s definitely interesting. You have had some scenes in which you go out into the wild with the other guys. Do you prefer those kinds of scenes to the ones that are shot in the hospital?
Yeah, it’s good to get out of the hospital from time to time, just because it’s good to get out of there and see something else. Then it’s also the aspect of seeing him, especially with Derek and McSteamy’s character, Mark Sloan’s character, these two single men trying to guide him along his way in this scary prospect of having to go out and date again. The three of them together is kind of this comedy of errors, because they’re all pretty much in the same boat in terms of kind of floundering emotionally and looking for something to hold on to that’s concrete and that makes sense to them. It’s a scary proposition for all three of them, so it also makes for really humorous anecdotes and scenarios between them. I’m glad they’re doing some of that, and it shows the chief in a lighter light too, which is always fun.
Yeah, for sure. Do you have a favorite episode that you’ve made so far?
I would imagine probably the cold black episode, the two-parter, the bomb episode is probably one of my favorites. It had everything, and I thought it was some really good television.
Yeah, that was one of my favorites too.
Well, I guess this one coming up is really good too. The two-parter. The first part was aired the Thursday before last, and we interrupted it with a repeat last Thursday, now the second part of that is going to be aired this coming Thursday. I think that’s going to be a very good one.
Oh good, I’m looking forward to that. You have to spout a lot of really complex medical jargon. Is that difficult for you, or is it second nature by now?
It’s a language that’s kind of foreign to you. We have a really wonderful technical advisor slash producer Linda Klein who really helps us a lot. She has twenty years of experience as a surgical nurse that she brings to the show, and she verses us on what a doctor should look like, how he should hold his hands, how he should conduct himself, his demeanor, and also she helps us with the language. At the beginning of each new episode she’ll copy down all of the medicalese that we have to say on the show, and she’ll break it down phonetically and give us the meaning. It really helps in terms of trying to sound as much like a real doctor as we can. But you know, even going into the fourth season it still takes some getting used to, to make it sound as though it comes out of your mouth naturally.
What about filming the scenes in the OR? I have a hard time watching them sometimes, but what sorts of things do you have to do to capture that realism?
You know, like anything else as an actor you try to prepare the best you can. The special effects, they do a great job making it look as realistic as possible. It’s a lot of pig intestines and spare parts, and they use some prosthetic stuff. When you see it on the television screen it looks very real, and we act accordingly, but it’s a lot of tricks making you think it’s real when it’s not. You get used to it. You look at it, and you’re so busy concentrating on getting the look right that you don’t pay much attention until they say cut, then you look at it and think oh boy, this is kind of gross.
Switching gears here, do you have an opinion on any of the romantic pairings on the show? For example, George and Izzie, or Gizzie as some of the fans like to call them.
No, the writers have this idea of how they want to do these hookups, but I think all of them are crazy. I bet it lends some good drama and humor, and they’re sexy and provocative, but I don’t have a real favorite. There’s the storyline with Izzie, Callie, and TR, I’d like to see that one fleshed out. Who’s he going to pick, one or the other. Derek and Meredith, back and forth, I think they’re going to try and flesh that out more and have them make some kind of decision one way or the other. I understand that it keeps the storyline going if they’re back and forth with one another as opposed to solidifying some kind of decision, so I let them kind of handle that. Then I’ll watch it and kind of sit back and go oh, okay.
You get to interact with most of the cast, playing the chief. Is there anyone you most particularly like to work with?
I like to work with every one of them. They’re all really professional and I regard their talent very highly. I enjoy the scenes that I have with Chandra Wilson’s character, Bailey. We really have a nice rapport together. I enjoy the stuff that Patrick Dempsey and I have a lot. I would imagine most of my interaction is with Bailey and the residents, Dempsey and Mark Sloan, Eric Dane’s character. I’ll probably have a lot of interaction with the new cardiothoracic surgeon [Erica Hahn, played by Brooke Smith]. That’ll be fun since she’s a wonderful actress.
And finally, I’ve read that you have some unusual hobbies like cattle roping. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It’s a hobby I get into almost 15 years ago or so. I just always enjoyed the west and I loved horses, they were always my favorite animal. I got a chance to get involved with some cowboys out here when I moved to California about 17 years ago, and as a matter of fact right before this interview that’s where I was coming from. We roped a little this morning. The guys are getting ready to go to Las Vegas for a big roping, so we practiced a little bit. It’s a great hobby and it’s a great escape from Hollywood. It’s a nice therapy, and I can kind of decompress out there. The countryside where I keep my horse is really beautiful, peaceful, and it’s outdoors. The guys that I meet cowboying around are really great guys, and it’s pretty much what you see is what you get with them. There’s no pretense or anything, which I like. There’s not too concerned with me being a TV star or anything, they just treat you as one of the guys and I like that as well. It’s a lot of fun.
That’s so cool. So do you consider yourself a cowboy as well?
I think of myself as somebody who loves the cowboy way of life. Being a cowboy is a whole other deal. I have all the respect in the world for those guys. I’m not a cowboy, I’m somebody who enjoys the cowboy lifestyle, and I have a horse, like to ride, rope, and stuff like that. But no, I’m still trying to figure out this acting deal. Let me try and get that together first before I think about anything else.
Well you do a good job on Grey’s Anatomy and I always enjoy watching you. Thanks so much for your time, James.
Thank you very much Debbie, I appreciate that.
-Interview conducted by Debbie Chang