For six seasons Kelly McCreary has been the genius surgeon of Grey's Anatomy. But it has come at a cost. Donal O’Donoghue meets her.
"Maggie has both hit a patient and been hit by a patient," says Kelly McCreary of her character Maggie Pierce’s working life at Seattle’s most famous hospital, Grey Sloan Memorial.
"That scene where she got hit by a patient! OMIGIOD! She didn’t get punched because she did something wrong but it was the humiliation that was a new experience for her. Then there was the story where Maggie’s mother died and she was not able to save her despite all her medical knowledge. She saw that as the first major failure in her career, and it cost her mother."
Kelly McCreary plays Dr. Maggie Pierce in Grey’s Anatomy, the US medical drama that seems to have been with us forever (the Shonda Rhimes show recently wrapped its 16th season). "She’s a genius," says the actress of her character, the gifted physician who is rarely wrong until she is.
"Maggie is only learning as an adult what it is like to be like everyone else. She has always been different. And she has always believed herself to be right. But one humbling experience after another has taught her how to be part of a family and be in relationships."
I met McCreary last June at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. It was shortly after the actress tied the knot with director Pete Chatmon, who she met on the set of Grey’s. "I’m really enjoying married life, all six weeks of it," she quipped.
Unsurprisingly, the subsequent conversation was of relationships, real and fictional. "That storm was a great metaphor for their relationship, wasn’t it?" she says of the epic windstorm that hit Seattle in season 15, just as Maggie and Jackson Avery were getting serious. "They went somewhere really intense and now they don’t really know where they are at with each other emotionally. I don’t either and I’m very curious as to what happens next."
McCreary joined the cast in 2014 as Maggie, Meredith Grey’s half-sister. Since that debut, Dr. Maggie Pierce has matured from nerdy medical wunderkind into someone who realises that life is much more than black and white. In a recent interview, McCreary hoped that the character is a positive reinforcement that "[black women] belong in any space that we want to be in."
But it’s also pure TV entertainment which brings the inevitable feedback from the audience. "That’s just the nature of being a passionately engaged fan," says McCreary of those who weren’t impressed with the Maggie-Jackson liaison. "We are going to please you but we are also going to let you down."
Does she sometimes wish that Maggie would act differently? McCreary shakes her head. "She can only be Maggie in the way that we can only be ourselves," she says. "I believe that what is awesome about Maggie is that she does change her behaviour, she does learn from things. She has gone from being headstrong and bullish to being a lot more vulnerable."
To help her get into character, McCreary listens to music. "I listen to music that I believe is Maggie’s music," she says. "And when you play Maggie every day for nine months you never really leave her."
But McCreary has a full life beyond the set. For the US midterm elections in 2018, she campaigned to encourage citizens to get out and vote (in recent weeks her social media has lit up with Black Lives Matter). "We have very low voter turn-out in America relative to many other countries," she says
"It’s not mandatory and we don’t get a holiday on election day so there are a lots of ways that it is made difficult for people to vote. As a result, we don’t have a political body in the US that reflects the electorate. That does a disservice to democracy itself so with whatever influence or platform I have, I try to make my voice heard."
The one-time stage actor – McCreary made her Broadway debut in 2008 – is now a major voice on Grey’s Anatomy. Although the current season was cut short due to the pandemic, it still ends on a typical cliff-hanger. Throughout, Maggie Pierce’s story was prominent including that break-up with Jackson, the controversial loss of a patient and the failing health of her biological father.
"It takes a month after the season ends to really shake off all Maggie’s mannerisms, quirks and awkwardness," she says. But, as McCreary put it recently, she loves it. "I’m smacked with this idea that for some people I will be Maggie Pierce forever."