Before Grey's Anatomy premiered its 14th season last week, fans were promised a return to form. Krista Vernoff—a writer and producer on the show since its first season and showrunner of seasons four to seven, who left the team in 2011—is back again to serve as showrunner this year. And she's bringing with her a throwback to the lighthearted, banter-filled tone of the series' early days, when oddball cases and on-call room nookies balanced the show's notoriously tearjerking drama.
For Jessica Capshaw, that means falling in love with her (already much-loved) character all over again.
When Dr. Arizona Robbins first appeared in season five—before high-drama plotlines like the plane crash that took half of Seattle's doctors down with it—she was a free-spirited pediatric surgeon who rolled through the halls on her Heelys. She was a B-12 shot of chipper energy to a sometimes angsty ensemble, and her relationship with Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) became a cornerstone for fans, especially gay viewers itching for more LGBTQ visibility in primetime.
Shonda Rhimes has disavowed the term "diversity," saying instead that her mission is to "normalize" TV by populating her projects with character that reflect real life's array of different perspectives, experiences, shapes, colors, and lifestyles. Callie and Arizona fit neatly into that mission before Ramirez left the cast at the end of season 12.
Now Capshaw—who's every bit as effervescent as her character, talking at an excited clip and eager to pepper our conversation with exclamations of love for her cast and crew—is eager to go straight for the funny bone, especially when it comes to exploring Arizona's single life. Here she opens up to MarieClaire.com about recapturing the spark that first made the show a sensation, what it's like to say goodbye to old castmates (and hello again to returning ones), and what being in Shondaland for nine years has taught her.
How has the shift in Grey's Anatomy's tone changed things so far?
"You won't find a person on or near the show who isn’t well aware that this year, the show is really going back to the beginning. Well, I wasn’t even there at the beginning, so pretend like it’s the beginning plus me. The show started with this spark, people gathered around it and starting really loving all of its warmth. Then it became this fire and it just kinda has kept burning. Shonda and all the writers and producers have been smart enough to stoke the fire when needed—people have left and new people have come in, and they've always found equilibrium—so that it can burn for a long time. So here we are, a rip-roaring fire. Everyone can roast their marshmallows around us!
And now we're going back to that initial spark—the characters are 14 years older and there’s a different set of challenges, but it's got the same old kind of humor. I think this season is going to be really funny. At the beginning of the show, which I remember as a viewer, every once and a while there would be a storyline that was super absurd, and you just went with it, and you always ended up at some sort of emotional crossroad. You'll be seeing more of that."
When the character of Arizona was introduced, she was an upbeat new doctor—but her story arc took her to dark places. What does this season mean for her?
"For the past few years, there was sort of a dark, post-plane crash Arizona, and for good reason. There were funny bits in there, and the character that people had initially responded to was definitely in there too, but maybe not as radiant as she once was. Not that I'm calling myself radiant! But I think that Arizona is sunshine. She came in bright, and there was always something about her that was really fun to play, that resonated with people. This season, I think, is a return to that Arizona."
Last season was your first without Sara Ramirez, who was your most consistent scene partner. What was it like to suddenly be without your other half?
"In our jobs, you spend so much time with the people you’re working with that you do create a kind of family. And like a real family, you inherit each other. You're put together, then you work and play together, then over the years there is the developing of relationships, the deepening of relationships, some departures and estrangements. Sara and I had such an incredible group of fans who championed the relationship between Callie and Arizona, and that felt so, so good. We took it really seriously. We put our best foot forward in everything we did, in terms of representing a couple, of representing a relationship that we could really be proud of. It was really, really wonderful.
And then of course, Sara wanted to move on, and so we said goodbye. We had our moment, like, 'Oh my gosh, I wish you the best! Whatever you're going to do next is going to be amazing.' But the characters we played are going to get to live on in perpetuity somewhere in Shondaland. It’s so much fun to play with a relationship that lasts for a really long time, because you get to challenge yourself in different ways throughout. And then there’s something really fun about having to learn and grow and be surrounded by new actors and relationships who challenge you in new ways. So I guess the answer is that it's bittersweet.
Callie and Arizona coupled up pretty quickly, so we didn't get to see much of single Arizona until last season's flirtations with Dr. Minnick. But based on last week's premiere, it looks like we'll be seeing a lot more of Arizona in the dating scene. What happens when your other friends are together and you're single? How do you juggle dating with being a single, working mom?"
You've played a gay character on primetime television for nine years. How has that experience and the feedback from fans changed over time?
"There is no end to how incredibly moved I have been by the letters or direct messages or tweets or Instagram comments from people whose lives have been in some way, shape, or form affected by just the telling of a gay woman's story on primetime network television. I could never have known. I had no idea when I came to Grey's Anatomy that I was even going to be playing a gay character. I could never have anticipated how important it would be to me too, at a time in the world and in the country where telling this story actually means something to people. But the needle is being moved, constantly. I can tell you right now that the letters I was getting nine years ago are different from the letters that I'm getting today. Today they're much more emboldened. Especially the younger generation of viewers, who have a full understanding of who they are, and are choosing to embrace who they are without hesitation. I love that part."
The show has a diverse roster of men and women who write and direct it. How has that shaped the way you tell stories?
"I'm kind of out of my element here because I don't really know how the writers would want to be identified or how they would want their process to be described. But the way I feel as an actor on this show is that, very simply put, there's representation. That's good for every single character. It's never really just one person who writes a whole show, anyway. They have a group of writers so that someone can come in and help fortify a certain perspective or suggest little tweaks that make story a little more true, a little more resonant for viewers. It feels egalitarian, it feels just. There's a distinct sense that this is the way things should be, that you need representation in the beautiful land of storytelling."
Chandra Wilson, Kevin McKidd, and Debbie Allen have all directed several episodes of the show. Last season, Ellen Pompeo directed her first episode too. What's it like to be directed by your costars?
"You know, another actor is directing an episode towards the end of the season too. I won't even tell you who. I won't be a spoiler! But I asked them, 'What made you want to do it?' And they said, 'You know, it's just and incredible opportunity, to be supported in learning how to do this. There's no way that I would ever want to pass that up.' But the caveat is that you have to do the work. Every actor that has directed has spent copious, long hours shadowing. They come to set when they're working as an actor, but they also come to set when they're not working. They sit in the chair behind the director and they watch and they watch and they watch so that they know what they're doing. Me? I'm okay with not directing. I have four kids. Maybe when they get older."
Kim Raver, who plays fan favorite Dr. Teddy Altman, is back this season. What was it like to see her on set again?
"Oh my gosh, I love her so much. I was so happy she came back for even just a little bit. You know, everyone consistently says that once you're in Shondaland, you're in Shondaland. Because it's true. You're in the fold. You're in the mix. You're one of her people. So you never say never because unless your character actually genuinely dies, you can always come back. And even then you could be a ghost."
Ally McBeal's Greg Germann comes to Grey-Sloan Memorial this season, but his character has been kept under wraps. What can you tell us?
"I can tell you that he plays an incredibly experienced, incredibly arrogant, incredibly funny doctor who comes to the hospital to help out one of our doctors. If you had talked to me three days ago, I would have had nothing to say about him, because I've only ever seen him across from me at the table read. But I actually ran into him the other day—he was in the golf cart going up the set and I was walking down. He was on Ally McBeal back when I was on The Practice. I said, 'I was across the way from you on the lot when I was on The Practice.' And he goes, 'Oh, yes! I have a vague impression of you.' And I said, 'Well, I always aim to leave a vague impression!' And he was, of course, mortified. He started treading water and it was hysterical. He is very, very funny. He's exactly how you would imagine him from the Ally McBeal days."
You're about to hit the show's 300th episode. How do you plan to celebrate?
"Oh, I think we're going to eat a lot of cake, my friend."
Watch Grey's Anatomy Thursdays at 8/7 p.m. central on ABC.