The moment she referred to f -word-flinging Grey's Anatomy costar Isaiah Washington as "the other one in rehab" while accepting her SAG Award in 2007, gay people knew they had an ally in Chandra Wilson. Thrice Emmy-nominated for her role as tough-lovin' Dr. Miranda Bailey on ABC's hit hospital drama, Wilson will now razzle-dazzle audiences as (possibly lesbian) prison warden Mama Morton in Chicago from June 8 to July 5 at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre. Here the 39-year-old mother hen tells Advocate.com all that jazz about how she copes with onstage challenges and the many queer controversies of Grey's.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: Since the Chicago revival opened on Broadway in 1996, a number of great actresses have played Mama Morton, the same role in the film version for which Queen Latifah earned an Oscar nomination. Are you feeling any pressure to follow in those footsteps?
Chandra Wilson: The pressure comes from the role itself, but my nerves are from the rest of the cast: The principals and the ensemble are just on their A-game, so you can't come to Broadway doing your C-D performance. No one wants to be the weak link.
Particularly in the stage version, it's suggested that Mama might be a lesbian. Are you planning to play up her butch qualities?
That was one of the discussions that I had with the associate director. When someone new takes over a role, the company doesn't change anything from the script, but they do lay it all out there and let people take from it what they take from it. So sometimes, depending on who's playing Mama, it might sound crazy calling Mama butch. I decided that I'll give Mama her look, her walk, and her demeanor, and then I'll let the words fall where they fall.
Have you ever played a lesbian role?
I had a little, itty-bitty piece of a role as an inmate at the very top of the film Strangers With Candy.She probably was supposed to be a lesbian, but I don't think you saw her long enough to know.
On Grey's Anatomy, Dr. Bailey has difficulty balancing family with her career. How does your family feel about you using your hiatus to come to New York and perform eight shows a week?
Every hiatus that's something I have to search my gut and my finances for to figure out the right thing to do. Initially, I didn't like doing any work over my hiatus because that gave me time to make sure I was at the school events with my girls, get them through their standardized testing, and maybe have a minute to take a vacation. But last year's hiatus came after the writers' strike and a lot of months of not working, so it seemed like it was OK to go and do the Hallmark film Accidental Friendship, which only took about four weeks. This year I took off the whole month of May, and there are some things we as a family need to do in New York during June anyway. But it's a weighted decision that's never entered into lightly, and I'm never sitting back going, "Ooh, what can I get involved in during my hiatus?" I would be perfectly fine to just sit down and be with my family.
You rarely get to wear anything but scrubs on Grey's, so it must be exciting to jazz up your wardrobe a bit as Mama.
But the similarity is that here I am again with one costume. I'm a one-uniform kind of person; I like to establish the look of a character and just stick with that — like a cartoon.
A lot of people might not know that you were an accomplished stage actor in New York before Grey's. What's your most memorable theatrical experience?
Probably my first. I did The Good Times Are Killing Me back in 1991 at the Second Stage Theatre, and then we moved it down to the Minetta Lane. That was my big introduction to New York theater, and that year I won a Theater World Award [given for debut performances] — and I didn't even know what a Theater World Award was. All of a sudden, there was [award cofounder] John Willis, who became a permanent part of my life and sends me a birthday card every year. I got to know what that little club is about and how you really only have one opportunity to get in, so that's the one that always sticks with me.
You also appeared on Broadway in the critically acclaimed musical Caroline, or Change.
That was an amazing experience. I got a chance to do two of the workshops before we opened at the Public Theater, and then we moved it on up to the Eugene O'Neill on Broadway. All along the way I kept saying, "Sooner of later they're going to figure out that I'm not right for this role" or "that I can't sing" or "that I shouldn't be on the cast album" — all those insecure mind tricks you play. Each time I passed over one of those hurdles, it took away all of the excuses that I had for not being successful. So after that, I'm not afraid of anything anymore.
Your film debut was 1993's Philadelphia, one of the most celebrated gay-themed movies of all time. How was that experience?
I don't think I had a full script until we went to Philadelphia to do the table read, so that's when I first understood what the film we were going to make really was. Everyone was so gentle and careful with it, and everyone cared about it so much. It was amazing just to get the chance to watch [director] Jonathan Demme do his thing, to sit there with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington for a month and a half while we shot the courtroom scene, and to help Antonio Banderas learn English. [Laughs]
What do you recall about your 2002 guest spot as a police officer on Sex and the City?
That was the first episode of the fifth season and Sarah Jessica was pregnant, so the shooting schedule kept getting moved around because shooting depended on how good she was feeling. We shot my scene out on 20th Street and Broadway in the middle of the day, and I remember knowing that I was a part of a real favorite. And it was a fun part to play because they let me do whatever I wanted to do as far as my expressions were concerned.
Back to Grey's, how did it feel to help catapult the word "va-jay-jay" into mainstream speech with your line "Stop looking at my va-jay-jay!" during Bailey's childbirth scene?
It was just one of those amazing things. We got that script cold at the table read. I kind of looked ahead and saw that word, and I just thought, Well, there's nothing I can do but just drop it. So I read it, dropped it, and we all fell out laughing for a good five minutes. Who knew that it was going to turn into what it did?
When Brooke Smith was written out of Grey's in the beginning of season 5, many assumed that network execs were uncomfortable with the lesbian romance between her character and Sara Ramirez's Dr. Callie Torres. But near the season's end we saw Callie and her new love interest, Arizona, naked and eating pizza in bed. Do you think they'll push the gayness onGrey's even further in season 6?
Whoever made that decision about Brooke, I know they kept saying that it wasn't about the story line; it was all about finding the right chemistry, whatever that means. You have limitless possibilities with series television, and it's always changing, so there's really no telling what direction we could go in with Callie and Arizona.
Ever since the infamous Isaiah Washington altercation, there always seems to be some sort of controversy swirling behind the scenes of Grey's. How do you deal with the negative media attention and also manage to stay out of it?
We learned a long time ago to stop asking each other about things based on what we've read, because it's generally not what's really going on. We've learned to trust what we know: The truths that are right there at work within the cast and crew. So we do a lot of ignoring; otherwise, we'd go crazy trying to justify and dispute what's usually just inflamed stories. But everyone has his or her turn dealing with it, so I'm sure someone's going to dig up something on me sooner or later.
Finally, what are your thoughts on California's recent decision to uphold Prop. 8?
I find it so hard to believe that it passed because it's California, supposedly one of the most progressive states we have. It seems to go against everything California stands for, but I guess you can't get caught up thinking about big cities like Los Angeles and forget about the rest of the state. It's confusing to me on all levels, and for about five minutes it makes you want to be a politician so you can do something about it. I have quite a few gay couples and gay couples with children in my life. It's such an interesting issue for me because as a Christian you're told to believe certain things, but I can't get past my gut and my eyes, and I can't get past my gay friends that have more love than some heterosexual couples that I know.
Advocate.com, June 2009.