Grey’s Anatomy is one of those shows that many of us simply cannot get enough of. In 2019, ABC renewed the series for a mind-blowing 16th and 17th seasons (via TV Line). Even before this renewal, the show was already the network’s longest-running primetime scripted show. It’s easy to see why so many viewers are completely obsessed. With characters like McSteamy and McDreamy gracing our screens and unforgettable moments like Meredith’s “pick me, choose me, love me” speech (via Metro), it’s no surprise that the show has gained a truly dedicated following over the years.
Grey’s Anatomy has a pretty impressive list of alumni, including household names like Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, and Katherine Heigl. For many of the series’ stars, the TV show, which was created by Shonda Rhimes, marked their first big break. But where were these actors prior to their Grey’s Anatomy fame? Here is the lowdown on the biggest Grey’s Anatomy stars before all the celebrity.
Grey's Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo was almost too shy to go into acting
Ellen Pompeo is perhaps the most recognizable actor on Grey’s Anatomy. Pompeo has played Meredith Grey, the show’s title character who has been in plenty of the most heartbreaking moments of Grey’s Anatomy, since the very first episode. Since beginning the show, Pompeo has rocketed to fame. She’s received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the show, and she even created her own production company, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
However, Pompeo didn’t always think she’d have a career in acting. She first became interested in the industry as a child, when she was taken to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. She recalled the experience to Allure, saying, “Afterward, I stood up and said, ‘That’s what I want to be. They’re alive. That’s what I want to do.'” Despite loving the showbiz industry from a young age, her shyness almost got the better of her. She said, “I was very sad and introverted as a child, and I would never, ever have had the confidence or the extroverted nature to be in a school play.”
Nevertheless, Pompeo followed her dreams. She landed a few major film roles before eventually snagging her career-defining role as Meredith Grey in Grey’s Anatomy. The rest, of course, is history.
Grey's Anatomy's Sandra Oh defied her parents to go to acting school
Sandra Oh played Meredith Grey’s best friend Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy for several seasons. Oh’s character won the hearts of millions of fans thanks to her sass, wit, and passionate spirit. For Oh, getting cast in Grey’s Anatomy in 2005 was the real beginning of her fame, even though she had taken on some meaty roles in the past, as seen on her IMDb page.
But Oh almost didn’t get to have her fabulous acting career. During an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she confessed that she had to defy her parents to go to acting school, as they were hesitant about Oh pursuing a career in entertainment. “My parents at that time really looked down on the arts,” she explained. For her parents, acting was apparently “one step above prostitution.”
Luckily, Oh’s parents seem to have come around to their daughter’s career choice. In 2018, Oh brought her parents to the Emmys where her mom gushed that she was “so proud of her,” as shared by Variety. How adorable!
Grey's Anatomy actress Katherine Heigl rose to fame while she and her family were grieving
Katherine Heigl played Dr. Izzie Stephens, who had a rollercoaster love life on Grey’s Anatomy. The actress left the show during the its sixth season, as noted by Entertainment Tonight. But what was life like for Heigl before she found fame as Izzie?
Well, it turns out, Heigl’s career kicked off at a fairly young age. According to ET Canada, the star signed with a model agency at the age of 10, after her aunt sent in some photos. Soon enough, she was chosen to pose for a Sears catalogue and she started acting. However, the Heigl family was dealing with some awful events around that time. As explained in Good Housekeeping, Heigl’s brother Jason was killed in a car accident when she was just 8 years old, and so it was a difficult time for Heigl. “My parents became shells of themselves,” she said. “My 12-year-old sister and I were just sort of wading through everyone else’s grief.” Apparently, when Heigl’s career began to take off, her mother had a reason to get out of the house, distracting her from her heartbreak.
Grey's Anatomy's Justin Chambers grew up in Ohio wanting to be a dentist
Fans of Grey’s Anatomy will know Justin Chambers as one the show’s original cast members. Dr. Alex Karev, Chambers’ well-loved character, eventually had his last episode on the show after 15 years, according to Deadline. Despite becoming a household name thanks to Grey’s Anatomy, Chambers maintained a quiet, family-centric lifestyle throughout his stint on the show, as noted by Good Housekeeping.
So, who was Chambers before he shot to fame? In 2014, the star spoke to Us Weekly and offered up some details about his past. Chambers spent his childhood in Ohio with “cool parents” who were “deputy sheriffs.” But despite his parents’ careers, Chambers, who is one of many stars you had no idea have a twin, apparently wanted to be a dentist throughout his childhood. No wonder the actor spent so long on Grey’s Anatomy — if he wasn’t a real-life medical professional, at least he could pretend to be one!
Before Grey's Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey thought about joining the circus
Patrick Dempsey took on the iconic role of Derek Shepherd (aka McDreamy) in Grey’s Anatomy, and, years later in 2015, he decided to part ways with the show in order to focus on his marriage and other career opportunities, as noted by People. Dempsey’s character was much-loved by fans, largely because of his amazing relationship with Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey.
Prior to becoming the heartthrob of Grey’s Anatomy, Dempsey took part in a few films, but before that? Well, while Dempsey had previously pursued a career in the performing arts, he wasn’t always working in Hollywood. Instead, the star was once set to become a circus performer! According to an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dempsey “made a living” as a juggler when he was a teen. “I did birthday parties on weekends,” he explained. “So I started off in old school vaudeville actually.” He even thought about joining the Ringling Brothers clown school, though he was “denied entry into the program,” according to EW.
Before starring on Grey's Anatomy, James Pickens Jr. got his start in theater in the '80s
James Pickens Jr. has portrayed Dr. Richard Webber, a mentor and well-respected member of the medical team, since Grey’s Anatomy’s first episode. Before joining the series, Pickens appeared in a few well-known TV shows and films. Notably, he portrayed the character of Alvin Kersh in the much-loved series The X-Files, and he made appearances in ’90s classics like Seinfeld and Beverly Hills, 90210, according to IMDb.
Pickens’ foray into acting began with stage roles. After he graduated from Bowling Green State University with a fine arts degree in 1976, Pickens acted at Cleveland’s Karamu House, America’s oldest African-American theater. He then moved to New York, where he made an appearance in a production of A Soldier’s Play alongside megastars Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. He also starred in the Roundabout Theater’s production of A Raisin in the Sun. It was only in the ’90s that Pickens made the move to Hollywood and his TV career took off.
Jesse Williams was a high school teacher before starring in Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy fans will recognize Jesse Williams as Dr. Jackson Avery, the plastic surgeon who joined the hospital staff in Season 6. Despite his memorable performance on the show, Williams wasn’t always keen on acting as a career. In fact, before acting, he was a high school teacher.
In 2015, Williams told Essence how he went into teaching history after experiencing the two different sides of America’s education system. “I grew up in Chicago in an under-served community, over-crowded classrooms that sometimes had two grades in a classroom,” he shared. “Then I moved to a suburban area and had a healthy public school experience. I found this incredible chasm between two of the many Americas we have.”
He went on to explain how his love of history brought him to the world of acting in New York where he “got lucky a few times on some small roles, some cool films and a little show called Grey’s Anatomy.”
Chandra Wilson made the rounds on Broadway before finding fame on Grey's Anatomy
Chandra Wilson has been with Grey’s Anatomy since the beginning as Dr. Miranda Bailey. Not only has Wilson played a leading role on screen, but she’s also jumped behind the camera to direct over 20 episodes of the series, according to IMDb. Some fans will also remember Wilson’s killer voice in the Season 3 Grey’s episode “Staring at the Sun” (via TV Fanatic). As it turns out, Wilson’s vocal chops won her some amazing roles on Broadway before she hit our screens in Grey’s Anatomy.
Wilson got her BFA at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, before appearing in some of Broadway’s best-known musicals, according to Broadway World. In 1996, Wilson took over the lead role of Matron “Mama” Morton in the Broadway revival of Chicago. She also appeared in On the Town in 1998, Avenue Q in 2003, and Caroline, or Change in 2004. No wonder Dr. Bailey was such a great singer!
Grey's Anatomy's Kevin McKidd grew up in Scotland without much luxury
Kevin McKidd portrayed Owen Hunt on Grey’s Anatomy starting in Season 5, and he quickly became one of the show’s most hated characters of all time. However, before his days on Grey’s, he had a pretty vibrant career, playing some iconic roles throughout the ’90s like Tommy in the cult-classic Trainspotting.
What many Grey’s Anatomy fans fail to realize is that McKidd is actually a fully-fledged Scotsman! He even changes his accent for the show. It turns out, he had a pretty unglamorous Scottish upbringing before his film career took off. McKidd explained to The Scotsman, “My mum and dad were the best parents a kid could have but they lived pay packet to pay packet.” It turns out, there were times when the McKidd family could barely afford dinner. He explained, “I remember many times we’d go through the sofa looking for change to get a chippy for tea.” It’s pretty clear that McKidd has come a long way since those difficult times in Scotland!
Grey's Anatomy star Sarah Drew starred in Romeo and Juliet while still in college
Sarah Drew found fame when she joined the Grey’s Anatomy cast in Season 6 as Dr. April Kepner, the eventual wife of Jackson Avery (via Express). Even though she left the show at the end of Season 14, she made a major impact on the Grey’s Anatomy universe. But what was she like before joining the show?
The actress went to the University of Virginia, where she studied drama and appeared in at least one college production, as noted by UVA Today. In the summer before her final year, Drew was picked out by a casting director at an acting class and invited to audition for a production of Romeo and Juliet in Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Apparently, she was reluctant to audition as the role would conflict with her final semester, but Drew snagged the role in 2001. And pretty soon, she had a few more impressive credits under her belt, including roles in Everwood and Mad Men.
Jessica Capshaw auditioned for two parts on Grey's Anatomy before landing a role
Grey’s Anatomy fan-favorite Dr. Arizona Robbins was portrayed by Jessica Capshaw until the character was written out of the show at the end of Season 14 (via Deadline). Capshaw’s character made history as “one of the first members of the LGBTQ community to be represented in a series regular role on network television,” as noted by Capshaw on Twitter.
Despite being a popular actor on the show, Capshaw certainly had to wait her turn before her first appearance. She revealed to TV Guide that she auditioned for two other roles on the show before getting cast! Her first audition was for Nurse Rose, but the role went to Lauren Stamile. Next, she auditioned to play Sadie, but this part went to Melissa George. Just three months after that audition, the Grey’s team offered her a three-episode arch as Arizona Robbins. Of course, Capshaw stayed on for much longer than three episodes, eventually gracing our screens for ten whole seasons.
Eric Dane played a series of bit parts before Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy fans know Eric Dane as the mega hunk Dr. Mark Sloan, who was quickly dubbed McSteamy thanks to his infamous body-bearing scene, as noted by Entertainment Weekly. Despite only being on the show until 2012, Dane remains one of the most popular and memorable characters.
But what was life like for McSteamy before Grey’s Anatomy? Well, it seems that he only really had the chance to play bit characters before. After getting into acting in high school, according to EW, Dane took on a few projects and got a recurring role in Charmed as Jason Dean. His character wasn’t in every episode, but Dane was becoming a little better known by TV fans. Finally, he won the role of Dr. Mark Sloan, which would change his career. Apparently, the gig started as a guest role. Luckily, the writers must have seen his potential, and the then-future Euphoria star quickly became central to the story.
Grey's Anatomy star Camilla Luddington grew up completely determined to become an actor
Actress Camilla Luddington was a huge fan of the show when she was cast as Dr. Jo Wilson, who eventually became Dr. Alex Karev’s wife, in Season 9. Bella Magazine spoke to the British star to find out about her life before to finding fame on Grey’s Anatomy. Luddington confessed that she had always dreamed of becoming a star. She was only 4 years old when she won her first talent show, and, at the young age of 11, she secured her first agent.
Eventually, Luddington attended the New York Film Academy. Her first big role was in the Lifetime movie William & Kate, in which Luddington starred as the Duchess of Cambridge herself. Luddington went on to act in True Blood and Californication before joining Grey’s Anatomy. While pursuing her dreams wasn’t always easy, Luddington certainly persevered. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else; it’s been tough, but worth it,” she told Bella. And with a role like Jo Wilson under her belt, she certainly did a good job of making her dreams come true!
Before Grey's Anatomy, Jason George planned to become a lawyer
In the 12th season of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Ben Warren, played by Jason George, was promoted to series regular. George’s character soon became central to the Grey’s Anatomy world, as the husband of Dr. Miranda Bailey and as a character in Station 19, the show’s spinoff (via Variety). However, George wasn’t always planning on an acting career.
According to UVA Today, George came very close to becoming a lawyer. He was studying rhetoric and communications at the University of Virginia when he fatefully decided to take an acting class in his second semester. George explained how this transformed his plans, saying, “I took more and more acting classes, found myself doing plays and I was all theater and all resident staff — I was co-chair of resident staff my fourth year — and that was it.” Even though he’d started college with the goal of becoming a lawyer, by the time he’d graduated, he had realized that acting “was going to be [his] profession.”
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