In the past few seasons, there has often seemed to be just as much drama off-screen than on at ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." Gay slurs between cast mates, surprising (and not so surprising) dismissals and departures and now, as season six begins, star Ellen Pompeo (Meredith) is starting her maternity leave and Katherine Heigl (Izzie) is taking time off to shoot a movie. To get to the bottom of the real state of things over at the "Grey's" set, Jim Halterman talked to executive producer Krista Vernoff, who gave us the lowdown on how cast absences will be a good thing for some on the show, the gold they found last year with some new additions as well as what the true state of things are with the controversial and outspoken Heigl.
Jim Halterman: With the many changes on "Grey's Anatomy" this year, how do you go about ensuring that the fans weather the changes?
Krista Vernoff: It's a tough thing. What we're up against is the actors who we love and who have been with us for a long time have big life stuff happening so what we're trying to do is write proactively and create stories for our series regulars who have been under-illuminated in the past. We brought in some new faces because you can't always just play your same characters off your same characters. That becomes a little tired and you run out of things to play but when you shake things up and you throw new faces into the mix, rather than people waiting for our series regulars what it does is give them more, new colors to play and new dynamics to work with. How am I going to bring the fans along? I'm just going to keep begging them on Twitter! [Laughs.] I hope they take this ride. I have to say that I have been incredibly excited by and proud of the work we're doing so far this season and I know it's a little different for our show and we've definitely been forced because of the realities of the schedules of our actors and things like that to shake it up. Let's shake up our thinking, shake up our conversations in the writers' room, shake up our structure and it's been exciting for us and I actually think that if fans keep an open mind they're going to have a great time.
JH: Going into the sixth season, do you think the timing was right anyway to shake things up?
KV: I think it's coming at a great time. I really do. I think season six is oftentimes when shows have to reinvent themselves, you're looking at the end of actors' contracts and we're getting angry, angry, angry emails and Twitters and things from fans yelling at us. "Don't do this with these characters!" or "I better see more Meredith this season!" Dude, she's having a baby! If you're actually a fan of hers in any way, you might want to let up on her schedule a little bit because she's going to be pushing this littler person out of her body! I'm always thrilled by the passion of the fans and a little entertained by how mad they want to be at us for accommodating actors' schedules.
JH: The season premiere is very heavy and rightly so with all the stories that came to a head at the end of last season but is it safe to guess that things will get a little lighter?
KV: I can tell you that even hour two of the season premiere is markedly lighter than hour one. We spend the first hour really having to deal with grief and the second hour, while it carries through some of the same stories, is markedly lighter and more to form for "Grey's Anatomy." And, yes, definitely you're not going to see an hour of "Grey's" that's as dark as the first hour of the season premiere but we felt a responsibility to play the truth of that.
JH: Despite everything that may have not been as positive with cast shakeups last year, you did seem to hit the casting jackpot with both Kevin McKidd (Owen) and Jessica Capshaw (Arizona).
KV: Thank you! I do, too. I think they're phenomenal. With some of our actors who we usually use in a heavier way needing a lighter schedule this season it gave us room and permission to illuminate Arizona and Owen in a way that they probably would not have gotten this season. With catastrophe or difficulty comes opportunity and we're grabbing the opportunity with those actors [as well as] Eric Dane (Sloane) and Patrick Dempsey (Derek), who may have been underused. They are getting a lot more screen time and I think the fans have been asking for that and I think if they can, again, suspend judgment and come for the ride I think they're going to have a really great time with the show this season.
JH: What can you tell me how you're handling Ellen Pompeo's departure and how specifically that will affect Patrick Dempsey's character.
KV: What it's going to do for Derek is allow us to play stories about Derek that are not necessarily related to Meredith, which is not a thing that we've done a lot of in the past. We now get to explore Derek as a doctor and a potential administrator and a man with ambition. In Meredith, we came up with a creative and emotional and interesting way... and funny... way to give her a little less screen time.
JH: The Sloan/Lexie story is also something that really seemed to click last year. What's in store for them this season?
KV: I love to watch that relationship and I think that that relationship is ripe with obstacle. What I love with those characters � and the actors (Chyler Leigh plays Lexie) � is that they constantly surprise me because they are both comedy gold. They both also constantly surprise me with their ability to illuminate emotional truth and they have, as actors, really deepened the material that we have given them. I love that there is an age difference between them and that's not something we have played before on our show and that gives us a really real thing that people deal with. "OK, I love this person but can I make a life work with them because we're at different places in our lives?" But I think Lexie brings out colors we haven't seen in Mark and vice versa. They're going to be up against struggles, for sure, but I think it's going to be really fun to see how they face them.
JH: Any big event episodes coming up a la the ferry boat episode?
KV: We don't have that in the pipeline at the moment but it doesn't mean that we won't but we don't right now. We're really focusing on character, humor and heart and this incredibly talented cast that we currently have.
JH: Let me ask about Katherine Heigl. There is so much speculation out there about what she's said about the show and how the show feels about her. Can you give me the straight scoop on her place on the show?
KV: I think that Katherine gets sort of a bad rap. I have to say I think if Katherine was a man and saying the same things that Katherine says I don't think she'd get the rap she gets. My answer is I find Katherine to be collaborative and smart and a really important part of the show.
"Grey's Anatomy" kicks off season six tonight on ABC at 9:00/8:00c.