[Note: This interview was conducted before the season finale]
For a show like Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 17th season, one would think keeping things fresh would be a challenge. Still, year after year, the writers — now under Krista Vernoff’s direction — have elevated the material while staying true to the core themes that keep fans tuning in week after week. Actor and director Kevin McKidd has been on screen as Iraq war vet and trauma surgeon Owen Hunt for 13 years. Throughout this season, Owen dealt with the pandemic and heartbreak after the big reveal that Teddy [Kim Raver] had been cheating on him with her ex Dr. Tom Koracick. He spent the majority of the season icing Teddy out while throwing himself into the storm of COVID.
Other shows might have shied away from the pandemic, but despite some mixed response, Grey’s dove in headfirst the way it always does when tackling difficult topics. “I’m really proud that we did grapple with COVID,” said McKidd. The show met the moment by covering the arc of a terrifying virus that ravaged hospitals while also having the show’s namesake Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) on the brink of death for most of the season’s run.
Fans watched as Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital grappled with the very early challenges the virus presented. We saw doctors out of their depth dealing with a host of unknowns, including trying to treat a virus with no treatment plan, hemorrhaging hospital beds, a shorting of PPE, and sharing ventilators between patients. The show tackled narratives outside of the hospital, with the insurmountable grief our nation was going through during the pandemic, and touched on Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Beyond COVID, McKidd highlights where Grey’s Anatomy gracefully landed during last night’s season finale. For those who haven’t watched, spoilers are ahead.
“I directed the finale, and I’m really proud of it. It’s this amazing episode of celebration. We’re coming to the end of COVID, thank the lord, so we grapple with that and getting into that vaccination world. It’s a really beautiful explosion of energy and joy, an expression of gratitude, and a celebration for life. It’s a very unusual finale because usually, we deal with disasters or cliffhangers. All of COVID has been the world’s biggest disaster, and we’re starting to come out of it.”
Actor-director Kevin McKidd sat down with Awards Radar to discuss tackling the most significant medical emergency of our lifetime, directing for Grey’s Anatomy, and so much more.
Niki Cruz: You’ve been on Grey’s for 13 years now. How does it feel to spend that amount of time with Owen?
Kevin McKidd: It’s pretty crazy. He’s evolved a lot, I think. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years! It’s flown by. Owen has had a very eventful time in the last 13 years, so I suppose I’m ready for Owen to have a little calmer existence, but I don’t know if that will happen. It feels like he and Teddy are finally moving into a healthier place which is a long time coming. Obviously, I want the best for that character. There’s a lot of me in the character, but he drives me nuts sometimes in the best kind of way. He doesn’t deal with things sometimes; he has trauma from the past, which means he doesn’t have the healthiest ways to react to certain things, but he’s human, and I love him for that. It’s been a very interesting ride playing this character.
NC: Owen is such a strong character. He wears his heart and flaws on his sleeve. How much input do you get to have with the writers at this point?
KM: I trust their instincts. I think actors generally want only good things for their characters to deal with, and sometimes the writers are going to push your character to places you wouldn’t imagine. I do weigh in as far as where Owen’s head is, but I do trust the writers because they know the character better than I do. I do give my input on certain storylines, but I also try and let them do their thing because I don’t want to overly influence the character’s destiny.
NC: I’ve been watching since the beginning, and I’m constantly surprised by the character development and how fresh the storylines still feel.
KM: I agree, and I’m proud of the season we just completed. It was a very challenging season with the whole COVID of it all. That’s what’s beautiful about our show — we can dance between being hard-hitting and the next episode being light and entertaining and funny and romantic. I think that’s one of the elements of the secret sauce that makes this show enduring and fresh, is that we can keep bouncing around tonally.
NC: For sure, and as far as covering COVID, I think the character Richard Webber summed it up when he said, “people are looking at us to guide them through it,” and it’s true in a sense. Grey’s tackled all the problems hospitals were running into, in addition to the grief, racism, the misinformation about COVID, the polarizing views around COVID— it all seems like a daunting task.
KM: Yeah and that’s why I don’t get in the writers’ way that much because they’re juggling so much with so many characters and they do such an amazing job. If you look at each episode, they’re only 42 minutes long so it’s not that much time to cram all that stuff in and do it week in and week out.
NC: I know you’ve been directing episodes of Grey’s for quite some time now. How has that added a new dimension to your work on the show?
KM: It’s added lots of different aspects. I think I’m much more accommodating as an actor to the actor’s wishes. At first, I was like, “No, I wouldn’t do that,” but now I realize these directors have a lot of voices in their ear, including producers and writers, and the process of getting to the point of getting to shoot with actors is such a long one creativity. The frustration with actors is that they feel like they’re late to the party in a sense. I used to be way more militant as an actor. When I did Rome, I had a more combative stance in the way I worked alongside directors, and I think now I’m much more nicer to work with because I understand the job of the director.
NC: It seems like such a challenge to direct during COVID, despite the crew having PPE. How was that experience?
KM: I had a mask on all the time, but a lot of the crew members had to wear visors all the time, and that’s pretty invasive and very unnatural…It wasn’t a hardship in the sense that I wasn’t working in a furnace room, but it was definitely added a second layer of a challenge. Everybody was more exhausted at the end of this season than we have been because we had all the pressures of social distancing, testing, and having that always in our minds with 200 people. We shot 18 episodes this season but most people felt like we shot our usual 24 because it was just emotionally exhausting after a while.
NC: Owen’s journey with PTSD has been such an interesting arc over the last 13 years. From admitting he has it to working on himself. What has that experience been like for you as an actor?
KM: It’s been very inspiring…he was a shell when he started on the show. He was a dark, broken man when we first started — he strangled Cristina for goodness sake so to see him transform into a father— listen, he’s made mistakes like we all do, but he’s become a functioning, productive member of society. To see him rebuild himself has made me really proud to tell his story.
NC: One of my highlights of the season is that scene you share with Caterina Scorsone. Amelia illuminated how different trauma is for different people while explaining Teddy’s trauma. Owen has dealt with his own fair share of trauma; how was it to be on the opposite end and playing to Kim Raver’s storyline this year?
KM: It’s funny, I directed that episode where Kim Raver has that odyssey in her mind. I love that scene with Amelia and Owen. We actually rewrote that scene between them. [Showrunner] Krista Vernoff said to us, “It needs to be stronger, it needs to be more definitive of Amelia being a soulmate friend to Owen, shaking him awake to say, “You love this woman, and not all of us deal with trauma in the same way.” I thought it was a great rewrite, and we shot it, and it’s a testament to how committed Krista and all the other writers are to getting it just right as opposed to saying, “Oh, it’ll do.” I think Amelia spoke to that moment in a beautiful way — it was a generous tough love, and you only go that extra mile with people you really love.
NC: I was struck by the editing of that episode where one moment bled into another, and different objects and people appeared and then disappeared in the same scene. How was it orchestrating that? Was it the trick of the hand with the camera?
KM: That was a complicated episode because it wasn’t like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy; it was like a whole new show. It was this kind of Alice in Wonderland weird thing. Every department stepped up — people that work in costumes, lighting, sets, we’ve all been doing this for a long time, and I said to everybody, “Listen, this is an opportunity for us to do something a little bit different and think of texture or a visual aesthetic that we don’t normally get to do on our show.” I think it really blended together in a powerful way.
The episode was like a Rubik’s cube, where I thought, how do we make sense of this bizarre episode where there’s surgery going on on the dining room table and there are these weird sequences of Teddy and Koracick in that dream hotel room where one minute she’s pregnant and the next minute she’s not pregnant. It was a great challenge and I loved every second of it.
NC: This show has very passionate fans, and they let their opinion known on social media. People have their favorite couples and feel very strongly about Owen, so as an actor, how is managing that fan response and expectations?
KM: What do you mean when you say that?
NC: I feel like people have polarizing views on Owen! [Laughs]
KM: [Laughs] Yeah, you know it’s funny. My daughter is on TikTok, and she’s like, “People really hate your character. Does that bother you?” And so I said, “Firstly, the millions of people that watch the show, the tiny handful of online people who are creating that chatter is very small, but they’re the loudest voices because the bulk of the people just watch the show. They don’t go around in chat rooms spewing whatever they want to spew.”
He was never written as the McDreamy character. He was a character that was written into the show, who strangled Cristina, who stabbed a bunch of pigs, and upset Katherine Heigl’s character — in a sense, he’s an anti-hero type character and that was baked into that character. I think he’s evolved from that and shows much more texture and color than that, but that was the inception of that character. He was supposed to be this antagonistic challenging guy who wasn’t this dreamy eyed romantic prince-like male on the show…If TV was a popularity contest, TV would get boring really fast.
NC: On the flip side, people are passionate about Teddy and Owen as a couple or Towen if you will. I was excited to see they have found a healthy middle ground in their friendship but now it seems it may turn romantic again?
KM: They’re going to a much more romantic place for sure. They were always kind of meant to be together. They have such a shared history and love for each other. I think it’s cool that they’ve been through this whole crucible with this cheating thing — it was really rough but it happens sometimes. Some couples if there’s enough love and strength there, they can make it through and I think that’s really cool to show that.
NC: There was a big question as to whether or not Grey’s was coming back for another season. Are you surprised you’re on for another?
KM: I’m always surprised. Actors don’t get to be on shows for this long, it just never happens — it’s usually three or four seasons if you’re lucky so this is completely unprecedented. Every single year that we get on top of what we’ve already done is like Christmas Day. It’s a testament to that pilot Shonda Rhimes wrote and the characters that have been written, and the innovation of the writers. To keep generating story, as you said earlier in such an effective and relative way, that’s no small task.
NC: Where do you hope next season will go? Hopefully less COVID because that will be our new reality?
KM: That’s the beautiful thing about our finale, it kind of ends COVID on our show. We’ll be talking about COVID next season, but probably the aftermath of it. We’ve been facing COVID and have been 3 or 4 months behind from where COVID is and in the finale we jump forward, so it ends in April or May time of 2021. When vaccines were starting to come out we were joking that our show was starting to become a period piece because we weren’t talking about vaccines. It’s turning a page on COVID as we all are in life, hopefully. Celebrating that is the tone.
NC: What are you looking forward to in terms of directing, whether that’s inside Grey’s or outside of the show?
KM: I’m keen to direct other things, although I love shooting this show. That episode with Teddy and then the finale was very challenging episodes. For a long time, I felt like I was at film school but doing it on the job and learning how to be a director. I feel like I’ve graduated and I feel ready to branch out with directing. I’m excited about the idea of getting my hands on a horror movie or tonally something different just to see how that works for me. As far as playing Owen, I want to be there to the end. I still feel like I have a lot of acting in my life left to do, so I’m trying to balance both things. It’s about finding the right thing that works.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]