The ABC network recently announced the Shonda Rhimes Thursday night lineup, which will include three shows back-to-back from the acclaimed writer/director/creator. The first show up to bat will be Grey’s Anatomy, which is gearing up for a huge season finale tonight. It’s no small feat that after ten seasons the series is still going strong, and still pleasing new and longtime fans alike. Much of the success of Grey’s must be attributed to brilliantly-written, beautifully flawed (and—let’s be honest—just plain beautiful) characters like April Kepner, played by Sarah Drew. Paste caught up with Drew to talk religion on and off set, Shonda Rhimes, and some of those great scenes with the sinfully irresistible Jesse Williams. Drew also broke down her theories about some of the criticism surrounding her controversial new film, Mom’s Night Out.
Paste Magazine: One thing I’ve always loved about your character is that you’re essentially the religious girl in the group, but it’s also more complicated than that. On a personal level, how does that play out for you?
Sarah Drew: I didn’t know that she was going to turn into a religious character. It wasn’t until the end of season eight that it started to come out that she was a Christian. So I had two-and-a-half years of playing a character that was a virgin, but we didn’t know why.
Paste: Yes, that’s right.
Drew: I was excited to play April, but I was also a little bit trepidatious because often times Christians are written into mainstream media as the butt of every joke, or as just horrible, judgmental people. I’m a Christian personally and I didn’t want to add to that stereotype. That hasn’t been my experience with the Christians in my life. What was wonderful was that, right off the bat, the writers wanted to tell a different story about a Christian that we don’t see in media—one that’s more authentic. Shonda [Rhimes] said early on, “I would love to have your input. Whenever something doesn’t feel right, let me know so we can figure this character out together.” So it’s been a really cool, collaborative journey.
Paste: That’s such a unique experience. Do you have any examples of times where you stepped in and said, “I think we should do it this way instead”?
Drew: My Dad is a minister and they called me when they were writing the scene where April and Matthew were going to premarital counseling. They wanted to know what my take was on it. We have people in the writing room that are Catholic, but they’re writing April more as a Protestant, so they wanted to know what some specifics might be. And I said, “The last time I was in premarital counseling was 12 years ago, but my Dad does it every year, so give him a call.” So they called and talked to him, and specific things that he said to them wound up in the script. It was so cool.
There was another scene where I was supposed to be in the ER praying over a patient, and it didn’t really feel like the way I would pray. So they told me, “Okay just pray. Say whatever you think is right.” It’s been great to work with such incredible writers and incredible visionaries who are so committed to telling an authentic story that they’re willing to adjust what they’ve written.
Paste: Now what about those other, really sexy, raunchier scenes? What’s that like for you?
Drew: I just feel like art imitates life, right? Christians really like sex. Even when April was trying to save herself and wound up having sex with Jackson in the bathroom, I completely understood the desire to want to do that, even though you’re also trying to remain faithful to a promise you’ve made. So I know what that struggle is and what that tension is like. For me, I love any chance where April can be sexy because that also goes against stereotypes that Christians are all prudes.
Drew: I think God is a huge fan of sex! He puts it in a particular context, but he’s a huge fan of sex. So it makes sense for April to have really enjoyed the sex, and then afterwards to feel like she shouldn’t have done that. There’s not a Christian out there who hasn’t struggled with wanting to break a rule, or having broken a rule over and over again. It’s real and it’s authentic.
Paste: One of my favorite scenes of yours is when you had your boards and you fail, and you’re flipping out. That was another really authentic April moment. Can you talk about some of the more intense scenes that took a lot out of you?
Drew: You mean the one where I’m sweating uncontrollably at the boards? (laughs)
Paste: (laughs) Yes, that one.
Drew: What’s funny is all of those episodes came very soon after I had my son.
Drew: So my son was 10 weeks old when I was shooting my first sex scene on the show. It was nuts. I was running to and from the trailer while trying to breastfeed, all while playing out these incredibly intense scenes. That time was kind of a blur because I was so exhausted and so sleep-deprived, but I was also so excited to have so much great material.
I remember that episode particularly well because Kevin McKidd [Owen Hunt on Grey’s] directed and he was so amazing. He really guided us, and he directed me so well through that scene because something like that—where you’re freaking out—has to be a little but psycho, but also not too crazy because it has to be authentic. He gave me a lot of interesting things to think about.
I also really loved that scene with Jesse [Jackson Avery on Grey’s] in the bathroom. It was one of those awesome four and-a-half page scenes that you almost never get, where you get to go through all of these different emotions—frustrated, freaking out, then totally, sexually charged. You get to take this journey and it was so much fun. I also loved that there was no hint of that relationship at all between April and Jackson.
Paste: I’ve interviewed a few Scandal cast members and they’ve all said the same thing about Shonda’s writing—that they never felt the need to improvise with her work. Do you feel the same way?
Drew: Oh, absolutely. The writers are so good on the show, everything feels so real. But what’s wonderful about our writing team and staff is that they’ve always had this open door policy with us. Every time we read a script, they’re waiting for the actors to come and ask about tweaking.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Drew: I have a movie in theatres right now called Mom’s Night Out, it’s a family comedy. It’s about the crazy, beautiful mess of motherhood and parenthood. The Erwin Brothers—Jon and Andy Erwin—directed it. We were in the top 10 opening weekend, which was great. It’s a bit counter-cultural in that it’s celebrating a group of stay-at-home moms, but it’s resonating really strongly with a lot of mothers and I think it’s a really authentic look at what it’s like to be at home with your kids.
Paste: Well, there’s a whole thing that comes along with saying you’re at home with your kids now, or that you work from home.
Drew: I know! It’s very interesting because some of the critics have called the film “regressive.” And it’s so confusing to me because we’re not telling everyone that they should be stay-at-home moms. We’re just presenting a story about stay-at-home moms, and saying about them— and by the way, what you’re doing is important and we celebrate you for “just” being a mom because “just” being a mom is a huge undertaking. I think our culture just doesn’t think that’s important.
Paste: Yes, the conversation is different. Making the decision to be at home is a political statement now.
Drew: It is! It totally is! And that’s the reaction to the movie. People thought we were trying to make a political statement, and we’re not.
Paste: I’m very interested. I’ll have to check it out! Now, I know you can’t tell me much about the finale but, do you have any tidbits you can share?
Drew: We were all in tears at the table read. It’s incredibly emotional, but it’s perfect. It’s exactly what it should be. Christina Yang’s farewell will be totally satisfying. Obviously, everyone’s going to be sad that she’s leaving, but it’s a great farewell. I even sent the writer an e-mail after our table read just gushing. I think the fans are going to really love it.
Paste: This has been great. I’m looking forward to tonight!
Drew: Thanks so much.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.