Kelly McCreary joined the cast of Grey’s Anatomy almost exactly five years ago as Dr. Maggie Pierce, the new head of cardiothoracic surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. It was soon discovered that Maggie had an ulterior motive for moving to Seattle: She was Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) half-sister and the secret love child of Richard Webber (James Pickens, Jr.) and Ellis Grey (Kate Burton).
Five seasons later and McCreary is an indispensable member of the long-running ABC drama. And last night’s episode hinted at big changes for Maggie as her boyfriend, Jackson (Jesse Williams), asked Maggie to move in with him.
McCreary took a break from filming this week to talk to Paste about Maggie’s big decision, working on the series and what’s next for her character. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Paste: We just saw Jackson ask Maggie to move in with him. She hasn’t given him an answer yet. What can we expect?
Kelly McCreary: I think the best way to describe it is, it’s a really big moment for Maggie and she does what she does in big moments. She’s a person who thinks really thoroughly through things. I might even say obsesses over things when they’re important. So she does that with this, and you really get to watch her go through the decision-making process. It helps her sort of evaluate the relationship in what I think turns out to be a really beautiful way.
Paste: The episode also featured Jasmine Guy as an old friend of Richard’s. What was it like to get to work with her?
McCreary: I was totally fangirling. I really tried not to embarrass myself and I tried to play it cool on the first day. Once I felt like she was comfortable with me, I had to totally admit my admiration for Whitley Gilbert [Guy’s character on A Different World] and all the other work that I’ve seen her do over the years. She was an early inspiration for me. I was absolutely giddy, and on top of that she is so terrific in the episode. I really hope we get to have her come back, because I think the character has the potential to add a lot of great stuff to Richard’s story line. I like that the door seems to be open for her to return.
Paste: Did you watch A Different World growing up?
McCreary: Yes! I used to look in the mirror and repeat Whitley Gilbert’s lines, rehearsing my scenes that I would someday do on television with her—as the same character, of course. I was totally obsessed with that show. There was something about that character that I think for me might have been the first time I had ever seen that kind of Lucille Ball-style comedy being done by a black woman, and really resonated with me. I thought she was so funny. I could see her skills. That character was absurd, yet totally lovable. I was totally mesmerized by her.
Paste Maggie has changed so much since we were first introduced to her at the end of the tenth season. What’s it been like to grow with this character for five seasons?
McCreary: It has been an incredible pleasure and privilege. I come from a theater background, and in theater you have a beginning, middle, and end to a character from the beginning of the process. You know the whole journey about what the character is going to go through. The privilege of being on Grey’s is that you as an actor are constantly learning something new about the character. It really brings you in touch with your own humanity. “Oh, yes, she was once here and then she changed. Now she’s here. But that other version of her is very much a part of who she is. So how do I let that live in the space, too?” Being alongside Maggie on her journey through the show has been a real lesson in expanding my own sense of compassion and understanding of another human being’s journey. So, it’s been awesome.
Paste: Now that you’ve been playing Maggie for five years, how is Maggie like you and how are you like Maggie?
McCreary: There are so many things about her that I admire so much that I want to adopt from her and learn from her, and vice versa. I am a perfectionist myself, and it has its pros and cons. I do think that Maggie Pierce the character already lent itself to that based on what we know about her achievements in life… I might have informed the character a little bit in that way. On the other side, Maggie is deeply, deeply compassionate and loyal, and she cares so much about people. She’s very, very good at cleaning up her messes, and that’s definitely a skill I’ve tried to adapt from her as I’ve matured.
Paste: One really beautiful and poignant storyline has been the death of Maggie’s mom which is something she is still coping with. Tell me about the ongoing nature of that arc.
McCreary: I really have to credit the writers on that. The way that they’ve incorporated Maggie’s ongoing grieving, that’s on the page. Once the episode where Maggie’s mom died aired, I started to hear a lot from fans about their own grieving process. I got these beautiful letters and tweets and other outreach from fans, and that has been my research since the episode aired.
Paste: Has anything ever happened with your character that has really surprised you?
McCreary: Early on, I got a script where one of the patients hit Maggie and I was like, “Oh my God, are they trying to tell me something in the writers’ room?” Because I think I wasn’t a series regular at that point. Of course, it was the episode with Dan Lauria, who is also one of my childhood favorite actors from The Wonder Years, and it was his character who did it. That turned out to be a beautiful storyline that enabled Maggie and Richard to grow closer together.
Paste: You weren’t a series regular when you were initially cast, correct?
McCreary: When I auditioned for the part it was just a doctor. I was told it would be a couple of episodes with the potential to be a decent episode arc, but then, before my very first table read, I had a sit-down meeting with [series creator] Shonda Rhimes where she told me that the character would be Meredith Grey’s sister—and still I didn’t really understand, because that could have meant anything. That could have been her sister dropping in for a couple of episodes here and there. It was all just one episode at a time. I mean, it’s hard to even imagine any show being on the air for 15 seasons. For me to be on for five of those seasons is well beyond my imagination.
Paste: When you were cast, did you watch the series?
McCreary: I had watched the early seasons when they first aired, then life got busy and I lived without a television in New York. I didn’t keep up with it over the years.
Paste: Did you have to binge-watch the series before you began the role?
McCreary: Yes, but I did it really stupidly. I entered in Season 11 and I thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to finish 10 seasons of this series, so I’ll start from the seasons closest to when I come on and work my way backwards.
Paste: What would you like to see happen for Maggie?
McCreary: One of the things that I think is really interesting about Maggie is she’s always been really good [in terms of] her abilities as a doctor and her intelligence. I’m interested in seeing what would happen if she were to fail at something. She’s reaching the point where she’s no longer a prodigy. All of her peers have kind of caught up to her. What does that feel like when you’re just regular? How would she have to redefine her identity and how she values herself in the world of the hospital?
Paste: You also are an ambassador for Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote campaign.
McCreary: It was started as a voter registration campaign [in the] run up to the 2018 midterm election. But obviously the point of it was to generate awareness and enthusiasm for this very precious right we have in this democracy. To remind people we don’t just do this every four years—elections happen much more often, and beyond that there’s always work to be done. There are ways to make your voice heard so that we can actually have the things work the way we want them to in this country. For a lot of people, what’s happening in their school board is affecting them in their day-to-day lives even more than what’s happening on a national level. I’ve been really lucky to be linked up with them. I think they are doing great work.
Paste: What else are you working on in addition to Grey’s?
McCreary: I produced a short film last summer called A Cohort of Guests. It’s got a great cast featuring some familiar faces from Grey’s and Station 19. I’m very interested in helping to shepherd other stories.
Paste: The show is about to wrap up its 15th season. How long do you see the series lasting?
McCreary: I take it one season at a time. There’s a lot of stories to tell, I think. Grey’s is very much about the intimate lives of people, and there’s always something to talk about. But for me, I always try to think about, “Let’s see what happens in the next script.”
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .