I used to be obsessed with “Grey’s Anatomy.” Meredith and Derek were my weekly TV crush for years. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, there was a piece of me that secretly wished it had been Seattle and not Portland we’d moved to.
Last month when I was in Los Angeles for Disney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms premiere, we also had the chance to visit the set of ABC’s “Station 19.” Being able to meet Executive Producer/Showrunner Stacy McKee was great because she was a previously a writer on “Grey’s Anatomy” for 13 seasons before leaving to work on the spin-off show “Station 19.” We also chatted with Boris Kodjoe (“Captain Robert Sullivan”) and Jaina Lee Ortiz (“Andy Herrera”) about all things “Station 19.”
McKee talked to us a little bit about the concept of “Station 19” and its inception.
“It seems like a really natural sort of extension of the ‘Grey's' universe because it still involves medicine, and in the background of all the ‘Grey’s' episodes you see all of the first responders scootching into the breezeway, dropping off patients and then, really quickly we dispense with them and get them out of the scene so we could focus on the surgeons,” McKee explained.
But McKee wanted to make a story about the people who were the first part of the story—the ones who help before they got to Seattle Grace Hospital/Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital.
“What about if we got back in the ambulance and drove away with them, and then started to see what their life was like? What if there was a fire station, 3 blocks down from this hospital that we've been seeing for 13 years and they have a whole life that's been going on this whole time, too? What if we just shine a light over there, so that was really sort of the beginning gestation of the idea, and it's just also just something really appealing to me.”
“You know ‘Grey's,' you know what it's like, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you feel things, and it was really appealing to me to show those same types of emotions, and the same type of humor, but to do it in a world of first responders.
“Especially right now, this day and age, I feel like the world can be tough,” McKee said. “There's a lot of difficulties when you wake up every morning, you open up your news, there's stuff that's hard.”
McKee wanted to create a story about a group of people whose only job is to help other people.
“Doesn't matter who you are, doesn't matter what color you are, what your religion is, doesn't matter what your politics are. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that if you are a person who needs help, these characters will help you. And to me, that was just remarkable. I wanted to put that little piece of joy out into the world. It's so unifying and universal. And it seems like this was the right moment to tell stories like these.”
Jaina Lee Ortiz was the first person cast for “Station 19.”
“And at the time, there wasn't even really a show,” McKee said. “It was the kernel of an idea. I was in my office frantically trying to, I think, finish an outline or something and I got this call from Shonda [Rhimes] saying, we've met our Andy…that's how that kicked off.”
Jaina Lee Ortiz recounted for us how she was so excited to work on a Shonda Rhimes spin-off, she essentially signed on before she even fully knew what the project was. She took the firefighter test once she found out what the show was about.
“I actually came home and I said, ‘Mom, how much do you weigh?’ I forgot what the weight was and I was like, ‘You need to be at least 165 pounds so that I know I can drag you out of a building,’ because that was part of the test, dragging a dummy that was 165, and it's hard, it's really hard. But being on the show has forced me to kind of stay in shape, just in case,” Ortiz said.
Boris Kodjoe told us how he wanted to be a part of the project from the beginning, but couldn’t. He’d wanted to work with Shondaland with Shonda Rhimes became a name.
“I wanted to be a part of the show from the first episode as well,” Kodjoe said. “And unfortunately, that didn't happen. So I had to wait patiently in the wings until it was possible. Code Black was canceled on a Friday, and I think I met with Stacy [McKee] on a Monday and it was pretty much done Monday night.”
“I love great writers and to sort of put myself in the hands of someone like Stacy is an absolute pleasure and honor really, because you know that every single episode—and I had that experience once before but this really tops it—where you don't think it can get any better and then you open a script and then the script is better than the script that you read before, and that's always an amazing surprise and it's so much fun to go to work because not only do you get to speak these words but also work with people like Jaina and people who have been so embracing of me.”
On what to expect from Season 2
Season 1 only had 10 episodes, so you’re just establishing the world of Station 19. In Season 2, we’ll get to dig deeper.
“This season, we've earned the right to really explore who these characters are. We get to learn about their past, we get to see their interactions with one another, the relationships that have formed prior to the show starting and then after” McKee said. “I feel like we just barely scratched the surface in Season 1, and now we get to get into some really good juicy character stuff which is my wheelhouse. It's the stuff I love so that's the stuff I'm most excited about really.”
“Captain Sullivan, this season, and I don't know if you noticed, he's shaken things up around the fire station a little bit,” Ortiz said. “That's pretty fun too to have that dynamic, to have a person that everyone in the station can sort of push up against and have him push right back and not be intimidated.”
On how much of the sets are practical sets
The main set is a fire station set, which we visited.
“The interior of it is all on our stages. The exterior is all shot on location in Seattle,” McKee said. “So when you see those exterior scenes, we went to Seattle, we shot all of those actually there on location.”
“As for the incidents with the fires and stuff, it's sort of a combination. We have both practical fires that we do a lot on our burn stage. We have a stage that we sort of dedicate to burning things up. But we also then supplement and add a lot of CG fire as well. So it's both a combination of computer-generated, really crazy fire and then some practical stuff that we can use that's still safe for everybody to be around.”
“And it's been a real learning process. I mean, I'm used to working on a hospital show where all we have to do is like pretend we're doing surgery on like a piece of meat or something. And the scope of this is so different that it's been a real learning curve for everybody, just even the physicality that you guys have to go through, just even wearing the turnouts. Some of the sweat and the exhaustion that you see on these guys' faces, oh it's fully real.
“40 pounds of gear with a helmet,” Kodjoe elaborated. “It's the real stuff, even the tanks, even the oxygen tanks on the back. We have fake ones and we have real ones.”
On training and getting the firefighter information right
While Jaina Lee Ortiz took the firefighter test, Boris Kodjoe hasn’t, although he said he’d like to but hasn’t been able to for scheduling reasons. They did do a 2-day boot camp at the start of the season.
“I'm looking forward to dragging some hoses through the mud or whatever we need to do. We have Brian who's a retired captain who was here every day and he's sort of my go-to guy because I play his position basically,” Kodjoe said. “And he's been very helpful and sort of enlightening me and telling me what needs to be done when and how, but I'm a stickler for details so at some point.”
On the genesis of the stories
“Almost every story that we tell is inspired by something that we've heard from or heard about from a first responder,” McKee said. “We have a lot of firefighter consultants and paramedic consultants both in the Los Angeles area and in Seattle because some of the specifics are regional and so we wanted to make sure we could be as authentic as possible. And again, because I always tell a story from a character's point of view first, when we're talking to people, I always as the tough questions, like what was your toughest call? What's the one you've never been able to forget? What's your most inspiring call? What's the one you can't forget for an amazing reason? All of these are inspired by stories that we've been told and scenarios that we've been told and it's really fascinating like we really want to try and honor the people that we're representing. It's important to us so we try to tap into some of the things that maybe as a layperson. I don't have first responders in my family so I might think, ‘Oh, the thing you remember the most is the biggest fire,’ but it's usually not the case. It's usually like the smallest fire that had the biggest effects because of the family that it was affecting or something. So to me, those pieces are story are more authentic and that's our wheelhouse, that's what I want to tell.”
“Station 19” airs Thursdays at 9|8c on ABC (also available via streaming on ABC app/ABC.com/Hulu and on demand) follows a group of heroic Seattle firefighters as they put their lives and hearts on the line.
Thanks to Walt Disney Studios for bringing me to Los Angeles on an all-expense paid trip. As always, all opinions are my own.