'Grey's Anatomy's' Kate Burton on Her 16 Famous "Children"

The three-time Emmy nominee has played mom to the likes of James Franco, Lea Michele and David Schwimmer
Courtesy of ABC
"Grey's Anatomy's" Kelly McCreary, Kate Burton and Ellen Pompeo

When it comes to Kate Burton, there are two secrets to success: Have the three-time Emmy nominee guest-star in your pilot, or have her play your mother.

The latter is true for Grey's Anatomy's Kelly McCreary, who this season has joined the Shonda Rhimes medical drama as Ellis Grey's (Burton) daughter, Maggie Pierce.

The season 11 story centers on Maggie, the love child of Ellis and Richard (James Pickens Jr.), who was given up for adoption as a newborn.

For Burton, the storyline meant a return to the medical drama that earned her two Emmy noms for her role as a brilliant surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's. But it also meant that McCreary, who worked with Burton at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, would become the latest in a long line of her famous onscreen (and -stage) children.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Burton to get the scoop on her Grey's return and her many famous "children," including David Schwimmer, James Franco, Lea Michele and more.

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What was your reaction when you learned that Ellis and Richard had a love child?

Surprised! I was listening to Viola [Davis] or someone talk about when you're on a TV show, you have to roll with it because you often don't know what's going to happen to your character because there can be these major plot points that happen years later. As it is here, 11 years later! It made perfect sense to me. Being that we know Ellis was suffering form early onset Alzheimer's, God knows how early that started. Then I was thrilled when I heard it was Kelly McCreary. We'd worked together before in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Williamstown Theatre Festival where she was one of my fairies and I was Queen of the Fairies. Mostly I burst out laughing when I heard I was going back to Grey's. It's so great to go back.

What can viewers expect to learn about Ellis and her pregnancy?

You're going to learn a lot about both Ellis and Richard. It's going to explain some stuff that has been constant question marks throughout the years. There is very moving stuff. What I'm participating in, it's not exactly a flashback but something where I'm totally together and being viewed. It'll be very interesting for people to watch; it's a very wonderfully provocative episode.

How did you approach returning to play Ellis but with a new piece to her background?

What was helpful to me was to know I had this child; it was great information to have. The thing about Ellis is, she's a narcissist. The truth is, at the end of the day, it's all about her. That's what made her so fascinating to play, even with the early onset Alzheimer's. I found her always so intriguing because even though I knew she was a brilliant woman with a terrible disease, the truly most important thing in her life had been her work. Knowing what you get to know in episode 1104, you find out why she made the switch. She has always been obsessed with her work.

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When was the first time you played a mother?

I had the world's greatest mother and was very lucky to have had her. I've played all kinds of moms to all kinds of people, and now all kinds of nationalities and colors. The very first mom I played was a flashback in a Neil Simon play called Jake's Women, starring Alan Alda. I had a scene where I meet my daughter grown up, and I'd passed away when she was a little girl. It was meaningful to me because I knew Simon's first wife had passed away and I was playing a character based on her. It's also interesting because Tracy Pollan, who played my daughter, wasn't that much younger than me. That was my first time. Then I started to play a sitcom mom.

In Fox's short-lived comedy Monty (1994).

David Schwimmer and David Krumholtz played my children. Both were just adorable. Krumholtz was about 15. By that time, I was 37. You don't really start playing moms in Hollywood until you're in your 40s, and usually the kids are almost your age! When I played Schwimmer's mother, I was 37 and he was, I think, 28 (laughs). That happens a lot in TV and film; you really do end up being close in age to your child, which is nonsensical. It naturally happens when you're in your 30s. Henry Winkler played this right-wing talk-show host based on Rush Limbaugh, and I played his liberal wife, and we had two hilarious sons. Schwimmer's Greg married a very free-spirited girl played by China Kantner, who is Grace Slick's daughter. It was a fun premise. We had 13 episodes, and it was my first and really only sitcom with multiple cameras. One time, I got on a plane two or three years ago and Krumholtz — whom I'd done Numbers with years later and didn't play his mom — and I were on the same flight. We [were separated by about 15 rows] and Krumholtz shouts, "I just want you to know you're my favorite mother I ever had!" The whole plane started laughing. He's such a cutie. And I love Schwimmer. He said to me that he didn't know if he wanted to do another sitcom anytime soon after Monty. Then the next thing I know, he's on this little show called Friends. Krumholtz at 15 years old had such comic timing, it was beyond belief.

And you've played Gwyneth Paltrow's mother — twice!

I played Gwyneth's mom when she was 6. She was in Cyrano de Bergerac and played a little girl, and I was her mom. That was with Frank Langella in 1980. That summer, we did The Cherry Orchard, and she didn't play my child but we did that with her mom, Blythe Danner. Then in the late '80s or early '90s, I did a show called Defying Gravity, by Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), about the Challenger explosion and the teacher [who died in the disaster], Christa McAuliffe, and I played her. It was told from the daughter's point of view, and Genie Francis played my daughter. Genie couldn't do one day and had to go to the city to shoot General Hospital, and Gwyneth went on for her for a performance. They were both fantastic. I already knew there was something really special about Gwyneth, but that's where I could believe it. She learned the whole part and was extraordinary. She always used to call me her "other mother." I ended up doing a show for her father, Bruce Paltrow, where I played a character based on Blythe, called Home Fires, a short-lived NBC sitcom.

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That's when you moved to TV and Grey's Anatomy, playing Ellen Pompeo's mother.

I got a call from my agent saying I was being considered for this TV show and to be prepared because the character has early onset Alzheimer's. What I didn't realize was that that hadn't really been done before on network television. The minute I met everybody, I thought it could be interesting. At the end of the day, they offered me the part. It was called Surgeons at the time, and I was going to do the pilot, and if it got picked up, I'd be in seven of the 13 episodes. I have a weird thing where every time I'm a guest star on a pilot, it almost always gets picked up! We did the pilot and I met Ellen. I had one scene in a nursing home; everybody [in the episode] was hearing about [Meredith Grey's] famous mother, and then at the end of the pilot you see her in the nursing home. The show was picked up and retitled Grey's Anatomy. We did 13 but weren't on the air yet [Grey's debuted midseason], and the second-to-last day of shooting, we went on the air for the first time. I've never experienced anything like that. Everyone who was a regular on Grey's would agree that it was like a rocket ship. From the second the show went on TV, it was through the roof. I'd been in a lot of TV shows up until then but nothing like that — until I was on Scandal! Ellen and I got along so well from the get-go, but we had to play this tricky relationship. As a result, we really trusted each other.

And Scandal's Sally Langston has children, too, though we've yet to meet them.

The numbers change all the time — sometimes I had one daughter, sometimes four sons and one daughter (laughs).

How is going back to Grey's Anatomy as the mother to Kelly McCreary different this time?

When I've gone back to Grey's, it's been either as a flashback or for the alternate reality episode, which was really intense because I couldn't draw on anything that was real because I had played her for so long as being afflicted by Alzheimer's. I had to create an entire character and define who Ellis was if she hadn't had Alzheimer's. I found that very difficult and unnerving. This has been interesting because I've gone back before she's had Alzheimer's. She's a very vibrant woman who knows she has another child who has chosen not to tell anybody because she put her up for adoption, and except for when [her love child] was a tiny baby, never laid eyes on her. Knowing Kelly as I do, to go back and see her standing there in scrubs, is amazing to me because there [Ellis' other daughter] is, fully formed.

And you did 127 Hours, playing mom to James Franco and Lizzy Caplan

There's a whole part of that movie that nobody ever saw. About a third of the movie was completely cut out. There was a whole part that came after [Franco's character] was rescued, that's the part that Lizzy and I did in a big way. Then they made the right decision to end the movie after he was rescued. Going from Grey's to 127 Hours, Danny Boyle really is interested in spending a lot of time finding the story and relationships. Even though our scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, it was great that we did them. We had a wedding scene for Lizzy's character. I had a phenomenal scene with James in the hospital where I come to see him. That's on the DVD extras.

Vera Farmiga was your next onscreen daughter after that.

It was a funny and strange movie called Quid Pro Quo (2008) with Vera. I played her mother and was a terrible drunk and completely dysfunctional. I've played a lot of very dysfunctional moms, starting with Grey's Anatomy (laughs). Vera was great; this was before things were really happening for her. It was really exciting to have met her before it all started to happen.

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Let's jump to Broadway. You played mom to Jonathan Groff, Skyler Astin and Lea Michele in Spring Awakening before any of them really broke out.

And John Gallagher (Newsroom)! I did the workshop of that show with Groff, Gallagher and Michele that went to Broadway. I knew early on that the show was really extraordinary. They did it off-Broadway and it went through the roof. Then the woman who played all the moms had to go to the hospital and we didn't have understudies. The theater company asked me to come in. It was a harrowing experience because the show moved so fast. I did that for one terrifying night and then they moved it to Broadway. I said to the producers if Christine Estabrook, who is playing all the moms, ever wants to take some time off for a few weeks, I'd love to come in for her. Lea was obsessed with Grey's Anatomy! Every time I came on, whether it was off-Broadway, she'd say, "You have to tell me what's going to happen! Are Meredith and McDreamy going to get back together?! What's going to happen to Cristina?!" She was a riot. At that point, she was a little theater actress who went from show to show, one musical after the other. And the next thing I know, there she is on Sunset Boulevard and I'm looking up at her [on billboards]. When I went on to do Spring Awakening, Lea was so helpful to me with the transitions, it was a hard show to get into and I ended up doing it for 10 weeks on Broadway. One time I was with my own son, Morgan Ritchie, at the movies way before Glee and suddenly we hear, "Mom! Mom!" He looks up and Lea is running toward us. He was delusional! (Laughs.) That's always been the case with Lea, who I love so much. Jonathan I was with at the Emmys this year and I'm so proud of him.

And you just finished another movie, Shiva and May, playing mom to …
Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet. Jessica is a lovely girl, and we bonded instantly. We have some wonderful scenes together. I finished that about a year ago. I also played Elizabeth Olsen's mother in Liberal Arts. That was a fantastic experience.

This is sacrilege but who is your favorite onscreen child?

I can't do it! (Laughs.) I love them all but in different ways! My own children, Morgan and Charlotte, have been very understanding through the years. "Yeah, we know you love James Franco." I saw Lizzy at the Emmys and I'm just so proud of her brilliant performance in Masters of Sex. I'm so thrilled everything is happening for her and for all of them. Oftentimes, I was looking at Lea when she was younger and thinking, "She is so great. I really hope everyone gets to know who she is." Well, that happened! I sometimes drive down Sunset Boulevard and I literally go, "Child. Child. Child."! They're all over the boulevard!

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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