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[This story contains spoilers from the April 13 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “Shadow of Your Love/Mama Who Bore Me.”]
After nine seasons of playing Dr. Maggie Pierce, Kelly McCreary has said farewell to Grey’s Anatomy.
The April 13 episode — a double hour with “Shadow of Your Love/Mama Who Bore Me” — brought Maggie’s arc to a crossroad after weeks of marital tension with husband Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill) as the brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon found herself in a professional crisis: Stay and work on her marriage or accept the once-in-a-lifetime offer at the Heart Center of Chicago?
To help Maggie make her decision, Grey’s Anatomy invoked Maggie’s lineage. The half-sister to Meredith Grey shares a birth mother with Ellen Pompeo’s titular character, Ellis Grey (Kate Burton). The late world-famous surgeon has always loomed large over both of her now also world-famous surgeon daughters, and McCreary says Ellis’ role in Maggie’s life has been the North Star she comes back throughout her time on Grey’s Anatomy, including for the currently airing 19th season when she approached Grey’s showrunner Krista Vernoff about departing the series. The news came shortly after Pompeo set her onscreen exit; both sisters will return for final appearances in the season 19 finale.
“What does Maggie have yet to find out about Ellis and how will that impact her going forward? It’s her missing piece that, despite the way that she’s grown in love and family at Grey Sloan, there is always that question for her underneath,” McCreary shares in her Grey’s Anatomy exit interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Ultimately, Maggie accepts the job and leaves the relationship door open with Winston, a difficult decision that is reassured by the presence of Maggie’s two late mothers: Ellis and Diane Pierce, the woman who raised her, flank Maggie as she walks proudly out of the Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital elevators and onto her next chapter.
Below, McCreary discusses filming her final scenes with Burton and Latanya Richardson (an idea from Vernoff), as well as with her other chosen sister Amelia Shepherd, played by Caterina Scorsone. The actress also unpacks Maggie’s decision and teases more resolution to come with Winston when she returns for her final Grey’s scenes in the May 18 season finale.
I read that you went to the creative team with your decision to leave Grey’s Anatomy. Can you talk about that?
Yes. Look, I’ve been on the show for nine years. It’s been an amazing time — I’ve lived a lot of life in that time. No actor expects to be on a show for that long. It’s a very rare thing. You can name on probably two hands the number of shows where that’s been possible in the last 20 years. Every year, you never know what’s going to happen. So every year I kind of evaluate: Where is Maggie and where does she need to go? And, where am I, Kelly, in my life?
Maggie, fortunately, came with such a rich backstory and question to answer, which is: “Who am I? Who is my birth mother? And, how does that inform who I am?” Because she came with that question, I revisit that every year and I say: “Has she figured it out? Has she found what she’s looking for? On the way, what other questions has she asked and has she answered those questions?” At the end of last season, there was really this point of friction with Winston [Anthony Hill]. They were questioning their compatibility and I wondered, maybe it’s not a compatibility issue with Winston. Maybe this is her raising another big question for herself that maybe she needs to go off and find the answer to someplace else. Maybe it’s the end of Maggie’s journey here at Grey Sloan. Maybe she’s outgrowing herself in this space. And so I went to Krista and I said, “I think it might be time for me to wrap it up.” And she very graciously kind of agreed, and allowed me to do it.
Was there any begging for you to reconsider?
(Laughs). We revisited the question a few times this season. She wanted to make sure that I was sure, which I thought was incredibly gracious of her. But the more the storyline played out, I thought it’s the right thing. It’s the right time.
When did you have that conversation and, how collaborative was it to craft the end to Maggie’s story?
It was early in the [current] season. But I can’t take credit for the storyline writing. I basically said it, and then I have to happily entrust Krista and the writers to come up with how it ends. So I didn’t know that meant if they were going to decide she was going to die! Or what that meant. I didn’t direct them in any particular way, but I shared with them all of that. I share with them every season: “What does Maggie have yet to find out about Ellis [Kate Burton] and how will that impact her going forward?” It’s her missing piece that, despite the way that she’s grown in love and family at Grey Sloan, there is always that question for her underneath. I didn’t really know how they were going to do it, but I know they took that into consideration. And I really, really appreciated being heard as a collaborator in that way. They have always treated my care for the character with a lot of respect.
They could never kill off Maggie!
So then as you were getting the scripts, and especially when you read these last three episodes, how did you react to her arc and seeing it on paper?
I liked it. I really had a tough time with Maggie and Winston being in conflict all season long. Because I was like, “What is going to happen? Are they going to stay together or aren’t they and, how will they resolve this?” That kind of prolonged conflict and tension in the relationship, that constantly asking whether you are compatible and if you share the same values, I know that is a real source of discord in relationships. It’s very realistic. But, it was so uncomfortable!
So I was really happy to see in the end that Maggie and Winston reached an understanding and that Maggie could still go, but she didn’t have to detonate it on the way out. And there was the mutual respect; there was the terrible misunderstanding about whether Winston felt valued and respected. Maggie needed to clear that up and make sure that he knew that she loved him. That there was love there. She had been careless with that, but she did love him. She does [love him]. And so I was really happy to see that they were able to leave on mutually respectful terms.
Did you view Maggie and Winston as over after that ending?
No. I really didn’t. Michelle Obama says, sure you can have everything, but you just can’t have it all at the same time. That’s sort of how it is for women in this society. And maybe for everyone, but certainly for women. Maggie has always been driven by this passion for medicine. And her competitive, ambitious spirit was reawakened, but that was always there. She was never hiding that. That was always who she was. And she also wanted to be Winston’s wife, but they couldn’t exist at the same time. It doesn’t mean they can’t ever exist, and I think having them separate on loving, and frankly sad, terms — sad, rather than angry — that does leave the door open for some possibility in the future.
I’m more worried about Amelia Shepherd right now. How did Caterina Scorsone take losing both her onscreen sisters in such a short period?
I know, poor Amelia! Caterina is the picture of strength and resilience and the ability to rise above. She has just from day one (emotional) been very important to me on this show, so we have a special bond and that won’t change. It’s tough, but our relationship will just take a different form going forward.
What was it like to bring back both of your onscreen mothers, Kate Burton and Latanya Richardson, for your final scene in this episode, where Maggie walks out of the Grey Sloan elevator and onto her next chapter?
It was a thrill! I wanted it to take forever, that scene. It was a brief moment, but it did take longer than we expected. We played with a lot of different options. It was wonderful. I love those women so much. In different ways they have nurtured and mentored me since I first met them. Latanya I met doing Grey’s, but Kate Burton I’ve known since 2004, we did a play together in Williamstown. It was so perfect. I think the only thing that could have made it more perfect was if the scene could have also included Meredith [Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo] and Amelia. But that just wasn’t the story. It was such a perfect, full-circle moment for Maggie. I could not have dreamed up a better way to send her off. It was Krista’s [Vernoff, showrunner] idea, and it was just a stroke of genius.
Can you share her inner monologue as she takes that elevator ride?
It’s bittersweet. But ultimately, she makes the decision because she’s thinking about the line of women that she comes from. She’s thinking about her family legacy and building on the gifts given to her by the generation that came before her. They couldn’t have it all, either. They can’t have it all and she can’t have it all. But she can do something really, really meaningful with her life and have joy in doing it in a way that they weren’t able to. Those are the gifts that her mothers gave her and she is proud to walk forth with them.
How do you imagine Maggie’s life looks when she lands in Chicago?
She’s kind of like Bachelorette Maggie! She’s still married, but she’s never lived alone. She’s in a new city. She’s really striking out on her own in a very independent way. She has no family ties in this place; no family ties at all. And I think that she is in the bravest moment of her life. She’s always been very bold and self-assured when it comes to medicine, and I think that she’s stepping into her fullest glory. She’s living her best life.
This sounds like a spinoff to me!
(Laughs.) Maybe it would be worth revisiting at some point. You’re right, that actually could sound like a great spinoff idea. But I’m just spitballing, I have not thought about a spinoff!
Going back nine seasons ago when you were first cast as Maggie in 2014, how long did you think the role would last?
I came to the show in season 11. I was like, “This show will be over in two years.” Who could have imagined?! Maybe somebody could, but shows don’t usually last this long so I certainly didn’t expect it to. I thought, a couple years and then move on.
You were quickly upped to series regular, but was there a moment or episode when it clicked for you that Maggie was in the Grey’s inner circle?
I was upped to series regular about five episodes into season 11, which was my first season. At the end of that season, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) died and Meredith went on a healing journey, and I remember feeling like it was Maggie and Alex [Karev, played by Justin Chambers] grieving the loss of Meredith and Derek together. And I was like, “This is significant.” That was my inner-circle moment for sure, thinking we’re in this together kind of as equals.
After all this time, Ellen Pompeo also made the decision to step back from the show. Was that something you two spoke about, or did the timing align that way?
I did not know what Ellen’s plans were. I think I knew that she had been considering it for some time. But her path has been so different than mine. And her role on the show and the institution of the show is so much different than mine that even as she was considering it, I just had no idea how she would go about making that decision, what the measurements would be for her, and I knew they would be different for me.
How different was it on set without Ellen, since she’s been a constant since you’ve been on the show?
It was different. She definitely left a space. There was a hole. And there were a lot of things that were different about this season, though. We had those five terrific interns come in, who bring such vitality. I love them as humans, and I think the characters are so fun and exciting to watch develop. There was that energy. So there were all of these shifts taking place, and it was not known to everyone else that I had made my own decision. So I was just sort of in the middle of this big transformation happening at the show, having my own very private moment around it and just feeling really grateful. This is a place where Maggie could have stayed and kept reinventing herself for years to come. And at the same time, the new blood that comes in and the seniors who have been around, holding it down, as they move on, it’s this beautiful cycle. It’s like the cycle of life! And that is really cool. I felt like I’m leaving the show in terrific hands with a bright future ahead of it. It was wonderful to do this and to be able to grow so much here in this space, with these people. And I hope I left it better than when I came. That’s all you can do.
Krista Vernoff departing as showrunner is also a big change. She posted a photo from the season finale table read, which is also your final table read. Can you share what that was like to experience?
Honestly, I am so lucky. I feel like I am getting the best departure process of maybe anybody who has left the show. I got to sort of go out slowly. I have these final two episodes for storyline closure. I’ll come back for the finale. And in the intervening time, the in-person table reads came back! That was our first in-person table read since February of 2020. And I can’t tell you what a magical experience it is. It’s like an almost weekly community-building experience that you kind of take for granted when it’s happening. But when it’s gone, without a table read, the way that our storylines are separated, sometimes you can go months without seeing your coworkers on set. There have been very few opportunities for all of us to be in the same room together. And for me, it was such a full-circle moment because Shonda [Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy] was at my first table read; Shonda was at my last table read.
That first table read, I was the only one at the table apart from Shonda who knew who Maggie Pierce was; it was a bombshell that was dropping at a cold read that no one else at the table had read. It was just like this thrilling moment of arrival. And then to have the table reads come back this week was a thrilling moment of departure. It was just such a sweet bookend.
In what capacity are you returning for the finale?
I would call it celebratory. It answers any lingering questions about Maggie and Winston.
So, we’ll see a little bit more resolution there.
You haven’t filmed your final scene yet, right?
That’s right. Technically.
Were you emotional for the elevator scene and was that the last scene you filmed?
I was emotional with the elevator scene. It was so poignant. But my last scene was the coffee cart scene, actually, with Amelia. My last scene of that episode. And it was tough, in a beautiful way. It was like another day at work and then suddenly it was over and it’s like, “Oh my God, that was the last scene.” It kind of caught me by surprise. I had been deliberate about the other scenes in the episode, and shot those all together. But the coffee cart scene got kicked down the schedule a few weeks because of the weather, since we had to shoot outside. So it pops up on the schedule, you go in and shoot it and then it’s like, “Oh my God, wait.”
How open is the door for you to return to Grey’s?
I love that about the show, that people come back. I think it’s open. I think that’s a question for Meg Marinis, who is the new showrunner. But I am open to it and I think the storyline leaves it pretty open.
What are you looking to do next?
I want to play more iconic characters in era-defining projects with incredible, brilliant collaborators, you know? (Laughs.) I’ve been really lucky to have spent nine years on a show that has enabled me to do a lot of different things: comedy and drama and everything in between, suspense and a little action — from the silly to the very meaningful and impactful. I look forward to going deeper one character at a time into any and all of those things. It’s just a matter of the project and the collaborators and hopefully I’ll get to do some really fun stuff.
You mentioned that you lived a lot of life while on Grey’s. You met your husband on the set and started a family during this time. In terms of the support you’ve had on this set through the years and how it’s functioned, what are you looking for in your next gig?
I love TV. I really love the collaborative process of working with the writers and building up these characters that you get to be with for a while. I love the idea of a limited series where you can have a beginning, middle and end of an arc, and dive into longform character building in that way. I’m looking for collaborators who love to do that, too.
Looking back at Maggie’s storylines, is there one thing you are most proud of that sticks with you?
I’m really proud of how the show handled COVID and the way they allowed Maggie to navigate that from her very particular unique perspective as a Black woman doctor at that time. Her identity sort of helped level up her ability to see and be heroic, as I think so many of our medical professionals were during that time. They all went through so much. We played that storyline in a way that was not escapist or necessarily fun for most of our audience, but I can’t tell you how many medical professionals I know who have thanked me for showing the nitty gritty of that. They felt seen. And I think that was some of the most challenging and enriching work that I did on the show.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Grey’s Anatomy releases new episodes of season 19 Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC, with the show also streaming on Hulu.
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