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Dr. Jackson Avery has left the building.
Following a more than decade-long run, Jesse Williams has officially said farewell to Grey’s Anatomy and the ABC medical drama’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. The actor signed off during the drama’s May 20 installment that saw his alter ego depart for Boston — alongside fellow departing star Greg Germann (Tom Koracick) — as they both head for Boston to combat the inequalities in medicine as leaders of the Avery Foundation.
For Williams, the decision to leave the Ellen Pompeo-starrer was part of a discussion the actor had with showrunner Krista Vernoff about Jackson’s trajectory that ultimately helped solidify 11 seasons of storyline as the doctor came into his own. “It took shape in this last year or so. We try, whenever possible, to talk with what’s true to the character and not what’s true to our other needs and wants. I’m glad to be able to help design that,” Williams told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday.
Below, Williams opens up about leaving Grey’s, how he influenced how Jackson’s storyline wrapped and what he’s most proud of imparting on the Shonda Rhimes-produced medical drama.
You’ve been with the show for more than a decade. When did you know that season 17 was going to be the end of your time on Grey’s and what was the impetus that led to your decision to leave?
It came up this season. It was a combination of trying to figure out with Krista and the team what makes sense and what’s next for Jackson. His pot is kind of bubbling over. What does he need to be doing? He’s been on this off-screen path of self-discovery, he’s had trouble with abandonment issues and had unfinished business with his dad and, after his marriage ended and April went away, he’s been unable to maintain real connection and romantic relationships and platonic relationships. He’s thrown himself into work.
Jackson left a few times but also was never a part of any community. Being an Avery, he was expected to go into surgery. But what else is there? He was never involved in anything that was happening and the world was coming to a boil. He’s been in bubble wrap his whole life and needed to do something and connect to something he was passionate about that wasn’t just his profession. It felt organic that Jackson had to change his environment and was willing to make a connection to something. What if he goes with his gut instead of his legacy? What if he goes to what’s true to him? Watching what’s happening in the streets and how it impacts Black and brown folks, it made sense that he needs to venture off and shed the shelter and try something new — or use it to do something that he’s passionate about.
How was your decision received by Krista and Shonda, who said writing for you was her “honor”?
This was an organic, collective decision; it wasn’t something I had to tell anybody. It was something we found and understood and were trying to honor it and do properly. It was a team effort throughout. It didn’t feel like any one of us coming to the other and having an outcome predetermined. We wrote something together and this is what it was.
And Ellen’s response?
It’s been pretty emotional. Our last scene together was very emotional as Jesse and Ellen as much as it was Jackson and Meredith. That’s my buddy and this is a new side for both of us. I haven’t always been an emotionally available person and this journey was increasingly emotional.
How involved were you with how Jackson’s storyline came to an end, especially with bringing Sarah Drew back?
I was very involved and beyond excited to be able to spend time with her at the end. I love her and we really collaborated so much in the world of “Japril” and were very hands on and making sure that work was true to the characters and selfless. Years had gone by and we fell right back into it. It was really special and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Jackson’s farewell coincided with that of Greg Germann’s Koracick. Was that something you two discussed?
That was a total surprise to me. Greg is great. And I said this to him but ever since he joined the show all the cast pinched themselves with how delightful he was to be around. He’s so smart in the way he performs and a class act off-camera. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work with him and learn from him in this short time. It’s a pretty noble way to go out.
The episode also featured a lot of poignant flashbacks to moments in Jackson’s career. Looking back on your time with Grey’s, what are you personally most proud of having accomplished?
When I look at the through line of how fans have approached me and the respect that has been earned for a surgeon of color who doesn’t fall into any one box, and struggles, has nuance and vulnerability and makes mistakes and is fallible and needs to grow and is able to find his vulnerabilities and share them — it’s really human. People connect to his journey.
Being able to be safe enough in a workspace to be able to introduce real-world impact. This isn’t just a biracial doctor in an alternate universe; this is our universe. What does he do when he goes home? What are the obstacles he’s had? And how does it feel when you’re dealing with a conflict of interest in terms of a cop who shot a kid and you have to operate on him? What’s hard and threatening about that? What’s it like to be in a failed relationship or lose a child but also to come to work every day and face the person that you feel like you failed and struggled with?
I’m really proud of being able to humanize things that are always projected to be so polarizing and far away in our society. Being able to look at the way these last couple episodes how he went out, these are really polarizing topics: racism, police brutality, racial inequality in medicine, discrimination … these are things that people put their head in the sand, deny and argue about and have been political punching bags. And this character and his journey has connected with people from all walks of life.
What Shonda has created with Grey’s is a pioneering vision of characters that are human and not just a Black guy. It’s a person with love, a childhood, a relationship and so much harder to stereotype and dismiss real people that you can connect to and feel like you know. It’s a beautiful ship to be on and I’m honored and proud of the impact that we’ve had all over the world. People see themselves or their loved ones or the conversations they’re scared to have on screen. And that’s forever.
What’s next for you, post-Grey’s?
Broadway, baby! I’m playing the lead in a play. I’ve signed on to a couple movies, I’m pitching a couple shows in development and working on a piece of material to direct and I just directed an episode of [Vernoff’s] Rebel. I’ve got my entrepreneurial stuff and am always coming out with new tech products and games. And I’m launching an educational platform called Assemble for the BIPOC community that’s pulling the greatest teachers around country. I’m never not busy in terms of social justice, entrepreneurial, diversity and directing, acting and producing.
You made your directorial debut on Grey’s Anatomy. After Giacomo Gianniotti returned to direct after his character was killed off, would come back to direct? Or appear on screen in the series finale, whenever that may be?
I’m open to coming back and directing and maybe appearing on camera again, [that’s] totally possible. I love collaborating with these folks and am open to any ideas and seeing how they take shape.
Did you keep anything from the set?
I was gifted a bunch of amazing things from our cast and crew, everybody involved on set wrote letters. I got this beautiful box of letters and memorabilia that included my original scrub coat, stethoscope, ID and all these cool pieces from Jackson Avery’s world. It was really moving and heartfelt. I really love those folks.
Lastly, Sarah Drew said that she decided Jackson and April are endgame. Where do you stand on the topic?
I love that and think it totally makes sense that it’s possible. They are each other’s “person.” Nobody knows him, loves him, respects him, has seen his worst and is able to understand him like April does. They will, at the very least, continue to be tremendous friends but, yeah, I think it’s pretty damn likely that they ride off into the sunset to Boston and a new place together and raise their child together. They’re going to reconnect in a romantic way, and that’s totally possible. That’s what the fans want and we try to give them as much as we could.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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