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Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey is getting behind the wheel at Velocity for a four-part docuseries featuring the car-racing enthusiast as he prepares for and competes in France’s legendary 24-hour race, LeMans.
The series follows the 15 month journey to the oldest and most grueling endurance race, which is considered the Mount Everest of the sport, and sees drivers and their camps fundraising to compete and finish the course. Dempsey becomes the fourth actor to finish the race — joining a field that includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and James Garner.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Dempsey at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour to chat about his love of racing, how his Grey’s Anatomy cohorts feel about it and what’s ahead for Derek when season 10 of the ABC medical drama returns in September.
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The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get into racing?
Patrick Dempsey: I’ve always loved racing. The first part of my life, I wanted to be a ski racer. I had won the state of Maine championship in slalom and that’s all I wanted to do. I was much more geared toward being an athlete and being in the Olympics was my goal. I ended up picking up the unicycle to improve my balance. That brought me into the circus world and to performing and that’s how I got into the acting profession. Now I think the acting has brought me back into being an athlete and to being competitive and back into being in racing. I feel more at home in the racing community in many ways than I do in Hollywood; it feels familiar.
THR: Who of your Grey’s Anatomy colleagues understood your passion the most?
Dempsey: Eric Dane did. He watched the documentary Truth in 24, which is the story about Audi and how they dominated LeMans. For the most part, I don’t think people follow it. Everybody does their own thing outside of Grey’s and then we come together to work. Because it is so intense and the hours are so long, you need to go away and do other things. James [Pickens Jr.] is very much into the rodeo and that’s his equivalent to racing. They talk about that behind the scenes in the DVD for season nine.
THR: How has ABC responded to your burgeoning racing career? Are there any stipulations about what you can and can’t do in your contract?
Dempsey: It’s an ensemble show so I’m completely expendable! [Laughs] So I don’t think that matters. I’m very grateful that ABC allows me to do it. I think it’s good for the show because we’re off in all these different countries and states racing and we’re always talking about Grey’s. It’s a great way to promote the show.
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THR: You’ve spoken to Paul Newman about racing. What was that like? Did you discuss LeMans?
Dempsey: It was great. He was complaining about his allergies and about the setup on the car — that they weren’t fast enough. We talked all about racing and nothing to do with Hollywood whatsoever. We didn’t talk about LeMans at all.
THR: Looking back on making Racing LeMans, what was the hardest part?
Dempsey: By the time I got to the race and was in the car, I was relaxed and comfortable. It was chasing money, finding the right car and dealing with a lot of the politics. That was the challenge. It’s almost like raising money for a movie; it’s the same thing. I find the racing and raising money is very similar to raising money for a film. The businesses are very similar.
THR: You’re a big fan of documentaries. Would you make another project like this again?
Dempsey: I would love to do more documentaries for Velocity. There’s a couple other shows that we’re talking about now and it depends on the success of this and if people tune in and watch. There are a handful of documentaries for television that I want to do. I like working in television. I think that’s the best place to be where you can get your stuff seen.
THR: Would you do a return to LeMans? What other docs do you have in mind?
Dempsey: I’d love to go back to LeMans. I would do some stuff on racers from the ’60s. I’d really like to get into that first generation that went and raced in F1 in Europe. Jesse Alexander is in the piece a little bit and he captured that era so beautifully. Dan Gurney is a remarkable man who I think it would be nice to do some stuff on him. Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, who used to be a neighbor, there’s a lot on him but there’s still more to talk about there. I would do a series on those men and women of that era as well. [Women’s racing] started back in the ’20s in England. There were a lot of great women in the field. So there’s that and a couple other things that I’d like to do.
THR: What’s been your biggest fear doing LeMans?
Dempsey: Getting behind the wheel was easy. I didn’t particularly like having cameras around all the time, though you sort of forget about them. The fun part for me has been the archival footage and exploring the history here because I do love the history of the sport. We get into that and it’s fun to share that with people so that they understand why I love it and educate them along the way. That’s how I learn — through documentaries.
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THR: Does racing help keep you fresh for the rigors of Grey’s Anatomy?
Dempsey: Yes, it charges me, I feel great. It’s frustrating now because we’re so close to winning [a race] and I haven’t been on the podium yet. We’re going to break through eventually. We’ve had some second places, some top five finishes and had a good run at LeMans and almost won the thing. But the level I’m racing at is just so competitive and to be able to compete at that level is different than when you go to a show. You lose perspective. You know what Los Feliz [where Grey’s films] is like. You don’t realize the global impact of what’s going on there happens outside.
THR: Especially on an international show like Grey’s.
Dempsey: When we were in France the crowds were everywhere. It’s like everybody’s your hometown, you go home and everybody’s your friend. They’re very warm to you. For me, it’s very important and this is what I would want to let them know: that I appreciate that.
THR: Looking at season 10 of Grey’s Anatomy, will there be a time jump when the season resumes?
Dempsey: We’re continuing on where we left off last season. It’s continuous and it feels like it, too. The storm is continuing on and we pick up right where we left off. We’re still dealing with the crisis of what’s happening with the storm. We air the first two hours and our fourth episode in the season is our 200th, which is remarkable in itself.
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THR: Have you heard any rumblings about what that 200th is going to be?
Dempsey: Not at this point; I think they’re still trying to figure it out. People are very excited this year and the cast is as well. People really are enjoying the fact that we’ve made it to 200 episodes in 10 years.
THR: Do you think this is going to be the last season of Grey’s?
Dempsey: I don’t think it will be. I think it will continue on. Whether or not we’re in the show, I think the show will continue on. I know [creator] Shonda [Rhimes] would like it to continue.
THR: Do you want to continue beyond season 10?
Dempsey: I think it’s worth having the discussion, certainly.
THR: What’s Derek’s trajectory this season?
Dempsey: We’re going to get into President Obama’s agenda on brain mapping. I think that will be fun for Shepard to get into that, it’s a fascinating thing. I’ve been starting to look at the research on that and what they’re trying to achieve. I’m excited about that storyline. The writers are really getting into it. I think it would be fun to see Shepard go to D.C. and be part of the brain mapping. At the same time, it is a procedural so we need to see him in the OR. But it would be nice to be doing the brain mapping and then dealing with the political aspect of what they’re doing as well and then really allowing people to understand what Obama’s agenda is with that and how important it is so we can be informative and entertaining at the same time. I hope we can go in that direction.
THR: What’s Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) part of that?
Dempsey: Meredith is going to be juggling her career with children and Shepard is going to spending more time with the children than his career — at least initially. We’re going to see what kind of conflict that brings in their relationship. They can’t be just be happy; we have to have some conflict with those two. Life is always about conflict, isn’t it?
Patrick Dempsey’s: Racing LeMans premieres Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. on Velocity. Grey’s Anatomy returns with its two-hour premiere Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. on ABC.
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