Chandra Wilson doesn’t understand actresses these days. “Everybody just wants to be famous, throwing all the eggs in that one basket. I know a lot of these burnout chicks,” says the 39-year-old star of Grey’s Anatomy. Wilson’s tiny enough to fold her whole body into a chair in the Ambassador Theater, where she’s rehearsing for a monthlong stint as Matron “Mama” Morton in Chicago. “I never understood that race—there’s enough to go around! Thankfully, I had early mentors who taught me what a career really is.” It was going to NYU, training at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and landing every small part she possibly could. “Before Grey’s Anatomy, I was doing musicals, plays, commercials, you name it,” she says, shivering in the theater’s air-conditioning. “Are we sitting right under a vent or what?” Wilson performed on Broadway in On the Town, Avenue Q, and Caroline, or Change, before moving to Los Angeles when she was cast in Grey’s Anatomy in 2005. Playing surgeon Miranda Bailey, Wilson’s mix of toughness and vulnerability brings a welcome depth to an otherwise soapy show. “Luckily, I get to do this piece of TV that affords me the opportunity to pick and choose a bit, but this is where I started, this is why I came to New York.” Now on hiatus, she’s taking on the role of Chicago’s brash prison matron, most famously portrayed by Queen Latifah in the 2002 movie version. “Mama has a different kind of sex appeal—she’s confident and manipulative. My daughters keep comparing everything I try to Queen, and I’m like, ‘It’s not going to be exactly like that!’ ” She admits it’s new to perform for an audience that may have preconceived notions. “As someone coming to see me, you do want to get some of the familiar—I’ll give them the Chandra Wilson they recognize, then spice it up a little and have them come along for the ride.” Wilson’s future in Grey’s seem secure, unlike that of her co-stars Katherine Heigl and T. R. Knight, but she says she’s always ready to go back to regional theater, if necessary. “They have until the 20th to send me my letter and let me know I still have my job. You have to enjoy it while it lasts, until you get hit by the bus,” she says. “And even that can be fun.”
Chandra Wilson on Chicago and burnout victims.
Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb.