Grey's Anatomy continues to break barriers.
Beginning with Thursday's episode, titled "Save the Last Dance for Me" and directed by Jesse Williams, ABC's long-running medical drama welcomes deaf actress Shoshannah Stern to Grey Sloan for a multi-episode arc as Dr. Lauren Riley, a renowned diagnostics expert recruited by Dr. Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) to help heal a supposedly incurable patient, played by Suits alum Sarah Rafferty.
Stern's introduction on Grey's is a monumental one, as her character marks the first time a deaf doctor will be prominently featured on primetime television. (A decade ago, Heroes had a character, Emma Coolidge, that worked as a file clerk at a hospital.) For Stern, who co-created the deaf dramedy This Close alongside Josh Feldman and has appeared on shows like Supernatural, coming onto Grey's was an opportunity to shine a light on a community that hasn't been given its time in the spotlight.
"I think having a deaf doctor on a show like this could change, even save lives. But I think what’s most incredible about it is the level of collaboration that happened behind the scenes in order to make this come to life," Stern tells ET. "Grey’s didn’t just collaborate with me, they also reached out to several other deaf doctors to make sure that what they were writing was accurate. I really don’t think Dr. Riley could or should have happened any other way. Maybe that’s why she is the first. Maybe that’s how she had to be brought to life."
In an interview with ET, conducted over email, Stern revealed how a chance conversation with showrunner Krista Vernoff landed her with a guest arc on Grey's, her experience being directed by Williams and what she hopes the introduction of Dr. Riley adds to the narrative of deaf storytelling and deaf characters on television.
ET: In 16 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, we haven't seen a character quite like Dr. Lauren Riley. How did the opportunity to join the season come about? Was the character written with you in mind?
Shoshannah Stern: I’ve always wanted to be a doctor on Grey’s. Always. And when I got the opportunity to meet Krista Vernoff, the showrunner, we talked about inclusion because Grey’s has done really wonderful things with that. One of the reasons I love the show is because it really embraces using the platform it has to educate people. A lot of other shows are afraid of doing that, but not Grey’s. And Krista is brilliant. I think she’s the kind of person who would rather listen than talk. One of the other things we were talking about when we met, was how I was personally affected by the writers' strike. She asked me if I needed a job in the writers' room and in a moment of complete stupidity I said to her, “No, because I want to be a deaf doctor on Grey’s.” In my defense, I was stupid delirious on cold medicine at the time, but the moral of this story might be that I need to be more stupid, because she invited me into the writers' room as a result. I got to sit down with her and all the writers and talk about our ideas for this character for a few hours. It was incredible. I know I’ll never forget it.
This is the first time a doctor who is deaf will be featured prominently on primetime television. How does it feel to be at the forefront of crucial cultural moments like this one?
I couldn’t believe it when I found out Dr. Riley was going to be the first deaf doctor not just on Grey’s, but on all of television. I was like, "No, that can’t be right?" So I looked it up, and I guess there have been deaf people with doctorates and deaf people who worked in labs, but never a deaf M.D. There is a whole organization for deaf people in the medical field called the AMPHL that I followed even before I did this, because I’m a nerd like that, so it’s something that is very real but hasn’t been represented before. And they work tirelessly to make real and exciting change in the field. I’m so incredibly honored to help shine a light on what they do. I think having a deaf doctor on a show like this could change, even save lives. But I think what’s most incredible about it is the level of collaboration that happened behind the scenes in order to make this come to life. Grey’s didn’t just collaborate with me, they also reached out to several other deaf doctors to make sure that what they were writing was accurate. I really don’t think Dr. Riley could or should have happened any other way. Maybe that’s why she is the first. Maybe that’s how she had to be brought to life.
What conversations did you have with the producers and writers about making sure Dr. Riley's experiences and abilities were portrayed accurately? Did they seek out your guidance throughout the process?
Grey’s was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had on a show that was not mine. Apart from that initial two-hour-long conversation we had in the writers' room where I brought folders of research I’d done and the ideas they’d inspired, I got to share thoughts on the scripts when they were ready. It didn’t matter if they were bigger character thoughts or tiny things like me not being able to pronounce a specific word and needing to swap it out, they were always super-receptive to them. Jesse Williams, who directed Dr. Riley’s first episode, also asked to meet with me before we shot to map out not just how Riley would communicate, but also the kind of stuff I’d need from him blocking-wise as a deaf actor. He honestly blew me away. I’ve never met someone who understood the deaf experience as immediately and viscerally as he did. Krista even allowed me to work with the editors in order to give visual notes on the cuts. It was next level amazing.
What was important to you in your portrayal of this character?
It was important to me that rather than Dr. Riley overcoming this insurmountable obstacle of deafness in order to be great at her job, her being deaf actually made her better at what she did. It was also important to me that her being deaf wasn’t central to her character, and that she didn’t have to continually explain to everyone else that she was a deaf person existing in this world. A lot of times when deaf characters are shown on television, they show the struggle and that’s not authentic. It’s not because it’s never a struggle, but it’s always executed as if it’s something that’s happening for the very first time. And most of the time, deaf people have already been deaf for a very long time, so they’ve got this. In reality, it’s the other people around them who struggle because they’re like, Oh, OK, I have no experience communicating with this person in this particular way. That’s what the new experience actually is, and I think we got to show that in a very organic way.
You've been vocal about your desires for deaf storytelling and deaf characters to be written and approached in a respectful, fully-dimensional way. How do you think the introduction of Dr. Riley adds to the narrative?
She’s an incredible example, hopefully, for how collaboration can and should work when incorporating deaf characters, or really, any character from a minority community. I think a lot of times, people are afraid to collaborate because they don’t want to give up ownership. And as a creative, I totally get that. You feel like the characters and the stories you create are your babies. But ultimately collaboration is about empowerment. And empowerment is not about sacrificing power. It’s saying, “I don’t know about this because I haven’t lived it for myself, so please tell me more.” And doing that makes the project stronger as a result. I didn’t write, produce or direct any of the episodes that Dr. Riley is in. But I think the common goal all of us had was simply that we had the project’s best interest at heart, so I was allowed the space I needed to make Dr. Riley as authentic as I possibly could within their parameters. I didn’t come in and set these parameters. It’s not my show, it’s their show, and I’m so honored and grateful to be on it. That’s really the model of how it should be, and that’s so incredibly important.
Can you set the table for how Dr. Riley comes into the fold at Grey Sloan?
We met Suzanne Britland, played by the awesome Sarah Rafferty, a couple weeks ago. She’s been in and out of the hospital and nobody can quite figure out what’s wrong with her and it’s kind of haunting DeLuca. So he decides to turn to this master diagnostician who’s a genius at what she does to help him figure out what’s going on with the case, and that’s Dr. Riley.
You work closely with Giacomo Gianniotti on a medical case involving Suits star Sarah Rafferty, and you even share a moment with Ellen Pompeo. How would you describe your experience on set working alongside this cast?
It’s the craziest thing because when Giacomo was introduced on the show, he resonated with me because he spoke Italian. That episode where DeLuca and his sister, Carina, argue in Italian in subtitles and nobody around them understands them, as well as him dating someone who didn’t know his native language and was learning it for him, all that reminded me of This Close. There was just a feeling I had about that character, so when Krista told me that DeLuca would be the character that Dr. Riley would work with, I was just like, "OK, yeah." It was almost like something that had already been written. I have to say I was totally shvitzing about working with Ellen just because she’s a legend, but she’s so refreshingly and passionately invested in what she does. She asks a lot of questions and was super great to work with. Sarah is a dream. She’s so cool and talented. I had just started watching Suits when I was sick in bed a couple months before, and so I asked her lots of questions about all her awesome outfits!
This is just the beginning of your time on Grey's. What is in store for your character beyond this episode?
I think her first episode is a lot about establishing her as a force because Dr. Riley is a fighter. I think a lot of that is because she knows she has to be kind of like a dog with a bone with the sort of job that she has. If she spent her time educating everyone in the room about how they should communicate with her or making sure that everyone was OK with her personality, the patient would be dead by the time she finished. She literally doesn’t have the time for that. But I think the more Dr. Riley hangs around, the more we’re going to learn about who she is beyond that initial impression. She’s had a lot of practice with advocating for herself, so she’s definitely someone who’s not afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself and others. I think that might end up having an impact on other people and their interpersonal relationships in ways that may be surprising.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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