In a Grey’s Anatomy season of many shockers, one of the biggest came earlier this month when Deadline reported that longtime cast member star Jesse Williams was departing the hit ABC medical drama after 12 seasons. The same night, in the episode “Look Up Child,” Williams’ character, Jackson Avery, who had had grown increasingly frustrated by the inequities in the healthcare system as well as the pandemic’s disproportionally large impact on communities of color, revealed that he would be leaving Grey Sloan Memorial to take over the family foundation and exact change, “creating real racial equity in medicine.”
To do so, he was moving to Boston. His ex-wife April, played by Grey’s alumna Sarah Drew, who returned for Williams’ exit, agreed to follow him there so he can be close to their daughter while dropping a bombshell of her own, that she had recently separated from her husband.
In Williams’ final episode, last night’s “Tradition,” Jackson broke the news to his colleagues, and Williams got to do scenes with all fellow long-time Grey’s actors, including original cast members Ellen Pompeo. Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr.. In an emotional heart-to-heart between Pompeo’s Meredith and Williams’ Jackson, she recalled how they were the last two of the original residents left while flashback footage from early seasons played, and now that he is leaving, she was the last one standing.
In an interview with Deadline, Williams spoke about filming that scene, discussed how the idea of Jackson’s move to Boston came about and what input he had on Jackson’s exit arc. Williams shared his vision for how Jackson would fare as head of the foundation, whether Japril may be back on and whether Jackson could occasionally be dropping by Grey Sloan Memorial now that, as Wilson’s Bailey put it, “he is our boss.”
A lifelong activist who also has tackled social issues like racial justice in some of his work, Williams, who produced this year’s live-action short film Oscar winner, Two Distant Strangers, spoke about what is next for him as an actor, director and producer as well as off-screen. (You can watch Grey’s Farewell to Jackson video, featuring some of his most memorable moments, under the Q&A).
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the genesis of your exit from the show. What kind of conversations did you have with showrunner Krista Vernoff and when did you know that this was going to be your last season on Grey’s?
WILLIAMS: It kind of happened organically this year, as we started to unpack where Jackson was in terms of his self-discovery. We look back at the last two years of him pretty consistently not finding success in relationships, having trust issues with relationships, bailing and going off into the woods by himself in a self-discovery thing, and a fair amount of safe distance, not manifesting any real platonic relationships with other folks in the hospital. He was a little lost ever since his divorce and some of the traumatic things that have happened, and meeting his father, it was really unfinished. You have a character that is in transition and trying to find himself and running into a lot of obstacles, and something has to change or else you’re just going to go numb and dissolve.
And then you have what’s happening outside in the real world, in terms of socially and politically, he starts feeling left out of there, too. He doesn’t have a real grip on his personal life or his romantic life, or his social life, and then his work life has been blanking in terms of his administrative. He’s an Avery so he’s got a lot of power and influence, but he runs from it, so he’s having identity issues, and then you see politically he doesn’t feel involved in this outside world. Why am I not involved? I’ve got to do something. We felt like this person had to change his environment, and it really would be really nice to show an adult man dig into how to repair himself. Essentially therapy. How to go confront his demons, figure out what it is that he understands about love and loss, and himself, and go back and confront his father and admit that this has really had a deleterious impact on my ability to have a relationship. You abandoned me. What the f*ck?
I have to confront that yeah, I’m not whole. I don’t have it together. I don’t know how to stay anywhere because I’ve got this huge thing hanging over my head, and I think it’s important to have examples of people, particularly men, and men of color, be vulnerable and say you know what, I don’t have it all together. I don’t care that I’m rich and girls like him, or whatever. So what? He doesn’t know himself and it’s important to paint examples of that and for him to go try to do something about that. I think that we agree, Krista and I, that this character can’t stay here. He needs to change his environment. We’ve already seen him on his own, but he needs to do something more meaningful that gives him purpose, and he needs to be around somebody that understands and knows him, that it’s not paternal instinct and patting him on head as an elder, like his mom or Richard.
So, it kind of just happened naturally through really honoring what the truth of the character, not what I want or what the show wants, or what the fans want. What is true for the character? Where would he find himself?
DEADLINE: Knowing your off-screen activism and some of your producing work, especially on the documentary side, it really blends with what Jackson wants to accomplish next. Did you have an input in his exit storyline?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I definitely had a say in the process, the journey that he’s on as well as the words that he says. It’s interesting because there are similarities in the sport but not in the position played on the team, right, because I myself, Jesse Williams, have been politically aware since I was five years old and always involved in political work, whereas Jackson is literally the opposite, has never been involved in any way, shape, or form. So, while I, Jesse, have a familiarity with the language and experience he has none whatsoever, but I can relate to the myriad of people that I come across that are trying to find their way in, and what’s happening nowadays is people who’ve never had to experience this social justice stuff and been able to avoid it their whole life and just kind of be politically agnostic realizing that their silence is consent and want be involved.
How can I be involved without judgment and feeling shame that I wasn’t involved before? I might draw more attention to myself by trying to be involved now. It’s a very polarizing time in our history, so let’s embrace that and let a character explore that and be vulnerable and honest, and like hey, I don’t know anything about this. I haven’t been involved. I’ve just watched it and that was it. My mom convinced me not to be involved and how can I put my toe in, how can I be helpful. He messed up. He tried to throw money at a problem, and it made it worse, and those are all mistakes that I think audience members can relate to, and yeah. I was definitely involved in trying to create that content.
DEADLINE:In your mind, how does the next chapter for Jackson in Boston running the foundation pan out? Will he deliver on his intentions? Will he reconnect with April, will they and their daughter become a family again?
WILLIAMS : In my mind he will have many stumbles on his road to success in the administrative that he’s taken on running a foundation. I think this is something he will not, cannot give up on. He’s finally found a place for his whole self that is not just his profession. He loved his job as a surgeon. He was damn good at it but it’s only using one half of himself, and he needs to find something that feeds his soul. He’s always felt like he was not part of the community of his choosing. He’s not amongst the people, he’s not regular. He’s got this legacy and all of this money, and all of this privilege and people like the way he looks, which has nothing to do with him, but he gets credit for it. It’s all of these things that bubble around him.
He’s always had this bubble wrap around him that has protected him, and being able to do this work, I think, he’s going to be thrilled and feeling like blood is coursing through his veins in a whole new way now. He’s going to feel alive in a way that he hasn’t before, which is very exciting. I’m happy for him, and I can relate to moments in my life. I try to surround myself and do work that is not just for a check but work that I really care about and that I can watch positively impact people, so that’s what I envision for him professionally.
Yeah, I think it’s pretty possible that he rekindles a romantic connection to his ex-wife, they’re damn good together, but most importantly what he needs from that is friendship and kindness, and patience, and understanding, and I think that he will get that with her and be able to share and give and reciprocate it as well.
DEADLINE: And since, as Bailey said, Jackson is now his former colleague’s boss, is there a possibility for him to drop in on them in the future? Would return to Grey’s for an occasional guest appearance?
WILLIAMS: You know, I can’t be sure, but I think it’s possible. Yeah, I think it’s totally possible. I think it’s totally possible. You never know how things will shake out. There’s a lot of other factors at play, including schedules and stuff, but I love the idea of keeping that option open.
DEADLINE: In your final episode, you had a scene with Ellen and the other cast members you’d been with on the show for a long time, and there were flashbacks. How was it doing those scenes and reminiscing about the early days and how far all of you have come since then?
WILLIAMS: Well, it’s interesting because the reminiscing part wasn’t really part of the script, honestly. I guess fans don’t really know that, but I was surprised to see that as well. I think the showrunner and director decided in edit to cut away into all of these flashbacks, original scenes, but I didn’t know that was going to be part of it.
We were just playing the scenes, and especially the scene with Ellen. The scene with Meredith and Jackson that was really emotional and that really had parallels to real life. Ellen Pompeo is a good friend of mine, and I’m leaving, my proximity to her is changing. I’m not going to see her at work anymore, we’re leaving each other in that way, and that was emotional and directly tied to the characters.
And keep in mind all of these scenes that you see, there’s 30 crewmembers standing right next to you, over you, and these are all people that I really care about and came to know, especially as a director. I’ve been directing every year with them. I spend time with them differently, learn more about them and their families, learn more about their craft and respect them all the more because I understand the incredible work that they don’t, so it’s palpable.
The whole room is fueled with, This is the end of an era. This is the end of a connection with somebody. We spend more time, more hours in the day, with these people than with your family by and large, so it was all very loaded, to say the least. And it’s a weird thing because there’s some sadness in there but there’s excitement. I’m excited about what’s to come next, and everybody’s excited for me, but it’s also sad, so you have this intermix of grief and pride, among other feelings, all at once, so that’s an interesting place to be, and then having a camera in you face to record something for the rest of human history, so it’s a lot.
DEADLINE: What is next for you as an actor and producer? You also have been directing on Grey’s, would you be back on the show behind the camera?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m definitely going to be directing more and more in my life and I am totally open to coming back and directing Grey’s. I just directed Krista’s other show, Rebel, with Katey Sagal and Andy Garcia, and recently directed other projects outside of that family so I’m wide open to that. I’ve already signed on to a couple movies as an actor and a producer. And I’m launching an education platform called Assemble, which is an education platform aggregating all of the best and brightest people of color around the country to teach classes and share their skills and experiences, and their journeys online and on a mobile app that include incredible coursework for folks and try to close the education gap in our country, in terms of institutional education being a huge barrier to entry for women and people of color. We’re going to bring them directly to readers to be able to build skills and be able to learn how to turn their passions into professions and personal development, that’s something I’m putting a lot of energy into right now.
So, I’m always balancing some entrepreneurial work with the creative. I’m doing some writing right now, to write and direct something of my own, and I actually might be writing a book as well, so I’m never not busy that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: Any final thoughts as you are closing the Grey’s chapter of your career?
WILLIAMS: Besides my immense gratitude to the fans, I would like to just say that the role of the fans has never been more clear to me. They are not this auxiliary additive bonus item at the end of the process. They’re directly involved in the entire journey, and I have an immense appreciation and respect for them. S o it’s a big thank you to the fans and also, it’s always good to know that we onboard new generations of fans all the time. There are plenty of 12, and 14, and 18-year old’s that are just now discovering season one and watching it with their members of their family that are in their 60s and 70s. We’re getting new fans all the time, and it’s really exciting to see this show has so many lives, and it’s really cool to know that it doesn’t just end and never really branch out. It’s reborn every day, so I’m still on the journey. This leg of it is over, so just immense gratitude. Gratitude and excitement.