Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. Read at your own risk!
When Grey’s Anatomy boss Shonda Rhimes told EW that the finale would be “on fire,” she was being quite literal.
After Stephanie set fire to the escaping rapist in the penultimate hour, she accidentally caused a giant explosion in the hospital. Against all odds, Stephanie survived the fire, and even saved the little girl, but the event made her realize that she’s spent most of her life in a hospital and doesn’t want to anymore. Yes, Stephanie survived, but she subsequently quits — and her portrayer Jerrika Hinton is officially leaving the ABC medical drama.
“Actors evolve differently and when an actor like Jerrika comes to me and says she wants to try something new creatively, I like to honor that,” executive producer Shonda Rhimes says of the exit. “Jerrika has shared so much of herself with Stephanie and I am incredibly proud of the journey we’ve taken together. While I’m sad to see Stephanie leave Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, I am excited to see what’s next for Jerrika.”
EW turned to Hinton to get the scoop on why she decided to leave:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came with the decision to leave Grey’s Anatomy, and what was that conversation with Shonda like?
JERRIKA HINTON: That was a conversation that happened almost a year ago. It was very, very open and straightforward. You ever have one of those conversations — with a superior in particular, not just a peer — that feels like a natural, genuine meeting of the minds? That’s what that conversation was like. It was extremely and deeply gratifying.
How do you feel about how Stephanie’s story came to an end, that she went off to live her own life and not die, which is what everyone expected after that penultimate episode?
I’m a fan. I deeply appreciate that she gets to leave a lasting mark, not just in that place, but also from what the fans on social media are saying and within the audiences’ minds as well. I feel like this is the natural conclusion of what her journey has been over this season. Her journey has been about self-actualization and repression. Being in the line of work that is about literal life and death and yet no one processing it, and no one encouraging that you process it; Minnick was possibly the only one, in episode 22 or 23, when she sent Steph to therapy. For as upset as people may be with Minnick, that was the right thing. That is the thing that not only Stephanie needs, but everybody in that line of work — everybody in that hospital definitely — needs. You’ve got her sacrificing herself for a place that isn’t doing the same thing for her. We saw it when they lost the little boy, and Robbins ran after Minnick rather than tending to the distraught resident. You’ve got her in the midst of conditions that are figuratively and literally burning her out. It’s meaningful that she not only sees the world for what it is, but that she also makes a healthy decision about how to move forward. Whenever we see people on television making those kinds of hard decisions, it makes it easier for us to do that in our own lives — or at least makes us soften to the possibility of doing that in our own lives.
Was there ever a possibility that they were going to kill off Stephanie?
I mean, I’ve pitched a lot of things over the years, and I’m sure the writers in the bungalow have pitched a lot of things this season. So, I can’t necessarily speak to how many versions of Stephanie’s exit there were, but I know there were multiple versions.
Would you have wanted her to die?
Only if it had been in a very specific way. There are a very narrow set of circumstances that I felt would be appropriate for her to exit the show with death. It can’t just be death for melodrama’s sake.
Stephanie basically got Minnick fired. How do you think she feels about that?
I think in that final interaction that Stephanie has with Minnick, Stephanie would feel a-okay. She would not lose any sleep at night. This is what I will say: Everybody should just go off and live their best life.
Looking back at your time on the show, is there any particular moment that sticks out to you?
Honestly, it’s going to be that scene with Jim [Pickens Jr.] in the finale. Everything about shooting the last two episodes was so strenuous and exhausting and, in ways, traumatizing. That one scene, which came very early in the schedule of the finale, was a moment where everything became easy, and everything had such flow. In the midst of such chaos and spectacle, to have something like that, I think the dichotomy alone makes it something that just stands out for me.
What was it like filming this episode?
It was a beast, to be quite honest with you. I’m still recovering, physically and emotionally, from it. I’m going to get emotional. When my parents get in town [Thursday] and we go over to my girlfriend’s house and we all sit down together and have a big viewing party, there’s going to be a couple things that I know I can’t watch, just because it’s going to feel like I am going through it again; I can’t watch it as a viewer. So I’m prepared for that. But to speak about production, I had to do an hour of prosthetics every morning, you had pyrotechnics going off all around you, you were breathing propane fumes all day, all week, running up and down stairs, carrying a kid, screaming my heart out on a rooftop in the middle of the night. It was a lot. It was more than I have ever had to endure with an episode or a role. I hope it was all worth it, I hope it all shows on the screen.
Is there anything you would change or anything you regret from your time on Grey’s?
No. I’ve been there for five years, and the decision to leave was my own that was supported in a very deep way that I could never communicate, by my boss, and a host of other things that I could mention that have happened in those five years that are just significant memories. So when I look back on my time, I genuinely can’t. Not only do I not have regrets, I don’t have any what ifs, I don’t have any if onlys; everything that has happened has happened in exactly the way that it should for myself. I look forward to the next chapter, because I know I can close this and let go of this one so cleanly.
There’s really nothing you wish you had gotten to do with Stephanie? No romance you wish you could’ve explored?
No, because for me to answer that question, I’d have to create a whole new world of circumstances. Within the circumstances of what the show is and all the characters that we have had and all the pairings that we have had over the years, there’s nothing else I would’ve done differently. There are no new romances that I think they should’ve thought out with cast members. It’s not like I think Stephanie should’ve taken over the hospital, none of that. Everything has been what it is.
Are you open to returning to Grey’s Anatomy in the future?
Yes, that place has a really wonderful soft spot in my heart. I think that because of the nature of Stephanie’s injuries and the way that she has decided to leave, what she has decided to prioritize, for it to make sense, it would have to be a long time before Stephanie graces those halls again for it to make sense. She can’t have gone through all of this and then six months later says, “Hey guys, just kidding, I’m back. I went and I took two hikes and I was like, ‘I’m good!'”
You’ve already signed onto something new, this Alan Ball project for HBO. Is there anything you can say?
To be honest with you, even though I’m a month outside of being in Shondaland, my reflexes are still Shondaland reflexes, which means I get very nervous about sharing information. Even though I’m certain I can, I’m still working to recalibrate those reflexes. The new show is really wonderful. I’m very, very excited about my character. I’m still scared, because I don’t know what I can or can’t say. Shonda has trained me well. [Laughs] Words can’t explain [how much fun I’m having]. My new family and I, we have this group text. We sit and text all day. If you would’ve told me a few months ago that I would sit on my phone texting all day with a bunch of people, I would’ve said, “That sounds like pure hell, please let me just turn off my phone and not be connected,” but I pick up my phone and go, “What is the group talking about today?” It’s just so exciting. There’s such love and generosity. It’s very collaborative. I feel very fortunate.
Grey’s Anatomy will return this fall on ABC.