On July 16, new NBC entertainment cochairman Ben Silverman told the writers assembled at the summer TCA press tour that Isaiah Washington had been added to the cast of this fall’s reinvented Bionic Woman for a five-episode guest stint. Silverman also told reporters that he’d first spoken with Washington before the actor’s Grey’s Anatomy contract was up, then was shocked to learn he’d been dropped from ABC. This statement led to a (jokingly?) confrontational suggestion from ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson several days later that Silverman must be living in a cave if he missed the whole F-word kerfuffle; McPherson also questioned whether Silverman had perhaps induced Washington to break his Grey’s contract.
EW spoke by phone with Washington, who is currently in Vancouver shooting his Bionic episodes. Luckily for both Silverman and McPherson, the actor was happy to set the timeline straight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did Ben Silverman approach you, and was it for this role specifically, or just an invitation to work with NBC in general?
ISAIAH WASHINGTON: The way I got it was on June 7, about six hours after I was let go by ABC. I found myself at the Chateau Marmont with [fashion designer] Ozwald Boateng, a friend of mine, talking about addressing the issues in Africa. And being that he is Ghanaian, there was a huge summit he wanted me to participate in around July 2. And that was what we continued to talk about. I didn’t have time to really think about, Okay, woe is me, where is my next job? I called my publicist and my agent and let them know what was going on, and let them do their jobs, but I went about the business of doing what I love to do, and that’s helping people. I like to use my celebrity in a way that can be effective, and can be something positive. That’s what I did. And interestingly enough — Will Yun Lee and I talked about this as we were chasing down a bad guy on set yesterday — when I was at the Chateau Marmont, Will Yun Lee walked up to me. And I’ve been a fan of his work as a martial artist and as an actor for three or four years now, and I was just about to congratulate him on his work in Elektra, opposite Jennifer Garner, and ask him what he’d been up to lately, because I want to follow his work, I want to support him. And as I was saying that, Ozwald Boateng walks up the stairs, and says, ”Hello, Isaiah!” and we start talking about all of this work we want to do in Africa for the next 20 years of our lives. And Will, being very modest and kind of shy, he stepped away, and when I looked around, he was gone. Now [laughs], as life would have it, I’m on the set all day with him. My first fight is with him. [Reporter’s note: Will Yun Lee was at the Chateau Marmont that night, along with the rest of the Bionic Woman cast, having a meet-and-greet with Entertainment Weekly writers. We approached Isaiah Washington at that time, but he had no comment.]
So when did Ben —
That day. Ozwald Boateng found out [I’d been dropped from ABC] because the press people — everyone started jumping all over me. He doesn’t even know I’m on Grey’s Anatomy. He’s never seen the show. But he hears the story and goes, ”Oh, wow, that sounds intense.” He goes, ”You know what? I think you should meet a friend of mine named Ben Silverman.” We’ve already had dinner, we talked about our plans, and by the time we wrapped up that meeting, it was around 10 p.m. So he calls Ben Silverman, Ben Silverman calls him back, and he says, ”Look, I have a friend of mine here, we’re finishing our meeting, and I think he’s someone you want to meet.” And Ben says, ”Who?” And he says, ”Isaiah Washington.” And he says, ”My God! Yes, I definitely want to meet him.” So we get to Mr. Chow’s, where Ben was having a celebratory get-together about his new position as cochairman of NBC. I was brought to his table immediately, and he didn’t know yet — I don’t think he’d received it on his BlackBerry yet — but I think word got around the room that night and he finally figured out that I had been let go five hours earlier. And he brought out this cake, with a picture of himself as the peacock, and behind his head were the feathers of NBC. And below the cake were some talons, and under the talons was the symbol of ABC and the other networks. And he looks at me and says, ”You’re those talons. Blow out the cake.” And I looked at him and I said, ”You’ve gotta be kidding me. I just got here, I just met you, you’re being very kind, but this is your party.” And he says, ”No. No. You’re coming to NBC. Blow out the cake.” And of course, all the executives, the people from [Silverman’s production company] Reveille, are all standing there looking at me, like, Hey, cochairman just said blow out the cake. You need to blow out the cake. So I go, ”Okay, I’ll blow out the candles on your cake.” And again, I just said, you know, This is a good night, Ozwald Boateng is taking care of me, being a great friend right now. It all feels great. But still, tomorrow, the sun has to come up, and I don’t know what to expect. When the sun came up, there was a call from Ben Silverman to my agent, saying, ”We’re very interested in talking to Isaiah about whatever it is he wants to do here at NBC. And we’re very interested in having him meet with the creative team to be a part of Bionic Woman.”
So it was definitely Bionic Woman they had you in mind for?
No, it was any show. ”What do you want to do?”
What was it about Bionic Woman that made you say, ”That’s the show for me”?
I have a wonderful respect for David Eick and Glen Morgan, the producers. I find what David’s done with Battlestar Galactica amazing, and I was a huge fan of Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar, so I said, Any team that can re-create something like this and do it well, I want to check that out. And I was attracted to Glen Morgan because of X-Files. So it was the creative team that made me say, Yeah, I wanna check this out. I got an opportunity to get a sneak preview of the pilot, watched it with my wife. And I asked her, ”What did you think about the pilot?” and she said, ”I loved it.” And I asked her, ”Do you think I should do it?” and she says, ”Absolutely.” And that’s when I called my agent and said, ”Okay, tell Ben I’m interested in Bionic Woman. Because my wife said so.”