'This past year and a half has taught me how to embrace myself fully,' the 'Grey's Anatomy' alum says
After a year-and-a-half hiatus since exiting Grey’s Anatomy, Sara Ramirez will make her triumphant return to TV during Sunday’s episode of Madam Secretary.
The actress will be playing Kat Sandoval, a brilliant political strategist, legendary in D.C. for her talent and for abruptly dropping out of politics until Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) manages to coax her back into the State Department. It’s a character that the openly bisexual Ramirez can relate to, having taken time off to both discover herself and give a voice to the LGBTQ community. So what was it about Madam Secretary that lured Ramirez back to TV? EW turned to the actress to find out:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about Madam Secretary that made you want to return to TV in a series regular role?
SARA RAMIREZ: A new position was opening up on Madam Secretary, and it was during a time when I was open to taking a meeting. [Executive producers] Barbara Hall and Lori McCreary were consistent and persistent in their commitment to meeting with me. We wanted to get to know each other to see what was possible. I really appreciate the kind of show that Madam Secretary is; it’s an aspirational and political show, and I found that really attractive as well.
Tell us about Kat Sandoval and what brings her into Elizabeth’s orbit.
Something that I can say about Kat is that she is a political strategist. She’s a retired chief of staff to the U.N. ambassador, she’s known well in D.C. for her talents, she’s also know for her sudden departure from politics following an incident. She dropped out for years, and rumors circulate about why. But after Kat consults on a State Department problem, she realizes she has not entirely lost faith in the system, and she’s inspired by Elizabeth McCord, Madam Secretary, and her team — so much so that she proposes to join the State Department. When we first meet Kat, we learn a little bit about her past, and it clues us to the potential challenges she may face due to rumors around an incident that may have led her to leave politics. Her brain is one of her most valuable assets. In this first episode, we’ll see just how valuable it is, here at home and globally. This episode also shows up some vulnerable truths she’s never owned or expressed about herself before.
Will the show explore her sexuality?
I just met Kat a few months ago, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know her as these episodes unfold.
Do you share any similarities with the character?
One thing that I know that we have in common is we both took a step back from our respective fields for over a year. I understand how important it can be to acknowledge when a break is needed, for whatever reason, especially when the intention is to come home to oneself in ways that couldn’t occur authentically without that time away. So I really respect Kat for knowing and valuing herself enough to make that move in her life.
How is this working experience, both in front of the camera and behind, different from Grey’s?
One of the things that I like about Madam Secretary is that, like I said, it’s an aspirational and political show. It takes place one election cycle in the future, which is kind of exciting, so it’s about four to five years down the line. I really love how it dramatizes certain topical world issues and events. It utilizes its projections to normalize inspiring ways to evolve challenging issues in the world through an alternate reality where the current political situation actually doesn’t exist, and with inclusive characters and cast and crew, off-screen as well. It promotes complex, three-dimensional women. Barbara Hall and Lori McCreary are executive producers, five out of the eight writers on the staff are female, the set has inclusive representation on screen and off, more than 70 percent of the show’s directors this season are women or men from diverse backgrounds, the Secretary of State is played by Téa Leoni — this show is in some ways similar, and different in all these ways.
After the results of the election last week, inclusive politics is not necessarily a distant aspiration anymore, but attainable, which is really exciting. We just saw Andrea Jenkins, the first openly bisexual and transgender black woman be elected to public office in the U.S. My intention for Madam Secretary’s Kat Sandoval is to continue normalizing, strengthening, and celebrating these types of inclusive outcomes in the world. As far as the character is concerned, I’m still getting to know her, but so far she’s different in that she spent a good portion of her life in politics before stepping away from it. Kat is very intentional and clear in her approach, because she knows she’s capable. She’s outspoken and unapologetically herself.
Is it fun to change up your style now on-screen and not have to suit up every day in scrubs?
It’s been a really wonderful experience. Amy Roth, who is the head of the wardrobe department, has been so gracious, kind, and imaginative. I’m just really grateful to be working with her as well. It’s been really fun.
What have you been up to since leaving Grey’s, and what do you think you’ve learned during that time?
It has been a really full year and a half. Taking a step back from the industry has allowed me to take space and get even more clear about things that are important to me. Coming out publicly was an organic decision and one that I spent a lot of energy and time making. It was incremental, not a spur-of-the-moment decision. By the time the Orlando shooting happened, especially in the context of the political climate escalating, I felt an urgency around coming out publicly in ways that I haven’t felt before. This past year and a half has taught me how to embrace myself fully, to never ever be afraid to claim my truth and power in spaces, and that bisexual, pansexual, queer-identified women of color, of all genders, or no genders, deserve to exist fully and equally in any and every space with respect to our visibility, representation, dignity, and various intersecting identities.
It has been a really full year. There were a lot of important events that I got the opportunity to be a part of. There was the ACLU rally in Austin, Texas. Initially, when Gavin Grimm’s case was headed to the Supreme Court, it was really important to me to use my public platform to show up and stand in solidarity with the trans and non-binary community, and when Gavin’s case didn’t make it to the Supreme Court, I got a phone call from the ACLU asking if I was open to participating in a rally in Austin connected to the same hurtful anti-trans legislation. I leapt at the opportunity to not only speak to these important issues, but to also engage local and state legislature. As well as introducing a trans woman of color, I introduced a wonder woman named Ana Andrea Molina, so that was a really important event to be a part of.
Then I was asked to speak at the Equality March in June, and I’m so grateful to the committee of the Equality March in D.C. for giving me the opportunity to speak to issues that are rarely spoken in mainstream LGBTQ advocacy. I was able to speak to the need for a truly intersectional movement, one in which we draw the margins in and center the lives of bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, and other communities within our LGBTQ family who lack the access, power, and visibility. So as we move forward the community through the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation and attacks, I think it’s important for us to continue to use these intersectional lines and center these communities, and that Equality March was a really beautiful way to be able to speak to that.
Then there was the LGBT Center in New York, who awarded me with this beautiful Trailblazer Award not that long ago, and that was a really special moment for me. Accepting the Trailblazer Award from the New York LGBT Center was — how else can I describe it? — it was a full-circle moment for me, actually. It was almost a year to the date, actually, from when I publicly came out as bisexual queer at the True Colors Fund event at the L.A. LGBT Center, so that was interesting. Lately, I’m feeling more confident about my purpose and highlighting the issues that are plaguing my community as well as continuing to create solidarity within the LGBT community. You know what else I’m thrilled about? Glenda Testone, who is the executive director of the New York LGBT Center, has expressed her commitment to creating specific bisexual programming, so that was a really wonderful full-circle moment after taking this time.
In hindsight, for everything you’ve done for yourself and the community over the last year, do you feel like it was the right decision to leave Grey’s when you did?
You voiced displeasure with ABC over the Real O’Neals bisexuality joke, which many Grey’s fans took as a sign you probably wouldn’t return to the show. Would you ever consider returning to Grey’s Anatomy?
First I’ll speak to the Real O’Neals portion, and then I’ll speak to the other portion. I was really disappointed that a show on a network that I worked on for over 10 years, playing a bisexual character, would get the greenlight for such a hurtful and destructive comment about our community. The bigger disappointment was that this particular episode was set up to succeed in every way by having PFLAG involved, with a gay actor playing a gay character, in all these ways where all of our community would be protected in every way. However, I appreciate how PFLAG acknowledged the issue and owned their mistake, and so far that is the only party involved taking genuine accountability. To the other point, when Shonda [Rhimes] and I last spoke, we agreed to keep the conversations going, and she knows I’m open to keeping those conversations going.
Madam Secretary airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.