Jesse Williams talks Jackson's Grey's Anatomy departure: 'I feel really honored'
The fan favorite bid farewell to medical drama after 12 seasons.
Yet another doctor has left the building — but at least this time there was no murder, freak accident, or other epic tragedy.
On Thursday's episode of Grey's Anatomy, "Legacy," we said goodbye to one more beloved long-term character on the ABC medical drama: Jackson Avery, who was played by Jesse Williams for 12 seasons. Thankfully, it was a happy ending for the plastic surgeon as he headed off to Boston to lead his family's foundation and fight systemic racism in the medical field. His departure was made all the more sweet by knowing that April (Sarah Drew) — his former partner and the mother of his child — and their daughter were joining him on his cross-country move.
It was a good sendoff on a show that usually sees its characters killed in the most heartbreaking ways, but it brought the tears nonetheless. To help us grieve, we chatted with Williams about his time at Grey Sloan Memorial, reuniting with Drew, and saying goodbye to the show that's been his home for the past dozen years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We're delighted Jackson got a happy ending but still a heartbroken he's gone. How does it feel now that your last episode has aired?
JESSE WILLIAMS: I feel great. I feel humbled by not only the response, but the way we were able to really craft a departure for him that makes sense, that's connected to his history. I feel really honored by having the opportunity to really form a story with our writers that honors the character and the characters around him, that world, and also has a connection to the real world. It really marks a journey for him, particularly the personal element to the role with his father and really digging into self-improvement. That really impacted me.
So it was pretty collaborative? Were you involved in shaping Jackson's exit story?
Oh, entirely collaborative. I directly impacted the dialogue, especially the episode a couple of weeks ago with me going to find my dad. I was directly involved in all of that language.
That's so cool and seems like a common thing for actors on this show, that you'll get to be involved in your characters' story lines?
Yeah, you know, being there for that long, now I know the character as well as anybody. People come and go — some writers come and go, directors come and go, but I'm that character all day, every day. So it's just really beautiful for that to be acknowledged, and to feel included. It's a privilege.
It must make you proud of the show too that your character's departure was tied to bigger things that are going on in the world right now, namely systemic racism.
Yeah. He wasn't always that connected to the headlines and what's happening in the world, but as we grow and change, sometimes we do. That connection mirrors a lot of our viewers' journey as adults with what's happened in the public consciousness in the several years and people have been invited to, if not challenged, to get off the bench and have an opinion and get informed and see how you can fold in some impactful work into your day. I've found that people are really relating to it.
I'm also just so happy that Jackson didn't die. That was a relief. Did you know going into this season that it was going to be your last? Or when did that decision happen?
I think it was at some point throughout the season. It was something that was kicked around and occurred naturally in terms of what his journey would be. It seemed to make sense that the character had lived a very privileged life, which had sheltered him from the outside world but also himself. The last couple years there's been a lot of personal journey for him. He's escaped and left relationships and gone into the woods, and he's clearly going through something. He hasn't been able to form a solid relationship since April, either romantic or even platonic. He'd really become this introverted person who just does his work. He was a little lost, and he was searching for something and wasn't able to be really present and committed in a romantic relationships, wasn't able to find connection elsewhere, and kept finding himself wanting to go off on some self exploration. He was finally able to reconcile that that had a lot to do with being abandoned by his father at a young age and realizing it really has been detrimental to my ability to trust others, and always feeling like I want to leave before they leave me and that's a big deal for people. So it just kind of found itself.
Were you also happy that Jackson and April found their way back together — potentially romantically? How was working with Sarah Drew again?
I'm overjoyed. I mean, I love her. I love how comfortable I can feel with somebody on set to really explore a story. So much of acting is listening, and so much of a connection to others and feeling safe with them, and feeling like you are seen and feeling like you are understood and not misunderstood. These two people know and understand each other and have been able to heal and grow in such a way that allows them to really understand and listen to each other, to be able to offer critique that's constructive and born out of love. That's a big deal. It's not just a big deal theoretically, but on a set with someone, we haven't worked together in so many years, and we fell right back into a comfortable place. We got to do these really neat scenes, being able to sit and actually experience something that's like real life and not just have to knock it out, accomplish a goal and get out. We actually got to sit and consider it and start in one place and end in another. That's really an actor's dream.
How was your last day on set, and what was the last scene you shot?
The last scene was where I'm driving around the hospital looking at the young whippersnapper interns, laughing. I'm just realizing now that I say this to you that geographically, physically, what I'm looking at, those two or three interns over there that I'm looking at nostalgically, where they're standing is literally where I first appear on the show, where I run in and have my first line ever, right there in that spot. I run in in orange scrubs with Sandra Oh's character and I blurt out, "What we used to do at Mercy West was…" was literally on that spot where I'm looking back.
I feel like someone wrote it that way on purpose...
Oh, yeah. Kevin McKidd directed that episode. He's really on top of that stuff.
He was out to make you cry! Did you take anything from set to keep?
My last day there, the crew and cast give me this incredibly thoughtful, moving custom box full of letters and memorabilia from each and every member of the family — we're talking about every single crew member, every single cast, every single writer, writing assistant. Heartfelt letters and photos. I've got my original lab coat, stethoscope, and ID card, scrub tops and all these mementoes. It was really sweet. I'm looking at it right now, it's sitting on my countertop. It's really, really sweet personal stuff, anecdotes. It was really something. I'm incredibly grateful.
Did they throw in those original orange scrubs?
You know what, I don't think there are orange scrubs in there.
Looking back at the 12 seasons you've been on, has there been one Jackson story arc that really stands out to you?
Well, I would say, and I guess it's probably pretty obvious, the stuff with April because it lasted for years and Sarah and I really impacted that stuff. Sarah and I would would come into the writers' room. We'd corner writers if we had thoughts. We'd share ideas in each other's trailers. We were really hands-on at making sure that journey was true and truthful to them as individuals, in a totally selfless way. We probably cut more lines than we tried to add. It was not about anything other than finding the truth of their journey. The collaborating with our writers and Shonda [Rhimes] and everybody was real. I've learned a lot of lessons. We went through a lot of deeply emotional stuff. But my first memory that I'll never forget was the finale of season 6 — that was my first season. The double-episode finale where the shooter comes to the hospital, that was really intense. I didn't know if I were going to have a job next week or if they would have me back. The whole thing was kind of stressful in that way, but really thrilling. In that shooter episode at the end, Jackson comes up with the idea on the spot of how to save Derek Shepherd's [Patrick Dempsey] life by unplugging the heart monitor so that it appears like he's dead and the shooter doesn't shoot at him. It was his first real moment of contributing to the whole and proving he's not just some rookie, but making really consequential decisions. I really felt like I was in the fold. That felt like a really big deal and welcoming moment.
And got him in Meredith's [Ellen Pompeo] good graces! Do you think we'll ever see Jackson back on the show?
I don't know. I'm not being cagey. I think it's possible. He's not dead! He's still working with the foundation. He's everybody's boss. So I think it's possible. We'll have to see.