The 35-year-old actress opens up to ET about Thursday's powerful, harrowing hour centered on sexual assault and consent.
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's episode of Grey's Anatomy, titled "Silent All These Years."
The biggest mystery of Jo Karev's life has finally been solved -- and it just may be the thing that breaks her.
On Thursday's powerful episode of Grey's Anatomy, Jo (Camilla Luddington) traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to meet her estranged mother, a woman named Vicki Ann Rudin (Michelle Forbes), for the first time, after a fellow Grey Sloan colleague located her over the internet. Jo's fraught, emotional and intense meeting with Vicki was years in the making. When Jo arrived in Seattle in season nine, she came riddled with question marks. She didn't know who her parents were. She didn't know why she was left on the steps of a fire station soon after she was born. She had no clue who she was. So when Jo finally came face-to-face with her biological mom, armed with preconceived ideas about who she was, what she found instead was a successful woman living in a beautiful suburban home with a manicured lawn, a loving husband, grown kids and a dog.
A heartbreaking conversation between the two women at a local diner provided Jo answers she had been seeking all her life, but it wasn't what she wanted to hear: Jo was the product of rape. The devastating revelation knocked her off her feet. From there, the untold, traumatizing truths about Jo's mother unraveled. "I fought him. I fought him as hard as I could, but he wouldn't take no for an answer," Vicki tearfully said of the night Jo's biological father, dead from a motorcycle accident years later, raped her. "Nine months later, I had a baby. I had you and then... five days later, I didn't." She justified leaving baby Jo at the fire station by saying she wasn't in the right frame of mind, revealing that she later spent years in therapy and didn't seek her out for fear that Jo would look like her father. "You deserved better. I didn't have better to give you." Heart-wrenching.
Jo then opened up about her own less-than-ideal childhood spent in foster homes before living in her car at 16 and falling into an abusive relationship with ex-husband Paul Stadler. It was then that she revealed something she had never disclosed before: She had an abortion, simply because she couldn't foresee raising a child in an unstable environment. When Jo reached for Vicki's hand in that moment, her mother flinched, immediately pulling her hand away. And soon after, Vicki left. Whatever closure Jo sought, she wasn't getting.
Following the episode, Luddington spoke with ET about the most "difficult" episode she's had to film on Grey's thus far, if she has hopes of revisiting Jo's relationship with her estranged mother down the line and how Jo handles the new knowledge of how she came into this world. As Luddington warns, Jo is about to spiral into a "deep, deep depression."
ET: This has been an anticipated episode for fans of Grey's Anatomy. When did you know that you were going to get a Jo-centric episode where you finally get to fill in the blanks of her mysterious family backstory?
Camilla Luddington: [Showrunner] Krista Vernoff always calls us in the middle of the summer and she kind of gives us a head's up as to what is going to happen in the season. She did tell me that I was going to meet my mom. I didn't know it was going to be a standalone episode at that point. But the storyline was actually, at that time, completely different as to how Jo was going to meet her mom. I don't want to say what it was going to be, because maybe they'll do it at some point with somebody else, but it was a completely different story. Around October was when I spoke to [director] Debbie Allen and Krista, and that's when they said that it's going to be a standalone and there was a conversation then about what the material was going to be, which was that Jo is the product of rape.
You said recently that this was the hardest, most intense episode you've ever filmed. When you first read the script, what were your initial reactions?
I remember asking for the script early because I remember being told that I was basically in every scene. I wanted to have enough time to prepare. I remember on our lunch break being in my trailer reading it -- I have never physically shook reading a script -- but I remember my hands shaking the script as I was reading it. I sobbed so many... There were so many painful moments. The other moments that really struck me as upsetting is when Jo reaches out to her mom and touches her hand and she flinches. That was so painful. And then what we nicknamed "The Wall of Women," when I got to that part, I was like, “Are you guys kidding? I'm sobbing.” It was so touching and devastating.
I do remember thinking, “Oh my God. This is going to be a crazy experience,” and interestingly enough, the scenes that I shot with my mom in the diner, we shot them as one scene. Every take we did -- usually a take takes five minutes, maybe a little bit more -- this was a 30-minute take every time we did it. We could only do two takes an hour. I remember an entire day just going through it over and over. Debbie Allen is absolutely incredible, but I remember feeling the weight of that scene over and over again. Hearing that news over and over again.
Jo went into her meeting with her mom with these preconceived notions of who she was. That maybe she was a mess, that maybe she didn't have her life together. And she realizes that that's not the case. That she experienced a terrifying, traumatic, life-altering moment, but ultimately rebuilt herself. What did Michelle Forbes bring to the role of Jo's mom that made their long-awaited reunion at the diner even more heartbreaking?
Usually when we cast somebody, we have a run of it at the table read before we get on set; Michelle wasn't able to attend. The first time that we ran it was on camera. It really helped me, because I had no head's up as to how those scenes would go. When you see me meet her for the first time, it really is like I'm meeting her for the first time. In the script, there are moments where it reads very, very cold. Especially in the beginning when Jo's saying, “Do you know who you are now?” and Vicki's giving her information that Jo doesn't feel like helps whatsoever and it's not what she's asking. Michelle brought this vulnerability to all of it that was incredibly powerful to work off of because I was trying to read her during the scene and it's hard to read what she's feeling. You can tell there's turmoil behind her eyes.
The scenes itself, they were really difficult for me. I really wanted to stop between takes. I think that Jo had so many questions and I think one of the interesting things -- and I said this to Elisabeth Finch, who wrote the episode -- they both say things that can be hurtful and messy. They're both in so much pain and Jo has all these questions and she still wants to ask them and she still wants to hear, “I'm sorry,” and she still wants to be loved. But she's slowly coming to the realization through the conversation that that is not going to happen. She's not going to get that. I feel like all of these things are being powered by hurt and love and pain, and it made for a really interesting, powerful scene between them.
Is Jo content with what's she learned from her mom? Do you think there is a moment of understanding between the two women?
I didn't know. There was no closure, really. I think closure for Jo would have been some sort of relationship with her mom. I don't think that she initially went into it knowing that, but slowly was realizing it. She wanted to be loved. She wanted her mom. Not getting that and not even having a goodbye and not even getting a hug. The only moment they physically touch is when Jo touches [her hand] and she flinches. That rejection, even though Jo understands why, is so painful that you will see Jo completely spiral after this. It shakes the world that she lives in and you see someone really implode for the rest of the season.
How does this impact her relationship with Alex, as well as her friends and everyone else at the hospital?
You're seeing a hint of it right now. The beginning of the episode, Jo is in her own world and at the end she wants to be alone. This is such painful information to relay to anybody, especially Alex. I think she's trying to wrap her own mind around it and in the process of doing that she's becoming disconnected. There's an element of self-preservation of pushing people away, but you're going to see someone really grapple with getting depressed and depression. Deep, deep depression can affect every element of your life, including your work. You will see it affect every part of her life as she tries to wrestle with this knowledge.
Is she going to be secretly dealing with this on her own for a good amount of time?
She has to, at some point, tell everybody. But it's so painful that there is going to be a time where you see that she is trying to process the information by herself before she tells other people.
Even when Jo was at the bedside of the patient, Abby, who had had just experienced sexual assault, what I thought the episode did so well was portray the sensitivity around sexually assault and rape, as well as the internal struggles that a survivor goes through in the aftermath.
Krista Vernoff, the writing team, Elisabeth Finch, they all spoke to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) in a lot of detail. They really went through the script with them to make sure that we were sending the message out in the right way. Doing the rape kit process and examination became a really powerful thing to show. One of the reasons we wanted to show it is that the exam can be an important tool for survivors who want to seek justice through the legal system, but healing physically and emotionally after assault can be difficult and painful even if you're accessing these tools. The exam allowed us to show the reality, while focusing on that patient's courage and allowed us to show that it was her choice to say yes to another step towards healing and justice. It was very important to show in that scene, specifically her saying, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Sexual violence affects so many families in America and what the episode does really well is that it shows all these different stories. It shows the point of view from a survivor of rape, someone who was conceived as a result of one and then you see [Ben and Bailey] teaching their young son about consent. We wanted to use this platform to raise awareness and also remind survivors they're not alone and they are to be believed. I think you see that in scenes when the patient is grappling with what her husband is going to think and work through that.That's why I'm so proud of this episode.
One thing Grey's has continued to excel at is illuminating real-life experiences people go through that some may be afraid to see or talk about. For you, was there any moment during the filming of this episode where you thought, I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can film this scene. I don't know if I can get there emotionally?
It wasn't ever getting there, emotionally, sometimes it was the opposite. I remember rehearsing the scene where we did the rape kit and I did not know everything that was involved with doing that. I didn't know how many samples needed to be taken. I remember we were all rehearsing it and we were all really emotional. Of course, that's a scene where Jo has to be strong. That's not a moment for her to be breaking down. There was never a scene where I felt like I wasn't emotional about it. There were scenes where I felt like I had to reel it back in and be the doctor in that moment. There were definitely times when it was a struggle. I'm not sure I've ever worked on episodes where, between takes, when we're trying to rehearse, we're talking through things, we're on the brink of crying. That's what it felt like. We were all drained and on edge because it was such powerful material.
We see Jo's mom leave the diner in the middle of their conversation. Is there a chance that story will be revisited at some point? Do you want that story to be revisited later down the line?
I have mixed feelings about it, because I almost feel like that's really tricky. It's so complicated that I almost want whatever is best for both her mom and her. And I don't know what that is. I don't know if that is reconciliation at some point, or I don't know if that's walking away from each other and seeking healing. That's a really tricky question. Maybe that will become more apparent to me as the season plays out and going into next season, but right now, I really don't know.
Jo learns that her biological dad died in a motorcycle accident about 10 years ago. Do you still have questions about Jo's dad or do you feel like what her mom told her was enough for her to close that chapter on that element of her past?
I didn't ask the writers that question but what I'm imagining... what I felt in that moment is that I didn't want to know anything more about him. That there wasn't a desire to connect with that side of the family.
Did you learn something new about Jo through this episode?
Yeah. Even on a very basic level, I didn't know what Jo would want to hear if she met her mom. And she really figured out what she needed to feel like she could move on. I think that that was a question for a long time and there's a point when she even says to Alex a couple episodes before, “I don't want to meet my parents.” I felt like that underlying need to meet them was probably there, but what would she need to get closure? I didn't know. On a very simple level, just me asking the writers, “What does she want to hear? What will make her heal? Does she need to hear, 'I love you?' Does she need to hear, 'I'm sorry?'” Those were questions I had and I feel like she explicitly said in the episode. I didn't know that she had been hoping all her life for her mom to find her. That was so heartbreaking to me.
You mentioned how proud you were of getting the opportunity to do this episode. How satisfying is it for you, on a personal level, that you're getting to do such powerful pieces of television on a show that's 15 seasons in?
It's incredible. It's a testament to our writers because they're just so talented. We just read the season finale and we were like, “Oh my god.” Week after week, we sit down and we're blown away by the material. All of us. There are episodes like this or episodes that are funny, episodes that we're like, “Wait. That medical [case] is real.” I really think that it's also why people keep tuning in. And I'm so glad that they do because that's why we get to still tell these stories. It's amazing to be in season 15 and have a powerful episode like this.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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