Midwest-Born Jessica Capshaw Reveals Her Shades of Grey
Wrapping on her first full “Grey’s Anatomy” season as Dr. Arizona Robbins, Jessica Capshaw shares her story of growing up in the Midwest and the challenges of balancing her on-screen roles with that of motherhood.
The high-profile part of Dr. Arizona Robbins on ABCs hit TV drama “Greys Anatomy” isnt the only role Jessica Capshaw is dominating these days. The bubbly Missouri-born actress plays the role of wife and mother just as fabulously, despite the unpredictable hours, long days on set, and general craziness of a TV actors life. Having grown up in the same Hollywood-centric environment herself (she moved from Columbia, Mo., to New York and later L.A. so her mom could pursue acting) as the daughter of model/actress Kate Capshaw and the stepdaughter of Steven Spielberg, its no wonder shes got the Hollywood parent thing down.
The more surprisingand incredibly refreshingthing about Jessica is the charmingly ordinary way she manages to get it all done. Celeb outings and whos-who appearances take a backseat to the simpler things in life, like taking her 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Luke, to play at the beach, lunching with girlfriends or spending a quiet evening at home with husband, Christopher Gavigan [CEO of nonprofit org, Healthy Child Healthy World]. But dont let Jessicas down-to-earth mentality fool you; it certainly hasnt stopped her from reaching an incredibly lofty level of success. Following a semester abroad at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and formal training with famed New York acting coach Harold Guskinnot to mention a high school internship on the Oscar-winning Schindlers ListJessica has landed numerous roles in feature films (Minority Report, The Groomsmen and View from the Top, among others) and hit TV series like “Bones,” “The L Word,” “The Practice” and, most recently, “Greys Anatomy,” on which she earned a regular role this season. And although her likable TV character has quickly become a favorite for her sweet, yet sassy tell-it-like-it-is attitude, a few minutes in a room with Jessica Capshaw proves shes every bit as sweet and sassynot to mention fun, optimistic and generally fabulousas the character she portrays.
ALIVE: You grew up in show business, moving to New York with your parents when you were a toddler so your mom [Kate Capshaw] could pursue her acting dream and later having Steven Spielberg as a stepdad. Not your typical childhood, to say the least.
Jessica Capshaw: You know, even in extraordinary circumstances, you completely normalize them, and you just go about your business being a kid. Its pretty much the only thing I knew, so it was always very natural to me. I definitely remember growing up with the sense that my mom did something that people sort of oohed and aahed over, but really, all of my parents are normal people who did extraordinary things. We definitely moved around a bit more than average, kind of like being an army brat, but that was my experience, and it was normal as anything else to me. Looking back, I feel really lucky that I got to travel so much and that my mom listened to me when I said, “No more changing cities, no more new schools; lets stay in one place for a while.”
ALIVE: Did growing up with parents in the biz make you want to become an actress right away, or was it something you figured out later?
JC: I think I knew at about the same time that anyone who likes to perform knows. Even as young as 5 or 6, you realize you like telling stories, putting on shows, impersonating people, or whatever it is youre good at doing. The difference with me was that I was around people who actually made it look like it was a viable profession. Most people who express interest in acting dont know anyone whos an actor, and it just seems so unattainable. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch people pursue their dreams as actors, actresses, directors and writers all the time.
ALIVE: Your personal journey in the acting world has plenty of its own highlights. How did the opportunity on “Greys Anatomy” come about?”
JC: I remember this script going around that everybody was talking about when I was working on “The Practice.” About a year later, it ended up popping up on the midseason schedule, and my husband and I watched the first episode. We both really loved it. It was original and brought you into this world where life and death are imminent, but where these very human relationships, larger than life ones, were happening. And then theres the whole Meredith and Derek relationship that I think pulls on the heartstrings of literally every woman alive.
So, I was a fan of the show and had been watching for a couple of years. Two weeks after I had given birth to my son, Luke, my agent called and told me that “Greys” was having a nine-episode arc. I was totally interested, but with just having the baby, I wasnt sure how I was actually going to do it. So I put on 14 pairs of Spanx and tried to figure out how to look like a person who hadnt had a baby two weeks before, and I got myself over there and auditioned. I got a call from my agent on my way home saying they liked me and wanted me to come back the next day, and the only thing I was thinking was, “Oh my God! How am I going to do this again?” I came back and read with Patrick Dempsey for the part of nurse Rose but didnt end up getting it. Then about a year later, I got another call for another partand I had forgiven them for not liking me the first timeso I went in and auditionedand again got a the call saying, “Youre really, really great, but its not going to work out for this part.” I was totally frustrated but also super psyched to be considered, so I waited, and about a month later, I finally got a call offering me the role of Dr. Arizona Robbins. It started out for three episodes, but really grew from there, and I was made a series regular this year.
ALIVE: What a journey! You seem to be the perfect fit for Arizona. What do you love about this character?
JC: I love her optimism coupled very plaintively with her realism. She knows all the horrible things that can happen, but yet shes always hoping for the best, and shes really grounded. One of my favorite moments of playing the character is when shes riding in the helicopter with Alex (Justin Chambers), delivering transplant organs, and shes trying to make chitchat, and hes like, “What the hell are you talking about? We just took this kids organs out.” And she goes into this dialogue about how she knows all the bad stuff that goes on every day, and so to get through it, shes going to be committed to talking about the good stuff because without the good stuff, the bad stuff is just too tough to take.
ALIVE: What part of the character do you most identify with?
JC: Its really funny, as soon as I started playing this part, my mom was like, “You need to get a little Arizona in your life!” And its true: I have to say, I think I have gotten a little tougher in my own life. The character made me realize that you can be a really loving, empathic person who also has boundaries.
ALIVE: So youd say you have more of Arizonas sweet side?
JC: I think that I do. Im a people pleaser. I have lots of brothers and sisters, and being the oldest, I think Ive always been that person that tries to make things happen for others. And I feel likemaybe its my childhood, maybe notIm always game for anything.
ALIVE: Speaking of being game for anything, what has it been like to play a lesbian character on the show?
JC: I think it was about three episodes in when our executive producer [Shonda Rhimes] told me this was where the character was going, and it was a complete surprise to me. I dont have any practical experience, but I have lots of gay friends, men and women, and theres nothing different about any of us except who occupies a place in our sexual lives. So I felt like to try and play this person differently than the way I had already been playing her for three episodes would be a disservice because I dont think you need to play a lesbian, you need to play a person who just happens to have a woman as her partner. So thats how Ive gone about playing her, and when Im portraying a part of her character that I dont have a lot of experience with, I just ask questions.
ALIVE: Is there anyone in the cast youre particularly close with?
JC: I love Chyler Leigh [Lexie]. She and I have a lot in common right now because were both young moms and wives working in a very nontraditional way and dealing with hours that are here, there and everywhere, but were making it work. Im so excited that Kim Raver [Dr. Altman] has joined the showshes fantastic, and a mom as well. I love Justin Chambers [Alex], and Patrick Dempsey [Derek] makes me laugh so hard I cant even talk about it.
ALIVE: How do you and your husband deal when things get completely crazy?
JC: Ive always been fond of a saying that my aunt from St. Louis always uses. Shes got three kids, and has just a hot mess going on pretty much all of the time. “When you want something done, you give it to the busiest person.” Its so true. When my husband and I are going through our super optimally packed challenging times, we just get it all done, and the only bad byproduct is that we dont get to go out for a dinner or a lunch and have that time to ourselves where we can just be who we were before we had a child and jobs. But when that happens, we make it a priority for the next week or whenever the next opportunity is to catch up.
ALIVE: Tell us more about your St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri ties.
JC: The Capshaws are a big tribe in Missouri. My grandfather settled down in Chaffee, Mo., near Cape Girardeau, married my grandma and had seven children. He was this self-made man who ended up becoming the mayor of Chaffee and always wanted the best for his kids. Pretty much all of them stayed in Missouri, except my father, Bob, who ended up moving to New York with my mother, which everyone thought was a crazy, crazy idea. My mom was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in the St. Louis suburbs. She met my dad at Mizzou, and for a while, my dad was a principal, and my mom was a special education teacher in Ashland, Mo. After they had me, they decided to go to New York and take a chance at my moms dream. Now, most of the family is in St. Louis and is just this amazing bunch of very high-functioning go-getters.
ALIVE: How often do you get back to visit?
JC: We try to come back to St. Louis at least once or twice a year. I came back with Luke right before I went to work for “Greys,” and we just had so much fun! I remember as a child coming back in the summers, hanging out at the pool and going to Ted Drewes because its so hot and humid. I used to spend a part of the summer with my grandma in Chaffee, and it was all about eating barbeque, drinking Cherry Cokes, chasing lightning bugs and just being a kid.
ALIVE: So whats next?
JC: Were about to have a little break on the show, so thats the time to see if theres a nice movie or play you can do or a nice vacation you can take if the movie or the play doesnt work out. Whatever it is, its mostly about being close to home and raising a little boy. Its really fun to be a mom.
Log on to alivemag.com for an extended interview and multi-media extras with Jessica Capshaw.
The St. Louis native dishes on her role on Grey’s Anatomy
Jessica Capshaw in character on Grey’s Anatomy
Photo credit: Photos by Andrew Stiles