After four seasons of playing President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica, Mary McDonnell admits she may be a little spoiled for future roles.
"It’s a little difficult to move on from that to something that doesn’t extend that far into the world and how it works," McDonnell says. "I’m looking for something that continues to explore the complexities of power and female power, and what it is to be a woman leader."
McDonnell found some of that in her latest role, a three-episode guest arc on Grey’s Anatomy that begins Thursday. She plays Dr. Virginia Dixon, a cardiac surgeon who begins a stint at Seattle Grace. The character also has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that causes an inability to interact socially with others.
"This woman is really an excellent surgeon and a leader in her field, but she has a really interesting twist to her," McDonnell says. "… It’s accompanied in her case by an inability, in a sort of normal social sense, to perform everyday functions easily that other people do quite easily."
McDonnell talked with me about her experience on Grey’s Anatomy, and a little bit about Battlestar Galactica, in a conversation last week. Some highlights:
What are the circumstances of Dr. Dixon’s arrival at Seattle Grace?
To a certain extent she’s there to fill the space left by Dr. Hahn, but I can’t explain any more about that because I wasn’t there. … She has Asperger’s, so what that implies is that this is a very bright and gifted surgeon who has real weaknesses in the area of social relations. …
I come into this world that’s very much about relationships, as Grey’s Anatomy is, and very much about relationships with patients. So you can kind of infer that she brings kind of an interesting dilemma. It’s very complex, and very exciting, because on the one hand [Grey’s creator] Shonda Rhimes has decided to explore this a bit. … It allows us to see a woman whose particular makeup keeps her very specifically focused in a certain area. She has incredible skills in her gifted area. [But] Asperger’s people can’t see the bigger picture and can’t relate to sort of social gray areas — so from her point of view, there are things to be done a lot more clearly, cleanly and specifically than the way [the other characters] are doing them. … Whereas they perceive this very odd woman.
I would think on a show where everyone else tends to overshare, that would make for some interesting interactions.
[Laughs] It is very interesting. It’s a very interesting idea to kind of plop her into the middle of this and see what happens. She’s a counterpoint, for sure, to the way things go in that world. And I loved — I’ve shot two episodes now — I loved being in their world and being in counterpoint, because I got to explore them from a different point of view than I think the show does.
Is there anyone in particular you’ve worked with more so far?
In the first episode, I did a lot with Justin [Chambers] and Chandra [Wilson], Karev and Bailey. And that was just a blast. In the second episode there was a lot with Sandra Oh. That was a really interesting duo, you know? [Laughs] But I had contact with almost everyone a little bit, which has been really a pleasure. I had a little bit of time in the OR with Patrick [Dempsey].
Do your episodes run consecutively?
No. The first one is [Thursday], and the next one I think is in two more episodes. Then the third one I shoot at the end of November, so that will be further down the line.
Do you mind if I ask you a little about Battlestar Galactica?
In broad terms, what are the final episodes about, now that you’ve found Earth and found it be not what you hoped?
I think in broad terms, what the last arc is about is kind of a gratifying resolution toward a new kind of world. Specifically, I can’t talk about what that means, but in a general sense it’s sort of the completion of what needed to occur from the very first moment, which is the world as they knew it was destroyed. And how were they going to be able to usher in a new beginning, and finding Earth became the focus.
So they found this Earth, and it isn’t what they thought, and that’s devastating, but that doesn’t end life. What ends up happening is — it’s extraordinary, first of all, the final 10 episodes. But I think every single character — and this is part of what I was so impressed with — every character seems to go beyond the expectations of them. I can say that freely without revealing the implications of that for the story. It’s really remarkable. I think it’s going to be even better once it’s a complete saga. I think it’s going to be even better when you go back and watch it all again knowing the ending.
Did you have any sense when you started on the miniseries of how deep the series would go, and all the issues of faith and politics and power it would explore?
To a certain extent, yes. I remember that my actual thought when I was told I was offered a miniseries for Sci Fi, and it was Battlestar Galactica, I just started to giggle. Because I didn’t really understand how I’d fit into that world. … But as soon as I read it, that night, when I sat down and read what Ron Moore had written, all that completely fell away, because what I read was absolutely relevant on all the levels you suggested. So I understood it had the potential in it that was far-reaching, that it was absolutely about now. …
Did I understand how brilliant Ron Moore truly is? No, I don’t think I did. … So ultimately, no — I had a suspicion that this could be great, but I didn’t really understand quite the magnitude of his gift until I got inside of [this world].