Patrick Dempsey is on a roll, as one of the stars of the biggest medical drama seen on network television since the early days of E.R. As the sometimes womanizing Shepherd, aka McDreamy, Dempsey has had quite the career resurgence in this second act of his career. Now a father and husband, Dempsey reflects on stardom this time around, his co-starring role in the Disney satire Enchanted, and of course Grey’s Anatomy, the show that re-launched his career. Depsey talked to Paul Fischer
Question: You’re almost like the straight man in Enchanted.
Dempsey: Well that was the hard part in that everybody’s having a great time overacting and being brilliant, and I had to kind of just drive the narrative, which was challenging. That was the most difficult part, but I just wanted to be a part of it because it’s hard to find stories that are original and different, but yet there was something about this that was timeless and familiar as well, so it felt like it was entertaining on a lot of levels. As a parent, it’s a nice family film, but also it’s a good date movie as well and something you can go and find entertaining, and I think the symbolism in it, and the archetypes are really fascinating. It was different, and at the time I thought it was the right move to make, and still do.
Question: Can you talk about the big, Central Park musical sequence and that whole musical number?
Dempsey: That was the best. I think my favorite part was obviously rehearsing for the dance number at the end with Cha-Cha (John O’Connell) who did Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, and I think the amount of sensitivity and artistry that he brought to making you feel that every move you made in the dance was so vital to the story, that to me was probably the most enjoyable part of the process. And in the dancing numbers and certainly in Central Park, working in Manhattan doing something like that is just unbelievable.
Question: You said you weren’t comfortable with this movie. Can you elaborate?
Dempsey: Well, yeah, because everybody’s so larger-than-life that you’re trying to figure out do you have the right tone, are you hitting the right beats emotionally and comedically without going over the edge, and the more you’re, I think, honest, the better it is for people to come in and then sort of see the world through Robert’s eyes, I think that’s how people start to react, and that was really challenging. And certainly with Amy, [it was just] unbelievable to watch her, it made my job a lot easier, all I had to do was just listen and watch her and react to what she was giving me, but I never felt comfortable, it was always sort of kind of strange stylistically.
Question: Did you have a favorite Disney movie growing up?
Dempsey: Not really, no, I didn’t. I mean, I like them all. They’re all different types of movies. Of course now with kids you see them all 19 times. We just finally broke out of Peter Pan and we’re moving on now.
Question: To what?
Dempsey: Enchanted. The website – she was like, ‘Can I go to the website and play with the games?’ And ‘When’s the princess coming over?’ and ‘Is the chipmunk at the junket?’ So that’s really cute and it’s fun.
Question: Are you a no nonsense guy or a romantic at heart?
Dempsey: A little bit of both I think, depends on the mood. Defining romance is very tricky, because I think there’s a lot that kind of goes into romance, and it’s not just necessarily candles and flowers.
Question: Is he closer to you or is Shepherd closer to you?
Dempsey: I think there’s always a part of you in all of the characters – there’s a part of me in all of them, because there’s certainly the part [of] the father that’s in Robert that’s in me.
Question: Are you surprised that the TV show is almost re-ignited your career?
Dempsey: Oh absolutely, it’s unbelievable. It’s really unbelievable.
Question: Why do you think that show’s got such a following?
Dempsey: Well I think there are a lot of different archetypes that people can identify with, and I think it’s sort of the young men and women in the work place who have identified with the interns initially. I think it came at the right time when Sex and the City was phasing out, Friends was phasing out, and it came in and filled that void at that time. I think the ensemble, the music all add to it. There’s something compelling about the characters that people really identify with.
Question: What’s the mood on the set this year?
Dempsey: Much better. I think now basically people are really wanting the storylines to more forward a little faster than they are and I think Shonda’s really finding her way balancing out the two shows, and really we find her to be much more receptive this season, certainly in the middle part of the season where she’s looking for more feedback and collaboration from people than she had in the past.
Question: Can you talk to me about the impact of the strike>? Do you know how much more scripts are left to shoot?
Dempsey: We’ve only done 11, so we’re halfway through our season. We are probably going to finish out this next episode the next week or so, and that will give us 11 shows for this season, and that could be it for the year. It’s tragic I think, not necessarily for us, the actors, but I think the crew and people in town are going to be hit hard by this if it continues for too long.
Question: What do you think you’ll do during this down time?
Dempsey: Well, it gives me a little bit of a break I think certainly to just kind of rest and be with my family, and the holiday season is coming up, so it doesn’t affect me as dramatically as other people I think.
Question: Will it affect the way that the TV season will be shortened or lengthened in any sort of way?
Dempsey: I think it’s always dangerous when you have a strike – I remember the strike in ’88 and it’s damaging financially to the State and to everybody involved, and certainly to the supporting business around this industry are going to get hit. And the people that are living paycheck to paycheck with families, it’s going to be devastating for them, it’s tragic. The real problem is like how do you define the new technology? How do you know where that’s going to go? Everybody deserves a piece of the pie; I just hope that greed doesn’t get in the way. But it’s Hollywood, so who knows.
Question: If Disney said that they wanted to take a chance with this as a franchise, are you signed on for any sequels?
Dempsey: Oh I think it would be fun to explore, yeah, as long as the stories are good. I really loved working with Amy, and I think James is an unbelievable comedian, which I didn’t realize when I first found out about him being a part of it. Then the first scene I see him in, is over-the-top with the shoulders and the voice and the singing, it was really something else. And I think if we can come up with a really good story that’s I think meaningful – it sort of changes the image of what a princess is, and she protects the male energy at the end, which is great, so the feminine comes in and takes over the male and then saves it, which I think is a great symbol and very cool. So if they can continue on and think on that level, so it has a lot of depth to it, I think certainly it would be fun. I think there’s room for improvement certainly, always.
Question: Is it a challenge to find things that really interest you during the limited time you have off?
Dempsey: Yeah, I think so. Right now I really don’t want to do anything violent. I think we have too much violence in the world, and it’s really important to do movies that are light, you have to really kind of think of it as like during the war or during the depression era movies we need to have those screwball comedies come back that are smart, that are fun, that are good spirited, that weren’t so negative so that people can – because I want to go and escape for two hours or an hour and a half, I don’t want to come home and have to deal with the news and all of that stuff, it’s just so bleak, that for me personally I want to just kind of check for an hour and a half.
Question: That comes from your being a father I imagine.
Dempsey: I think so certainly more so, I’m more aware of things now than I was before.
Question: How do you like being the father of twins, has that been kind of a surprising experience?
Dempsey: Last week I got home to projectile vomiting, so it was like wow, back to reality. You have a day it’s like you’re like this, this and this, and then all of a sudden you’re like projectile vomiting and everything smells like vomit. So if you have kids you understand. I really love it, I think it keeps surprising me, and really I start to enjoy it more and more.
Question: Is it more challenging than you thought or easier than you thought?
Dempsey: It’s different, it’s easier and more challenging, because there’s three kids that you have to kind of – you develop an individual relationship with all of them, so that you have to have time with each one separately, and getting the time to do that and – at the same time there’s something really comforting in a house full of people and kids, it surprises me, because I usually like being alone, but I’m really loving it.
Question: How do you raise kids not to be cynical in a cynical world?
Dempsey: I don’t know, that’s the challenge, I mean really that’s the challenge right now. That’s the biggest worry I have.
Question: This movie’s about innocence.
Dempsey: Yeah, but Robert’s also saying don’t buy into the hype of even though life is miserable and you need to know that right away, he’s a little more severe than I would be certainly, and I’d read all the – it’s fun for me to be reading the Disney stories at night before I go to bed to her and kind of reliving my childhood through my children. But it’s difficult here I think, because there’s so much wealth, and so much that people get in the schools and things like that, you wonder how do you keep that in perspective? I would ideally love to get my career in a place where I have enough money where I can live anywhere in the country or in the world, we spent time doing a movie in Europe and I really love the countryside of England.
Question: Which movie?
Dempsey: Made of Honor for Sony which comes out in May with Michelle Monaghan. It’s a romantic comedy and that was challenging. I really loved being in Europe and it was great for my family to come over there. We did a lot of theater and horseback riding and visited the country a bit and I liked that.
Question: How does it feel to have a doll of yourself?
Dempsey: [Laughs] It’s surreal. It’s really surreal when your daughter’s playing with Giselle and herself right there and they’re talking. But I’m having a blast. I’m really enjoying everything. I think at this point in my life, it’s been a long road to get to here and the steps that I’m taking hopefully will allow me to have a nice career.
Question: You were very successful when you were young for a period of time. Is it more satisfying being successful now than it was when you were younger? What did you learn from that first bout of fame?
Dempsey: I think at first you’re not sure you’re worthy of the attention. I think it kind of threw me off. I wasn’t quite prepared for it because I was doing it for the sake of doing it and not worrying about the end result. And then suddenly I don’t think you realize how much responsibility you have once you get into that position of either greenlighting movies or things like that and the choices that you make. If you’re not making money for people, you’re going to be pushed aside. So I wasn’t really clear on how the business operated. And I don’t think I was really confident in who I was as a person. More so now I feel like I’ve worked my way through a lot of hardship and really appreciate where I’m at right now. I get the joke of the business. I’m under no illusion of what’s going on here and why certain attention is coming my way and you have to be careful of that. There are good people and there are bad people and I think it’s a question of how you just keep your feet on the ground and stay focused and not buy into all the hype.
Question: Who keeps you in line?
Dempsey: Family keeps me in line. Certainly it was a long road to get to this point.
Question: Does having traveled that road make you a better actor?
Dempsey: I think life experience has certainly. I think the key to acting any more is really just presence and not being self conscious and listening and certainly relaxation is the key. And you just have to accept who you are, the good and the bad of it.
Question: So at the end of 11 episodes, is there any resolution or cliffhanger or something that indicates the end of a season?
Dempsey: Yeah, well it’s interesting how it timed out. There will be something that…I’m really happy with where my character is at. There definitely will be a cliffhanger. You’re gonna want to know what’s gonna happen.
Question: Do you think that the TV audiences want you and Grey to get together?
Dempsey: I think they do, certainly, but I think we’ve become really stagnant in the relationship. I’m tired of going back and forth and playing the same bead over and over and I think that’s been the biggest conversation we’ve had. It’s like we need to move forward with the dynamic between the two of them. And also I’d just like to see something else happen.
Question: Who do you play in Made of Honor?
Dempsey: I play a guy who is extremely successful because he invented the coffee collar. A coffee collar, you know, they keep you from burning your hand. And he’s a bit of a playboy and he’s really good friends with Michelle Monaghan’s character. They’re best friends and she goes off and falls in love with this Scottish man, then comes back and asks him to be the maid of honor and at that point he realizes how much he really loves her and that she’s the perfect girl for him and then he has to go and try to figure out how to sabotage the marriage and the wedding.
Question: Is it surprising to you that after 20 years they’re still making romantic comedies where it was your best friend all along that you should have married?
Dempsey: Well there’s only so many stories when it comes to that, you know. So I think that was the challenge for us. We were like, ‘Okay, this is a predictable story. How do you go about making it interesting and giving it a new point of view?” That was the real challenge of how to do that and I like the old Cary Grant movies and that kind of thing and there are a lot of good comedians right now that I think are much broader so we just tried to get it back to the dialogue and the spontaneity and things like that. Paul Weiland is the director. He did a movie called ‘Sixty Six.’ [He’s an] English director and he brought a really nice visual style to it because I think in a lot of romantic comedies the lighting is very flat so the DP did ‘Room with a View’ and all the Merchant Ivory movies so there’s a real lush quality visually to it. And we shot in England and in the countryside so it brings it out a little bit. So we’ll see. I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve heard it’s good and I’m sure everybody will let me know soon enough.
Question: Have you been thinking about projects to possibly do while your show is on hiatus?
Dempsey: I think we’re just waiting to see how things play out. Does this movie work and then how did Made of Honor and what would be the next move? It really depends on the material. It always gets down to that. So is that another romantic comedy? I don’t know. Is it an action movie? Certainly that would be fun if it’s non-violent. That’s the thing that you’ve got to be careful of. I don’t know at this point where we’re at. I’ll wait and see.
Question: How hamstrung are you by the fact that if the strike happens but then maybe ends quickly and you guys have to go right back to work, is that going to affect your ability to make decisions?
Dempsey: It’s too soon to tell. It’s just going to depend on how much time we have off on our hiatus.
Question: So in theory they may extend the length of shooting this season?
Dempsey: Right. I think that’s still to be determined. I don’t know. I think everybody’s wondering what’s gonna happen.
Question: Would you go back and do theater now just to get that live audience experience?
Dempsey: I’ve never had great experiences in the theater. I find that there’s a lot of ego, even more so than in Hollywood. I think it would depend on the group of people, who the director was, and what the material would be. It would be far more interesting for me to go to some sort of regional theater where no one knows you. I mean they know you but they don’t know you and there wouldn’t be any pressure just to enjoy the process. I think the rehearsal process in theater is probably the most enjoyable. If I can do it that way, I would go back certainly. But I don’t think technically my voice is where it should be to be on stage and certainly not on Broadway at the moment.
Question: Do you have a timeline for Grey? Is there a point at which you would say I think I’ve done as much as I can do with this now and it’s time to move on?
Dempsey: Yeah, I think I’ll follow out my contract and then we’ll have to reassess at that point. I think if the character keeps growing and is challenging, then it’s fun. It’s nice having a job to go to every day. I’ve never had that luxury before and that’s kind of enjoyable. I just want the character to be challenging and if it starts to become just the same old, same old, I don’t know if I would want to other than just making the paycheck at that point and securing a future for my family and getting the hell out of town.
Question: What are your Thanksgiving and Christmas plans with your family? I imagine travel is limited now with two young sons.
Dempsey: Yes, certainly a little more difficult going through security. That’s not fun at all. I’ll probably go back to Maine. I want to go back to Maine. I haven’t been back for about a year because of last year with the babies coming we couldn’t travel. I really like snow and it’s an old home. It was built in 1934 and we’ve had it for about 10 years now. We got married there and I want my children to have that tradition.
Question: Is there a pet project or some character that you’re dying to play?
Dempsey: There’s a couple things that I’m exploring. I think right now if you look at the careers that I respect, everybody’s really in control of the material and the directors that they work with and I think that’s the direction I need to go into. So it’s really about acquiring material and certain ideas and fleshing them out and seeing if I’ll have the opportunity to go ahead and do that. So, it’s exciting I think right now. I’m really enjoying it and this is I think a good first step moving forward. It’s a fun family movie but I think adults will enjoy it as well. It’s good spirited. I think it’s something really special.