For ‘Grey’s’ Doc Jessica Capshaw, Work-Life Balance Is a Total Myth

Nicole Pajer
Jessica Capshaw (Photo: Getty Images)

Jessica Capshaw, who plays doctor Arizona Robbins at the fictional Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, says starring on Grey’s Anatomy has changed her life. She’s loved playing a lesbian onscreen but had no idea what her story arc would be when she first signed on as a guest star.

“[Shonda Rhimes] called me into her office and she was really direct. She was like, ‘I want you to stay for another episode, and in the next episode, you’re going to kiss Callie,’” Capshaw tells Yahoo Style, referring to her former onscreen partner played by Sara Ramirez. ‘I’m game to try stuff. So I was like, ‘Yeah. OK!'”

Eight seasons later, the actress is a mainstay on the medical drama. Her “go with the flow” attitude has taken her character through all sorts of crazy plotlines including the loss of a leg and a recent divorce, which has opened the door for Rhimes to toss another curveball Capshaw’s way: having her heat things up onscreen with her real-life friend Marika Dominczyk.

“It was definitely one of those moments when you were like, ‘I’m going to kiss my friend.’ That’s going to happen,” she says, with a laugh.

When she’s not saving infants onscreen, Capshaw is busy parenting her tribe of four. And while she, like many working moms, is juggling a career, family, and personal life, she is quick to proclaim that the idea of work-life balance is a fantasy. Here’s more from this outspoken actress.

What do you love about playing Arizona?

There’s a lot of loss that transcends in themes with Arizona but I think this season gets to be more about finding what she loves and getting to be in a relationship that’s a little irreverent, to get to be chased by someone. She gets to feel the newness of being in a relationship that is physical that is not her ex. And that’s been really fun to play this season. It’s been nice and new and fresh.

Arizona was with Callie for so long. Is it fun to get to play the field now?

It is! This year, my love interest is played by Marika Dominczyk. I’ve known her for quite a while, and she’s a good friend of mine — and married to Scott Foley, who is also a friend of mine. It’s a very interesting negotiation, but we had fun. We laughed a lot. And our husbands have definitely had a laugh or two over it.

Do you feel honored to be able to help fight for equality by portraying this character on a weekly basis? And to eventually teach that lesson to your kids?

I never would have imagined that I would be able to play a character that would feel like it does so much good, whether it’s people who feel like the character resonates with them and it makes their day a little easier to see themselves represented. Or if it’s someone watching it who has someone in their life who is gay and they might have not understood it before and all of a sudden, they have another person or another thing to point to and say, ‘Oh that’s a different context.’ Being able to play a lesbian as a series regular on television has been enormously rewarding.

My daughter goes to preschool, and the preschool has all kinds of families. And I guess one of the kids said, ‘You have to have a mom and a dad to have a baby.’ And my daughter said, ‘No. No you don’t.’ And this was all overheard and told to me later. She said, in a very kind and patient way to that child, ‘There can be a mom and a mom and a dad and a mom and there can be a dad and a dad.’ I am so grateful that she will never know any different, and it will only be if she is in the presence of people who are on the wrong side of history or small-minded that she will hear anything other than that. I feel grateful to have her living in a family that will put her out into the world as someone who understands the world a little bit.

You work long hours on the show but have four kids and a husband at home. How do you do it all?

My schedule is incredibly all over the place. A lot of people, especially who are working moms, say it’s all about balance and trying to create a balance, and I respectfully disagree. I don’t know that any part of my day is ever balanced. I don’t spend equal parts being mom or being a worker, being a wife, being an advocate, being a humanitarian, whatever it is that I am endeavoring to be.

I constantly have to make sacrifices. With four kids, there are going to be that many holiday performances and there are going to be spring performances and field trips and muffin mom. So there is tons of stuff that is there for the doing, and I pick and choose what I can. I find in my own life as a mom, that I always try to pick the things that I actually enjoy because I think my kids see that in me. I have a crazy schedule, and sometimes it works for me to be able to do the thing that I said I was going to do, and sometimes it doesn’t. So you sacrifice sometimes being able to go to the thing or pick up the child. I had much more stringent and very inflexible ideas of what I thought it meant to be a great mom when I first started.

I remember thinking that there was just no way in the world that my kid would ever have a doctor’s appointment that I wouldn’t be there for. But when you’re just starting out, you think things should be one way and you’re humbled that it takes a village. And there will be times when your kid is sick and they need to go to the doctor and you’re not going to be there. But thank God they are still going to the doctor. It’s just so unrealistic to think that we can do it all.

Jessica Capshaw in character. (Photo: Getty Images)

Your youngest is 1. Has it been exciting to return to your prepregnancy style?

I never wore maternity clothes, except for a couple of pairs of — yes, it’s true — jean shorts that I wore where I swear the inseam was like half an inch. It was embarrassing. I like myself a pair of jean shorts. I just did a recent purging of my closet, and I’m not gonna lie, there were probably five to six one-inch if not half-inch inseam denim shorts that had to go. I really felt like maybe it was time. Maybe they have just run their course in my life.

Once I had kids, I definitely did start to realize how I’d like to dress that feels comfortable and at the same time it feels current and it feels stylish and you feel like it has an attitude or an opinion. And sometimes you are in your workout clothes until 4 in the afternoon.

Fashion-wise, what are you into these days?

I find that for me, in the summer especially, it’s all about dresses. It’s one stop. You put on your great dress and some sandals. I love almost the entire Ulla Johnson line. They are great dresses; they are easy to put on. I also love finding sandals that go with everything and then finding a pair that have a ton of color that I’m excited to pair with something. I stick with blues quite a lot — light blue, dark blue. Besides blue as a color, I tend to say in the neutrals and the nudes, the creams, and the whites and the golds. I love a button-down shirt. I love a great pair of jeans. And I love a heel. I loved when the block heels came back in. It was so great because they are so much more comfortable, especially when you have four kids.

I have some fellow-mom fashionistas. My friend Marliene Rentmeester has a blog called Le Catch. I get the little newsletter every day, and it’s always got something fun in it at every price point. Unless it’s very ephemeral and very inexpensive, I think at this point in my life, I’m all about the classics. What do you love that you’re going to love for a very long time?

Jessica Capshaw on Grey’s Anatomy. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty Images)

What’s your stance on scrubs?

I count myself among the lucky that I get to go to work in my pajamas. It takes me like 14 seconds to get into my outfit.

Has it been fun dressing your kids?

I kind of live for it. I have a little bit of a problem! And on any given day, probably any of my children are dressed better than I am. They go through their clothes so fast, but I do have to say, I stretch it out.

How did they hide your baby bumps on set?

During the tenure of my time on the show, we went from having real x-rays and real clipboards to having iPads. I used to carry the pads and the x-rays and it would be right in front of my stomach, or I would stand behind desks and that kind of worked. Then the Microsoft pads came out and I was like, ‘I have less room to hide!’ So they had to play with camera angles. But I think if anybody looks at the past couple of seasons, you’ll definitely see when I’m pregnant and when I’m not! Debbie Allen directed an episode one time where she actually used an entire ambulance to hide my pregnant body. Everyone got a very good chuckle out of the fact that it took and entire ambulance to cover me. I was like, ‘Guys I’m not that big!’

I’ve heard that Shonda Rhimes is a huge advocate for working moms.

She is amazing. She understands that every mom is going to need something different. And what she’s been so great about is she goes to the person and says, ‘What do you want? What do you need? What would make this transition and being a mom good for you in this way?’ She’s a godsend, and she’s in the earned position where she has quite a bit of power and she commands attention and understanding from people. And she’s able to say “This needs to be looked at” to the powers that be that might not have been keen on expanding options for maternity leave and childcare. And I think that’s an incredible thing.

Do your kids visit you on set?

I do believe that sets are a workplace and you have a ton of adults, you have a ton of equipment, you have a lot of dust. You have people that are frustrated, people that are joyful. And I’m the worst, by the way. I don’t know how it’s possible but I never cuss at home. I get to work and I cuss like a sailor. And you’ve got words going around. So I am always like, “The set it not a place for kids.” But we all have kids come and visit in our trailer, and I feel like when we are on location, kids always come visit because it’s a park or a building and that’s fun.

Jessica Capshaw, pregnant with her fourth child. (Photo: Getty Images)

Do your kids realize their mom is a big TV star?

People come up and they’ll say something or they’ll ask for a picture and my kids think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. They just think it’s hysterical! They don’t understand it.

Your mom was an actress. What did she teach you about navigating Hollywood as a woman?

I think the greatest gift that my mom gave me was that I never saw myself as less than because I was a woman. I never thought — and naively so — that I’d have to give up more or I couldn’t do as much or I couldn’t get as much. She has such a strong character and incredible conviction, and she’s done so much and she’s accomplished so much and she’s just traveled so far. I think you have to take it one step at a time. If you find out there is a guy getting paid more than you and you do the same job, then you pick that fight. But it can’t be about everything all the time, at least not in that moment. I think then people get overwhelmed and they lose sight of what they are actually fighting for. I think it’s very important to be organized in your call to action in order to understand what it is that you want to accomplish before you go out there with arms swinging.

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