When Sara Ramirez isn’t repairing broken bones or melting your heart as out doctor Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy, she’s busy looking out for your liver through the Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation, a nonprofit organization in which she serves as a board member.Created and named after the loss of her “gay husband” and best friend, Ramirez is equally passionate about liver health as she is for gay rights. Ahead of Monday’s inaugural Broadway Takes the Runway: An Evening of Fashion and Song fundraiser — in which the Tony winner will take the stage and sing show tunes — AfterEllen.com caught up with Ramirez to talk about her philanthropy, gay rights and, yes, what’s next for primetime’s leading lesbian couple.
AfterEllen.com: What does it feel like to be adored by countless lesbians?
Sara Ramirez: (Laughs.) It feels awesome! Hey, look, it’s love. It doesn’t matter who it’s from. I am proud to play Callie Torres, I am proud of the story line, I really love the GLBT community and it’s a part of my life. I grew up in New York and it’s my friends and family and I love them back.
AE: Where does your support for gay rights come from?
SR: I moved to New York when I was about 17. I started my theater world experience in San Diego — I went to a performing arts school from fourth through 12th grade — and with the artistic folks that I was surrounded by, I had a lot of gay friends. I had a lot of gay folks around me growing up. It wasn’t a secret and it wasn’t anything anyone was particularly ashamed about. When I was around these people, I wasn’t introduced to it in some guilty, weird, shameful way, which I’m really grateful for. I went to Juilliard and I was surrounded by artists.
Then I graduated and quickly moved into the theater world, met Al (Rodriguez), who became my best friend right away. It’s always been a part of my life. It’s the world that I live in, it’s the world that I know and love. It’s what I’ve always been around and known. To me, because I’ve experienced that kind of life, it’s always interesting when you meet people who have had the absolute opposite experience and haven’t been around that or it’s so foreign. What ever other people feel, it’s always really interesting to me.
I hope with this story line and with Callie’s journey and the relationship with Arizona that we can just blow the top off of it and be like, “This is the world we live in.” There are several interesting walks of life that we’re talking about here. Arizona’s a character that’s always known that she’s a lesbian; Callie has only dated and been in love with men and now she’s understanding that she can also love and be with a woman. I think that’s an interesting walk of life, too, which is not necessarily the “I was born a lesbian, I’ve always known I was a lesbian.” It’s just as important to tell that story, too.
AE: What are your thoughts on the current state of lesbian visibility on TV?
SR: I think it’s getting better. I hate to say it, but unfortunately in this day and age in Hollywood when things are fashionable, suddenly you start to see it pop up everywhere. I feel like it’s popping up everywhere more and more. We had The L Word, obviously; we had a lot of shows in Hollywood that were trying, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I remember back in the day when it was The Real World on MTV and there was a gay character.
In terms of specifically lesbian characters, The L Word was really the first show that showcased that and since then Grey’s Anatomy and we’ve seen several primetime TV shows try to incorporate lesbian characters into their shows and even pilots, I feel like it’s become almost mandatory in a way. I’m hopeful and I’m grateful that people are starting to realize how important it is to have a well-represented show and a cast that really represents the world that we live in.
AE: When I spoke with Jessica Capshaw in August, she mentioned she sees Callie and Arizona as “the beginning” of a new series of political couples on primetime who happen to be lesbians. What do you think?
SR: That is true. Because of my personal experience, I was really thrilled several seasons ago when I first asked (Grey’s Anatomy creator) Shonda Rhimes that if she were going to have a female character on this show go down the gay road, I really would love for it to be Callie and I’m totally up for taking that on. That’s when we started with the Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) character. That’s when all that started.
The whole idea of bringing a relationship between two women to primetime TV without commenting on it was something that developed many seasons ago, back when Brooke Smith was on the show. It’s something that I’m really proud of. Unfortunately or fortunately — however you want to look at it — it went down the road that it went down. But the good news is that the writers and Shonda Rhimes and everyone I think, I hope at least, really made a point not to comment on it as much as just letting the relationship play out as a relationship with universal issues — some not so universal that were kind of dealt with through a lot of sense of humor, in terms of a woman never having been with another woman and wanting so much to please her. There were a lot of things that were tackled many seasons ago that were set up in a way where we don’t have to comment on it while at the same time making a huge impact. For that I’m really grateful to Shonda and the writers for really making an effort.
It’s really great how things have evolved, and now in this relationship — Callie’s second with a woman — we’re really seeing how two strong women with very different personalities learn to navigate and negotiate through all of the very common things that we go through in relationships. It’s fun to see them tackle all that and grow together and grow as individual people because of it.
AE: How political would you like to see Grey’s get with Callie and Arizona’s story line — marriage equality?
SR: With everything going on with Prop. 8 and the fact that it is still this ridiculous battle, it would be so fantastic if it all just got squashed and went away but at the same time we saw Callie and Arizona move on to the next level, whether it was having a child or getting married and having it be legal. Stuff like that I think would be fantastic.
Again, representing the world that we live in, two of my guy friends got married right when it was still legal here in California, right before it became an issue again. The joy that I saw in their faces is something that you never forget. It is a part of the world that I live in and I want to see everyone be that happy and everyone feel that protected and equal. Everybody is deserving. I think it would be great for Grey’s Anatomy to go down that road, absolutely.
AE: Last season ended with Arizona saying she was open to having kids with Callie. How would you like to see that happen?
SR: We’re starting the season off with a lot of huge promises that were made. The shooter comes into the hospital and reminds everybody how short life can be. People, out of this really traumatic life experience, start to realize how precious life is and how much they really love the person they’re with and what they’re willing to sacrifice to be with them — including their own dreams, which I think is interesting. Callie’s dream is to have a baby and she gave it up and said, “I will not have children if it means I’ll be with you because I’d rather be with you.” Then Arizona, on the flip side, goes, “We’ll have 10 children, we’ll have a family, what ever you want, I love you, and I want to be with you.”
Now we’re starting the season off with it’s not really talked about, we don’t really touch on the baby issue but we do start to see the progression of two people who have said to each other that we’re going to be together, we’re going to build a life together. In the first episode this season, Callie asks her to move in and she says yes and it’s great. In the next episode, you see them deal with — in a hilarious way — when you say you’re going to move in together and you don’t realize what you got into until you move in together and then you realize, “Oh, hey, you’ve got some habits, some needs and wants and they’re very different from mine.” You’ll see a very humorous side of that and that’s what we’re going to be dealing with first: the slow progression of them building a life together.
Then in terms of having a baby, if they go down that road, obviously you’re going to need a sperm donor. Then the question becomes how they look into that. Is there going to be a Private Practice crossover? I think that would be kind of neat. Where do you start looking first and who do you pick? Is Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) going to be involved somehow? What are the boundaries around that? Is that going to provide some conflict? I see potential in all of that, but I’m not the writer. (Laughs.) But I think there’s a lot of potential for some really interesting stuff that could really ruffle everyone’s feathers in a really fabulous way that keeps people interested.
AE: What did you think of the whole Newsweek debacle?
SR: I think it’s ridiculous. It’s offensive. It undermines actors’ abilities. It’s what we do; actors and performers are constantly stepping into people that they’re nothing like and I think sexual orientation should not be the deciding factor as to whether you get to play a role or not. There are plenty of actors out there who are portraying straight characters in an amazing way and the actors happen to be homosexual. Neil Patrick Harris is a perfect example of someone who is a smart, funny, talented, classy, hilarious, silly, loving person and oh yeah, by the way, he’s gay. Who cares?
I think T.R. Knight (who played George on Grey’s) said it best when he first came out to the public that it’s the least interesting thing about him. He said that, those are his words. I thought that was brilliant. Because for a lot of people who want to come out and kids who don’t know what to do about telling their parents in the Midwest that they’re gay, I think that it is scary and it does matter and it is interesting. I don’t want kids to think that it’s the least interesting thing about you; no, it’s fabulous! Celebrate it, be yourself, be who you are, be out about it. But it is scary and it is frightening.
In terms of actors and performers who happen to be gay, yeah, it’s the least interesting thing. It’s just as interesting as who a straight person sleeps with — I don’t care. I don’t need to know about that. All I need to know is when you show up for work you’re prepared, you know your lines and you’ve got your character down and you’re going to have fun and do a great job. That you’re going to convince people that you’re playing that role and it’s going to be believable and it’s going to be real. If somebody doesn’t portray a role well, it’s perhaps because they weren’t prepared enough or it wasn’t the right role for them. It has nothing to do with their sexual orientation.
AE: Is there a specific project that would get you to return to Broadway?
SR: A dream role of mine is “Evita,” but it might be far-fetched because I’m very tall and I’m not a trained dancer. But I’m working on it! (Laughs.) I would love to do Evita. It’d be a great and very difficult role. It’s a tall order and I’m scaring myself saying it out loud. That role speaks to me. If I were to come back and do an original piece it would have to be a piece that speaks to my heart, has amazing music. Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote and starred in In the Heights — I would love to work with him and develop something with him.
AE: What will you be singing at “Broadway Takes the Runway: An Evening of Fashion and Song”?
SR: I’m going to be singing a song from Evita that I’m really excited about. And I’ll be singing a song from The Secret Garden. Four-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, who also is on Private Practice, is going to be singing, too. Plus Billy Porter and Natalie Weiss, Christopher Jackson and Robin de Jesus and Carson Kressley, who’s on the board, will be hosting.
AE: How did the Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation get started?
SR: We’ve been around for two years. Al was my best friend and he moved out to L.A. with me when I got “Grey’s Anatomy” and he moved back right before Season 3. A couple years ago he was diagnosed with liver cancer out of the blue. He was 45-years old and had no insurance. He was an actor, a gay man — he was my gay husband. It turns out he had contracted hepatitis in high school from eating something and it’s scary that it went untreated the whole time.
There was a lot of confusion around it and it was just too late. It turned into liver cirrhosis, which turned into liver cancer. Six weeks later he passed away. Nothing prepares you for that kind of stuff.
The last couple years I’ve been going through the grief process and the foundation was something that was brought up by one of the group’s friends around Al who said we should do a foundation in his memory and try to give back and help those in need like him. We all decided to do it and move our energy into something productive that gives back and celebrates his memory. We’ve managed to screen people and vaccinate people for hepatitis.
That’s really our goal: To provide free screening for the hepatitis virus and free vaccinations. We’re targeting community health centers and clinics, we’re trying to focus on communities that reflect who Al was — an artist, a gay man, someone without insurance, a Latino. We’re being very specific right now but we do hope and want to help as many people as we can.
AE: How can people get involved if they can’t attend the event in New York?
SR: Donate, it doesn’t have to be a lot — it can be a little bit every now and then
Also, forward the information and the website to anyone that you know who might have hepatitis or who thinks they might have it or who has a liver issue.
Really, education around the liver organ is really important. What’s really ironic is that Al never drank alcohol. People often associate liver issues with alcohol, which yes, they exist. But there’s a whole other side of the liver being affected by other things that are non-alcohol related. It’s important to get the message out that there are many ways that your liver can deteriorate so it’s important to understand its function and that when something goes terribly wrong you often don’t find out until it’s too late.
People can reach out and help educate others. We have honorary board members, people who are linked to the medical world who help us out all the time who contribute resources and the latest medical discoveries so if people have connections to that, that’s great. People can get involved in all sorts of ways but more than anything we would love for people to go on the website and contact us and let us know that they would like to contribute and help and we can work together to think of ways. (Source | After Ellen)