When Patrick Dempseyshowed up on the beach in Malibu, California, to film his secret Grey’s Anatomy return in season 17, there was a lot of worry that the surprise would be ruined by a random jogger or someone in a boat off in the distance. The fact that that never happened was a feat in itself, something Grey’s star Kevin McKidd — who directs Thursday’s episode, which features another appearance by Dempsey as Meredith’s late husband, Derek Shepherd — was truly stunned by.
“It was amazing. I mean, we were shocked! Because in the script that we had, it had things like Meredith’s mother [Ellis Grey] would be on the beach talking to her about life. And we’re all like, ‘This seems weird,’ so they kept it a secret from us for a long time,” McKidd told ET’s Nischelle Turner over Zoom on Tuesday. “That’s probably why it stayed a secret because they didn’t tell the actors for a long time!”
Because he was directing the third episode, McKidd was one of the lucky few who found out “slightly earlier” than everyone else.
“But I sort of had to keep that secret so tight. That was really hard. I couldn’t tell my wife. I couldn’t tell anyone,” he recalled. “But I’m glad it came off because I think it gave — we’ve all been through so much with COVID, it was like a huge Christmas gift to the fans. And I think it was worth all the effort.”
McKidd admitted he was surprised by Dempsey’s unexpected return, but reuniting with his former co-star brought back old memories from set. (Dempsey’s character, often referred to as McDreamy, was dramatically killed off in a 2015 episode.)
“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this, that we’re getting an opportunity to do this, you know?'” he shared. “And I gotta say, those days down by the beach were very… it was almost like being at summer camp. It was this really nostalgic, warm feeling. It felt very cathartic and healing, and we all got to reminisce about all those years that we worked together. It was really, truly lovely.”
“We had a great catch-up about life and about where our lives are,” McKidd said of reconnecting with Dempsey. (The actors worked together on Grey’s for seven years, from season 5 to season 11.) “It felt like seeing an old friend from a long time ago that I hadn’t seen in a while. It was just awesome.”
He revealed the lengths production went through to ensure that nothing got out regarding Dempsey and this week’s episode, titled “My Happy Ending,” confessing that it was “hard” to make sure nothing leaked because it was filmed weeks ago in a public area.
“We were on the beach shooting this, and at one point, we saw this boat out on the horizon and it stayed there for a bit too long. We were all like, ‘That’s a paparazzi boat! That’s a paparazzi boat!’ But luckily it wasn’t a paparazzi boat, but we really thought it was. There was a lot of paranoia about keeping this thing secret. It was stressful,” McKidd said. “We had to lock down that whole beach, so nobody was allowed on it. It was a whole production, like a military operation.”
Though Grey’s showrunner Krista Vernoff vaguely revealed that Dempsey appears “three more times,” McKidd was a bit more coy when asked if this week’s episode is the last time McDreamy appears this season.
“I can’t tell you that!” he exclaimed. “I value my job too much. All I can say is you have not seen the last of him. That’s what I will say and whatever does come, it’s going to be… What you saw last week that everybody freaked out about is just a tiny, it’s the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. You’ll have to watch.”
With Dempsey’s return, Grey’s fans have been speculating that the door is now open for more familiar faces from the past to resurface now that Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is dealing with COVID-19 and seeing visions of her late husband. Are there more Easter eggs in store?
“I say nothing. But you know, it’s a great premise. What I love about this is that COVID — many people who have had COVID report that in night time, they get these night visions and strange dreams and [it’s] very hard to sleep and it’s all lucid dreaming,” McKidd teased. “So this opportunity to do what we’re doing with the character of Meredith [through our storytelling] is truly [remarkable].”
“I know nothing,” he quipped, pausing for a moment before hinting that he knows more than he’s letting on. “Maybe…”
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. For more on the season 17 premiere surprise, watch the video below.
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