- Grey's Anatomy -The Actor Who Played 'Grey's Anatomy's First Gender Non-Binary Character Shares Their Story For The First Time
Journey with me, Grey’s Anatomy fans, and let’s flash back to the end of Season 15 in the spring of 2019: Amelia and Link secretly sleep together in San Diego, Jo searches for her biological mother in Pittsburgh, Meredith finds her zen in Maggie’s plant room for an entire episode... and Grey Sloan Memorial meets their first gender non-binary patient.
On the gurney in Episode 18 “Add It Up” is Toby Donnelly, an adventurous 22-year-old with a deep soft tissue injury sustained during a snowmobile crash, which also injured her mother, Kari. When Dr. Richard Webber mentions “her” potential vascular injuries, Toby corrects him. “They’re. They’re injury, not her.” “I’m a they.”
And they happened to be played by my good friend and mentor, Arielle Hader. Arielle and I met back when I was in high school and pursuing a career in acting; Arielle was balancing college and teaching students like me at a local theater school. Ten years and four episodes of Grey’s Anatomy later, this student is still learning from her teacher.
Arielle is an actor and gender explorer (more on that later) from the Jersey Shore and I wanted Arielle to share — for the first time — what it was like being on Grey’s and making history, to boot. Let’s dive in.
The Dipp: So, I’m going to ask the inevitable: What was it like to lay on that infamous hospital bed where all the set-magic happens?
Arielle Hader: I just remember the first day being on that bed, and I was grabbing Jaicy Elliot’s hand (Elliot plays Dr. Taryn Helm), who is a delight, and in my head I was just like, “This poor girl’s probably [thinking], ‘Why is this actor just, like, squeezing my hand?!’”
But I [thought], “Ground yourself in this moment, listen to these people, and don’t blow this! Please Arielle, don’t blow this for yourself!”
So, after the first day you’re like, “OK, acting is acting." This is the same acting that I was doing on my indie film two weeks ago... it’s just with these famous, beautiful people for a studio.
It’s still to this day one of the best experiences I ever had.
TD: You had a lot of screen time with Jesse Williams (Dr. Jackson Avery), Caterina Scorsone (Dr. Amelia Shepherd), and Chris Carmack (Dr. Atticus "Link" Lincoln). How was that?
AH: I mean, they didn’t have to be as nice to me as they were, but they were truly wonderful. I have a little story of how each of them were so kind to me if you want to hear it —
AH: When I was in the hospital scene where I find out my mom is paralyzed, I just remember looking at Caterina, and she’s so open. It’s so hard to look at her without weeping because she’s just so present. And I just looked at her and was like, “You’re so present. You’re just so here with me.” And she was like, “You’re so present, you’re here with me.” It was lovely.
Jesse Williams during that scene just totally mama-beared me the whole time. He was like, “Can we get some tissues? Because Arielle is gonna need some tissues.”
I went to his trailer after that scene and thanked him. He was just so incredible to work with and really supportive. When I went back to the table read for [my] second episode, and they announced, “Arielle Hader is back as Toby Donnelly,” and he [clapped] and was like, “Woo!”
I was just so flattered that he remembered me!
TD: You did some heavy, emotionally-driven work for this role — especially in that scene where you find out your mom is paralyzed. What was filming that moment like?
AH: The director for that episode was Michael Watkins. He did something where he would come over and, like, whisper little things in my ear. I remember one time he was like, “You’ll be completely alone.” That’s what he said to me in my ear as Toby. He was so good about making it personal to me and giving me these little gifts.
Filming that scene was just... it’s hard not to think about your own mom, you know? I developed my own theory of what happened in the snow mobile accident. Every character I have has an incredibly long novel of what’s happened to them before and after.
TD: Let's talk about your ground-breaking moment for Grey’s: you played their first gender non-binary character. What does that mean for you? When you first booked the role, what was it like accepting that reality?
AH: I was very honored and am very honored that they gave that responsibility to me. I also really loved the way they handled it. It’s mentioned and acknowledged in a way that I think is necessary.
The story is about this person whose mom is paralyzed. It’s very human. Not every story has to be about somebody’s gender reveal, someone’s non-binary reveal, or even coming to terms with their sexuality. Now we’re starting to see that a person, a character in a TV show can be gay, but can just be working in a cafe; the story’s not about them being gay. I think that’s important, [and] I think Grey’s handled that super well.
TD: I know you identify as a gender explorer. How do you define gender explorer? When did you realize your true identity?
AH: I mean, should I start with the beginning? I’m not sure how to start out.
TD: Start with however you feel comfortable.
AH: OK, you knew me... I used to have really long, blonde hair. That was a thing. And I would go out for these parts, and they would tell me, “We can’t cast you because you look like you could beat up our male lead.” And really, what that means is you look too manly to play this part.
I started thinking, “When did we decide strength is masculine?” We’ve just given gender to objects... a dress is feminine and a suit is masculine. That’s been past down I feel like because of random enforcements like Barbie dolls, right? Like you get a Barbie doll when you’re a kid, and none of them look like me.
I have a lot of different qualities. I have a strong physical sense of self, a strong inner sense of self, which I guess is a “masculine” quality. But I’m also highly emotional which, I guess, is a “feminine” quality.
I cut all my hair off. And I was on set for this non-union mattress commercial that was only airing in Japan... this is what I mean, I struggled.
I met this guy on [that] set and it was one of those moments where I was like, “We’re never going to see each other again.” So I just told him, “I just cut my hair and I’m being treated very differently.” And he said, “It’s not just the way you look, there’s just something intrinsically about you, the way you are. You have a quality that is what people are reacting to.”
So it’s not just a physical thing that we’ve defined. It’s an emotional thing. So if all of this is [about] performance qualities, then you can perform gender. So why should I let society say [I] have to be this? If you want to be a woman you have to be this? If you want to be a man you have to be this?
What does it mean if none of my qualities are gendered? They’re just me.
When people come up to me and they’re like, “Are you a man or a woman?” I like that. I think that’s cool about myself. It’s like I’m a double agent, you know?
TD: I love how you came to this realization, and then the role of Toby fell in your lap. How did your identity and this discovery inspire the character of Toby?
AH: I had to decide when Toby came out to their family and to their friends, [but] it just wasn’t on the forefront of their mind. It’s like, “I’m a they, that’s what I am,” but also, “where’s my mom?”
TD: Yes, it’s not necessarily about the identity, it’s about the circumstance.
AH: Yes, absolutely. [Identity] informs the character, and I think it takes a lot of strength to explore different genders. There is so much fear in exploring genders. Or just the idea of what society deems gender. I get it. I’ve gone through that. To be like, I want to wear a suit and tie to this event, but these people maybe don’t know this about me. It can be scary.
TD: Playing roles like Toby and having that representation is going to help normalize this for all of us. Who was your mentor on the Grey’s set?
AH: That’s a good question. I feel like in huge ways, they all were. In ways they didn’t even know. Just to observe what it’s like to be a series regular on a long-running show like Grey’s and how professional and excellent everyone was was eye-opening to see. I think Chris Carmack [was my mentor on set], because he talked me through [an] acting moment.
So there’s this monologue I have in my second episode, and I was just really struggling with a part of it. He’s obviously my scene partner in that monologue, so I just had to be like, “You know what, I just have to talk to Chris about it.”
I had to turn off the part of my brain that’s like, “That’s super famous person, Chris Carmack,” and I just had to be like, but he’s also an actor and a person.
I just pulled him aside and he was so great about it. He [said], “Your work is the cake. You’ve done the work. Don’t go in there and undo the work you’ve done. Just trust yourself on this.”
TD: Where did this role lead you?
AH: I think it’s opened up a lot of doors, definitely. I’ve met a lot of new cool people because of it. And I think it’s really given me a more grounded sense of where I fit in this industry in a huge way. And yeah, I think it’s helped me immensely.
My agent was telling me for years, “All your indie films are great, but if you could get, like, two lines on a TV show, that would help you even more.” And I was given this opportunity, and they had me back, which was amazing. It’s really changed the game for me. And one of the best parts is I get to audition for things that are written so well. The scripts that I get now, it’s like, yes!
Since Arielle’s performance, fans have praised the show for featuring Toby, and in August of 2020, Grey’s own Sara Ramirez (Dr. Callie Torez) came out as non-binary. Roles like Stevonnie in Steven Universe and Taylor Mason in Billions are among other groundbreaking non-binary characters we've seen on TV, as well. You can see more of Arielle in the horror short film Together on YouTube.