When actor Jason George isn’t busy saving lives as Dr. Ben Warren on Grey’s Anatomy, he finds other ways to help. He champions diversity in the entertainment industry, guides at-risk youth, and raises funds for cancer research. He’s also a classically trained stage actor, who’s landed over 50 guest roles on primetime television, including nine series, such as Mistresses, Eve, Eli Stone, and multiple films and plays. So chances are good you’ve seen his face somewhere.
When not filming a series or on stage, the married father of three serves on the National Board of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). He chairs their Diversity Advisory committee, which helps protect performers and supports diversity as part of the unions’ negotiating teams for primetime television and film contracts. He’s also a melanoma advocate. Last year he partnered with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) to host the Miles for Melanoma 5K Run/Walk to raise funds for research.
Recently, ABILITY caught up with the actor at a symposium called “Engage: Navigating Hollywood’s Shifting Landscape” in Santa Monica. George spoke openly about disability and inclusivity in the entertainment industry, what he loves about acting, and his role in a new spin-off from Grey’s Anatomy in which he plays a firefighter in an as-yet-named TV series slated for 2018.
Lia Martirosyan: Tell us about the symposium.
Jason George: Engage is about inclusivity and diversity in media and television and how to get work in the industry, especially behind the scenes. It’s a comprehensive look at how to get employed, the kinds of employment there are, and what the changing trends are, especially when it comes to inclusivity and diversity.
Martirosyan: Disability has been left out of the equation when talking diversity in media. What have you experienced?
George: Disability in general hasn’t been included in the conversation about inclusivity. It’s only recently that it’s really started to move the needle. I do a lot of work with SAG-AFTRA around issues of diversity and inclusivity, and I’ve got to say that the Performers with Disabilities Committee has done phenomenal work moving the needle and getting this conversation happening in the industry. It’s amazing how much energy it takes to get that big old boulder rolling just an inch, which they’ve done. It’s starting to roll now and people are having that conversation.
I think what I’m most excited about right now is that so many people are talking about equality and inclusivity and trying to make sure that nobody is left out. When you point out to somebody that they’re leaving out 20 percent of the population, they pay attention. They wake up. I think it’s not been nearly as hard a conversation as it would have been 10 or 15 years ago. People suddenly go, “Oh, you’re right. You’re right. I hadn’t been thinking about that. I hadn’t been including performers with disabilities in my projects. I haven’t been hiring writers with disabilities. I haven’t been looking for producers with disabilities.”[cp_modal display=”inline” id=”cp_id_744a4″][/cp_modal]
It’s pointed out to them, sometimes in a shaming way, but in terms of, “This actually will help improve your bottom line. People always want to see themselves on camera.” There doesn’t need to be a point. Most powerful is when you see a person on camera with a disability, and it’s not the point of the story. That’s happening more and more. Not enough, let’s be clear, but it’s happening more. At the end of the day I think people are starting to realize that if you say you stand for equality, it has to be equality across the board. It can’t just be equality for people who look like me, are my gender, think or love like me. It has to be equality for everybody. Either you fight for everybody, or you’re really just fighting for yourself and people like you. So I think that’s the message that needs to get out there more and more. It’s that simple. The simple note of, “Don’t forget about these folks who are, by the way, the biggest population of people who are forgotten in the country.”
Martirosyan: I heard you’re also part of a committee focused on inclusivity and diversity?
George: Yeah. Right now, I happen to chair the Diversity Advisory committee for SAG-AFTRA, which I call the United Nations of committees for the protected classes—all the groups like Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), women’s committee, seniors’ committee, performers with disabilities, and then there’s a number of other task forces that are even more specific, such as the Native American Pacific Islander and the Asian-American Pacific Islander task force. These groups are traditionally underrepresented. We have a roundtable where we all come together, because these people have been forgotten. For “these people,” you can fill in the blank with a lot of different names of groups. Whenever one of those groups has a breakthrough and figures out a new way of programming, we share best practices, because the structure of problems ends up being the same. People make assumptions about you based off of what they can see. So we’re trying to make sure all the groups share best practices of how to try and move the needle, because in that regard we have very similar issues.
For example, at this conference, I heard that the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is working with Google on facial recognition software. They were able to quickly and accurately count the number of women in media by incredible numbers, whereas previously there were grad students sitting in a room and counting to figure out what the percentages of women were, like in the sciences, for example, they’re represented 15 to 1. When you hear those numbers, you go, “Wow, that really is a mistake.” Two out of 30 characters in the story, is not enough. Now they’re able to do it for race as well, which is going to move the needle in that regard. My question is, to what extent can we also begin to look for a wheelchair or a crutch. I think there are so many ways it can at least move the needle forward in that regard. You can’t necessarily catch other disabilities, but the reality is, you will catch a lot more than a grad student sitting in a room with a note pad and a pen doing their best.
When everybody’s trying to do their best, right now we’re in a culture where I think by and large most people, especially in Hollywood, want to be telling authentic stories, and don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. Show them data, they say, “Oh, I guess I am the bad guy in this regard.” And they change.
Martirosyan: The bad guy or the “oops” guy.
George: Right, the “oops” guy. And that’s the point. You’re not a bad buy, the reality is, you only know your story. Only thinking about life from your perspective, until somebody else shows you another perspective, then you say, “Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that”. “Well, now you do.” So the data is a very non-accusatory—the emotion’s out of it. A way of saying, “You had 300 characters come through in the last 10 episodes, one had a disability”. So it’s a way to move the needle—a picture’s worth a thousand words. I think some data is worth a million.
Martirosyan: The National Institutes of Health says on average everyone experiences one or more disabilities for 13 years over the course of their lifetime.
It usually happens when we start to go over the hill and our bodies fall apart. Hearing loss, eyesight, and it goes on and on.
George: The interesting thing about forms of disabilities is, when I look at that committee, they represent all different races, religions, shapes, sizes and ages. As you mentioned “natural” disabilities come up as we age. “My eyesight is starting to go. I’m going to need reading glasses.” These kinds of things we don’t think of as a disability, but the reality is that it is. We put it under a different heading. I think in large part because we think of it as a stigma. And the more we pull that stigma out of it, it’s like, no, this is a natural thing. Once we accept that, then we’ll probably pay attention, and we might have a little more investment in moving the needle, making sure the story’s being told.
Martirosyan: We’ve had experiences where we’ve met people over the years, and now they’ve lost their hearing, saying, “What? What? What?” and they still don’t consider themselves under the disability umbrella.
George: They don’t want to put themselves under that umbrella because they still have assumptions about what that term means. “I don’t have a disability, I’m just getting older, and my hearing’s starting to go, my eyesight’s starting to go.” It’s like, “Uh, you’ve got a disability. Merry Christmas. It’s the gig”.
Still a stigma because in their minds, that’s a whole separate category. For the average person, they think of it as a scary thing, but that’s because of the assumptions that have been heaped on it for decades. The more you pull away those assumptions, the more they start to realize that “It’s not that deep. It’s all good.”
Martirosyan: Can you think of any best practices which will move us in the direction of getting more actors in front of the camera right now—behind the camera is another issue—to change society’s attitudes?
George: My experience with the performers with disabilities committee at SAG-AFTRA is what I think so many organizations are doing. I love that some of them are using the stick, pointing out what they’re not doing, how harmful it is, that sort of thing. Some of them are using a carrot, making sure they receive praise when they do do it. I think that combination of needs is going to continue to grow on both sides. You need both. Look, I’m African American, so I always say, you need a Martin Luther King and you need a Malcolm X. You need those two things working in concert with each other to move the needle.
I think all the right ideas are in place. We just need more ways to gather data so we can lay it in front of them and tell facts. “Yes, you know emotionally it’s the right thing to do. Statistically, this is going to give you the opportunity to reach 20 percent of your potential audience, a population that has some form of disability. When they see themselves, they’re more apt to actually watch your show. So, yes, morally it’s the right thing for you to do, but it’s also going to make you money.” At the end of the day, with all of these issues, that’s what it comes down to. Show them how it will make them money, and they’ll respond. Twenty percent of the population, you’re talking about a population in the country of hundreds of millions of people. That’s a massive number. This wakes people up.
Martirosyan: Yes if companies understood there’s $1.3 trillion in expendable income…
George: Not my income.
Martirosyan: Tell us about your acting background.
George: I first discovered acting at the University of Virginia (UVA). Planning on a career in law. I’d gotten tight with a Virginia Supreme Court justice who said, “You get the grades, I’ll write the recommendation. You come clerk for me, we’ll get you into law school.” I took an acting class, and that all went away. Then I went to Temple University to get my master of fine arts in acting, because I thought that everybody goes to LA thinking, “I’m cute, and I can read, so I should be an actor.” I actually wanted to understand the craft, its history, that sort of thing. It’s served me well. I’m a believer that your education continues—it’s a big UVA thing. They don’t believe in senior or freshman. Your education goes on forever. You’re never done. You’re a first year, second year, third year, fourth year, and it goes on from there. The idea that you’re always learning stuck with me.
When I went to one particular school, they gave me dance, singing and stage combat classes and all these different ways to understand craft. Several of my greatest acting lessons came out of stage combat and dance class. I’m a very physical person. I can take that and translate it into how to emotionally break down a scene. An actor needs to be good at a lot of different things. That was useful for me. You can piece that same thing together wherever you are. Find people who teach, whether they’re doing it for money or somebody who can mentor. The education is ongoing. Learning to love learning is, I think, an actor’s greatest job, because whoever you play, you want to learn how to get into their skin, and it’s usually about something you know little about.
Right now I’m playing a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. I had to learn all these things. I had to love the idea of getting the nuances of that. If it’s drudgery, you’re in the wrong business.
Martirosyan: What if you get sick at the sight of blood?
George: Fortunately, the blood is only so much. It’s really mainly a steak that they throw on there. The blood is tasty. It’s actually just syrup.
Martirosyan: Do you ever find yourself feeling like you’re actually inside a human body?
George: I am saved from getting lost in the surgery, mainly because I don’t know how to do surgery. I know how to tie some of the knots, we’ll always do research to find out about the disease we’re talking about and the surgery we’re about to perform, but I can’t perform it. I’m not a real doctor. What’s fun about my show is that it’s far less about this activity, than it is about the connection that comes between people because of this activity. I think that’s what people respond to. Even when we’re doing an intense surgery, it’s really about checking out what’s going on. We always call it “eye acting”, because we’re supposed to be paying attention to what we’re doing, and real doctors never take their eyes off the field, but to never look up doesn’t work in TV. You have to choose when to look at that person, and that’s the world. The eyes are the window into the soul. At the end of the day, when you connect, how much you connect and for how long is a huge piece of what we do as actors.
Martirosyan: Can you give us inside information about what’s going to happen to your character?
George: (laughs) Well, Ben has applied to the firefighter training academy. Ben is in pursuit of another goal. It’s still, in his mind, a pursuit of medicine. He wants to be at the source of where things go wrong for people. You can think of it like spokes on a wheel. If you can change the trajectory by just three degrees from the center, by the time you get someone to the hospital that may be a life-changing difference. He wants to see if he can’t expound on that.
Martirosyan: We have a couple of doctors who write for the magazine. One day I was on the phone with our Managing Health Editor and he says, “I’ve got to get back in surgery.” I said, “What?”
“You didn’t need to call me back” He said, “No, no, I had time, but now I’ve got to put the scull back on this person.” He’s a brain surgeon, and what can happen with head traumas is that the brain swells and can kill a patient, so they take the scull off, and need to wait—
George: —for the swelling to come down. One of the most mesmerizing things I’ve learned in the course of playing a doctor, I watched an open-heart surgery where they were changing someone’s valves. One of the valves had calcified. So they had to put a plastic one in and cut off the only valve. They literally sew it on, like the way you’d stitch on a button. Not the same exact stitch, but you could learn to do the stitch. What’s crazy is how bloodless an open-heart surgery is, because they’re running all of your blood through a machine, pumping it around. In the middle of the surgery, right after they finish working on the heart, they sit down and they jaw, because they’re waiting for the body to warm back up and the blood to start flowing again. What’s surprising is how much downtime there is in this surgery. One of the greatest quotes about film is that film is a lie that tells the truth. I need you to tell me the truth of how it feels, not the facts of how it feels. We’re going to lie about the facts to get to the truth.
So if we showed you the real six-hour surgery, how much downtime they have, it would be the worst rated show in the history of television. But when you watch the surgery and find out how casual doctors can get, you understand they have to be. This is what they do every day. I’m going into the spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy, which is about firefighters. People who stand three, five, ten feet from roaring flames with a hose, from certain death, having a conversation. Occasionally barking out orders and that sort of thing, but they also look like they’re washing the car. That’s their job. It could kill you, but it’s what they do every day. Finding where that person lives—that element of playing these roles—is one of the more fun parts of acting. We all have fight-or-flight, in our head, our heart, our gut. Where they have to live and where they have to move themselves as if, “You know what? I know this could kill me, but I’m good”. Or, “Okay, I’m not as good any more. I’m getting nervous”. If I were a doctor, this is what I’d do every day. It’s not that big a deal. Finding that level of what makes this person nervous who already has to have nerves of steel, is always fun. The writers find it for us, set us up, and we’ve got to figure out how to make it real.
Martirosyan: What is the show called?
George: It doesn’t have a name yet. Right now it’s the untitled Grey’s Anatomy spinoff. It will have a name shortly, before it airs. It’s supposed to air in the spring some time. A Shonda Rhimes special, so you’ve got to be ready. You’re going to have the feels. You’re going to clutch the pearls sometimes and have some laughs, some cries.
Martirosyan: Looking forward to it. Can you share any advice for an actor experiencing adversity or having a difficult time?
George: If I had to give advice to any performer, whatever their disability or not, “Do you. Do you.” Because the reality is, there will be a bunch of actors who can memorize lines, say them like they mean it, like it’s truthful. But nobody can say it like you. At the end of the day, all you have is your distinct point of view. More and more, especially as technology is democratizing media, everybody’s got their own YouTube channel, everybody’s got an Instagram account where you can actually begin to put forward great content and get discovered. You can shoot an entire movie on an iPhone and get it to Sundance. That’s happening now. Your individual story, what makes you, you, is the most valuable asset.
Yes, people are going to have assumptions, and when you dispel them by telling your story, what you are fully capable of, that will be the thing that blows them away and makes them want to hang out with you, want to watch you, to hear your story and tell your stories. At the end of the day, “do you”.