- Sarah Drew stars in and wrote the new Lifetime film “Reindeer Games Homecoming.”
- The holiday rom-com marks her screenwriting debut and explores grief.
- Drew told Insider she’d always love “Grey’s Anatomy” but was fulfilled leading her own projects.
Sarah Drew doesn’t remember taking a photograph with Oprah Winfrey. All she recalls from that fateful evening in September are two approving words from the Hollywood titan (“Your dress!”), a twist to check the label (Pinko), and the hug they shared. But the next day, an image of the two stars and a video marking the sartorial moment appeared in Drew’s Instagram inbox, confirming the unimaginable.
One might wonder how an actor whose 25-year career includes breakout roles on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men,” and “Glee” could still become starstruck, but consider this: That night, at Variety’s annual Power of Women event, Drew, who turned 42 in October, also found herself in the presence of Malala Yousafzai, Ava DuVernay, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and Elizabeth Olsen.
“I’ve always had this sense that I’m not at the fancy-people table,” she said over a video call in October.
Drew may not consider herself “fancy,” even while at a prestigious, invite-only event celebrating some of the world’s most powerful women. But whether stopping Oprah in her tracks or portraying multidimensional women, she knows how to leave audiences wanting more. That’s how her guest-starring role as April Kepner in a two-episode arc on “Grey’s Anatomy” snowballed into a recurring appearance and, later, made her a series regular for nine seasons.
She’ll be the first to acknowledge that shiny, buzzy roles are awesome. But when her time on the beloved medical-drama series came to an abrupt end, Drew learned just how fleeting fancy can be. So now, instead of waiting around for another table to open up, Drew has spent the past three years building one of her own.
Drew made TV history with her screenwriting debut: ‘There is no possibility for me to half-ass anything’
For her screenwriting debut, Drew opted for a challenge by marrying the holidays and grief, two themes as popular as they are complex. “Reindeer Games Homecoming” centers on a high-school biology teacher in Vermont named MacKenzie Graves (played by Drew) and her former high-school crush Chase Weston (her fellow “Grey’s” alum Justin Bruening), a celebrity whose hometown return triggers MacKenzie’s unresolved heartbreak over her father’s death.
The Lifetime film premiered Saturday, making Drew the first woman to simultaneously star in, executive produce, and have a solo writing credit on a Lifetime movie through the Broader Focus program, the network’s initiative meant to uplift and hire more women in writing, directing, and producing roles.
“There is no possibility for me to half-ass anything,” Drew tells me from her home in Los Angeles during our third and final Zoom conversation. “I don’t know how to phone something in. It would feel like it would be going completely against my identity and my makeup to do that.”
It’s this attitude that sharpened her instincts and placed her on Shonda Rhimes’ star-making radar, first for a pilot titled “Inside the Box,” which never made it to air; then for a role on the “Grey’s” spinoff “Private Practice”; and ultimately, her final destination, the fictional Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital.
Her longtime on-screen love Jesse Williams says Drew’s confidence is ‘badass’
Drew recalls a moment from the early “Grey’s” years when she spotted her costar Sandra Oh, across the room, confidently debating her famous, founding character Dr. Cristina Yang with the head writers. Right then and there in the fake hospital’s conference room, Drew decided: “Her, I want to be like her. I want to speak my mind with confidence and passion like she does.”
Her passionate pitches for April are well-documented in the press. Drew suggested to Rhimes the death of April’s infant son Samuel while pregnant with her real-life daughter Hannah Lanfer. Hannah was born 10 hours after she’d filmed Samuel’s birth scene. Dialogue also matters to the actor. In season 10, April and her husband Jackson Avery (played by Jesse Williams) fought as newlyweds about how they’d raise a hypothetical deaf child. She recalls getting emotional when she saw dialogue that insinuated April pitied her husband for not having faith in God. As a Christian whose personal life inspired much of April’s backstory, Drew didn’t feel comfortable with her character pitying anyone who didn’t share her beliefs.
“It was so important for me playing April to be a person of faith that didn’t denigrate or diminish anyone else’s experience,” she says, adding that she hadn’t seen a person of faith modeled on TV like that until then.
In the scene that made it to air, April said she felt sorry for Jackson because he didn’t know how to believe in something he wasn’t able to “touch or feel.” It’s a subtle difference that challenges Jackson’s scientific perspective rather than his religious beliefs.
Williams says he admires his former colleague’s “radical honesty,” her “level of comfort and confidence” in herself, and the fact that she’s “not ashamed of anything” she does for the sake of living her truth. “She has her own upbringing, her own style, her own culture, her own things that are not part of the popular group always,” he adds. “And she owns it, and she’s a badass for it.”
Drew tapped into ’emotional courage’ in her final days on ‘Grey’s’
In 2018, Drew and her costar Jessica Capshaw learned their characters were being written off of “Grey’s Anatomy” less than 48 hours before the industry outlet Deadline broke the headline news, titled “Grey’s Shocker.” The decision was based strictly on the show’s creative direction, sources reportedly claimed. At the time, Drew had been shadowing her costar and longtime “Grey’s” director Kevin McKidd in the hope of one day directing a full episode. Her husband, Peter Lanfer, convinced her to hold her head up high and continue learning from McKidd regardless, a choice she says took “emotional courage.”
Drew says she’s grateful for her time on “Grey’s Anatomy.” She’s “surrendered” to the fact that the medical drama will always be a part of her story, but she also makes herself clear toward the end of our first video session. “Do you think we can move on from ‘Grey’s’?” she asks. “Can we move forward?”
Almost immediately after the news of her departure broke, Drew was cast in leading roles for two CBS dramas in 2018 and 2019, neither of which got the green light. She says she’s developed the ability to detach herself from projects as necessary but still calls the latter show’s getting killed a “devastating” experience. The series title? “The Republic of Sarah.”
“I get written off of one show, but then what comes the next year is a show called ‘The Republic of –‘ not some other person’s name, but — Sarah,” she says, her eyes lighting up at the memory. She looks off-camera, searching for the words to describe her emotions. “It felt like, I don’t know, the payoff for all the hard stuff from the year before.”
Drew swings big and feels more ‘alive’ than ever before
A few months later, Drew was filming her second Lifetime film, “Twinkle All the Way,” when the inspiration for “Reindeer Games Homecoming” struck: a romantic holiday comedy loosely inspired by Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, an annual celebration at her husband’s alma mater. When she floated the idea to executive producers, they suggested the actor write the vivid world herself. And in three weeks, she did just that. Eager to breathe life into her script, she pitched the story to several networks and streamers. No luck. It seemed as if her story would never be made until Lifetime called and offered her a two-picture deal. It wanted to help bring her story to life.
Brian Herzlinger, who directed “Reindeer Games Homecoming,” describes the movie as massive. While films with similar budgets typically have a maximum of three complex scenes, he says, Drew had written eight, including an ice-sculpture contest, a dog-sled-derby race, a ball-hockey game, and a polar bear plunge.
When Drew asked Herzlinger to direct the movie, he initially worried she wouldn’t be able to devote much attention to her acting performance because of her executive-producing duties. He quickly realized he was wrong.
“She tracked Mac from beginning to end, and that exceeded my expectations because I didn’t have to guide as much as I thought I would have to,” he said of Drew’s dedication to her character.
Right before she and her film crew kicked off production, Drew reunited with her “Grey’s” family to shoot the show’s 400th episode. The event had coincided with the “Reindeer Games” timetable, so she pushed the start date a few days back. It was worth it. Surrounded by her past, feeling all at once nostalgic and present, the actor had a realization.
“I just had this really lovely moment of, ‘Yes, that was hard four years ago, but I’m so excited to be doing this next thing,’” she remembered. “And I feel really fulfilled and alive in a way that I’ve never felt before.”
“Reindeer Games Homecoming” airs on Lifetime on November 17 at 6 p.m. ET and November 19 at 10 p.m. ET and is streaming on the Lifetime app.