Chandra Wilson's star has risen with the acclaim of the ABC series Grey's Anatomy in which she plays Dr. Miranda Bailey, the supervisor of a team of doctors-in-training whose formidable manner prompts the nervous underlings to refer to her as "the Nazi." A veteran of the New York stage who spent the better part of the 1990s looking for meaningful, steady work in the entertainment industry, Wilson agreed with Houston Chronicle writer Mike McDaniel that her character was bit fierce, but confessed, "I had never thought of … the stereotype of the angry black woman. But I never thought of her as angry. I always saw her as firm."
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1969, Wilson's talent for performing became evident at an early age. At the age of five, she began appearing in musicals at Theatre Under the Stars, a Houston venue, and followed that with a busy after-school schedule. "My mom said I was not going to be an idle child," she said in the interview with McDaniel, "so I had things to do every day after school. Between dance and theater classes … three days a week, every single minute was accounted for."
After graduating from Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 1987, Wilson went on to New York University and its prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. Her course of study included workshops in Method acting at the esteemed Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, and before she graduated in 1991 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in drama she won her first solid role in a well-received play by cartoonist Lynda Barry, The Good Times Are Killing Me. Her portrayal of Bonna Willis, a young woman in a Chicago neighborhood in the changing racial climate of the 1960s, brought her the Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance.
Though she was determined to forge a career in theater, Wilson took the occasional television role. Her small-screen debut came in a 1989 episode of The Cosby Show in which the Huxtable house is overrun with party-goers thanks to son Theo's unwise decision to host a get-together there when his parents leave town. After college, Wilson appeared in a 1992 episode of Law & Order, and had a small role in the 1993 Tom Hanks film Philadelphia. After becoming a mother in 1992, with a second daughter born in 1994, she took a few years off, and then struggled to find steady work in New York City. She worked as a temp at Deutsche Bank in Manhattan in the mid-1990s, and stayed on almost until her breakout role in Grey's Anatomy. Additional income came thanks to parts in television commercials she appeared in for Burger King, Scope mouthwash, Blockbuster Video, and the United Negro College Fund.
Wilson's other credits during this period include that of Jason Alexander's klutzy personal assistant in an ill-fated ABC sitcom, Bob Patterson, in 2001. The show took such a vicious drubbing from critics that of the ten episodes filmed, only five ever aired. She continued to find occasional work on the New York stage, appearing in On the Town, a 1998 Broadway musical revue from acclaimed director George C. Wolfe. She was also an understudy in the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q in 2004.
Wilson won an impressive Broadway role in 2004's Caroline, or Change, a musical from Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori. The story is set in the early 1960s, and featured Tonya Pinkins in the title role. Wilson was cast as Caroline's longtime friend, Dotty Moffet. The musical opened in May of 2004 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, but closed just three months later. One of its highlights was a confrontation between the two women in Wilson's show-stopping number. "When I get offstage, the first thing I do is say to myself, 'Thank you, God, for letting me hit those notes,'" she told Jason Zinoman in the New York Times.
Wilson's truly lucky break came when she was cast in Grey's Anatomy, which began airing on Sunday nights in March of 2005. The show stars Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, a first-year intern at a Seattle hospital, and many of the plotlines revolve around various mini-crises in the hospital and the tangle of romantic relationships among Meredith and her fellow medical-school graduates. Wilson portrays their supervising doctor, Miranda Bailey—a tough, no-nonsense boss whom they all fear. Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum confessed that despite the constant melodrama in each hour-long episode, she was addicted to Grey's Anatomy. "Legions of viewers can't wait to discuss the next shift in the romantic geometry" among the interns, Schwarzbaum wrote, but went on to confess, "I am not such a viewer…. Myself, I'd build a whole show around the competence and womanly maturity of Chandra Wilson's Dr. Miranda Bailey, but that's why I'm not in showbiz."
Thanks to ABC's support for the show—which included an ad campaign and a highly coveted time slot following the ratings heavy-hitter Desperate Housewives—Wilson's new job quickly pulled in a similarly addicted viewership and comparably favorable reviews. Yet Houston Chronicle journalist McDaniel asserted that "the show distinguishes itself in other ways," and listed among these "its mix of humor and drama, its use of sex as a plot device and the colorblind way it employs its diverse cast." McDaniel mentioned Wilson, along with two other African-American actors on the show, Isaiah Washington and James Pickens Jr., "all in positions of responsibility. And no big deal is made of it." It was a quiet triumph of multiculturalism on television also noticed by the New York Times's Matthew Fogel. "Although medical shows have become the cough syrup of television—sturdy, dependable and widely available—'Grey's Anatomy' has differentiated itself by creating a diverse world of doctors—almost half the cast are men and women of color—and then never acknowledging it," Fogel wrote.
There were plans to expand some of Grey's Anatomy storylines to focus more on Dr. Bailey's personal life in coming seasons. Wilson, for her part, was happy to have found steady work, and rejected the idea that the show had suddenly catapulted her to a celebrity. In the Houston Chronicle interview with McDaniel, which she conducted via mobile phone, she laughingly told the writer from her hometown paper that she was currently just "walking down the street like a regular New Yorker, going about life. There's no big star thing happening. I can still go to the store and run my little errands, and it's OK."
Mad Dog and Glory, 1993.
Lone Star, 1996.
At a Glance …
Born on August 27, 1969, in Houston, TX; married; children: Joy, Serena, Michael. Education: New York University, BFA., 1991; studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, New York, NY.
Career: Stage actor, 1975–; television actor, 1989–; film actor, 1993–.
Awards: Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance, 1991, for The Good Times Are Killing Me.
Addresses: Office—c/o ABC Television, 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521.
The Good Times Are Killing Me, 1991.
On the Town, 1998.
Caroline, or Change, 2004.
Bob Patterson, 2001.
Grey's Anatomy, 2005–.
American Theatre, March 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, December 16, 2005, p. 70.
Houston Chronicle, May 4, 2005, p. 1.
New York Times, February 22, 2004, p. AR13; May 8, 2005, p. AR16.
Wilson, Chandra 1969–
Wilson, Chandra 1969–
Addresses: Agent—Abrams Artists Agency, 9200 Sunset Blvd., 11th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90069. Manager—Creative Management Group, 9465 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 335, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Awards, Honors: Theatre World Award, outstanding new performer, 1991, for The Good Times Are Killing Me; Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (with others), outstanding performance by an ensemble, Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a drama series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2006, for Grey's Anatomy.
Television Appearances; Series:
Tracy Perkins, The Perkins Family, PBS, 1987.
Claudia, Bob Patterson, ABC, 2001.
Dr. Miranda Bailey, Grey's Anatomy, ABC, 2004–.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Dina, "The Lost Weekend," The Cosby Show, NBC, 1989.
Serena Price, "Cradle to Grave," Law & Order (also known as Law & Order Prime), NBC, 1992.
"It's a Wonderful Life," Cosby, CBS, 2000.
Volunteer, "Man Enough," Third Watch, NBC, 2001.
"No Good Deed Goes Unpunished," 100 Centre Street, Arts and Entertainment, 2001.
Police officer, "Anchors Away," Sex and the City, HBO, 2002.
Dolores, "The House Next Door," Queens Supreme, CBS, 2002.
Nurse Jenkins, "Waste," Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also known as Law & Order: SVU and SVU), NBC, 2002.
Evelyn Greenwood, "Cold Cuts," The Sopranos, HBO, 2004.
Rachel Saranas, "911," Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also known as Law & Order: SVU and SVU), NBC, 2005.
Cohost, The View, ABC, 2006.
ABC News Nightline (also known as Nightline), ABC, 2006.
Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC, 2006.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Gloria, Sexual Considerations, CBS, 1991.
I Love the 80's 3—D, VH1, 2005.
Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:
Presenter, The 33rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, ABC, 2006.
TV Land Awards 2006, TV Land, 2006.
Mad Dog and Glory, Universal, 1993.
Chandra, Philadelphia, TriStar, 1993.
Private Athena Johnson, Lone Star, Columbia TriStar, 1996.
(Uncredited) Jaime, Head of State, United International, 2003.
Lena, Strangers With Candy, ThinkFilm, 2005.
Leater, "Believing," Young Playwright's Festival, Playwrights Horizon Theatre, New York City, 1990.
Bonna Willis, The Good Times Are Killing Me, McGinn/Cazale Theatre, New York City, 1991, then Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City, 1991.
Flossie's friend, On the Town, Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 1997.
Dotty Moffett, Caroline, or Change, Public Theater, New York City, 2003.
Avenue Q, John Golden Theatre, New York City, 2003.
Presenter, 14th Annual Inner City Destiny Awards, Tr Destined Studios, 2006.