“Grey’s Anatomy” producers were looking for a new, diverse and fresh cast of interns to debut on season 17, so the role of Sara Ortiz was written specifically with an afro-Latina actress in mind.
So when Chicago native Melissa DuPrey opened an email from her agent about the role on the ABC hit, she was ecstatic. In 2014, she was recruited by ABC’s Diversity Showcase, which helped prioritize her audition tape, and within days she got the news that she was the producers’ top pick for the role.
DuPrey’s excitement over being chosen to be a part of the “Grey’s Anatomy” cast was very personal.
“This was a show that my mom and I used to love to watch together,” DuPrey said. “When I was in college we would have dates to watch it. She passed away four years ago and I just feel like she made this happen. I grew up with this show, you know? It’s [over] 17 years long and just to be able to be on set with some of these original cast members is really just breathtaking.”
DuPrey, 36, described her character, Sara, to be very much like her real self.
“My character, the way that I’ve been introduced, was that I was so eager to be perfect that I’m constantly fumbling. I’m accident-prone and that is not far from Melissa DuPrey proper,” she said.
Those familiar with DuPrey’s work know that she does not shy away from being unapologetically herself. DuPrey, who spent some of her childhood in Humboldt Park and resides there now when she’s not busy with “Grey’s,” has worked in Chicago for years with the all-Latina theater company Teatro Luna and with Free Street Theatre, and she even starred in “Brown Girls,” a short web series from 2017. She’s a wealth of talent as a locally known comic, actor, playwright, producer, organizer and spiritualist.
She’s starred in multiple solo shows as well, including “SEXomedy,” “SUSHI-frito” and “Good Grief,” and traveled across the country as a stand-up comic.
“It was super emotional for me to get this recurring character who’s intentionally written as afro-Latina, as if it was meant to be mine,” DuPrey said. “It’s so important for me to be here.”
DuPrey stars alongside her on-screen mother, Dr. Alma Ortiz (portrayed by Lisa Vidal), a social worker with over 30 years of experience who decided to go into practicing medicine. To their surprise, the mother and daughter got placed at Grey-Sloan Memorial at the same time.
Dr. Tom Koracik (Gregory Germann) quickly offers up a nickname for the dynamic duo: “Mama and Young Ortiz.”
Once cast, DuPrey met with Vidal to brainstorm very intentional ways to bring bits of themselves to their characters. Both proud Puerto Rican women, they’ve found ways to make their heritage obvious by sprinkling phrases in Spanish throughout the script.
DuPrey said they want to bring authentic representation to their characters “in ways that don’t show up in a damaging trope or some kind of Puerto Rican archetype. The goal is to expand the representation of the diaspora as incredible, diverse humans that are capable of being in this space in this room as Black Latinas, and that’s what we’re gonna shoot for.”
“Grey’s” writers are known for expanding upon the stories of interns. DuPrey said that she hopes viewers can keep getting glimpses of Sara’s life and learn more about her as a person, as her recurring role has only granted her appearances in a few episodes, including the one airing this Thursday.
Season 17 of “Grey’s” kicked off filming last year during the pandemic, but after COVID cases began to rise to record numbers in Los Angeles in November 2020, ABC put the show’s filming on hold until spring 2021.
Finally back in Los Angeles for filming by January, DuPrey said that the rules on set are very strict. “Grey’s” is one of the few shows on air that is able to keep pumping out new episodes because of the precautions being taken by producers, according to DuPrey. Not all television series can afford the costs of following the union-specified safety requirements, like rapid testing. DuPrey gets tested three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — just as her castmates do, to ensure that they are all working COVID-free.
When she is back in Chicago later this year, DuPrey will be the first Puerto Rican playwright from Humboldt Park to have a full-length play produced with Urban Theater Company, a home for Latinx actors who want to bring more representation to the stage.
DuPrey will be performing “BRUJAJA,” a story about an accidental witch who discovers that brujería magic can help her fight against oppression. It will premier virtually this winter as a part of the theater’s annual Destinos festival, and it will feature programming and partnerships with local community organizations and businesses.