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Michael Bialas

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Playing Doctor: A House Call From Chyler Leigh of Grey's Anatomy

Posted: 06/27/11 05:01 PM ET

Chyler Leigh isn't really a doctor, she just plays a surgical resident with a photographic memory as Lexie Grey on ABC's medical drama Grey's Anatomy.

And Chyler Leigh isn't a professional singer, either, although she managed to show off a nice set of pipes during the musical episode "Song Beneath the Song" that was a highlight of Season 7. Leigh is seen and heard over the opening credits as the featured performer on Anna Nalick's "Breathe (2 AM)."

What you may or may not know about the talented 29-year-old actress is that she's married (almost 10 years to actor Nathan West) with children (Noah, 7; Taelyn, 4; Anniston, 2), a burgeoning songwriter and a passionate humanitarian who actively supports such causes as The Thirst Project. And for a smart cookie in a series that tackles tough issues, Leigh breathes light and life into Lexie, and is a breath of fresh air herself.

Chyler headshotRefreshed from a recent 10-day trip to Fiji with her husband, Leigh (left, photo courtesy of Prism Media) called from her home in Orange County in mid-June. She was promoting The Thirst Project's fundraising gala on Tuesday (5 p.m. PDT June 28) at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, which she is co-hosting. (See it live on ustream.) But while also openly discussing her family, her career and her future with Grey's Anatomy, she reveals a sly sense of humor -- and one physical flaw not found in her bio.

When asked about which cast members she enjoys working with the most, the raven-haired hottie pauses, then says, "Uh, that's a really hard question. Because (laughing) well, for so many reasons. I hate not being picked when (other) people get asked that question. And so I don't want to not pick anybody, so I'm going to be very politically correct and say everybody. I kind of feel like that kid that doesn't get picked for kickball. ... I wasn't very athletic as a kid."

OK, so maybe you won't find Leigh playing in a celebrity softball game or on those Battle of the Network Stars reruns. But she's hitting it out of the park as Chyler and Lexie mature together after four full seasons on Grey's Anatomy. ABC just announced that Season 8 will premiere with a two-hour episode on Sept. 22.

The heralded musical episode uncovered the cast's hidden talents, with Leigh delivering a bravura performance, along with co-star and just engaged Sara Ramirez, who has released an EP on Nettwerk Records. Aside from her bright, shining moment as Lexie, the half-sister of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Leigh's character went dark at the beginning of Season 7. Lexie suffered a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of Season 6's two-part finale, when a gunman seeking revenge went on a shooting rampage at Seattle Grace.

Because they "were so intense and they were so realistic," those Season 6 episodes are two of Leigh's favorites, along with Season 7's mixtape of heavenly hospital harmonies. (Grey's Anatomy: The Music Event is a soundtrack available on iTunes.)

It turned out to be a remarkable career year for Leigh, personally. "We busted our butts," she says proudly. "And obviously, with the musical episode, it was a very different thing for us to do. It was an incredible experience and exhausting. Because you have basically 15 cast members everyday doing musical numbers where a lot of us don't really know how to do musical numbers." Chyler vertical

(Leigh, right, appears as Lexie Grey in Season 7's final episode, "Unaccompanied Minor." Photo: ABC/Randy Holmes).

Reminded that she was previously seen breaking out in song and dance, long before Glee and High School Musical became widely popular, Leigh owns up to her part in the outrageous, twisted -- and yes, very hilarious -- Not Another Teen Movie.

As Janey Briggs in the 2001 biting parody, a 19-year-old Leigh made her major film debut, co-starring with Chris Evans, Mia Kirshner, Jaime Pressly and Randy Quaid, who played her demented, out-of-work, shell-shocked alcoholic father.

"That (going to the prom number) was a little bit of a different experience. ... It was fun and it was silly," she says, seemingly embarrassed that someone thoroughly enjoyed her madcap portrayal of an ugly duckling transformed into a splendid swan whose perilous journey required some go-for-broke acting chops and slapstick skills. "I loved the people that I worked with on that, too."

Whether it's for comedic or dramatic effect, Leigh says she feels the same way about the vocal challenge. "I'm typically pretty terrified to sing in front of people. So it was kind of a brand new experience for me to really put myself out there.

"I sing at home all the time with my kids and my husband and I will write music together. It's kind of a very intimate thing for me. So having shared it with so many people, I was terrified at first. But then, I kind of just figured, 'You know what, how many times do you get to do something like this?' And so I kind of just embraced it. And we had to much fun."

Now Leigh is considering other musical opportunities while starting to write songs. Her son Noah has been allowed to see parts of Grey's Anatomy, and Leigh shared this cute conversation they had after "Song Beneath the Song" aired in March.

Noah: "Mommy, are you gonna be a singer now?"

Chyler: "What do you mean?"

Noah: "Well, you already have so many fans from Grey's Anatomy. You should quit acting. You should be a singer. And then you'd already know that so many people would want to listen to your music."

Chyler: "Buddy, I love you. You are amazing."

Tender moments like those keep Leigh close to home, and she isn't ready to give up acting for a music career. Last year, she went to Calgary for four weeks, starring in The 19th Wife, the Lifetime movie about polygamy with a cast that included Matt Czuchry (The Good Wife, Jeff Hephner (The O.C.) and three-time Emmy winner Patricia Wettig, "one of the funniest women I've ever met," Leigh said.

As the kids get older, though, Leigh says she reserves the off-season to spend as much time as possible with them. "If something cool, a small role came along, I'd jump on it. Other than that, I need that time with my family. Family first."

Asked if she and West have plans to add to the clan, Leigh makes it perfectly clear. "Lord, no. We're very much done. Happily done," she says, enjoying the day watching her kids play. "We're outnumbered, so at this point, you know, yeah, it's all good."

As it is, life is "like a controlled chaos," raising three kids with the help of two nannies. One serves as a homeschool teacher for Noah, who has Attention Deficit Disorder. The other cares for the girls when Taelyn, who suffers from febrile seizures, is home from preschool. Leigh, who says "I'm getting used to eating standing up," is just grateful to have "a hodgepodge of wonderful people in the house," making it possible for her to do a job she loves.

With a full-time role on the show since Season 4 after guest-starring appearances in the final two shows of the previous season, Leigh is happily committed to Grey's Anatomy. Unlike the show's first group of stars, she's "signed on for quite a few more years."

Chyler wedding
Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) and Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) are guests
in the "White Wedding" episode in Season 7. (Photo: ABC/Richard Cartwright)


Leigh knows Lexie's relationship with Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) will continue in Season 8, and is itching to see where that story line and her character go when she returns from hiatus in mid-July.

"We kind of all take our turns in a rotation with (creator, executive producer and writer) Shonda (Rhimes) just kinda saying, 'What happens?' We kind of all attack her," Leigh said. "And Shonda I guess has been quoted saying that she doesn't really know what to expect after this season because all the original cast members (including Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey), their contracts are up after this season.

"So it's gonna be a question of who's staying, who's going, how do we do exits, all that kind of stuff. How is it gonna affect relationships. I hope everybody stays, I really do. I don't know how realistic that is. But I know personally that I think the majority of everybody would like to stay. ... I love the people that I work with and that doesn't always happen in this business." (laughs)

Leigh likes the fact that Grey's Anatomy is willing to keep taking chances "because it shows how brilliant the show can actually be." After taking part in a number of series, she's aware that the set can become mundanely routine for actors.

"So when we do get that opportunity to change things up, I mean, personally, I embrace the hell out of it," she says. "Because I think it just gives us a chance to spread our wings and show what we can really do."

Her co-hosting duties with JR Bourne (MTV's Teen Wolf) for The Thirst Project gala will provide another such opportunity. Meeting founder and president Seth Maxwell while attending the same church, Leigh and her husband immediately wanted to get involved in The Thirst Project, a nonprofit organization addressing the worldwide problem of contaminated drinking water and the global diseases it causes.

"We have a big heart for Africa and also for just raising awareness about the water crisis," said Leigh, who has a longing to go to the continent after she and her husband sponsored several wells in a land where clean drinking water is especially scarce.

Leigh, who's also involved with the organization Stop Child Trafficking Now, hopes to keep Tuesday's event light, lively and entertaining while addressing a very serious subject.

Who knows, she and Bourne might even break out into a song-and-dance number if the mood strikes.

Meanwhile, she'll keep operating as Lexie, those encouraging words and music on rewind, playing though her beautiful mind: "Oh, breathe. ... Just breathe."

See Chyler Leigh's comedic skills in the promo she made with co-host JR Bourne for The Thirst Project's Gala:

Chyler Leigh and JR Bourne host the 2nd Annual Thirst Gala from The Thirst Project on Vimeo.

See the Grey's Anatomy cast, including Chyler Leigh, performing "Running On Sunshine" from the "Song Beneath the Song" episode (courtesy of ABC):

 

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