Jason George (Com ’94) makes his living by getting into someone else’s skin: Since 2009, he’s played the role of Dr. Ben Warren on ABC’s hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.
“I’ve never been attached to a character as long as I’ve been attached to Ben Warren,” says the 46-year-old actor.
Both George and Warren are facing some changes, however, with the Grey’s spin-off Station 19, where Warren becomes a firefighter. Warren traded in his scalpel for a firehose, George explains, “to be closer to the source of the problem.”
“How much time passes [between] when somebody’s injured in a car crash or a fire and when they actually arrive at the hospital?” George asks. “How can [Warren] make a difference on the scene and improve their odds of survival?
“He’s an adrenaline junkie in the [operating room], which has gotten him in trouble. Now that he’s a firefighter, that’s actually a tool you need: fuel to get the job done.
“It’s a pretty good gig. Ben Warren and I have had a good ride together, and the next chapter’s just getting started.”
But getting into someone else’s skin is far more than an acting gig for George: It’s leading him to speak up on behalf of others.
Where it began
Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, George was a military kid on the fast track to law school. So fast, in fact, that his mentor was the late Leroy R. Hassell Sr. (Col ’77), the first African-American chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.
“The plan was to get the grades, he’d write me a great recommendation, I’d go to a great law school, then I’d clerk for him, and I’d be a ‘made’ man in the state of Virginia,” George recalls. “In the second semester of my first year, I took an acting class and it was a wrap. It all kept going downhill from there.
“I minored in drama. [Hassell] was not crazy about it when I told him that I was changing the plan and becoming an actor. Eventually, he was down with that.”
A recipient of several scholarships while at UVA, George was also a resident adviser in Courtenay House. He earned a degree in rhetoric and communication studies in 1994. At UVA he also met Vandana Khanna (Col ’94), his wife since 1999. They have three children.
During his grad school days at Temple University, George tried out for the soap Sunset Beach on a lark. The producers were holding a contest at a local mall and George participated, not expecting anything to come of it. “The next thing I knew, I was moving to [LA].”
George says he was “dying” to work with Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. He did a pilot for Rhimes that wasn’t picked up but led to his role on Grey’s, where he initially did only several episodes. He then starred in Off the Map, where Rhimes was the executive producer, but it was canceled after one season.
Much to his surprise, George was neither killed off nor written out of Grey’s. He kept getting asked back. Eventually, he was promoted to a series regular in 2012.
“I was blessed enough to fall into the ABC creative circle and, from there, deeper into Shondaland. I’m not trying to fall out any time soon,” George says.
Using his voice
George’s career developed a new dimension more than 15 years ago. During negotiations for the 2002 action film The Climb, the issue of “paint-down” arose. That’s when a Caucasian stunt man wears makeup to double for someone of color—in this case, George.
“The producers were lovely people whom I adore,” George recalls, “but they didn’t think as thoroughly [as] they should have about the issue. ... In that moment, I got them to rethink that and find a[n African-American] stunt-double for me, who turned out to be the best climber in the show.”
That left quite an impression on him.
“I don’t need to understand every last piece of nuance of the contract or the laws, but I do know my own personal experience,” George says. “And if I speak up, I’ve got translators in the room to help protect me and performers like me. So I kept showing up and opening my mouth.”
George began advocating for performers of color, as well as women, senior citizens and performers with disabilities. For the past 15 years, he’s been involved in the Diversity Advisory Committee for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), and he’s currently its chair.
The group, which he calls the United Nations of traditionally under-represented groups, comes together to praise best practices, talk about common issues and trade ideas.
Ben Warren and I have had a good ride together, and the next chapter’s just getting started.”
“I was watching an episode of Scandal,” George says, “and a [camera panned] across the White House. There goes a woman in a hijab, there goes a person in a wheelchair, there’s tons of people of color with all different shades and hues. … It’s never commented on; it’s just that’s the world. That sends a very strong message without having to get up on a soapbox. That’s what I’ve been advocating for.
“Part of the success of [Rhimes’] shows is that’s how she saw the world. She saw that was the reality before other people saw it. Up until then, people were wearing Caucasian-colored glasses; now they’re taking them off and realizing the world is a lot more multihued than that. And that’s a good thing. … Nobody should feel threatened; if anything, everybody gets to come to the party.”
Grey’s co-star James Pickens Jr. (Dr. Richard Webber) has high praise for George. “What’s impressed me the most has been his commitment to social causes,” Pickens says. “He truly is ‘his brother’s keeper,’ whether it’s a political candidate that he feels strongly about, supporting the rights of women and minorities, or just helping out a friend.”
George is thrilled to remain deep in Shondaland—both portraying those as familiar as Ben Warren (“this guy who, in a lot of ways, is like me”) and making sure there’s room for everyone else.