Beginning July 29, Sarah Drew stars in Apple TV Plus’ Amber Brown. The Grey’s Anatomy alum plays mom to the eponymous Amber, guiding her on-screen daughter through the ups and downs of being 11 years old. Ahead of the series’ premiere, Drew spoke to LA Confidential about how Amber Brown captures the complicated, modern childhood experience, her writer-producer debut in Reindeer Games and the future of April Kepner.
You play mom to Carsyn Rose’s Amber. What was it like building a connection with Carsyn so that the two of you could embody a mother-daughter relationship?
When I met Carsyn, we met on a Zoom doing a chemistry read and we immediately bonded and connected and it just got better from there. We just have this ability to look at each other in the eyes and then immediately go to wherever we need to go in the scene. She's so talented and such an old soul and has an incredible ability to articulate and navigate through very complicated emotions, which is very rare for someone her age.
What was it like playing Sarah Brown?
I love Sarah. I just connect to her. I resonate with her on a really deep level just as a mom myself. I felt like so many of these scenes between Sarah and Amber felt like they were lifted straight out of my living room. I resonate with Sarah's desire to love her kid in the best way that she can and also care for herself and figure out a way how to navigate everybody's hopes and desires and dreams in the most healthy way possible. What's so great about Sarah Brown is that she doesn't always do it right. She fails just like I do, just like all of us.
The original Amber Brown series was published in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Why is now the right time to revive this story?
I actually didn't read the books because Bonnie Hunt's take on her version of Amber Brown departs pretty significantly from the book series. And that was an agreement that everybody came to when they formed this partnership. What I think, especially right now, we're telling a story about an 11-year-old who's going through a lot of change and is struggling and facing big, huge emotions, including things that are sad and hard and complicated. And for all of us parents who have just walked through the last two and a half years with our children during this global pandemic, we all know what it feels like to be in this place of sadness and grief and intensity and complicated emotions. So to be able to articulate those things right now, I think it's exactly the right time. Because kids are struggling. They're struggling and they're finding joy and they're crying and they're sad and they're all the things in between. And I think often, we don't get to see all the colors of a kid’s experience portrayed on television.
What’s strong about Amber Brown’s approach to that spectrum of emotions and experiences?
I think we are doing it with a lot of humor. I think that these characters laugh at themselves, which is a wonderful way to break the tension. I think that we don't shy away from the really big feelings and we have an interesting way of looking at them through Amber's eyes and straight-to-camera video diaries and her animation. They’re two whole new ways to articulate all of those big, huge sweeping feelings that she would not necessarily share in a conversation with her mom or in a conversation with her friend, but are very true to life for what kids are feeling and thinking. I think our show allows our audience to be smart. We're talking to kids like they want to be t spoken to. Kids are smart. Kids are really, really smart these days. They are very informed and they have more emotional language than they did a generation ago.
Later this year, you’re writing, producing and starring in two holiday movies for Lifetime. First off, what do you love about the Christmas season?
I always find that Christmas to me always feels like a new beginning. In my faith tradition, it is the moment when the ultimate expression of love entered the world to heal everything that's broken and start things anew. And so for me, Christmas sort of encapsulates that. And it's always a time when families come together and when big emotions run wild.
Your first film is Reindeer Games. What was it like balancing all three roles for the first time?
It was exhausting, that's for sure. But really activating on every cylinder— in my brain, in my heart, in my body— I love being a part of the entire creative process. I love making up a story from the ground up. I love collaborating with the team. I'm a big believer in the best idea wins. I love collaborating.
Also, all my words and bringing these characters to life that I had pulled out of my own imagination was a pretty surreal and tremendous experience. And I've had a lot of fun, too, in post so far on this movie, just giving notes and fine tuning the final product as well.
Reindeer Games is a totally joyous romp. It is fun, it's hilarious. It's really a classic romantic comedy. You are laughing, but you're also crying. We're dealing with heartbreak and loss in a very real and honest way.
I don't like to make things that feel sanitized because I don't think that's true to life. So whenever I'm working on anything, I want things to feel vulnerable and messy and imperfect because that's what life is. That's what my experience of life is. And also, if you've lost someone, you feel it in a pretty profound way when holidays hit, especially holidays like Christmas, especially if there were traditions that you had with that person that you've lost. So all of those things really rise to the surface and they contribute to my character’s journey. She feels pretty stuck because of this loss that she's gone through and she can't find her way out of it. And it's through the journey of this film that she finally is able to move forward through the grief and into a new beginning and a new start. It was really important to me to have fun and heart and also community. My movie is really about the importance of community and true friendship and everything else is secondary. If you have a few good people who know you and love you well in life, that's the good stuff. It's the best stuff and it's all you really need.
Dr. April Kepner made a special appearance a few months ago on Grey’s Anatomy. How did it feel to be part of not only the Season 18 finale, but the series 400th episode?
It was such an honor. I just felt so thankful and grateful to be invited to participate in such an enormous episode. I thought the episode was absolutely brilliant. I was crying my way through it— all the flashbacks, all the music, so many feelings. So many feelings. And I played a small part in it, but I felt so grateful to know that I'm still very much part of the family and being asked to participate in that episode really just brought that home for me. I was so thrilled to be back on set.
What’s it like to be part of arguably one of the greatest TV legacies of the 21st century?
It's overwhelming at times, I think. I find myself blown away by the global impact that it has and by the reality that it's an evergreen show. Kids are finding it every single day. They're starting the series every single day. Kids who weren't born when the show began, weren’t born for years after the show had already been in production, and they're finding it and they're being inspired by it. I can't tell you how many people who have come up to me to tell me that they were inspired—women, especially— that they were inspired to go into nursing or to go into the medical field because of Grey's Anatomy. And to know that I got to be a part of that legacy is just an extraordinary feeling. And it's something I don't think I'll ever fully be able to articulate the fullness of it.
Do you think we'll ever see April Kepner again?
Sure. I don't know. It's never up to me. And I'm always happy to go back and play, so it just depends on where the stories take them in the coming seasons. I would love to see April. I would love to get a little peek into what's going on in Boston with her and Jackson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Cibelle Levi