Bridgerton fans should feel a sense of deja vu while watching the first 11 minutes of Grey’s Anatomy season 5 episode “Beat Your Heart Out,” which aired in 2009. Upon pondering the journals of Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), mother to Grey’s Anatomy heroine Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Cristina Yang (Emmy-winner Sandra Oh) surmises, “It’s kind of, um, hot, actually. But like, chastely hot. It’s all stolen glances and loaded exchanges.” Lady Whistledown would be immediately intrigued.
Then Cristina walks away from Meredith, and the music becomes contemplative and romantic. Her tortured and forbidden crush, ocean-eyed war veteran/attending surgeon Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), enters the shot, brushing his body against Cristina’s as they walk lock-step for a few seconds. To anyone on the outside, the moment of physical intimacy could be an accident. Yet, it’s anything but. It’s “all stolen glances and loaded exchanges,” as Cristina joked seconds prior. Cristina and Owen’s hands graze the other’s for a tantalizing second. But just as quickly as the moment began, it’s over — Cristina and Owen walk their separate ways with self-indulgent smiles.
“This is Bridgerton!” I screamed in my apartment during my ongoing Grey’s Anatomy watch. The sultry yearning only ratchets up in intensity over “Beat Your Heart Out.” But there’s a much bigger connection between the Shonda Rhimes-produced episode and its Shondaland descendant, Bridgerton: Julie Anne Robinson, the woman who directed both “Beat Your Heart Out” and Bridgerton’s two buzziest episodes, the series premiere and “Swish.” The latter chapter features the “Wildest Dreams” sex montage of Bridgerton fans’ wildest dreams (even a friend of Robinson’s mother, who happens to be an 80something-year-old nun, can’t help but rave about the series, Robinson revealed). Yes, that was Robinson being parodied by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live last month.
Twelve years after filming “Heart Out,” Robinson is tying together the threads of two of her sexiest Shondaland works — which are driven by, as she said, the very “baroque” notion of “the love that cannot speak.”
“There was an element of [‘Beat Your Heart Out’] not taking itself too seriously — of playing up the romantic tropes early on in the episode. That was also something that we tried to do with Bridgerton, which was to be a little bit self-referential,” Robinson told Refinery29 minutes after rewatching “Heart Out,” her final Grey’s episode in a series of five. “What I really enjoyed when I was watching it was how that turns on a dime and becomes really emotional but truthful — it’s grounded.”
The beginning of Cristina and Owen’s storyline is classic Grey’s Anatomy-style horny. It’s so titillating, in fact, that Robinson had to explain to Owen’s portrayer Kevin McKidd (now one of Grey’s most prolific directors) why he needed to start the episode shirtless. “Kevin was like, “Really?,’” Robinson recalled with a laugh. “The reason it was written like that was because he was made vulnerable in that moment in front of [Cristina]. You realize that it’s never gratuitous. That’s the thing that we were really working hard to do on Bridgerton, to never put the actors in an uncomfortable position.”
I learned this from Grey’s Anatomy: To light the men as beautifully as the women
Julie Anne Robinson
It’s no wonder Robinson was able to get the optimal seductive performance out of a dashing male actor. Since Grey’s, she was integral in the breakout casting of “undeniable” Liam Hemsworth in The Last Song and John Cho as the romantic hero in the late, great ABC sitcom Selfie. Although social media is now filled with Cho thirst, the Korean-America actor wasn’t “what people were ‘expecting’” for the lead network part in 2014, when the series was cast. Still, Robinson fought for Cho and won, telling Refinery29, “That’s what I’m most proud of about that whole pilot.” That eye brought Robinson to Bridgerton, where she pulled off Regé-Jean Page’s “hero’s entrance” and sex marathon as Duke Simon Hastings with equal vigilance.
“I learned this from Grey’s Anatomy: To light the men as beautifully as the women,” Robinson explained. “To be really careful about how you shoot people. That was something I was really aware of while I was shooting Bridgerton.”
While Robinson took care with men like McKidd’s Owen Hunt, “Beat Your Heart Out” isn’t just about handsome men with their tops doffed. The other storylines include an off-camera, boundary-pushing romp between Izzie Stevens (Emmy-winner Katherine Heigl) and Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), a couple with a post-pegging medical emergency, the almost-engagement of Meredith and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), and, most importantly, the first kiss of boundary-shattering queer couple Callie Torres (Sarah Ramirez) and Arizon Robbins (Kate Capshaw). That’s why, when thinking back on the episode, all Robinson can do is exclaim, “It’s very sexy!” She tells Refinery29 she still feels struck by the diversity of the romance, particularly in relation to the “Calzona” ship smooch.
“That felt like a revelation. That really did. When we were shooting that. It felt very much, even in that moment, a part of cultural history,” Robinson said of the kiss, which led to one of network TV’s longest-running queer relationships. The embrace is romantic, but not overblown. It takes place in a bar bathroom after all, putting it in line with Meredith and Derek’s series-starting, shockingly low-key one-night stand.
It felt very much, even in that moment, a part of cultural history.
Julie Anne Robinson
“In different hands, it could be, rather ham-fisted,” Robinson continued, describing the scene as a “passing moment” of romance. “That is one of the things about Shonda, but also that’s how I try to push my work: with a lightness of touch and humour that belies the heavy emotions underneath.”
Despite her clear nostalgia for Grey’s Anatomy — and 15 total years of work in the halls of Seattle Grace Memorial, Private Practice, Scandal, The Catch, and, Bridgerton — Robinson hasn’t returned to the medical drama’s set since 2009 due to lack of availability. In fact, she says she’s too busy with prior commitments to even head back to “wonderful” Bridgerton for its second season, no matter what IMDb says. Yet, after looking back on “Beat Your Heart Out,” Robinson might just find time for Grey’s Anatomy once again. “It’s funny. I wrote to them the other day. I said, ‘Hey, can I come back and do another episode of Grey’s? I miss it so much.’” she admitted. “I’m like, Wouldn’t it be great if I just go back and do another one now? I’m really proud of it. And it’s not until people point it out that I really notice it.”
Don’t be surprised if a future episode of Grey’s leaves you confusingly hot under the collar — or corset. But do look for Julie Anne Robinson’s name in the credits.