Meet Tyra, Emily Owens, M.D.'s Lesbian Best Friend

In an exclusive interview, Kelly McCreary opens up about playing gay, her already-loyal lesbian fan base, and coming out to her character's father, who happens to be the Chief of Staff on the new CW dramedy.
By: Tracy E. Gilchrist
October 11 2012 1:42 PM

At first glance the halls of Denver Memorial on the CW’s freshman series Emily Owens, M.D., billed as high school in a hospital, may appear to look something like Grey’s Anatomy: The Younger Years, but the show claims its singular voice early on in the pilot when Emily’s soon-to-be best friend Tyra Granger delivers a brilliantly choreographed walk-and-talk explaining the hospital’s cliques from the stoners to the rebels to the all-American girls. Tyra also rather matter-of-factly comes out to Emily and millions of viewers as a lesbian in that opening pièce de résistance.

Equal parts verve and heart are at the core of actress Kelly McCreary’s (White Collar, Cyberchase) portrayal of Tyra. She’s the practical antidote to Mamie Gummer’s hilarious and heartfelt depiction of Emily – the ultimate nerd of sorts.

While Tyra and Emily will surely endure long shifts, life and death medical decisions, a tough attending surgeon played by Elena Undone’s Necar Zadegan and even high school-esque antics while attempting to navigate hospital life as interns, Tyra, an out-and-proud lesbian, will also face her demons around remaining closeted to the person from whom she seeks utmost approval – her father. Her father also happens to be the hospital’s Chief of Staff. Tyra does, after all, introduce herself to Emily as “the Principal’s daughter.”

SheWired caught up with native New Yorker McCreary to chat about her portrayal of Tyra, what clique she belonged to in high school, her lesbian fans and the advice Zadegan gave her on the first day of shooting.

SheWired: How did the role of Tyra come to you?

Kelly McCreary: Pilot season. I went in for something else for the CW and the casting director in New York – I live in New York – liked my audition and said, “I have another script I’d like you to look at,” and brought me back in for Tyra. As soon as I read the script, I was like, “You know, there are some auditions where you really have to sort of work at finding the voice of the character and do all kinds of actor-y homework and research to try to figure it out. This one fit me like a glove, and felt so natural and fun — mostly. So I went in for the audition, they sent my tape to LA, and the rest is history.

That’s kind of a testament to the writing then, if the character spoke so clearly to you.

Oh, absolutely. Out of all the scripts I had the fortune to read and audition for this year this is definitely my favorite. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s heartfelt. It’s all of those great elements that you look for in an hour of TV.

And you have to be fussy these days—there’s so much!

Exactly! And there’s a lot of good TV too, so it’s nice, you know, when you get a script and you’re like, “Oh yeah, this is as good and exciting as some of the stuff that I’ve seen already and would love to be part of.”

Speaking of fun, the first scene you’re actually in, where you’re walking Emily through the halls and pointing out the cliques. It’s such a great sequence. Was that fun to shoot? It was certainly fun to watch.

I’m so glad to hear that, first of all, that it’s fun for you, because it was really fun for us. Our director Bharat Nalluri was just so much fun to work with. He really just made you feel like you wanted to do your best, and be as playful and have as much fun as you could to give a great performance. In that spirit, it was very playful.

He blocked the background actors in position as we passed them. They were so perfectly garbed and positioned — with the stoners coming out of the bathroom. It was so easy to have fun with that because he had sort of built this perfect environment for it. It was great fun to shoot. And to walk and talk like that is more challenging than it looks. You’ve got to hit your marks, you’ve got to see the people at the right time, and also, don’t hesitate or definitely don’t mess up the line. So it was a little bit nerve-wracking, but mostly, great fun.

For those really long takes, it’s must be more like theater in some ways, where you really have to rehearse getting it right.

Yeah, well, you come to set prepared,  and that day I knew it was going to be a big show with lots of people and camera moves and I just didn’t want it to be me messing it up. I came as prepared as I could, and we played quite a bit on the fly, and everybody was really good at their jobs. It was actually a pretty smooth take. We all came prepared to do what we needed to do to get it done pretty efficiently. So it was fun.

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This show is kind of billed as high school in a hospital, and your character points out the various cliques. What group did you fall under in high school?

I went to an arts high school, and I was a theater major, of course. So I guess I was a theater nerd? But I was just a general nerd. I’m still kind of a geek. I’m a little geeky in general.

What are some of the things that make you geeky, in general?

One of the stories that tells a quintessentially geeky moment for me was being in a club, and I don’t really go to the clubs that much. It’s not really my scene. But I was out dancing with some friends, that Chingy song, that song about “everybody getting tipsy.” And I say to the guy I was dancing with, “Oh, I read about this song in The New Yorker.” In a club! This total stupid, inappropriate thing to say. Not sexy, not witty or cute. Just full on geek. Obscure references to things no one pays any attention to. I think I’m connecting, but I could not be less connected.

Not unlike Emily on the show?

Totally! I can totally relate to Emily on so many levels.

Tyra’s big story arc this season involves her coming out to her dad – the chief of staff. Have you gotten to that story in shooting yet?

We’ve gotten to that. I don’t know how much I can give away [laughs]. The coming out moment is, obviously, very significant. Gosh, what can I say about it? Personally, I love the way that it’s handled, ultimately, for Tyra. As you learn in the pilot episode, she’s not uncomfortable with her sexuality, she’s not uncomfortable with the rest of the world knowing. The difference with her dad — and really both of her parents, but we’ve only met her dad so far — is that she wants his approval, and she’s desperate for his approval. And it would kill her not to have that acceptance.

On some level, having some parent or other major figure in your life accept you for who you are no matter what is crucial. As human beings, it’s important for our survival, to have that kind of unconditional love and acceptance. And that’s what it really comes down to with her father. Whether it’s a question of him being a bigot and rejecting her as a lesbian is not actually the issue as much as, will this new information change anything about whether my father will love me.

And that’s something a lot of gay people struggle with — telling their parents and friends, and then they find out that their parents and friends have been supportive all along, they just didn’t say it. But we won’t know how it will play out for Tyra until it airs, right?

We won’t know. But ultimately, that’s her fear, which comes across in the pilot right away. Her parents have this perfect marriage and it’s a lot to live up to, being part of a perfect family and being perfect for her father.

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This is a bit “fangirl” to ask, but you are working with the marvelous Mamie Gummer as the show’s lead. How is working with her?

It’s so much fun. She is endlessly inventive. She has a lot of comedy to do and it’s so much fun to watch her play. She’s just got an imagination for days. She’s a total pro. She works really long hours, and you never hear a peep of complaint. The energy on set is really light and really fun. She’s there all day, she’s Emily Owens. She’s the title character on the show — and I think we can attribute that good vibe that we feel to her leadership.

I don’t know if you’ve been primed, but by playing a lesbian you pretty much garner legions of loyal fans off the bat. Necar Zadegan (who plays Dr. Bindari on Emily Owens) can attest to that since she played a lesbian in Elena Undone.

When we shot the pilot that was the very first thing that Necar said to me. “Hi, I’m Necar.” “Hi, I’m Kelly.” “You’re playing Tyra?” “Yes.” “Well, you’re going to have tons and tons of lesbian fans.” So yes, I have been primed for that. And I think that’s so cool. That kind of solidarity and community solidarity is really exciting. I’m happy to be part of the clan.

Will Tyra have a love interest on the show?

Truthfully, I don’t know the answer to that question. But once the question of how coming out for Tyra is solved, I think that will be the next thing. Once you can sort of have the freedom to live your life totally authentically it frees you up and opens you up to all kinds of possibilities. And I think that love, especially on a television dramedy, will definitely come along as an experience.

This is a little “femme-girly,” but, if you have any thoughts about it, who would you cast if you could cast your love interest?

That’s a really good question. If I could put her together like a paper doll… I think she would be edgy and creative and very smart. Who would that be? I don’t know… But also, very, very smart. There would have to be a real sweetness to whoever Tyra goes with. The edgy thing… I don’t think she’d be chasing some badass down. There’d have to be a really warm quality for Tyra to connect to. That’s why she connects to Emily as a friend. There’s space for vulnerability in that relationship, and she’d definitely seek that out. Oh my gosh, I can’t come up with an answer to that question. Come back to me!

There are bound to be loads of LGBT teens who tune into the show, especially since it’s the CW. What do you hope those young people will take away from your portrayal of Tyra.

I hope that they will be able to see that Tyra lives in a world where her sexuality doesn’t affect anyone’s opinion of her. Or, if it does affect other people’s opinions of her as a doctor or as a human being, she is really able to separate herself from those opinions, and live her life freely, and love freely. And I hope that they see Tyra as a representation of what’s possible.

Is there anything else that you wanted to say about Emily Owens, Tyra, or anything else going on?

Please tune in for the pilot, and give us a shot! I think you’ll really like us.

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