To hear Chandra Wilson tell it, her hometown and its support of the arts gave her the skills and confidence to succeed as an actor.
The Grey's Anatomy actress and Houston native first hit the stage at age four with Theatre Under the Stars. She went on to study drama at Montrose's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Wilson was between acting gigs and working for an investment bank in 2005 when she auditioned for the role of Dr. Bailey on Grey's. She's won a Screen Actor's Guild Award and received four Emmy nominations for her work on the series, which is now entering its 10th season.
We recently sat down with her here to catch up on her work and the influence Houston continues to have on her personal and professional life.
VisitHouston: What are some of your fondest memories of growing up in Houston?
Chandra Wilson: How simple life here seemed to be. Every time I come back to town and drive through old neighborhoods, the sentiment is always still the same. It doesn't matter how the real estate changes or what opens or closes, I always get the same great feeling of the neighborhoods. Of being home.
VH: How did your experience growing up in Houston contribute to your success?
CW: My mom was very interested in not having an idle child, so from the time I was four years old I was modeling in local pageants, I was taking dance classes, I was taking acting classes at Theater Under the Stars. Then I got to go on to High School for Performing and Visual Arts where I graduated. So certainly all of those years of being in front of audiences at Theater Under the Stars and performing at Ensemble Theater--all of those things contributed to the professionalism that I learned as a young person that I carried with me as an adult once I became a card carrying actor.
VH: When you talk to people about Houston, what do you tell them about the city?
CW: When I tell people I'm from Houston the first thing they say is "is it really hot down there?" and I say "yes, yes it is" (laughs). I'm very proud to say that I'm from this place, that my family is still here and that I get the chance to come back. My roots are still here.
VH: What do you do when you come back to Houston?
CW: Well, I love coming back around Mother's Day because it gives me a chance to spend time together with my Mom...I love coming back to HSPVA, just to see how everything is going. I also have a scholarship program that I started at HSPVA a few years ago. I get a chance to audition seniors for that and hang out a bit. Mostly it's about connecting with family and friends. It just feels like home.
VH: When you were growing up, what did you do for fun here?
CW: I loved Downtown and Tranquility Park. I loved the museums and driving through River Oaks and Memorial. When I was growing up the Medical Center was expanding and so it's always neat to see how large it's become now. I do miss Astroworld. I feel like starting a campaign to get a park back in Houston. That was a major part of my childhood and I miss it.
VH: What do you like to do for fun these days, regardless of where you are?
CW: I love being outside, I'm a little crafty. I like to do my knitting and crocheting. And I got my daughters to start knitting and crocheting, so that's something we can do together. Things that we can do together as a family are important.
VH: What do you enjoy about Houston's performing art scene?
CW: Because I was fortunate to get to work at Theater Under the Stars for some time growing up, I had early experience with performing in front of an audience and how you can carry an audience away with your performance. You can really help them forget about whatever else is going on outside in the world and just get caught up in the show. I always wanted to earn the privilege to work at like the Alley (Theatre) and I still haven't gotten a chance to do that yet, but that was something as a local performer here you aspired to. I would also get to see plays at Stages and Ensemble. And then, as a treat, I would get to go see a performance at the Houston Ballet, or the Grand Opera...We had such access to wonderful performing arts organizations here and that's what I got a chance to grow up with and get nurtured with and what I would carry forward with me.
VH: How do you think the quality of the performances here stacks up?
CW: I believe that the professionalism expected here in Houston with our major artistic companies puts us far ahead of where we need to be for those of us who end up in New York or Los Angeles. I felt so incredibly well trained that I would spend time backstage in Broadway houses with other actors who hadn't received the training that I had in high school. Everything I learned at HSPVA or TUTS or watching other arts groups-it matches or surpasses what I did in New York.
VH: What's been your experience with the Museum District and other attractions?
CW: The cool thing about the Museum District is that whether you're at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Natural Science, Children's Museum, it's all there right in the same area. So you get to have a great day with the family and you don't have to go far...Growing up, one of the required field trips was going down to NASA (Johnson Space Center). So we had an early appreciation for the space program. And it was a great field trip too because it was one of the places you knew would take the whole day (laughs).
VH: What do you tell the uninitiated about Houston?
CW: I really think that people should come to Houston because as big as we are, we really are kind of like a small town because people are very connected to their neighborhoods. I like that. And there are restaurants and entertainment galore.
VH: In fact, Houston's getting a lot of recognition as a dining hotspot. What's your experience with the food scene here?
CW: I'm a cook at home person for the most part myself, but every now and then I like to get out and try new places. You know a lot of places that I grew up with aren't here anymore but there are now amazing new places, and I get to try a few when I come back to town. I let my mom take the lead on that so I never know where I'm going to end up or what I'm going to try!
VH: It's been several years since you first joined the Greater Houston CVB's My Houston campaign, what are your thoughts about participating in the campaign.
CW: It's been a treat actually to see the finished product. I saw one of the posters that going to the George R. Brown (Convention Center), and I've seen the ads in airports and in travel magazines. I'm still very flattered that I'm able to represent my city, it's really cool. And I like for people to know where I'm from. ...You know, no matter where I end up, where I'm working or where I'm currently living with my family, Houston is always my home. And it's good to be home.