The day that Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) packed up his lucky scrub cap, his trumpet, and that picture of his grandmother that sat beside the bed he shared with his then-wife-to-be Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), is frozen in time for Grey’s Anatomy fans. The image of Cristina being cut out of her wedding dress by her best friend as she hyperventilated still – even seven years later – stirs feelings of rage and anger and sadness on behalf of the character whose heart was broken so brutally. So as fans await Burke’s return to the long-running medical drama – his first in-person appearance since the actor’s headline-grabbing exit in 2007 – creator Shonda Rhimes understands the anxiety. “I’ve had some people say, ‘I want them to get back together,’ I’ve had some people say, ‘They can’t possibly get back together,’ and I always tell people they need to remember that we’re talking about Cristina Yang here,” she says. “It’s not gonna be about whatever you expect it to be about.”
For Oh, whose impending exit from the show will start to come together on-screen in a major way during tonight’s episode, the weight of her character’s time apart from Burke – and her time apart from her one-time acting partner, for that matter – was something that charged their scenes together. “It was very energized – as it would be with the person you were about to marry. ‘I used to look into your face all the time – and now where I am looking into your face!’” she says, speaking to EW for a profile that appears in the issue on stands tomorrow. “There was a lot of things to play. And I hope it translates well.”
Off-screen, Washington’s return to the set was everything Oh had expected. “He’s a prepared, energized actor and he was ready to play,” she says. “I will say, though, he was nervous.” Rhimes, however, had no hesitation about bringing the actor back. “My first decision and my first responsibility is to the story,” she says. “I have to be the keeper of the story and make sure that we’re telling the story we need to tell, regardless of whatever outside factors are involved or whatever history is involved and, frankly, Sandra was so lovely and open to it. It has been a really kind of amazing experience.”
She adds: “I also want to just be clear that Isaiah is a person that we all love and have loved for a very long time. I feel like there have been a lot of people that have been like, ‘How can you do this?’ And I feel very strongly and fully believe in people’s ability to grow and change and learn from their mistakes and when they know better, to do better. If people don’t think that, over the course of seven years, it’s possible for a human being to change, then there really is no future for the human race at all.”
Above all, Rhimes says, the buzz and still-passionate feelings fans have about the characters has not surprised her. But it has reenforced her views on the one-time couple – and the actors who made it possible. “It’s about the chemistry they have. They were one of the most riveting relationships I have ever seen on television,” she says. “They were iconic for a lot of people and Burke was different kind of black man than had been seen on television before, and Cristina was a different kind of woman than had been seen on television before. I think that people really loved them together – as damaging as that relationship was for both of them. I think people really loved watching them struggle.”
For more on Oh’s farewell to Grey’s Anatomy and what’s next for the actress, pick up this week’s ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.