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Melissa George on NBC’s hit new medical series Heartbeat: Interview

Melissa George as
Melissa George as Dr. Alexandra Panttiere in NBC’s new hit show Heartbeat

Heartbeat is a comedy drama series based on the real life of Dr. Kathy Magliato, as described in her book Heart Matters.

Australian actress Melissa George is Alex Panttiere, a world-renowned heart-transplant surgeon and Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) of St. Mathews hospital who struggles to get things right.

Blessed with a can-do attitude and a great sense of humour, she roller-skates through the hospital halls bringing new life to the heart unit and facing new life-and-death challenges.

We spoke with George in Toronto.

M&C: A heart surgeon roller-skating through hospital halls? That’s a first.

Melissa George: I was actually a roller-skating champion…I know, it’s so exhausting being so good at everything! [laughs] But the producers said “what?” and asked if I could do it.

Doctors do their rounds quickly, they take two hours, so when they found out I was a skater they asked me to do the rounds on roller-skates.

But they don’t say anything about it. She just goes around and sits on beds, and she gets her patients to sign the skates.

Dr Panttiere with her boyfriend and fellow surgeon Dr Pierce Harrison, played by Dave Annable

M&C: Your mother was a nurse and, ironically, you’re working in a TV medical environment.

MG: I was always surrounded by that. When I found out about the show I was at Bergdorf Goodman and my agent called – and he never calls – and he says “I have the best script I’ve read in a long time”.

I said, “But I’m at the shoe department now, I’m very busy!” And he says, “You need to sit down wherever you are. It’s so good, it’s funny, it’s dynamic, it ticks all the boxes. Please sit down and read it”. So I read it, and I loved it.

Medical or no medical experience, it’s based on a real woman – a fantastic book about the tribulations, triumphs and tragedies of a female in a man’s world, saving lives with a lover, a mentor that comes back, a husband who’s gay with a rock and roll career, and two kids. She’s crazy.

It’s everything you want. I’ve worked hard a long time and I’ve done roles that are difficult and dramatic and this was just really touching with humour.

I needed that in my life right now, to go to work and have fun, save lives and have fun.

Being a research hospital we had all the equipment. They’ve given us top-of-the-line machinery.

And there are surgeons on the set; four of them making sure every move is perfect. There’s no “Well let’s make it look okay”. There were surgeons next to me the whole time.

Every move I make is how it would be – how to put gloves on, how to scrub…

Jamie Kennedy as surgeon Dr. Callahan alongside Melissa’s Dr. Panttiere

M&C: So you’re kind of a doctor now.

MG: Well, a woman fell down the escalator in New York last week and she was banged up bad, you could see her whole leg open. I was checking her and saying “Back off I got this!”

And then it was, “No, no you don’t. You have to call the right people”. What a shame! I left the counter and ran.

And I was going to tell a lie in Paris the other day when asked what I did. I was going to say “I’m a heart surgeon”, but I’m not. Haha!

M&C: It’s funny and light and then the show takes a dark turn. That’s risky.

MG: It’s up to the creators. I have that humour in me; my father was like that, if there was a sad situation, he’d make jokes. And we’d go “Dad, someone just died” and he’d go “Why spend one moment trying to be sad any more than you need to be?” That is inside of me.

So if the line in the script is “Mrs. Agostini is dead. She’s given us her heart”. You could play it like that, or [yelling jubilantly] “Mrs. Agostini is dead! We’ve got her heart!” There’s two ways to play it.

But the director would ask for a balance, and I would do 40 or 50 takes to get it right.

In the pilot you try the best you can, but the longevity is what matters so they work tirelessly to find that balance.

My character runs through the hospital with bare feet. She picks a guy who’s three feet tall to be her intern. She leans on him.

I love that, I’m nutty and naughty – do now and apologise later. Gets me in trouble all the time.

Dr Panttiere is always after the next heart, wherever it might come from

M&C: So the comic element fits in that environment well.

MG: We don’t try and be funny; I would fall on my face. I would not win that battle.

She just comes out and sees an old guy on a gurney and says “Is he dead?” She wants his heart. “No baby, this is a surgery I’ve done for 15 years.” She thinks, what a shame he’s not dead.

And he’s looking at me saying “I’m not dead! Why is she asking if I’m dead?” And he’s chatting away! That humour is just delivering the line, that’s all I have to do. She’s always sniffing around for hearts.

I say, “I’ll go to oncology. Someone must have died there”.

M&C: And then you get serious.

MG: When you see a baby born on respirator and the mother isn’t allowed to touch her own baby – and I gave birth last year to my son – when that baby comes out in the world your world is magic.

I had to walk that dead baby down the corridor – the longest corridor with a dead baby in my hands – and I had to give it to the mother.

If there is anyone to whom you can bring light and humour into a tragic world you gotta do it!

We never know the outcome of shows. This is dramedy, and what makes it something you can sit and watch for an hour is that it makes you laugh and cry.

M&C: Strong women on TV are inspiring, a real force. What does your character have that you haven’t seen on TV before?

MG: What is unique here is that you never see a single female lead that is rebellious and outspoken, and not just a doctor but a queen of surgeons around the world.

So that’s what makes it different with the humour. I don’t watch a lot of TV but I had not seen that kind of humour.

M&C: You need to do a comedy.

MG: I don’t know, I just can’t do it. I like crying! I like crying because I get paid to cry, not in my own life. I just want to cry. It feels good.

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