Katherine Heigl wanted Denny's death on 'Grey's Anatomy' to be as 'heart-wrenching' as possible, so she thought about her own brother dying when she was 7
- Katherine Heigl went to a painful place to act out Izzie's grief over Denny's death on "Grey's Anatomy."
- Heigl told former costar Ellen Pompeo she recalled her brother's death to make the scene "heart-wrenching."
As part of Variety's Actors on Actors series, Pompeo and Heigl reunited to talk about their time on the hit medical drama.
At one point in the conversation, the two were reminiscing about some of the fun times they had during filming and Pompeo brought up the season two finale, "Losing My Religion."
In the episode, Heigl's character Izzie Stevens, Pompeo's character Meredith Grey, and the other interns were attending a prom they'd planned for the niece of Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) at the hospital.
Pompeo recalled "sleeping on the floor" of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Northridge, California where they filmed the finale.
She also remembered standing outside in the hallway while Heigl shot the scene where Izzie cuts the left ventricular-assisting device (LVAD) keeping her love interest Denny Duquette (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in stable condition, in an unethical effort to deteriorate his condition so he would move up on the heart-transplant list.
"No one actually even wanted you to do that scene. We're like, no, change it, let's do anything to change it," Pompeo told Heigl of the controversial moment that precipitated the death of fan-favorite character Denny in the finale.
Heigl said the Denny storyline "was so intriguing" to her and fun to work on, crediting Morgan as a "dream" to work with.
She then recalled to Pompeo how she "so badly" wanted to nail the scene where Izzie breaks down after discovering Denny has unexpectedly died in his hospital bed after a seemingly successful heart-transplant surgery.
"I just wanted it to feel the way it was written on the page. I wanted it to be as heart-wrenching and all of the things," Heigl told Pompeo.
To do so, she employed an acting approach she said she normally wouldn't use: recalling her own brother's death, which happened when she was 7 years old, in order to channel the pain Izzie would be feeling in the scene.
"I don't do that whole 'go into the dark place and listen to the music that's gonna tear my soul apart,' and think about all the things in my life. And the worst was that I really went there," Heigl said. "I was 7 when my brother died but we were in the hospital for a week. And I don't enjoy thinking about that much or that week in the hospital or him in that bed, but I chose to do that for that scene."
In retrospect, Heigl doesn't think she's "put herself in that headspace again" to get that kind of performance.
"I think I would try harder to just act it," she said.
Heigl's older brother Jason died in 1986, a week before his 16th birthday. According to Heigl's 2021 Instagram post commemorating the 35th anniversary of Jason's death, her brother was in a car accident and remained in the ICU for a week before being taken off life support.
Pompeo pointed out that moments like Izzie's breakdown over Denny's body, which won Heigl plenty of critical praise when the episode initially aired, "are what made the show as iconic as it is."
"Art is always worth it, because people watch that scene and it's cathartic for them. Most people have lost people, and everybody loves a good cry," Pompeo told Heigl. "We made people feel things, Katie, and that is the biggest gift as an actor — to be able to make people feel."
You can watch Heigl and Pompeo's full conversation for Variety below.
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