The first things you notice about Justin Chambers are his distinctive facial expressions. When he’s trying to convey a serious point, his mouth curves downward, DeNiro style. When he laughs, he doesn’t hold back and his grin can be seen across the room. The smirk, well, that’s a trademark move that seems to have caught the eye of more than a few people these days – 30 million people to be exact. C Magazine caught up with the star of Grey’s Anatomy for an exclusive interview and photo shoot and learned that although Paris, New York and Hollywood can take the boy out of Ohio, none of them can take Ohio out of the boy.
When you’re a visitor, everything in Hollywood appears surreal - entering it is like walking through an amusement park with a new attraction on every corner. Hollywood moguls buying lattes at Starbucks; a famous actress walking her dog and scouting for treasures at a local flea market; future starlets sauntering down Melrose in their high heels and short skirts; and everyone on the hunt for their big break.
Hollywood surrealism for us is sitting poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel with a guy who grew up in a small town outside of Springfield, Ohio and is now on one of the hottest and most talked about dramas on TV. One of five children (and also a twin) born to two Sheriff’s deputies, Chambers always knew he wanted to be an actor but is still amazed in how he found his way along that chosen path.
Discovered on a subway in Paris, Chambers began his career as a professional model working throughout Europe on major advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein jeans and CK Contradiction cologne. When he returned to the States he soon found work in New York City doing commercials. Then, a short stint on the soap opera Another World gave Justin a taste for the small screen. Other roles followed steadily, including a comical-turn as Jennifer Lopez’s Italian suitor in The Wedding Planner and the lead in 2001’s The Musketeer. The roles made Justin an “IT” guy long enough for him to get the next gig, but by his own account, it was only a brief glimpse of what was to come with the overwhelming success of Grey’s Anatomy.
The 35-year-old’s once-quiet life in the suburbs of New York with his wife and five kids has now been amplified as his mug is recognizable by the over 30 million viewers who tune in every Sunday night. Ironically, as if summoned by the entertainment gods to prove just how hot this guy is, the Grey’s Anatomy theme song ("Cosy in the Rocket" by Psapp) starts emanating from the pool’s speakers as we start our interview. Then, an adoring fan politely interrupts our interview to tell Chambers how much she loves his show and ask for a quick photo. Surreal doesn’t even cover it anymore, but when does it in Hollywood anymore?
Even though he’s been compared to the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and his role as the arrogant Dr. Alex Karev has made women on the streets both swear at and swoon over him, he is by all accounts just a laid-back, genuine guy from southwestern Ohio, who hasn’t lost that Mid-Western charm. So, we lay back in our chaise loungers and bandied a few questions with Ohio’s latest heartthrob.
So we hear you just got done shooting all weekend on location in Seattle and flew around in a helicopter all day long. How’d that go?
Yeah, we did all these aerial shots and it was raining and windy. Kind of what you would expect from Seattle. We go up there once a year to shoot. It’s sort of a roller coaster ride right now, too, with the show. I’m working with some great people and really cool writers. I think the show is sort of reflective of what is needed in television right now, which is diversity and a great amount of drama and comedy.
And a script…
Yes, and a great script. You need a good hour of television and I think Grey’s Anatomy offers that.
You were quoted recently saying that even with all of the roles you’ve had, this is really the first time you’ve been in something that your anonymity has disappeared. How has that been for you?
I’m known as Dr. Alex Karev, the jerk. On the street I get cat calls and hisses, but for me it’s fun because it just means I’m doing my job. Just the idea that people react and have gotten involved in what I do for a living (which is to try and convey this story and to be a character) is great. For people to make comments and to know what’s going on in the show is amazing. As an actor, you want to be involved in something that people respond to. The power of it is something that surprises me. It reaches 30 million people a week and that’s mind boggling. It’s always been good. People have always said good things about the show.
And how much they don’t like your character…
He is a jerk. He’s got a lot of growing up to do. As an actor, that’s a challenge and that’s what makes it more rewarding: to show the human side. No one is completely evil. We just do stupid things. It makes it more rewarding to find those loopholes of humanity.
Do you put any of your own personality into Alex?
Very little. I’m not like that character. I’m not as competitive or self-centered. I’m an actor. You got to be a little self-centered, but not like Alex. I like to hang and talk, and I know how to respect a woman. It’s a little different for Alex.
Sometimes people like characters like Alex even more when he does show that little piece of his heart only to be an ass again a minute later, it draws them in.
As an actor, I don’t mind being ugly, immature, stupid and an asshole, because I get to say and do things that I would never do in real life. I’m from Ohio, and Ohio people have manners. This guy doesn’t have manners.
What’s the oddest medical term you had to learn?
(Editors’ Note: Unfortunately, this term was so long, that even we couldn’t decipher it to put into print) The problem is I’ll memorize it right before, and then it just comes out. You know, like… when we were young and doing tests for school and you remember it for the test and then it’s gone. There is a lot of that kind of stuff. Luckily my character is an intern, and there is still a lot for him to learn. He uses a lot of “dude” and that kind of dialogue, so it’s a little easier to get away with it. But the terminology is kind of fun, because I’m not big on more than two syllables. I’m a mumbler from southern Ohio.
Being that guy from southern Ohio, is this where you ever thought you would end up?
I’m always surprised. I’ve been doing this a while. I feel fortunate enough, for many reasons, to not have had huge success so soon in my career. I’ve learned, and I’ve grown, and I’ve done things that people haven’t liked and liked. You just grow and become stronger from it. Now, at this point in my career, along with the other actors in the show… (wait – that song that’s playing right now is from our show). But, now that the show has become part of pop culture, it’s kind of fun. I don’t take it too seriously, and it’s a high that won’t last forever, so I’ll just ride it while it’s high. I’m always surprised just getting paid for doing what I do. If people like it, I’m even more surprised. I’m very blessed.
You were discovered by a modeling agent on a subway in Paris when you were very young, but what was your plan before that happened?
I always wanted to act or be a dentist. I wanted to be a dentist, but I wasn’t good at math. You had to be good at math to be a dentist. I went to Europe right after high school and, by accident, somebody approached me on the subway and I ended up staying. I stayed for a couple of years and traveled. I then moved to New York to study acting and here I am.
So how are you still balancing work and family these days?
We’ve been balancing that all our lives. But we are thinking of doing the whole L.A. thing and seeing how the kids feel about the schools here and how they like it. We’ll figure it all out.
What do you miss most about living in New York?
I miss the diversity of New York. I like how the people are forced to deal with each other. In L.A., they get in their cars to drive from A to B and they don’t have to get out if they don’t want. I like the weather. I do love the seasons. I was just in New York and I did all this yard work and stuff was just starting to bloom. You don’t get that as much here. There is something about Spring time, it’s like that in Ohio, too.
Is Hollywood a matter of chance or design?
I think they both go hand in hand. Luck is a big part of it, but I think talent always finds a way, and once it finds it’s way, it’s about keeping it. It’s about being persistent. I’ve had so much rejection in my life that I could have easily curled up in a corner. I had no choice, because this is what I want to do, and I was going to keep doing it. I meet a lot of people, especially in this town -- musicians, actors, artists -- and they all have something to give, but it’s about being strong enough to take rejection and to know you are good enough and keep going. When you get it, keep it, because that’s a big part of it. Keeping your head on straight and seeing the big picture and keeping a cool perspective about it and knowing there are highs and lows around it. I’ve had a few highs in my career and a few lows. I think chance is a big part of it, but what bothers me, is seeing talented people who just don’t do anything with it. There are so many musicians out there and untapped talent, but either they have their own reasons for not being confident or responsible enough. I use the old ethics of just showing up on time. That alone is important, and there are a lot of people out there who don’t even know how to do that. It’s a business. It isn’t all about being cool and being a tortured artist. It’s arts and commerce. That’s what it is.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to have affected you though, you seem pretty grounded and low key.
I’m pretty laid back. Sometimes you have to check my pulse.
Do you think part of that is because of the gradual progression your career has taken and the fact that you have a family?
I think so. I think it’s part background, too. I was always the cool, quiet kid growing up. I also think having the ups and downs [made me] a little stronger with time. My predicament is a little different. I’m not some young Hollywood actor on his own. I have a family. That’s really one of the biggest motivations for doing this, and I draw off the drama of having a family. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s so rewarding. That kind of keeps me grounded. When you’ve got a mortgage and diapers to buy, you’ve got work to do.
What would you be drinking if you were:
- Playing pool with Tom Cruise?
Probably scotch or whiskey.
- Hunting with Hemmingway?
That’s a good question. I’d start with water. Hemmingway had a gun.
- At a Brazilian World Cup match with Pele?
Definitely beer. I’m going to Rio soon, actually.
- Playing cards with Dennis Hopper?
You know I did a film with him called Leo. He’s cool. He’s more than just an actor. He has a whole body of work: art and sculpture and a filmography. If I were going to drink with him, it would be beer, scotch or whiskey. He’s great.
- About to fight Mickey Rourke?
I love Mickey Rourke. What would I drink before I was going to fight him? Something to numb the pain.
How do you chill out?
Well, I honestly can’t really say that here. No, really, I won’t leave the house. I will watch TV. I’ll take care of myself a little more and just hibernate.
What gets you revved up?
Music. Artists. Even coming to this photo shoot and meeting creative people.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
I don’t like people who say one thing and then turn around and say another. I don’t like that. I think everyone should be treated fairly. If someone is an ass, just walk away. You don’t have to go around telling everyone else they are an ass. Keep it to yourself.
Or tell them to their face that they are an ass…
Exactly. I agree with that.
What are a few virtues your children have taught you?
They are so interested in everything. Their passion for people and places. There is an innocence with youth that you don’t have all your life. I’ve seen them develop from these little blobs to these very opinionated, sophisticated people.
Can you name five famous deputies?
Pam Chambers, John Chambers, Robert Chambers, Deputy Dog and Sheriff Kelly.
Which part of the anatomy is the grayest?
Probably the brain.
If you could duel anyone from history, who would it be, and what weapon would you choose?
Henry Miller and I would use tongue. I would want to talk to him to just pick his brain.
Besides modeling and acting, what other profession do you think you would do well at?
Photography. I got a lot of that from being in fashion. I have done it as a hobby off and on. I also like music a lot. I think I would have gone into musicology more and studied it and maybe produced. I have a very good appreciation and, so far, I’ve been told I have good taste in the artists I see.
Women are the best at_______?
You hardly know who I am or what I mean, you only know my ______?
Family is the root of ____and the answer to______?
Family is the root of love and the answer to love.
Grey’s Anatomy airs on ABC Sunday nights at 10 p.m. The three-hour season finale airs on 5/14 (one hour) and 5/15 (two hours).