Sarah plays Dr. Elliott Reid on Scrubs, a character she admits is quite similar to herself. But one big difference? Sarah is squeamish when it comes to blood.
“I faint when I see it,” she says, straight up and matter-of-factly. “Years ago, I remember taking my three-year-old sister to the doctor to get a bandage removed. They took it off, and there was a bit of blood, and suddenly I was on the floor. Of course, my sister—my little sister—is perfectly fine, trying to help me up.”
Relaxing near the beach at Playa del Rey, an almost disquietingly quiet community in Los Angeles, it’s hard to believe that anything would floor her. Sarah is cool, calm and collected, and the energy with which she discusses her life and career is infectious, and a delight. She’s very much the iconic Canadian-actor-in-Hollywood—her informality epitomized as she walks up, smiling. “Hi, I’m Sarah,” is her energetic yet understated introduction.
It’s obvious that this energy has served her well. At 30, Sarah has been in the acting game for a while now—theatre since she was a child, and television since she was in her teens, starting out as a reporter for the Canadian show KidZone—and her resumé includes Roseanne and, currently, Scrubs.
After six years on Scrubs, Sarah couldn’t be happier. “People ask me, ‘Are you sick of being on the same show for six years?’ And I’m really not. This combination of loving both your work and the people you work with is so rare.”
This comes across on the show, as the cast’s chemistry is evident; they obviously have a great time on-set. “We have so much fun bouncing stuff, ideas off each other, saying, ‘Hey, let’s try that!’” She grins. “We’re kind of like a dysfunctional family, in the best sense. We all know each other’s quirks, and we care a lot about each other.” And it’s no wonder that these quirks lend themselves to the sitcom. With its hospital setting, there is a certain amount of seriousness in dealing with the medical issues, but a big part of the series is the surreal, “fantasy” segments. These scenes manifest the imaginations of the characters, and include daydreaming sequences, movie parodies and more.
The filming of the show itself, too, is fairly unconventional: it’s shot in a decommissioned hospital, the former North Hollywood Medical Center. Although it may be a bit creepy to film in such an odd location (which also houses offices for the crew and production staff), Sarah maintains that it gives the show a unique feel. “It’s a great atmosphere. In the first season, we actually still had people trying to come into the hospital for treatment. You’d have people coming in, and of course we’d be dressed as doctors and have to tell them, ‘Sorry, sir, you’ll have to go somewhere else.’”
When asked about the impetus for her acting career, she says, “I always think about this time I was up in front of the class in school, I think Grade 5, to deliver a speech. I forgot the whole thing—every word—and I started crying, in front of everybody. But at the same time I loved, loved musical theatre. My sister and I got into musical-theatre class, and I was hooked.”
Sarah’s obviously enjoying her time on Scrubs, no doubt about that; in fact, she’s almost in awe of what goes on. She describes some of her memorable times working on the show with wide-eyed enthusiasm, and an overall feeling of excitement about the acting world. “Michael J. Fox was a guest star on the show,” she says, eyes sparkling, “and working with him was just so amazing. Growing up in Vancouver, he was my idol.” And, when talking about Bill Lawrence, the show’s creator (and sitcom guru; he worked on that comedic staple, Friends, and also created Spin City), she says, “Bill is just so great. Him being there, on-set at the show, is so important.” Sarah may have starred in two seminal contemporary comedies, but it’s obvious that she’s still very down-to-earth, genuinely impressed by the work of others, and wholeheartedly devoted to the work that she does.
Which has doubtlessly, at times, been a bit of a challenge. Especially since she cut her teeth on Roseanne by taking over a character that had been developed by another actress. Lecy Goranson, who had played eldest daughter Becky since the show’s beginning, left the show to attend college. The producers sought to recast, and Sarah got the role.
“I remember Tom Arnold [executive producer at the time] calling me at my house, and was asking about my plans for the future, and about school. I knew they were worried about me going back to school, since Lecy had done that.” She laughs. “I totally played it up. ‘School? Hate school. University? Never, no way.’” It worked, and Sarah soon made her first appearance as Becky.
“Roseanne was such a wonderful experience,” she says. “Everyone involved, Roseanne, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf… It was such an insanely talented cast. I was absolutely in awe of them.”
The casting switch actually worked quite seamlessly onscreen, partly due to the self-aware approach the producers took to defusing any criticism: the switch became a running in-joke throughout the rest of the series. (Sarah’s first episode included a scene with the family watching Bewitched and commenting on the infamous actor switch in that sitcom.) But comedy aside, in that first episode, as the frame froze and the words “Introducing Sarah Chalke as Becky” flashed on the screen, it was obvious that she was right at home.
Still, it must have been at least slightly stressful for Sarah, who was still in high school in Vancouver at the time. “When I started shooting, I asked my agent if I could come home during the shooting breaks to go to school. I wanted to graduate with my friends.” She worked out a schedule so that she could fly to Vancouver during the weeks off to attend school, then fly back to L.A. to shoot the show—which was a challenge, but Sarah admits, “It was a great way to do it, the only way for me to do it.”
Sarah and Lecy would go on to switch back and forth several times, with Sarah taking over full-time duties for the final season. “It was a great experience, but at the same time, it was difficult, the uncertainty of it. At one point I got a call saying they needed me for a wedding episode. I was at university at the time, and told them I was writing exams, but they needed the character there. So I wrote my oceanography exam, hopped on a plane, they picked me up at the airport and did hair and make-up on the way to the studio. I got there, jumped into a dress, and they put me onstage and told me what lines to say, with minutes to go.” Not bad for having written a final exam only hours before.
The task of portraying a character that had been played by another actress for five years was a challenge, too. “It was stressful taking over Becky. Replacing a character is a scary thing, because you’re not making it your own. You have to carry it.” Which, she says, is one of the things that makes the Scrubs experience so great. “Being able to make my own character has been a completely different experience. So creative.”
Sarah has also been at work on several film projects. She recently starred in the Lifetime movie, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Masectomy. And she is appearing in two upcoming films: Chaos Theory, and Mama’s Boy, the latter of which features Diane Keaton, Jeff Daniels and Jon Heder. Both are scheduled for release later this year.
Sarah definitely has a lot going on; her gig on Scrubs and her various movie roles are keeping her hopping. But she has a healthy attitude when it comes to keeping her life in order: “What do I want most? A balance of work and play. You have to have times in life when you’re not burning the candle at both ends. You need to take time to replenish yourself, time to read books and travel.” With her talent and energy, she’s bound to be busy on the screen—be it silver or otherwise—for a very long time to come.
Direction by Sandra Zarkovic. Styling: Annie Jagger for Margaret Maldonado. Assistant Stylist: Natalie Saidi. Makeup: Jake Bailey for Solo. Hair: Riawna Capri for Solo. Shot on location at the beach in Playa del Ray, Los Angeles.