When E.R. Fightmaster booked the role of neuroscientist Kai Bartley on “Grey’s Anatomy,” they immediately understood the weight of responsibility that comes with portraying the ABC medical drama’s first nonbinary character in 18 seasons. Fightmaster, who, like the character, is nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, knew one person who would be equally enthused about their most high-profile project to date.
"My mom actually just called me to tell me that she made a TikTok account under a pseudonym, so that she could see how people were responding," Fightmaster, 29, told NBC News with a laugh. "She was like, 'Oh, E.R., they’re, like, in love with you.' And I was like, 'Not me! With Kai!' I think she was very excited about it."
Fightmaster has performed with Chicago’s Second City improv troupe and appeared on Hulu’s “Shrill” and Showtime’s “Work in Progress,” but said this was the first time their mother — who holds a Ph.D. and watches “Grey’s Anatomy” religiously — was able to truly understand the magnitude of their work as an actor.
“One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever gotten to do was to call her and say, 'Haha, I’m also a Ph.D. It just took me mere minutes,'” Fightmaster quipped.
When Fightmaster received the audition material for Bartley last summer, the show's writers — who have been lauded for their commitment to diversity and inclusion on both sides of the camera — were already looking to bring a nonbinary character into the fold. Once Fightmaster was cast, after just one self-taped audition, they said it was paramount to ensure they were honest with the creative team about what it means to be nonbinary, calling their short time on the show so far “a real learning process” for everyone involved.
“I think it’s really important when you are an actor with an identity that gets discussed a lot, or rather is in discussion, to be firm in how much of your identity you bring to the show,” Fightmaster explained. “I have also learned a lot about what aspects of nonbinary are most confusing to people, and … things about the identity that need to be handled well or need to be handled with grace, and how to talk with people who aren’t familiar with this identity in a gentle and educational way.”
Kai was first introduced in the second episode of Season 18, which aired on Oct. 7, when Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) agreed to work part-time with a Parkinson’s disease research team in Minnesota. Dr. David Hamilton (Peter Gallagher), who is funding the project in an attempt to cure himself, introduced Meredith and Amelia to Kai, a member of the research team whose work Amelia knew well from her own work in neurosurgery.
For Fightmaster, the fact that the writers have handled Kai’s gender identity in a very casual and nonconfrontational way from the beginning has not only been “very gender-affirming” but has also allowed them to play a character that is not reduced to a single label — an issue that continues to plague nonbinary representation in mainstream media.
“I think we take that for granted, because we live in a very binary world,” Fightmaster said, adding that cisgender (nontransgender) male and female actors playing cisgender characters “get to bring all of this authenticity and all of this extra umph to these roles, while people who are trans or nonbinary are kind of begging for this baseline of identity before they get to bring anything extra or anything special to the role itself, so it’s nice to have that taken care of.”
Growing up in Cincinnati in the 1990s, Fightmaster recalled that they were “not surrounded by a lot of queer culture, definitely not surrounded by a lot of trans culture,” and that lack of representation made it harder for them to find the right language to understand their gender identity. At a time when anti-trans rhetoric continues to make headlines, Fightmaster noted that media like TV and film “have become kind of the only way that human beings know that they exist, and I mean that very literally.”
“You can live an entire experience, but until you see it represented onscreen, that tends to be the most helpful way that people go, ‘Oh wait, that’s me. I’m not alone in this life. This experience is not 100 percent unique and isolated to me,’” they said. “We know that this is true, because when we look at Gen Z, all of these characters that are filling our screens that are trans or nonbinary or queer, or exploring or gender fluid. Gen Z is the most open-minded generation we’ve had; it’s the queerest generation we’ve ever had, and I don’t think that there’s something in the water. I think that there’s [more] people on TV.”
The next level of queer and nonbinary representation, Fightmaster said, “will be letting people just exist” at a time when many marginalized communities are just beginning to tell more of their own stories.
“The focus of their existence is not having to explain themselves in every room they’re in — that is incredibly important,” they said. “So to get to play all of these love interests, to get to be someone who’s happy and in love and warm and being accepted by another person who, most of the time in these storylines, is not nonbinary or trans — I’m sure that there’s some comfort that the audience holds, especially the queer audience, in getting to see queer people just be happy.”
As a “nonbinary and trans masc-leaning person,” Fightmaster admitted they were most excited about potentially playing a love interest akin to “Grey’s Anatomy” character Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), the beloved neurosurgeon who died in Season 11. From the moment they first met at the lab in Minnesota, Kai and Amelia shared an immediate chemistry, which culminated in a sensual and passionate kiss in last December’s winter finale outside of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital in Seattle — all while Amelia’s ex, Link (Chris Carmack), caught sight of them from a distance.
While they were not able to talk about the possible fallout in this week’s midseason premiere, Fightmaster coyly confirmed that “Kai is around” and teased that “the show is ‘Grey’s,’ so there are a lot of storylines that are very interwoven, and there is obviously a lot of conflict, which is what you want, and there’s a lot of romance, which is what you need.”
“I think the fun part about the way that we’ve set up this storyline is that we are tackling the very real beast that is Parkinson’s in a very theoretical world,” Fightmaster added. “I think the writers have given Kai room to play and room to grow in that medical world, just like they have given Caterina’s character, Amelia, room to grow and explore in a relationship way, and so Kai is not going anywhere ... right now.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.