Grey’s Anatomy’s Newest Star Anthony Hill On His Journey from College Football to a Beloved Hit Show
As the entertainment industry attempts to regain a sense of normalcy amidst a growing pandemic, many of television’s most popular shows will be tackling the new reality of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. As the longest-running primetime medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy” returned earlier this month in an explosive two-hour premiere that revolves around the pandemic and introduces a couple of new faces to the regular cast, including former college football player Anthony Hill.
Hill, a former wide receiver for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, has stepped into his first series regular role as Dr. Winston Ndugu—a suave, sophisticated surgeon that begins a blossoming, long-distance relationship with Dr. Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary).
Born in Springfield, Missouri, Hill moved to Kansas at an early age after his father, a college basketball coach, received offers to work at Pittsburg State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It comes as no surprise that Hill grew up playing a variety of competitive sports, including basketball, baseball and football.
“I always looked up to the guys that [my dad] coached and saw these larger-than-life figures playing these games,” he recalled in an exclusive interview with En Fuego. “I was just always around sports, and I was always around basketball in particular, but it shifted overtime [after] being around friends and the community. Football kind of became my main focus, but I always played sports.”
A Highly Recruited Athlete
As a “pretty highly recruited player for football,” Hill entered his senior year at Shawnee Mission South High School with several offers from top NCAA Division I schools, but a run of bad luck would ultimately change his trajectory from a promising athlete to an aspiring actor.
“I ended up getting hurt in my senior year, and I played one game in my senior season. All of the offers kind of dropped off the table and I realized, [as] a 17- or 18-year-old, how much of a business collegiate sports are,” he noted. “They come to your house and they meet your parents and tell you all these things, but ultimately, at that stage, I realized I was only kind of a number in a system. It was unfortunate, and I wish more kids knew that.”
During his recovery, Hill quickly realized that his options had become quite limited and eventually decided to go to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where he planned to “build up my stats for a season and then go to one of these schools that had kind of dropped off the map.” After working his way up to the starting roster at Coffeyville, Hill’s string of bad luck continued, as he broke his collarbone during the final scrimmage before his first game.
Later that night, Hill called his sister, Erica, who joked that he finally had the time to take the acting classes that he had always wanted to take but couldn’t balance with his busy playing schedule. As a “goofy” child that grew up watching movies and someone who took his first improv class in seventh grade, Hill always had an interest in theater, but it wasn’t until he took his first acting class in college that he truly discovered his passion for storytelling.
“When I got to college and I took my first acting class after my sister had mentioned that to me, I was given a monologue by my acting teacher at the time, Mark Frank, and he gave me a monologue by August Wilson [in a play] called Fences,” he recalled with a smile. “I remember doing that monologue and being like, ‘Man, this is exactly what I want to do.’ And that’s when I really knew. That was the first time I’d ever tried it with everything I had, and I didn’t look back after that. That was the turning point for me.”
From there, Hill had come up with an ambitious new plan: audition for a theatre scholarship at a top university that also allows walk-on football players. In the end, he would accept a scholarship to Oklahoma State University (OSU), where he became a walk-on wide receiver for the Pokes from 2008-2010.
“I knew that I had the theater scholarship. I wanted to ideally take it to the next level, but I also wanted to play football,” he revealed. “The main plan was just to be able to play football as long as I could and enjoy that as long as I could, but ultimately, I wanted to make that shift once I was out of school to be an actor professionally.”
From Football to Hollywood
During his time at OSU, Hill had the opportunity to train under head coach Mike Gundy alongside the team’s top recruits—including Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden—many of whom went on to play full-time in the NFL. After watching the starting lineup “do some things that I’ve never seen human beings be able to accomplish from an athletic standpoint,” Hill says that he was committed to stepping things up a notch to keep up with his “naturally gifted” teammates.
“[Consistency] is one of the things that I learned when I was there. That’s the word that I still carry on into what I do now,” said Hill, who graduated with a major in Entrepreneurship and Business Development and a minor in theatre. “When you’re on the field and in the weight rooms, if you can be consistently playing at a high level, then that’s how you start to gain the trust of the coaches and your teammates, and that’s how you can start to show them that they can count on you on Saturdays to be out there on the field, alongside them or in front of them.
“Likewise, out here in this [entertainment] industry, with consistency, that’s how you can start to build those relationships here as well with casting directors, producers and writers. And the fifth audition in, when you have that high level that you keep bringing, they can say, ‘Oh, we can count on this guy. We can count on him when we throw him on the set. We can hire him.’”
During his years as an undergraduate student, Hill divided all of his time on-campus between his dorm, the various academic buildings, the Department of Theatre and the Boone Pickens Stadium, which forced him to start most of his days at 5 a.m. After attending early-morning workouts and various classes, he would return to the stadium in the late afternoon for football practice before jogging to the theatre for play rehearsals. After rehearsals, he would eat a late dinner and return to his dorm, where he studied and did homework late into the night.
While he joked that he would not be able to return to the same strenuous schedule now, Hill explained, “I was really passionate about getting on the field and contributing to the team in some way, and I was not gonna stop until that happened. I was also really inspired by the other actors in my program and how good they were. I wanted to be at their level; I wanted to be one of the best in the program. That’s just how I felt and I was pushed to do that, and I wasn’t gonna stop on that either until I could try to perform with them and feel like I was at their level and really succeeding in the storytelling process.
“With school, I had a goal to be an academic All-American and luckily I got to do that for a couple of years. I was the first team academic All-American and I was an Arthur Ashe Award recipient, and I had those goals set because that’s what I wanted to accomplish. So, I guess focusing on each individual thing and being in the moment was how I balanced it.”
A Big Break
More than a decade after graduating from OSU, Hill is still in touch with a lot of his former teammates and has even paired boxing with some of his old college workouts (with a lot less weight, of course!) to stay in excellent shape. In the interim, the Missouri native has navigated the television industry with a refreshing poise that seems to have caught the eyes of Shondaland, the production company founded by “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes.
After multiple unsuccessful auditions for the hit medical drama in the past, Hill received an unexpected callback for the role of Winston and appeared in an episode at the end of Season 16 before COVID-19 shut down production in early March.
After a few months in limbo, Hill received even more unexpected news: He had been promoted to series regular status. “I was like, ‘What?!’ It was just wild. I can’t really explain why, but I’m not gonna try. [It’s] something that I’m just gonna be happy about,” he said, laughing.
After a decade of guest appearances on shows like “Fuller House,” “Scream: The TV Series” and “N.C.I.S. Los Angeles,” Hill is now relishing the opportunity to work on a consistent basis alongside the likes of McCreary and the Big Three—Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr.—who have been on the iconic show since the pilot.
“If you could go to an actor and say, ‘Hey, what’s an ideal situation for you to happen?’ and if they were in my position where I was auditioning every week and just trying to get something to happen, they would say something like ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” said the latest addition to the cast. “[It’s] a show that has been on for 16+ seasons, has built a fanbase across the world, has some of the most talented actors and writers ever on it, and has been telling storylines that are relevant.
“Whether it’s COVID-19, racism in America, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, sex trafficking, it’s always the hard-hitting issues, and [the writers] always face them with an understanding that people can see themselves reflected in it.
“I gotta pinch myself. It’s really that cool. My experience has been great so far. It’s been different because of COVID-19 with all the safety precautions and all the procedures that are in place to keep everybody safe, but it’s been incredible.”
As the newest addition to the main cast, Hill enters as the ninth Black main character in the show’s 17-season history, joining the likes of McCreary, Wilson, Pickens Jr. and Jesse Williams. Given that he feels extremely fortunate to be joining a show “that always tackles real-life issues,” it is not lost on Hill that his portrayal of a doctor could not only change his life but also the lives of young viewers around the world.
“As a Black man, I’m so happy I get to represent a doctor that’s a smart, gifted, compassionate and charismatic man on television,” he said, describing the importance of on-screen representation. “And some young Black boys might be watching and look at Winston and say, ‘I can be like that. What an example, as a man, to aspire to.’ I’m not saying that will happen—I don’t know!—but just the fact that the opportunity is there, I’m so happy about it.”
“As far as Winston goes, nobody really knows much about the guy. He seemed like a really good guy [when he reconnected with Maggie in Season 16] and he is, but I think this season, you’ll get to see a little bit more of the layers of Winston and how much of a human being he is. As good of a man as he is and as good of a surgeon as he is, he has some things in his past that may come up here and there. We’ll see what happens!”
With all the makings of a rising star in the entertainment industry, it seems like only a matter of time until OSU alum Anthony Hill becomes a household name on network television.
Grey’s Anatomy airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.