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After 17 seasons on the air (so far?), it really should come as no surprise that Grey’s Anatomy can boast a countless number of impressive guest stars, including many stars who can call the sexy medical drama one of their first gigs before becoming a household name. We decided to take on the challenge of identifying as many notable celebrities who appeared on the Shonda Rhimes hit before their big break or in a role small enough to have since fallen into obscurity. We came up with a staggering tally of 23 actors, starting with one beloved Emmy winner who knows a thing or two about playing a medical professional.
Sarah Paulson (Dr. Ellis Grey)
One year before American Horror Story’s 2011 premiere, Sarah Paulson appeared on Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Ellis Grey (Meredith’s mother) in an ‘80s flashback episode that sees her treat an AIDS patient at Seattle Grace when the disease was still new to the public. More recently the actress has played a psychiatrist from hell in Glass, a nurse from hell in Ratched, and also a mom from hell in the hit Hulu original Run.
John Cho (Dr. Marshall Stone)
To lead his acclaimed feature-length debut, Searching, Run director Aneesh Chaganty cast John Cho - also known as Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies. However, when he appeared on Grey’s Anatomy as a surgical intern in need of surgery after falling asleep at the wheel, the Korean-born actor’s defining role was Harold Lee in the 2004 cult comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, whom he would reprise in two sequels.
Keke Palmer (Sheryll Jeffries)
Also known primarily for comedies (especially for children) was Keke Palmer, when she played a pregnant teen on Grey’s Anatomy’s tenth season. The 27-year-old actress and singer has since gone on to find darker work on horror series like MTV’s Scream and Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens and played a con artist stripper in Hustlers opposite Jennifer Lopez.
Alanna Masterson (Hillary Boyd)
Another “scream queen” to appear on Grey’s Anatomy in her early days is Alanna Masterson, who is best known for playing Tara Chambler for five seasons of The Walking Dead. Her young, seemingly mature, one-off role on the medical drama put her through a different kind of horror when she took psychedelic mushrooms, tried to fly off her roof, and broke 52 bones.
Tessa Thompson (Camille Travis)
Like Alanna Masterson, Tessa Thompson is best known for a comic book role (Valkyrie in the MCU), as well as the Creed franchise, absurdist satire Sorry to Bother You, and high-concept sci-fi thriller Annihilation, to name just a few. Much earlier, in 2006, she played Richard Webber’s niece Camille Travis (later recast in Season 4 by Camille Winbush) before showing up in a different role on the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice, in 2009.
Dylan Minnette (Ryan)
Actor and musician Dylan Minnette also appeared on a second Shonda Rhimes hit (Scandal) years after he played a 9-year-old born without external ears on Grey’s Anatomy’s fourth season. The now 24-year-old star would go on to appear in horror movies of a light variety (Goosebumps) and a bleak variety (Don’t Breathe), as well as lead the cast of the teen drama 13 Reasons Why for Netflix.
Sydney Sweeney (Erin Weaver)
Speaking of dark teen dramas, the Emmy-winning HBO series Euphoria is 23-year-old Sydney Sweeney's biggest claim to fame yet, following her role opposite Amy Adams on Sharp Objects and a recurring spot on The Handmaid's Tale for Hulu. Earlier, in a heartbreaking Season 11 episode of Grey's Anatomy, she played the daughter of a man who discovers what he thought was heartburn is actually much worse.
Elisabeth Moss (Nina Rogerson)
Speaking of The Handmaid's Tale, Elisabeth Moss won an Emmy for her lead role on the dystopian drama after receiving several nominations for playing Peggy Olson on Mad Men. The star of acclaimed 2020 horror flick, The Invisible Man, previously appeared on Season 3 of Grey's Anatomy as a woman whose mother suffers from a strange condition that causes her bones to grow when experiencing trauma.
Justina Machado (Anna Nyles)
Also appearing on Grey's Anatomy's third season was actress Justina Machado as a new mother who initially assumes her breast cancer tumor was a clogged milk duct. The 48-year-old former Six Feet Under star later became better known as a nurse and mother on the cancelled Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time and more recently competed as a finalist on Dancing with the Stars.
Jesse Plemons (Jake Burton)
Netflix is also the home of several recent films starring Jesse Plemons, such as the Oscar-nominated The Irishman, Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and El Camino, in which he reprised his sociopathic Breaking Bad character, Todd. Right before landing his first starring role on Friday Night Lights, Plemons was almost completely unrecognizable in his Grey's Anatomy guest spot as a teen with a deadly brain tumor caused by a rare bone disorder.
Dean Norris (Vince)
Fellow Breaking Bad alum Dean Norris also made an early appearance on two episodes of Grey's Anatomy as a mechanic whose friend and colleague is injured in a ferry crash during Season 3. The 57-year-old acting veteran was later cast in the series adaptation of Stephen King's Under the Dome, landed a recurring spot on Shonda Rhimes' Scandal, and is currently preparing to reprise his role from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for the upcoming sequel.
Abigail Breslin (Megan Clover)
Dean Norris also briefly appears in acclaimed indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine, which earned then 10-year-old Abigail Breslin an Oscar nomination in 2007. Between her 2002 film debut in Signs and that later star-making moment, the future star of the Zombieland movies played a girl whose repeat visits to Seattle Grace brought up suspicions of her foster parents' treatment of her, before it was discovered that her insensitivity to pain was to blame for her frequent accidents.
Leslie Odom Jr. (P.J. Walling)
2020 Was a big year for Leslie Odom Jr. with Hamilton coming to Disney+, the animated musical series Central Park premiering on Apple TV+, and One Night in Miami hitting theaters in December. The actor and singer was still on his way to stardom when he appeared in a Grey's Anatomy episode with an intriguing DC connection as an, initially reluctant, donor in a domino kidney transplant, which Justice League Unlimited voice actors George Newbern (Superman) and Carl Lumbly (Martian Manhunter) are the recipients of.
Maggie Siff (Ruthie Sales)
Like most actors your can think of, Leslie Odom Jr. also appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, much just like Maggie Siff did after playing a woman suffering from osteoporosis on Season 4 of Grey's Anatomy. It would be one of the last of her many early TV guest spots before becoming a notable presence on series like FX's Sons of Anarchy, AMC's Mad Men, and most recently, Showtime's Billions.
Theo Rossi (Stan Giamatti)
Maggie Siff's Sons of Anarchy co-star Theo Rossi, who would go on to play Marvel villain Shades on Netflix's Luke Cage series, has also been a guest on Grey's Anatomy. In a tearjerker two-part episode from Season 4, he played a paramedic, and husband of a Seattle Grace radiologist, who becomes trapped with his partner and best friend after their ambulance collides with another once they've dropped off a patient.
Danielle Panabaker (Kelsey Simmons)
Speaking of TV comic book adaptations, The Flash star Danielle Panabaker was relatively well-known for movies like Disney's teen superhero comedy Sky High, and the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th before she starred in one Grey's Anatomy episode. In Season 6, her character is forced to spend Thanksgiving at Seattle Grace, where she becomes engaged to her boyfriend after successfully receiving a heart transplant.
Jurnee Smollett (Beth Monroe)
Speaking of DC adaptations, Birds of Prey star Jurnee Smollett was probably best known as Michelle Tanner's friend Denise Frazer on Full House years before she played the first survivor of a clinical tumor trial run by Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd, unlike her ill-fated boyfriend, in a two-part Grey's Anatomy episode. Today, the 34-year-old actress has numerous notable credits to her name, most recently the supernatural period drama, Lovecraft Country, on HBO.
Jamie Chung (Trina Paiz)
Jurnee Smollett's Lovecraft Country co-star Jamie Chung has also starred in several comic book adaptations, including Batman prequel series Gotham, the animated Big Hero 6, and its sequel series on Netlflix, the 2014 sequel to Sin City, and the infamous Dragonball Evolution, from 2009. The following year, the Korean actress (also a veteran of MTV's The Real World) played a newlywed forced to spend her honeymoon at Seattle Grace after she and her husband fall 100 feet into a ravine while mountain climbing.
Rachel Brosnahan (Brian Weston)
Her impressive recurring spot on House of Cards, and Emmy win for playing a female comedian in the 1960s in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, has made Rachel Brosnahan one of the most sought after actresses of her generation. Much earlier in her career, the star of the new Amazon Prime original film I'm Your Woman played a young transgender man seeking to complete his sex reassignment surgery at Seattle Grace in Grey's Anatomy's ninth season.
David Denman (Rick Jacobs)
When David Denman appeared on Grey's Anatomy in 2007 as the victim of a faulty parachute, most audiences probably recognized him best from The Office, where he played former Dunder Mifflin employee and the ex-fiancé of Pam Beesly, Roy Anderson. He would later reunite with his old onscreen romantic rival John Krasinski in Michael Bay's 13 Hours, play the father of a Power Ranger, star in Steven Soderbergh's country-fried heist comedy Logan Lucky, and will next appear opposite Kate Winslet in the upcoming HBO mini-series Mare of Easttown.
Millie Bobby Brown (Ruby)
One of the most successful child stars in Hollywood today is British teenager Mille Bobby Brown, who most recently played the title role of Enola Holmes, and will soon reprise her Godzilla: King of the Monsters character in a film that pits the atomic reptile against King Kong. Just one year before first playing young psychokinetic, Eleven, on the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Brown guest starred on Grey's Anatomy as a young girl receiving medical advice from Seattle Grace over the phone after an earthquake leaves her mother incapacitated at their remote cabin.
How many of these Grey's Anatomy appearances do you remember? Let us know in the comments below!