Amid tears, frustration and security looming to escort him away, Dr. Andrew DeLuca’s mental health struggles came to a head in season 16 of “Grey’s Anatomy”.
The gripping scenes sparked an “overwhelming” response from viewers and remains some of Giacomo Gianniotti’s most gratifying work. Now, the Canadian-Italian actor’s sharing how the powerful storyline hits close to home due to years of family struggles, which he drew from to portray DeLuca’s illness.
“I have a good amount of this in my family, so I definitely have a personal relationship with mental health struggles and this illness specifically,” Gianniotti tells ET Canada ahead of hosting Thursday’s A Night United gala for My Friend’s Place L.A., a resource centre for homeless youth.
“I had a lot of personal stuff to draw on because it’s been part of my family, so over the years – in high school and all through college – I read books about bipolar and mental illnesses to better understand people in my family who were afflicted.”
“I think I was perfectly-poised to take on this storyline,” Gianniotti, 31, continues. “But that doesn’t negate the fact it’s still challenging, very close to-home and sometimes difficult to be in these very vulnerable places.”
Bipolar is a disorder causing mood swings, from emotional lows like depression, to highs such as mania. The illness reportedly affects 45 million people worldwide and celebrities including Selena Gomez and Kanye West have discussed living with the condition.
Having grown up with bipolar in his family, Gianniotti’s biggest lesson has been that “education and knowledge is power.”
“When you’re younger, you either go, ‘Why is this person acting this way? It doesn’t make sense,’ or the opposite: ‘This is normal. Everybody must act like this,’” he says. “Then you grow up, learn, read books, watch documentaries and realize, ‘Wow. That’s not normal. My family member was experiencing something bigger than them.’”
“I normalized it because I didn’t know better,” admits the Rome-born, Toronto-raised star. “That’s why awareness is so important. The more people are aware, the more they can be allies to these people.”
While Gianniotti’s been educating himself since his youth, he’s now front-and-centre of helping spread awareness through “Grey’s Anatomy”. Following DeLuca’s breakdown, during which he painstakingly tried to alert colleagues to an apparent human trafficking case, he crumbled in April’s finale, tearfully conceding, “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Subsequent episodes weren’t completed due to the coronavirus pandemic, however spin-off series “Station 19” seemingly confirmed DeLuca’s bipolar diagnosis in May.
“We planted a small seed a couple of seasons ago with DeLuca’s father being introduced and having bipolar, then DeLuca wondering, ‘Could I have it?’” Gianniotti says. “He had those insecurities and at the end of this season, we saw him clearly ramping up and experiencing symptoms of bipolar and coming to terms with what that meant.”
“Like grief, there’s stages – denial, anger, acceptance – but it’s a long, bumpy road, so we want to tell a story about those who have these people as loved ones and how to be a support system,” he continues. “They can live beautiful lives and have love and successful careers. With mental health resources, medication, therapy, exercise and diet you can overcome a lot of issues in your mind. On Grey’’s, the greatest story is yet to be told – how DeLuca accepts this and decides to not be defined by it. And how despite it, he chooses to thrive.”
Gianniotti has been inundated with viewers thanking him for bringing visibility to bipolar. “It was a very gratifying moment in my career to have helped people see themselves,” he says. “Ultimately, I hoped someone [would relate] – whether it’s someone with a loved one [with bipolar] who felt catharsis, or someone experiencing it who felt seen. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re going through it to be objective, so watching someone go through it on a show allows you to see what everybody else sees. It can help you realize what you may look like to family and friends.”
While DeLuca grapples with mental illness, off-screen Gianniotti’s conscious of the need to stay mentally healthy during the pandemic, which he has spent quarantined with his wife, Nichole, in Los Angeles.
Reflecting on recent months, the pause has reminded him to slow down – especially in cutthroat, fast-paced Hollywood, where rejection and setbacks can frequently test mental wellbeing.
“It’s definitely a career where you need thick skin and have to make sure you’re not defining yourself by others’ opinions, because if you listen to what everybody else says about you, that’s a quick shortcut to depression,” he says.
“You have to deal with rejection – and politics. I went through theatre school learning about acting, but nothing about the politics of my business and the toll that takes. There’s a lot of struggles with wanting to do things but not being allowed, being challenged, power struggles.”
“As artists, our art can’t be our be-all-and-end-all, because otherwise if you’re not making an album or show, do you just implode?” Gianniotti continues. “We need something else that stimulates us, whether that’s exercise, writing or riding a bicycle – something to keep you engaged.”
One way Gianniotti remains engaged outside of acting is volunteering for My Friend’s Place, which provides homeless youth with necessities, resources and workshops to help them develop self-sufficient lives.
The homeless community has been hard-hit by the pandemic, with many now solely-dependent on drop-in centres like My Friend’s Place. Increased underlying health conditions, such as respiratory issues, places them at greater risk for the coronavirus, while the population also faces disproportionate rates of mental illness.
“The commonality homeless youth face is that they weren’t wanted, which is why large numbers are from the LGBTQ community,” Gianniotti says. “Coming out to a less open-minded family member often forces youth out of their homes, or people remove themselves due to abusive conditions. They all have this sense of not being safe or accepted, which has a huge impact on mental health.”
With My Friend’s Place currently facing overwhelming numbers of people in need, their annual fundraiser became vital. So instead of cancelling, they launched My Friend’s Place Summer Festival, which features virtual fundraisers like Wednesday’s art class and wine-tasting, before Thursday’s A Night United gala, which will honour actress Rosanna Arquette and CAA agent Ann Blanchard.
“It was nice to shower, put on a suit and feel like a man again,” Gianniotti laughs about hosting from home. “I’ve been living in pajamas, so it was great to turn on that entertainer muscle. The comedy aspect without an audience is weird, though. I’d make the camera guy chuckle and wonder, ‘Did everybody find that funny or is it just that one guy’s twisted sense of humour?’”