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Outside the stereotype: Local actor the first Native American on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

New Mexico resident Robert I. Mesa as James Chee on the ABC series, “Grey’s Anatomy.” (Courtesy of ABC)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Robert I. Mesa didn’t see too many people like himself while growing up.

Especially not on a prime-time network show.

Or as a doctor.

Mesa is aiming to change that narrative with his recurring role as James Chee on ABC’s long-running series, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Robert I. Mesa.

“It’s definitely a huge deal,” Mesa says of the role. “I’m overwhelmed by it. I’m a representative of the first Native American on the series.”

On the series, Chee is a surgical intern who started near the beginning of the pandemic at the fictional Grey Sloan Memorial.

Due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, Chee and his fellow medical school graduates were sent to their residency programs earlier than the standard start date.

Mesa (Navajo/Soboba) began filming in October in Los Angeles.

A fan of “Grey’s Anatomy” for years, Mesa describes being on set as “crazy/beautiful.”

Greg Germann, left and Robert I. Mesa in a scene from “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“There’s nearly 20 years of history with this series,” he says. “Being inside the iconic Grey Sloan Memorial was humbling. I also am proud to be playing an indigenous character outside of the stereotypes for Native Americans.”

Mesa is represented by Mitchell Talent in Albuquerque and Los Angeles.

Carissa Mitchell says when casting for the 17th season of “Grey’s Anatomy” began, producers were reaching out to her in hopes of finding Native American actors.

“The cool thing about the New Mexico film market is that the casting directors are so good at representing all people,” Mitchell says. “The fact that this is a first for this TV series is huge. Rob’s been working in the market for years. It’s great to see this opportunity come to life.”

Mitchell says New Mexico has always been diverse within the film industry.

“The fact that the series wanted to move forward with Native American actors is a good sign,” Mitchell says. “That’s so forward thinking.”

One could call Mesa a renaissance man, as he is actor, artist and photographer.

Born on the Navajo Nation, he grew up in foster care, which took him to homes all over the country.

He moved to Santa Fe when he was 18 and met his family – which consists of Maura Dhu Studi.

“I met all of their friends and began my journey as an artist,” he says. “I left to New York for a bit where I was doing theater.”

Later, photography took him to Shanghai and Japan.

Then, a TV series took him to New Zealand.

“The past two years, I was focusing on theater,” he says. “My family is supportive of what I do and I don’t feel any pressure from them. We all have our paths.”

The first episode featuring Chee has aired and Mesa wasn’t expecting the response he’s had.

He says as people watched the show, they’d reach out to him about it.

“One thing that was really sweet from people was that they are long-time viewers and were waiting to see an indigenous person on it,” he says.

“They are looking at me and my character as a point of inspiration. I take a whole lot of pride of being New Mexican and from the Navajo Nation. It’s a crazy time right now and I hope that this gives people some excitement.”

Mesa says children will be able to see themselves in Chee.

“It gives you hope that you can possibly do that,” he says. “They can act or become a doctor. It’s wonderful to make that next step.”

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