“Code Black” star Melanie Chandra on playing a lesbian doctor on the new medical drama

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With the 2015 fall television season, we’ve been introduced to a variety of new queer characters, some great and some on Gotham. Landing squarely in the “great” category is Dr. Malaya Pineda of Code Black, a gritty new medical drama on CBS. Malaya (played by Melanie Chandra) is a smart, highly capable ER resident who also happens to be a lesbian. She works in an intensely busy Los Angeles ER alongside such talented actors as Luis Guzman and Marcia Gay Harden.

You might recognize Melanie from her modeling days (Bare Escentuals, Nescafe and more) or from her work on HBO’s The Brink, Parenthood, or NCIS: Los Angeles. I recognize her as my freshman year dorm-mate at Stanford University. Melanie majored in Mechanical Engineering, while I majored in smoking pot and getting mono. LOOK AT US NOW, WE’RE BOTH FAMOUS AND SUCCESSFUL!

I sat down with Melanie to reminisce about our college days, settle old scores, and find out if she knew I was queer before I did (SPOILER ALERT: she did not).

The Paley Center For Media's PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview - CBS

AfterEllen: So I’ve been watching Code Black, and it’s very exciting. I think what sets it apart from other medical dramas is it’s so intense, and so focused on the medicine and the work. It’s not a “slumber party in your pajamas” soapy kind of show. You guys are hardcore! What’s that been like as an actress?

Melanie Chandra: It’s very rewarding! We find so much meaning in this project, you know, it’s not fluff. These are all really grounded stories and there is so much humanity behind it. I feel like I’m learning so many valuable things in life, it’s like going to medical school. It’s like paid medical training! I’m learning so many fascinating things about emergency rooms, it’s a really fulfilling experience. The other day I was at a dinner party, and this woman was talking about her friend who had to go to the ER and had a tube put inside their chest, and I was like “oh, that’s a chest tube insertion, this is how they did it, this is why they do it” and she was like, “are you a doctor?” and I said “no, but I play one on TV!”. It was the first time I actually got to use that line!

AE: Nice! So did you know from the start that Malaya was going to be a lesbian, or was that something that was sprung on you later?

MC: We did not know in the pilot that she was going to be a lesbian, but before the show got picked up to series, the showrunner (Michael Seitzman) gave me a call a few weeks before we started shooting the second episode, and he said “I want to run something by you. We’re thinking about making Malaya gay. What are your thoughts on that?” and A) I thought it was really cool that the creator of the show was asking me what I thought about it and B) I said I think that’s a really strong idea and I’d love to do it. I think it adds a whole new element for Malaya, and it’s something I can get behind, and I’m really excited to play and tell the story not often told on network TV. I’m sure you guys keep count of every single gay character on TV right now…

AE: Accurate!

MC: We talked about how it was gonna be told, and she’s just really comfortable about it, no questions asked, this is just who she is and something she owns, and first and foremost she’s a doctor in this crazy emergency room, but she does have a personal life and this is her story. I thought it was a really strong choice and I was ready to get behind it.

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AE: So, not only are you awesome on Code Black, but you did great comedic work on HBO’s The Brink. What was that experience like?

MC: Oh man, it was so fun! It was so fun working with those guys, I mean, Jack Black and Aasif Mandvi…to work with those guys every day was great.