When Sophia Ali wanted a Grey’s Anatomy fix as a child, she had to get crafty. Her mother didn’t allow her to watch the show due to the late timeslot and her young age, but Ali didn’t let that stop her. “I would sneak around the corner in her room where she couldn’t see me, and watch the show from, like, behind a wall,” she remembers. As an adult, she doesn’t have nearly as hard of a time visiting Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. As one of the newest batch of Grey’s Anatomy interns, Sophia Ali is making a splash on the medical drama for more reasons than one.
As Dahlia Quadri, a Muslim doctor who notably dons a hijab throughout the show, Ali heads back to a world that’s familiar to her, though Dahlia’s life doesn’t exactly mirror her own. “I kind of had this goal for myself that I wanted to represent who I was,” she says over the phone in mid-October. “I’ve always felt like Middle Easterners … haven’t really been accurately depicted on TV, and Grey’s Anatomy has always done a really good job of showing culturally different people, but in a very normal setting.”
Though representation of Muslim women on TV is essential, it was important to Ali that Dahlia was a fully fleshed out character, and not one who was defined solely by a religious garment or background. “I wanted her to [say], ‘Yeah, I’m a doctor and I wear a hijab, but that’s not my thing,” Ali says. “‘Despite my religious beliefs or whatever, I still have the same issues, and the same things make me happy that make [other] people happy.’”
Though Ali says she has many family members who practice Islam, she was raised in a flexible home that didn’t necessarily nudge her toward one religion or another. “If I wanted to be Islamic, I could. If I wanted to be Christian, I could,” she shares. “It was all very open. [My parents] didn’t want to subject me to [only] one way of life.”
Even if her experience with religion doesn't necessarily mirror Dahlia's, she's got plenty of personal experience to draw upon in her portrayal of the doctor. "I grew up in that world, in that Islamic world, because my family is. And they’re all Middle Eastern, and so I’m very in touch with that culture, and in touch with that side of my life," she says. "So I’m so grateful that I had a life where I got the opportunity to represent them in the way that I can. And I think that they see it like that too.”
Dahlia is a relatively new arrival to a hospital that’s already filled with dozens of other storylines, but so far, she hasn’t found herself lost in the shuffle. Whether she’s been chasing a loose dog past operating rooms and nurse’s stations, or cracking jokes to an unamused Alex Karev, she’s added some welcome humor to a show that can sometimes feel a bit heavy.
Those have been some of Ali’s favorite scenes to film, she says, and they probably play so well for viewers because she’s so committed to the bit. “They had to put chicken on my face so that the dog would lick me,” she laughs. “I don’t know why, but I just love doing weird, uncomfortable things that most people wouldn’t want to do. I was like, ‘Yes, put chicken on my face, please. This is amazing.’”
Despite the fun she's having, her other goals for Dahlia's character are never far from Ali's mind. "Growing up, I always kind of felt unrepresented onscreen. I never really saw anyone who looked like me. I centered a lot of things that I watched around female-centric things that were about female empowerment, and it was so subconscious," she says. "But I realize those were the types of things I wanted to watch, because it made me feel good about myself, and it made me feel like ... I could be whoever I wanted to be. I guess I kind of just want that for girls like me, who are watching TV and need a role model who's like them."
Ali promises that viewers will learn more about Dahlia's personal life as time goes on, though she can't divulge too much just yet. But no matter what happens, she's committed to delivering performance that inspires girls in the way she wanted to be inspired when she was young. Maybe now, she's the one that a little girl somewhere secretly stays up late to watch.