Inside PEOPLE’s Special “Grey’s Anatomy ”Issue Celebrating 20 Seasons of the Hit Medical Drama Series

Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, James Pickens Jr., Camilla Luddington and more 'Grey’s Anatomy' stars open up to PEOPLE about the show’s success and the beloved ABC drama's legacy

The Grey's Anatomy cast is looking back on the show’s unprecedented success and how it became American TV’s longest-running primetime medical drama.

In PEOPLE’s new Grey’s Anatomy special edition, on newsstands Friday, April 19, Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, James Pickens Jr. and more of the show’s stars reflect on how the series has remained on the air for 20 seasons — and counting.

“To hold the collective attention of our fans for 20 seasons is something I’m immensely proud of and grateful for,” Pompeo, 54, tells PEOPLE.

<p>ABC/Nino Muñoz</p> Chris Carmack as Dr. Atticus Lincoln, Midori Francis as Mika Yasuda, Niko Terho as Lucas Adams, Alexis Floyd as Simone Griffith, Kevin McKidd as Owen Hunt, Kim Raver as Teddy Altman, Debbie Allen as Catherine Fox, James Pickens, Jr. as Richard Webber, Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, Scott Speedman as Nick Marsh, Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, Kelly McCreary as Maggie Pierce, Caterina Scorsone as Amelia Shepherd, Anthony Hill as Winston Ndugu, Jake Borelli as Levi Schmitt, Camilla Luddington as Josephine Wilson, Adelaide Kane as Jules Millin, and Harry Shum Jr. as Benson on 'Grey's Anatomy' season 19

Related: Shonda Rhimes Says She Hired Security After 'Passionate' Grey's Anatomy Fans 'Got Mean' Over Season Finales

The actress says understanding the success of the show — which was renewed for season 21 earlier this month and launched two spinoffs Private Practice and Station 19  — is “easy,” explaining, “[Creator] Shonda Rhimes is a great writer. Second, Taylor Swift named her cat after Meredith Grey! Just kidding. It is because of our awesome fans.”

Fans couldn’t seem to get enough of watching the trials and triumphs of OG interns Meredith Grey (Pompeo) Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), George O'Malley (T.R. Knight), Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) and Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) after the premiere in March 2005.

“I remember actors arriving at work shaken because they’d been chased by paparazzi, which felt really weird for a TV show that wasn’t Friends,” Rhimes, 54, recalls. “I always says that if you watched Grey’s every Thursday night, you spend more time with Meredith and Cristina as your friends than you did with anybody else in your life.”

<p>Frank Ockenfels/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty</p> Isaiah Washington as "Dr. Preston Burke," Chandra Wilson as "Miranda Bailey," Sandra Oh as "Cristina Yang," James Pickens, Jr. as "Dr. Richard Webber," Ellen Pompeo as "Meredith Grey" and T.R. Knight as "George O'Malley." (Bottom row) Katherine Heigl as "Isobel 'Izzie' Stevens," Justin Chambers as "Alex Karev" and Patrick Dempsey as "Dr. Derek Shepherd" on "Grey's Anatomy" Season 1

Related: Grey’s Anatomy: Meredith's Family Emergency Brings Up the Past and the Interns Handle a Mental Health Crisis

Wilson, who has played Dr. Miranda Bailey since the beginning, adds, “[Early on] fan interactions would have to come from the mail that would show up at the studio. And that was how you knew that somebody was relating to the character, and then you send back a note. But with social media, there was the immediacy of being able to talk with the fans and hear what they’re personally interested in.”

Rhimes and the cast saw that the real-life impact of the show’s storylines. Camilla Luddington, who has starred as Jo Wilson since season 9, explains, “After ‘Silent All These Years’ [the season 15 episode about sexual assault] aired, within the first 48 hours of that airing [calls to] RAINN’s sexual assault hotline that we gave the number out for increased by something like 43 percent.”

“To see that effect in the real world after we play these storylines out feels so powerful and incredible to be part of, but when we’re shooting it, I try not to think about all the eyes watching and just be in the moment,” she adds.

People Special Edition Grey's Anatomy 20 Years Cover
People Special Edition Grey's Anatomy 20 Years Cover

Related: Why Sandra Oh Doesn't Plan to Return to Grey's Anatomy 'Anytime Soon'

James Pickens Jr, who plays Dr. Richard Webber, shares, “I’m most proud of how we look at Webber’s whole alcoholism thing. The writers did it in a way that was so respectful, and it was able to resonate with a lot of people. I still have to this day folks who will come up and say, ‘I’ve been in the program, and your character was very inspiring for me.’”

The show also sparked women to follow in the footsteps of Meredith Grey and pursue a career in medicine. “I’ve met women who’ve said, ‘Grey’s Anatomy made me realize that I could be a doctor,’” executive producer Betsey Beers says.

“That people watch the show and then lots and lots and lots of young women went into science is incredible to me, and I think that it’s such a gift that’s given back to me,” Rhimes adds.

For more on Grey’s Anatomy and its cast, pick up PEOPLE's special issue, out Friday.

PEOPLE's Grey’s Anatomy special edition issue hits newsstands Friday, April 19. The magazine retails for $14.99. Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Read the original article on People.