Chyler Leigh stars in Lifetime’s update to David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife”

Chyler Leigh isn’t content just to be on one of TV’s most-acclaimed shows, Grey’s Anatomy. In her offseason this year, she took on the lead in Lifetime’s reimagining of David Ebershoff’s bestseller, The 19th Wife, giving her the chance to explore a much different world than the halls of Seattle Grace Mercy West hospital, and in particular, life inside a polygamous sect.

The story surrounds the murder of one of the husbands in the small town where Queenie (Leigh) lives with her husband, a number of polygamous families and the local prophet for whom Queenie’s husband works as a law enforcement officer. When one of the wives of the slain man is accused of the crime, Queenie suspects that the woman has been framed, and with the help of longtime friend Jordan (Matt Czuchry, The Good Wife) begins an investigation that leads Queenie to question her own perceptions about the community in which she’s lived.

“It’s an interesting situation for her, being in a community of polygamists — she is monogamous with her husband, and her husband is a cop who works for the prophet in the town, essentially,” Leigh explains. “The prophet and her husband, Hiram, have somehow worked it out so that we don’t have to have more wives in our family. So the more I start digging my nose into what’s going on, the more the prophet is getting agitated, and it puts pressure on us, and creates problems for the bubble-within-a-bubble that we live in. And the more that she starts to dig up, the worse the prophet is looking, and the more it’s exposing how atrocious polygamy can be.”

The polygamous way of life isn’t well understood by many who don’t live it, and it’s a worldview that, in the story, Queenie begins to find suspect. “I think the big motivation for her transformation was her daughter,” Leigh suggests. “She has a 6-year-old daughter and I think, for her, it’s just realizing what drones these women are looked at as, and how meaningless they are other than just being, basically, baby factories, and having to just serve and buckle down in front of these men. She starts to see the effect that it has on women, and also, she sees how her daughter is already, at 6 years old, being looked at as a wife, and someone who’s going to end up being subjected to the same agony that all of these other women are. She gets to the point where [she thinks], ‘It’s not OK and I can’t accept it for myself — I see it as wrong.’ And once you see it, you can’t not see it. … It is something that, for women, is just so devastating.”

Leigh underwent her own transformation during the shooting of The 19th Wife. “It ended up being a really big journey for me,” she explains. “As an actor, to be able to kind of step out of the mold of being in television — you know, you get kind of used to the same thing, in a sense, and it was really refreshing coming back to Grey’s this season after having done this movie. I just felt so challenged as an actor, but at the same time, really rejuvenated.”

And from the sound of it, the time away and different experiences have paid off for Leigh, and for the new season of Grey’s. “It’s coming along really well,” she says. “Our first episode back takes place three months after the shootings have happened, and throughout the first episode, you end up seeing flashbacks of what happened in that three-month time period. We’re watching the residual effects of what has happened to everybody and how they’re coping and/or not coping.”

Leigh’s character, Lexie, is among those not doing so well, at least at the outset. “It hits Lexie pretty devastatingly in the beginning,” Leigh reveals. “But it’s really fantastic — we have such great first episodes coming out, and we’re only on our second [as we’re speaking].”

As Season 7 continues to unfold on the set of Grey’s, Leigh is enjoying being in the moment. But that doesn’t mean she’s not thinking about what might be on the horizon. If she has her way, it’ll have more to do with eating than acting. “I look forward to one day opening a café,” she says. “Very simple, but really high-quality ingredients, pastries and baked goods, and all of that kind of stuff. And then just sort of do an hors d’oeuvre at night, and have a wine-tasting and cigar night. It would be a little all over the place — conceptually, I’m still trying to put it all together — but that is definitely a big, big dream I have.”

The 19th Wife premieres on Lifetime Sept. 13.