In its 14th season, Grey’s Anatomy (Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET on CTV) is one of the longest-running series on the air today. Its star, Ellen Pompeo, who the show is named for, has managed the difficult balance of carving out a career that has been long lasting, while maintaining a private personal life. In a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, we finally get to know the actor behind the scrubs. FYI, Ellen Pompeo is a badass.
Speaking to the magazine about her ongoing contract negotiations with ABC and her new $20 million per year pay cheque, Pompeo reveals that even as the star of the show, her male co-stars were often used as leverage against her. When Pompeo’s co-star Patrick Dempsey, who played her husband, surgeon Dr. Derek Sheppard for 11 seasons, left the show, it was the turning point for Pompeo. “For me, Patrick [Dempsey] leaving the show [in 2015] was a defining moment, deal-wise. They could always use him as leverage against me — “We don’t need you; we have Patrick” — which they did for years,” says Pompeo.
“I don’t know if they also did that to him, because he and I never discussed our deals. There were many times where I reached out about joining together to negotiate, but he was never interested in that. At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is Grey’s Anatomy and I’m Meredith Grey. They wouldn’t give it to me. And I could have walked away, so why didn’t I? It’s my show; I’m the number one. I’m sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, “I’m not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house.”
Pompeo revealed that after Dempsey was killed off Grey’s Anatomy, she was frustrated by the network’s speed with bringing in another male co-star right away. In this case it was Martin Henderson, who played a former Army doctor and a new love interest for Pompeo’s Dr. Meredith Grey. “So, what does it look like when he (Dempsey) leaves the show? First, it looks like a ratings spike, and I had a nice chuckle about that,” says Pompeo.
“But the truth is, the ink wasn’t even dry on his exit papers before they rushed in a new guy. I was on vacation in Sicily, decompressing — it was a long working relationship and it was a tumultuous end and I needed a moment to just chill with some rosé — and they’re calling me, going, “What do you think of this guy?” “What do you think of this guy?” And they’re sending pictures. I was like, “Are you people fucking nuts? Why do you feel that you have to replace this person?” I couldn’t believe how fast the studio and the network felt like they had to get a penis in there. We brought in Martin Henderson, but they didn’t love the storyline, so that ended.”
When Grey’s Anatomy first went on the air in 2005, it was spearheaded by a then-unknown Shonda Rhimes. Pompeo says that as Rhimes became more powerful at the station by building a Thursday night empire of TV, she was able to help empower Pompeo as well. “In Shonda finding her power and becoming more comfortable with her power, she has empowered me. And that took her a while to get to, too. It was part of her evolution. It’s also why our relationship is so special. I was always loyal to her, and she responds well to loyalty. So, she got to a place where she was so empowered that she was generous with her power. Now, what did that look like? It looked like her letting me be the highest-paid woman on television, letting me be a producer on this show, letting me be a co-executive producer on the spinoff and signing off on the deal that the studio gave me, which is unprecedented.”
In negotiating her new salary increase, which will take Pompeo into the 15th and 16th seasons (Grey’s Anatomy has not been confirmed for two more seasons, but Rhimes says that the show will go on for as long as Pompeo wants), the actor looked to her showrunner for a cue on whether to ask for the raise. “Now, maybe it’s my Irish Catholic upbringing, but you never want to [be perceived as] too greedy. Or maybe it’s just that as women, that’s our problem; a guy wouldn’t have any problem asking for $600,000 an episode,” said Pompeo.
“And as women, we’re like, “Oh, can I ask for that? Is that OK?” I’d call Shonda and say, “Am I being greedy?” But CAA compiled a list of stats for me, and Grey’s has generated nearly $3 billion for Disney. When your face and your voice have been part of something that’s generated $3 billion for one of the biggest corporations in the world, you start to feel like, “OK, maybe I do deserve a piece of this.”
In the new interview, Pompeo also talks about the recent Time’s Up movement, including her involvement in the creation and ongoing efforts of the organization that began in Hollywood. “In the last few weeks, a lot of us actresses in town have been having these meetings [as part of the Time’s Up initiative]. We’ve been sharing stories and trying to figure out how we can promote change and use our voices to help other people. And I’ll tell you, sitting in rooms full of Oscar-winning actresses listening to how they’ve been preyed upon and assaulted is frightening. And it confirmed that my path really was the right one for me, because I’ve chosen to financially empower myself so that I never have to be ducking predators and chasing trophies. It’s not for everyone. You have to be more interested in business than you are in acting.”
The actor also reveals that she too had one of Harvey Weinstein’s infamous hotel room meetings, although thankfully hers did not end in an assault. “My agent once sent me to see Harvey, too. I went right up to his room at the Peninsula, which I would never normally do, but Harvey was a New York guy, so it made sense. Plus, it was in the middle of the day, and he had an assistant there,” says Pompeo.
“He didn’t try anything on me. Had he, I’m a little rough around the edges and I grew up around some very tough people, so I probably would have picked up a vase and cracked him over the fucking head. But I also feel completely comfortable saying that I walked into that room batting the shit out of my eyelashes. My goal in that room was to charm him, as it is in most rooms like that. You think, “Not only do I have to show that I’m a good actress, but that director also has to in some way fall in love with me and at least become enamored with me.” That never felt right or good to me. And I’ve had conversations with my agents 17 years later. I’ve said, “You sent me into that room knowing …” They claim they didn’t know.”
In the end, Pompeo says that what she’s most thankful for is a job where the workers are empowered on set, which is something she can share with her three children. “I should also say this: I don’t believe the only solution is more women in power, because power corrupts. It’s not necessarily a man or a woman thing. But there should be more of us women in power, and not just on Shonda Rhimes’ sets. Look, I only have a 12th-grade education and I wasn’t a great student, but I’ve gotten an education here at Shondaland. And now my 8-year-old daughter gets to come here and see fierce females in charge. She loves to sit in the director’s chair with the headphones on yelling “Action” and “Cut.” She’s growing up in an environment where she’s completely comfortable with power. I don’t know any other environment in Hollywood where I could provide that for her. Now I hope that changes … and soon.”
New episodes of Grey’s Anatomy return Thursday, January 18 at 7 p.m. ET on CTV.