Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo sat down with Taraji P. Henson as part of Variety’s Actors on Actors special and opened up about the past issues on the set of her hit medical drama. The actor, who has played show lead Meredith Grey for 16 seasons, revealed that before the series went through an overhaul both on and off screen following the Season 11 departure of Patrick Dempsey, the backstage environment at Grey’s Anatomy was ‘toxic.’
Speaking about her 15-year run as beloved and brilliant surgeon Meredith Grey, Pompeo told Henson that on-set fights and mounting tension meant there were times when she was ready to walk away from the show. Having a family that she needed to provide for kept her in scrubs and going to work each day on a set that was plagued with behind-the-scenes clashes between actors and writers.
Admitting there were “many moments” when she wanted to quit, Pompeo said, “It’s funny: I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off. The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behaviour, really toxic work environment. But once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family.”
Some of the turmoil on the set of Grey’s Anatomy was widely known, including rumours that Isaiah Washington used a homophobic slur when arguing with Dempsey, a move that inspired actor TR Knight to publicly come out. Then there was the very public exit of star Katherine Heigl, who appeared to walk away from the medical drama on bad terms, even withdrawing her name from Emmy contention because she felt like her role wasn’t worthy of a nomination.
Pompeo identified the show’s tenth season as the catalyst for change, both on and off screen. The actor carried her role as the show’s lead over to the set, spearheading the fight for a workplace that was safe for everyone. “But after Season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years,” said Pompeo.
Teaming up with creator Shonda Rhimes, the two women set out to prove that Grey’s Anatomy could not only be a hit without a male lead, it could also be a healthy environment to work in. “My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes. Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me. Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, and the studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission,” says Pompeo.
In the revealing interview, Pompeo also talks about earning less than her co-star Dempsey, something she’s previously spoken about in the press. Confirming that Dempsey was making twice what she was being paid in the early days of Grey’s Anatomy, Pompeo said that she was told the reasoning for the large discrepancy was that Patrick had done TV and she had not.
“’He’s done 13 pilots.’ Well, none of them have gone. I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating Season 3. No one was offering that up,” said Pompeo, who has long been a vocal champion of equal pay for women and more diversity on film and TV sets.
Since the interview was shared, there has been some backlash in response to Pompeo’s comments about the less-than-ideal work environment, which the actor has since clarified on Twitter.
Taking ownership for her role in the Grey’s Anatomy backstage issues, Pompeo tweeted “…as a show we all had a part to play in the environment me included…as many workplaces do.” The actor reiterated that she and Rhimes have worked hard to make Grey’s Anatomy a welcoming and inclusive place work, writing, “We changed that story. That’s the story we all have the power to change!”
Hey! Anyone having feelings over Variety piece. It’s not worth getting yourself upset over not singling anyone out..as a show we all had a part to play in the environment me included..as many workplaces do..We changed that story. That’s the story we all have the power to change!
— Ellen Pompeo (@EllenPompeo) June 8, 2019