Ellen Pompeo, featured on Variety’s Power of Women cover story about “Grey’s Anatomy,” has played Meredith Grey since filming the show’s pilot in 2004, when she was 33 years old. Throughout the interview, Pompeo was frank, as is her style, in discussing some of her personal highs and lows from her time on the medical drama.
She also said — a bit out of nowhere, as you’ll see — this upcoming 17th season, which premieres on Nov. 12, might be its last. Pompeo is currently in the final year of her contract — but let’s see what happens. She also seems incredibly excited about the new season, which is filming in Los Angeles under COVID-19 protocols, and is about the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial living in the world of the coronavirus.
And Pompeo asserted former ABC president Steve McPherson did not like “Grey’s Anatomy,” which showrunner Krista Vernoff — who was head writer for the show’s first seven seasons — told Variety as well for the cover story. (“Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes has said the same thing in other publications.) McPherson’s partial response was included in the main story, but his full response is at the bottom of this story, with context. Additionally, the actor Pompeo said called McPherson to find out when the “Grey’s” airdate would be is Kate Walsh, but as for who she’s talking about when she says the show is not a family because of what happens when an actor is fired, that’s anyone’s guess.
And please do guess!
What do you remember about getting the role of Meredith Grey?
I was offered the role, and I was contemplating whether to take it or not. I was concerned about being on a TV show — you have to sign these contracts for six years. And at that time, I had only ever done movies. I had never done TV before. So the idea of being on a TV show for six years was a little scary. And my agent said, ‘Oh, just do the pilot and make the money. These things never go.’ So.”
Did it feel like “Grey’s” was doing something different?
Before I accepted, I went and sat down with Shonda Rhimes. And I had never encountered anyone in my short time in the business that was a woman, let alone a Black woman. I had never worked for a female director. I had never seen any female writers. I mean, all of my experiences in the few movies that I had done were all completely male dominated casts. And it was just a completely male–dominated world. Nobody knew who she was at that time —I think she had done the Britney Spears movie and Dorothy Dandridge.
And so I was like, ‘Wow! She’s a Black woman? This is really something special, I definitely want to work for her. She’s a woman!” And then I heard that Sandra Oh was in the cast. And I was just like, “If Sandra Oh is in this show, I want to be on the show.”
That makes sense.
Once I met Shonda I, she convinced me and I wanted to do the part. And then we talked about the men that would be auditioning with me. She had her favorite — she really liked Isaiah Washington. I knew that the network is never going to go for my love interest being a dark Black man. I knew that that would never fly. But he came to the screen-test regardless. And then Patrick Dempsey came to the screentest. And I think another person that was supposed to come to the screen-test, but didn’t show up, was Rob Lowe, I think.
As soon as I met Dempsey, I was like, “It’s got to be this guy. This is the guy.” We had instant chemistry from the minute we met. And it’s funny, I had never seen any of his movies before. A lot of girls had seen “Can’t Buy Me Love.” I was into, like, campy gay movies. I was into John Waters movies and “Twin Peaks” — that David Lynch, campy stuff. I wasn’t really into normal teen girl stuff.
So much has been written about the show’s casting in terms of race. Can you talk about that from your perspective?
In the whole racial reckoning that we’ve had now, what’s really interesting is that the show — she was really making such a political statement already. Just by having doctors that were Black, and a lead Korean actress. That was political enough! Like, we didn’t mention race at all on the show; if you watch the first 10 seasons, we don’t talk about race. It isn’t a thing, you know? And that was very deliberate, I think. I think Shonda’s idea was just to show that people of all races are just people.
And that was really refreshing! And amazing! She was hiring a Korean actress as the lead, and Black actresses and Black actors as leads. And we weren’t making a thing about it. We weren’t talking about it! Shonda famously said, “I just saw all types for all roles. And I just cast the best actor for the part.” Right?
Now as a producer, when we develop projects, in the writing you can tell the character’s Asian by the name or whatever. I always say, “Why don’t we just start the pitch by saying, ‘All actors of all races will be seen for all roles. And the best person for the role will get the part,’” right? But people are saying, “We can’t do that. Because we have to let people know that we’re intending to cast Black actors and Asian actors and Latino actors.” And it’s like, I don’t have to let them know that — I’m gonna do that because I’m not an asshole!
I mean, certainly no actress with my level of attention that I got then would dare date outside of their race. Would they have? I’ve been with the man who’s now my husband since before “Grey’s Anatomy,” and walked with him on red carpets before “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But it just seems to me the casting process now is if if you want it to be an Asian character, you have to write the Asian name, and you have to say this character is Asian. And you have to look for an Asian actor for that role. But I would rather just see all races for all roles. Let’s just keep everybody in mind. If you fundamentally are a person who will always be inclusive, we don’t need to have those.
But not everybody is. So that’s why we have to have these rules. Because narrow minded people f—k it up for everybody else.
Yes, they do! Speaking of which, ABC was weird about scheduling “Grey’s” because, Krista Vernoff told me, Steve McPherson, who was president of the network at the time, didn’t like the show. When you were filming that first season, was there a level of awareness in the cast about the problems that were happening behind the scenes?
Yes. Yes. We knew that Steve McPherson did not like the show because he would not give us an airdate. And once we finally got an airdate, two weeks before that airdate, they wanted to change the title of the show, which has also been talked about before, to “Complications.”
I won’t mention any specific names, but it’s funny — I was in the makeup trailer with an actress. And I said, “We don’t have an airdate. I don’t know if this show is the show’s ever going to see the air.” And she said, “Oh, hold on.” She called him up, and she said, “Are you going to put ‘Grey’s’ on the air?” He said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we’re gonna do it.”
She hung up the phone, she turned to me and she said, “Oh, it’s going to have an airdate, it’s going to be this date.” And I was like, “Oh. Actresses have Steve McPherson on speed dial, and find out things.”
I’ll leave that up to your imagination about who that was.
I think I know who that was! Does she have the same name as me and one of your publicists named Kate?
She’s gorgeous, I’ll say that. She’s a gorgeous girl. She’s a firecracker, and I love her to death!
What was it like after the show premiered, and was so huge?
Well, it was wild, because we had already finished shooting the whole first season. We had one day left. So we premiered on Sunday night, and we had to go in Monday for our last day of shooting. So our last day of shooting for Season 1, we came in and the ratings were through the roof. And we had an incredible lead-in — we had “Desperate Housewives,” which was a monster — we had the blessing of being ushered in by those women.
We came into work that Monday, like, “It’s a hit.” So it was a really sweet ending to that first season, because the truth is, we were shooting that whole first season really knowing that they didn’t like the show. And they were making so many changes, she had to do so many rewrites and reshoots. So the fact that the numbers were that huge the first time we aired was like, you know, a big f—k you to McPherson.
There was a lot of turmoil in those early years with the cast, some of which spilled out into the public. What was your experience of that?
At the time, it was just a real combination of exhaustion and stress and drama. Actors competing with each other, and envious. It was a lot of drama back then. But I think young actors are prone to a lot of drama anyway. And in hindsight, with really talented people come really complicated, big personalities. It was all worth it. Because that is such a talented, talented group of actors. I would never have it any other way; I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
In series television, you really have to deal with that behavior 10 months out of the year. And I’ll take this opportunity to say this: The way that we shoot television, any problems that you could or might have is exacerbated by the sheer overworking of the crew, the actors, the producers — everybody is so exhausted and overworked that it is an it is an atmosphere that is ripe for trouble and problems. Nobody should be working 16 hours a day, 10 months a year — nobody. It’s completely unhealthy. And it’s just causing people to be exhausted, pissed, sad, depressed. It’s a really, really unhealthy model. And I hope post-COVID nobody ever goes back to 24 or 22 episodes a season. It’s why people get sick. It’s why people have breakdowns. It’s why actors fight! You want to get rid of a lot of bad behavior? Let people go home and sleep.
Wow, yes! With that in mind, there were actors who during that period got reputations for being difficult. You know who they are — Isaiah Washington and Katie Heigl. Was that fair?
I’d rather not comment on either one of those people. Because to be honest, anytime in the past when I have tried to sort of defend behavior, it’s taken the wrong way. Isaiah just — I can’t even comment on him.
With Katie, I’ve tried to actually defend behavior in the past. And for some reason, it always gets misconstrued the wrong way. So to be honest, I’d rather not comment at all, or even try to defend them. Because like I said, I have tried to defend them in the past. For some reason it doesn’t get received in the way in which I intend it to be. So I’d rather not hurt anybody’s feelings unintentionally.
I’m an open and willing vessel to hear it, should you change your mind. When have there been times when you’ve had to fight for Meredith?
It’s a constant thing, right? Not fighting — but we’re constantly having discussions on how to make the show better, all the time. I talked to Shonda today. And Shonda doesn’t really have much to do with the show, but she weighs in on the big decisions.
We don’t we don’t know when the show is really ending yet. But the truth is, this year could be it. And so everything is really important to me — that the show is good, and that all the characters’ storylines are good. Even though it’s not my place necessarily to fight for other people’s characters, I care very much about the integrity of the show, and the stories that we tell, and the quality. So I’m constantly calling Krista, calling Debbie Allen. I talked Debbie Allen twice today, and Shonda once. I talked to Krista yesterday after a table read.
I’m constantly fighting for the show as a whole to be as good as it can be. As a producer, I feel like I have the permission to be able to do that.
Wait, you just dropped something huge. So you’re saying that this could be the last —
I mean, this is the last year of my contract right now. I don’t know that this is the last year? But it could very well could be.
There’s your soundbite! There’s your clickbait! ABC’s on the phone!”
I think there are, like, a dozen people on the phone right now, Ellen.
I will say also to that in the beginning years, I was so exhausted, that it was really hard fight for things. And you have to pick your battles, right? Sandra Oh was always really, really good at always taking the time to make sure she sat with the writers and sorted out her storylines. And I really admired her dedication to that piece of the work.
I never had the extra bandwidth. Once in awhile, I would for sure. But not to the level that she did. She’s very impressive in that way, and the writers probably found it miserable. But to have an actor that we really cares about their storylines so much is a really admirable quality. I had so many other tasks that I was really so tired most of the time. You may not get the changes that you want — they may not agree with the notes that you have. So it’s like, “Ucch, do I really have the energy to pick a battle, and then possibly lose it?”
What was it like when Patrick Dempsey was leaving the show?
Anytime anyone leaves the show, it’s devastating.
I don’t want to say we’re a family, because I think that word is overused. And the truth is, it’s not a family, it’s a workplace. And people who have shows and say, “We’re a family” — you shouldn’t say that. Because if someone does something crazy, they’re going to kick them out the door so f—king fast — no one can talk to them, and the trailer gets locked up. And they’re treated like a serial killer. The HR comes in, and the legal team comes in, and they take over.
So I always say to Krista, “Stop calling us a family. We’re not a family, we’re a workplace.” Because we don’t treat people like family when they break the rules. And people shouldn’t break the rules, right? They shouldn’t. But you can’t call shows a family, right? Because HR gets involved, and it’s all about business — and what you can legally do and what you can’t legally do.
That being said, like, it is familial in the way that most of the people who’ve been on the show I really, really love and adore. Regardless of how they feel about me, or feel about the show, I’m so grateful to have had a chance to work with them. Everybody who’s been on the show has made the show what it is. We’ve had some incredible actors. And like I said, I wouldn’t change a thing. Whether, they look back on their time fondly or not. Everyone on the show has been a massive talent and a massive contribution. And I’m very grateful for my time with them. And feel really, really sentimental, and look upon most everyone really fondly.
A couple of people in there that I don’t, but you don’t need to know who they are.
Again, I’d take it! I talked with Debbie Allen, and she talked about how close the two of you are. Can you talk about your relationship with her? I won’t say you’re a family, I promise.
Debbie and I are really close. Debbie came onto the show as an executive producer at a time when we were really broken. It was the year after Patrick had left. And so much of our problems were perpetuated by bad male management. Debbie came in at a time when we really, really needed a breath of fresh air, and some new positive energy. And I was so grateful for just her spirit.
You know, I had never met anyone like Debbie in this business, who was like me in the way that she says what she thinks. She’s very authentic, and very truthful. And likes to have fun. And likes to find a way to get things done. And Debbie really brought in a spirit to the show that we had never seen — we had never seen optimism! We had never seen celebration. We had never seen joy!
Shonda’s been a superstar for a long time — Shonda has always been very busy. So the people who were running the show, our line producer, our unit production manager, there was just this patriarchy of these old white dudes who come in and love to direct! Because they don’t want to go home. And they love directing sex scenes! And they want to sit around and ogle behind the video village. And they want scenes to go on until 3 in the morning, because that’s their power!
Debbie came in and was like, “let’s get this girl Friday off.” And I was like, “What? What? Friday’s off?” She was, like, “This kid’s gonna fall over, she needs a break! And why are we doing this this way? Why aren’t we doing things this way?’” And Debbie came in with such a fresh, practical approach. Like, “We don’t need to shoot 16-hour days, guys. We should be out in 12. And then further along, we should be out in 10. Let’s use three cameras! We don’t need 18 takes!” And I was like, I love this woman.
When Krista came back in Season 14, she also took the show in a different direction, and wanted to get more back to rom-com “Grey’s Anatomy.” How did that feel to you?
The direction the show was going in prior to coming on, I was seriously contemplating that it was the end. I was not inspired. I was not having fun. I didn’t think the storytelling was particularly interesting. It wasn’t anything I wanted to continue with any longer. And then Shonda said, “Well, what if we bring in someone different?” And I said, “OK. Who could we get? Who’s going to take over ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Season 14? Who wants that job?’ And then Shonda Rhimes being Shonda Rhimes was like, “I have someone. What about Krista Vernoff?” And I was like, “Listen, Krista was on the show at a time where there was a lot of drama going on. And it wasn’t a very happy — I don’t have happy memories of working with her.” I don’t have a lot of happy memories of those days period! So it’s nothing specific to her.
And Shonda was like, “Listen, Ellen, 10 years have passed. We’re all grownups now. We all have grown and settled into our power.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right. Because I know I’m different than I was then. And I wouldn’t want someone to judge me based on my behavior back then. So I would love to sit down with Krista. If you trust Krista to come in and take over your baby? If you trust her, then I trust her. And I’ll do everything in my power to make it work.”
Krista came in, and we hit it off, and we got along great. And we had a very honest conversation. I said, “It’s a very different environment now than it was back then. It has to be an inclusive environment. This is not say every word as written or get the f—k out. The actors have to feel like we’re at the heart of the process. We’ve lost too many actors to a non-collaborative environment — people feeling like they have no say, no creative say, no power. It doesn’t serve the show well. So I’m gonna have a lot to say!”
And Krista was like — open arms. She was like: “I get it. I love it. That sounds great. I see how happy you guys are now, and the changes that you’ve made. And I can’t wait to come back.” And it’s been fantastic.
Do you know when you’re going to make your decision about whether it’s going to be the end of the show?
I don’t! I guess I’d have to make a decision by the end of the season.
You know, I’m just weighing out creatively what can we do. I’m really, really, really excited about this season, and that’s all I can say about that. And it’s probably going to be one of our best seasons ever. And I know that sounds nuts to say, but it’s really true.
I don’t take the decision lightly, though. And we employ a lot of people, and we have a huge platform, and I’m very grateful for it. I put a lot of thought into these decisions, because they’re big ones.
This interview has been edited and condensed. To read the Variety cover story about “Grey’s Anatomy,” click here. To watch the video of Pompeo, Debbie Allen, Chandra Wilson and Krista Vernoff filmed for Power of Women Conversations, click here.
And as for Steve McPherson’s response, I reached out to him prior to publication to tell him that Vernoff and Pompeo had both talked about him not liking “Grey’s Anatomy,” and that ABC’s then head of drama, the late Suzanne Patmore Gibbs, had fought for the show at every turn. I also told him that I was characterizing his 2010 departure from ABC as being under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations.
This is his answer in full:
“Suzanne Patmore was not only a champion of the show but a champion of Shonda. I can’t give her enough credit for all her efforts. I am forever grateful for her work and friendship. I made the original deal with Shonda. I developed ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ at the studio. I picked it up at ABC I scheduled it after our #1 show DH, and gave it 20+ million dollars in marketing. I then gave it the post Superbowl slot …..I also knew that the original pilot needed VERY extensive reshoots which I paid for out of the network’s pocket.
As for defaming me again and again I don’t know what to say other than it’s sad that anyone feels the need to spread lies about me. The fact that anyone can put anything they want on the internet regardless and it’s there forever is the sad reality of our society now.
I hope you honor Suzanne Patmore with your story. She was a special person.”