Grey’s Anatomy is the longest-running medical drama on television, and there’s an idea that the cast and crew have always been one big happy family. After all, how can you not be when you’ve been working together for 15 years?
But, Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith Grey, spoke with Variety as part of their “Actors on Actors” series, and admitted that there were “many moments” where she wants to quit the show because of how awful the behind-the-scenes culture was.
“It’s funny: I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off,” she said of leaving the show. “The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment. But once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family.”
Pompeo said that because she had kids, that’s what kept her going. It wasn’t until later on in the series that things started to change for the better.
“At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money?” she continued. “I need to take care of my kids. But after season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera.”
The actress then continued, saying that instead of leaving the show, she decided to do her best to change the culture on set. It was too important to fix the problem.
“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,” she said. “My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes.”
Pompeo pointed to creator Shonda Rhimes as a big reason as to why there was a shift, especially for the women on the set.
“I now have three kids. And we turned the culture around,” she continued. “I’ve hit some marks that have made me feel accomplished in a different way. Shonda Rhimes has been amazing. She lets us be mothers. I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to go anywhere.”
When Patrick Dempsey left Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes and Pompeo decided to “rewrite the ending” of that storyline, because the network didn’t think the show would survive without Dempsey’s character.
“That’s what’s kept me,” she said. “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.”
Pompeo also spoke of the pay discrepancy between her and Dempsey, despite them having the same ranking on the show. At the beginning, Dempsey was making “almost double” what Pompeo was even though she’s the title character.
“He had a television quote. I had never done TV. ‘He’s done 13 pilots.’ Well, none of them have gone,” she said. “I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating season 3. No one was offering that up.”
Now, Pompeo makes a reported $575,000 per episode, in addition to a seven-figure signing bonus. She’s encouraging women to speak out about inequity in the workplace.
“My husband says, ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed,’ ” she said. “But if you have to walk, don’t be a victim. If you don’t get what you want, put your big-girl panties on …You can know your worth, but if they don’t know it, you can’t cry.”
Even though the atmosphere on the show has improved, Pompeo says she “hasn’t been challenged creatively at all” recently.
“Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline,” she said. “But for the last five years, I’ve had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera.”
It’s always interesting to hear behind-the-scenes stories about our favorite TV shows, because it reminds us that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.