Ellen Pompeo is going into season 16 as Meredith Grey, the titular character on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, and already signed for a season 17, but there were times she was ready to hang up her stethoscope and call it quits.
"There were many moments," she told Taraji P. Henson about wanting to quit Grey's Anatomy over the years. "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 behavior, really toxic work environment. But once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family."
For the first 11 seasons of the show, Patrick Dempsey played Derek Shepherd on the series.
"At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money? 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. 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," Pompeo continued in her conversation with Henson for Variety. "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."
Mission accomplished? Grey's Anatomy is still one of ABC's top shows in terms of ratings and shows no signs of slowing down. Pompeo said Dempsey was getting paid double what she was because he had a "television quote" and she had never done TV.
"I didn't even realize until we were renegotiating season 3. No one was offering that up," she said. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Pompeo revealed she had once asked for $5,000 more than Dempsey "just on principle."
"They wouldn't give it to me," she told THR. "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 said she was encouraged to speak up and be prepared to walk away if necessary. "You can know your worth, but if they don't know it, you can't cry," she said in Variety.
In 2018, Pompeo extended her Grey's Anatomy contract and added producing roles on both Grey's and its spinoff Station 19. The new deal put her at roughly $20 million a year.
"I haven't been challenged creatively at all. Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline," Pompeo said in her Variety interview. "But for the last five years, I've had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera."
When she struck her new deal in 2018, she spoke openly about it.
"I'm grateful that it was received in the way in which I intended it to be, which was as an empowering story for women and to also be very honest about my faults and my shortcomings," Pompeo told Jimmy Kimmel in February 2018. "Because I think that there's a lot of blame, especially right now. People are blaming people. There's a lot of finger pointing, but there's less people owning up to their side of things. And I wanted to sort of do a truthful interview and talk about my road to my own empowerment and how I got there, but also mistakes I've made along the way."
Head over to Variety to read the full story with Empire's Henson and Grey's Anatomy star Pompeo.