Grey’s Anatomy first aired on the small screen back on 27 March 2005. Since then, the show has tackled some difficult subjects over its 15 seasons – and helped launched the Hollywood careers of Katherine Heigl, Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey, among many others.
In a frank new interview, though, Ellen Pompei – who plays the show’s titular character, Meredith Grey – has admitted that the set of Grey’s hasn’t always been the best place to work.
In an interview for Variety with Taraji P. Henson, Pompeo was asked if there was ever a point during the show’s 15 seasons when she felt the urge to get “off this bus.”
“There were many moments,” admitted Pompeo.
“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.”
So why did she stay? Well, as is depressingly so often the case for women in Hollywood, Pompeo feared she wouldn’t be able to secure another job if she left.
“At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money?” she said. “I need to take care of my kids.”
While Grey’s offered her a steady enough salary to make her feel it was worth staying, though, Pompeo was all too aware of the fact that her co-star, patrick Dempsey, was taking home “almost double” what she was earning.
“He was being paid almost double what I was in the beginning,” she said. “He had a television quote. I had never done TV…‘He’s done 13 pilots.’ Well, none of them have gone. I didn’t even realise until we were renegotiating season three. No one was offering that up.”
Thankfully, things began to change after Season 10, and a lot of that was due to the efforts of showrunner Shonda Rhimes.
“We had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera,” explained Pompeo.
“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. 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.”
“Decide what you think you’re worth and then ask for what you think you’re worth. Nobody’s just going to give it to you,” Rhimes told Pompeo, according to the actor.
And so, at the end of 2017, Pompeo signed a new deal with ABC, securing $575,000 (£415, 800) per episode – with a seven-figure signing bonus. Pompeo is now officially one of the world’s the highest-paid actresses on a television drama, raking in $20 million (£14.5 million) per year.
But Pompeo has never held back in revealing how many punches she had to pull to get there – especially after Dempsey left the show in 2015, resulting in 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. I don’t know if they also did that to him, because he and I never discussed our deals,” Pompeo explained.
“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 (£3,600) 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.’”
At first she was hesitant to ask for more money as she didn’t want to seem “greedy”.
“But CAA compiled a list of stats for me, and ‘Grey’s’ has generated nearly $3 billion (£2.1 billion) for Disney,” she said. “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.’”
Let’s all take a leaf out of Ellen Pompeo’s book going forward, and make a point of not just recognising our own worth, but demanding that others do so, too.