Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo has signed a new two-year deal with ABC Studios, the studio behind the long-running ABC medical drama, paving the way for two more seasons — 15 and 16 — of the venerable Shonda Rhimes series. In an interview with Deadline, Pompeo talks about her decision to continue on Grey’s, the show’s success and new creative direction, will Seasons 15 and 16 be Grey’s final chapters, and is she planning to act after the ABC series is over.
Pompeo, who plays Meredith Grey on the show, also talks about Grey’s legacy of featuring strong female characters and introducing well developed gay characters on TV and about expanding into producing and directing (as part of her new deal, Pompeo is becoming a producer on Grey’s Anatomy and co-executive producer on the upcoming Grey’s Anatomy spinoff, and she also has been directing on Grey’s). Pompeo, who is poised to become the highest paid actress on TV with the new deal, earning more than $550,000 an episode, also discusses her relationship with Rhimes and whether she would want her kids to watch Grey’s when they are older.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on Grey’s Anatomy for 14 seasons and just committed for at least two more. What convinced you that there’s more life in the show and more story to tell about Meredith?
POMPEO: Well, we have a brand new writer, who’s not brand new. She was one of the original writers, she was on the show the first seven years, her name is Krista Vernoff. She left for six years to go work with John Wells and do Shameless, and when Shonda decided to step away and go to her Netflix deal, she enlisted Krista to come on and run the show. Krista is a brilliant writer, so I was really excited of having a whole completely new fresh voice to write the show. We’ve completely retooled the writer’s room which is amazing.
The show is very, very successful monetarily around the world, it makes a ton of money for everybody, and the kids, the new generation, they absolutely love it. I think there’s something like 200,000 streams of the pilot a month on Netflix, these are people downloading the pilot for the first time. The show’s hugely successful for Disney, for ABC. So everybody’s incentivized to keep it going.
It’s not like a season 14 show with not good numbers, it’s the number one show on the network this year. So we’re all just sitting back laughing, saying, “How long can we keep this going at this level?” We’re almost in a competition with ourselves now.”
DEADLINE: Do you envision Seasons 15 and 16 as the final chapter, or could Grey’s go beyond that?
POMPEO: I’ve been saying since season one, “We have two more years.” This show, it’s taking on a life of its own, and who knows? We take it season by season really.
DEADLINE: Did you have a conversation with Krista before you closed the new deal about where the show will be going creatively?
POMPEO: Yes. The show was getting very procedural in nature. Krista is such a great character writer, and she’s just elevated the quality of the writing 100 fold, it’s remarkable. The show is a lot smarter, the writing is a lot smarter. The characters, there’s just a whole new fresh voice, and I love what she’s doing. Everybody does actually, the actors are so happy, they’re so energized.
It’s an interesting thing that happens with the show this long because we have these periods of low energy. We keep changing, either we change the actors or we change the writers, and every time we make changes, which is quite often at this stage now, it gives the show a new burst of energy.
DEADLINE: You are now Producer on the main show and Co-Executive Producer on the spinoff. Do you go to the Writer’s Room? How has your role evolved, and how much say do you have on both shows?
POMPEO: Оn the spinoff, I don’t have a lot just because they’re in their early stages, sо it’s really the network and the studio with Stacy McKee developing what the show is going to look like. I’m kind of stepping back and letting them find the show, and if they need my help, I’m always available, and Shonda’s really good about reaching out to me and asking me to weigh in on certain things. Shonda has empowered me in a way that I don’t think many show creators do. It’s energizing, and I don’t want to let her down.
DEADLINE: Do you still stay in constant contact with Shonda? How involved is she in Grey’s since she moved to Netflix with a new deal?
POMPEO: Yes, I just spoke to her. I don’t know anything about her Netflix situation, but she’s busy, she has a lot going on. She’s there when I call her if I need her. Debbie Allen, Krista and myself and Linda Klein is the Medical Producer, we’ve watched the house while Shonda’s somewhere else doing what she needs to do, and whenever she pops in, she pops in. Ultimately, she’s the boss, and she’ll always be the boss, but we’re happy to steer the ship while she’s away, and we have an incredible loyalty to her.
There’s a much bigger component to this, which is Shondaland, and Grey’s, we’re the engine piece that drives the whole Shondaland train. It’s a big responsibility, and we just want to be here for her, be with her to help her, and we have fun doing it. We’re incredibly lucky to be women in this business, doing what we’re doing. It’s been an amazing experience.
DEADLINE: Grey’s is a show created by a woman with a strong female character at the center, which was a rarity at the beginning. Now times are changing and women are being empowered to take charge, and you and Shonda have been very active in that movement. How does it feel to be on a show that has been blazing the trail, and does the current climate change the way you tackle the show?
POMPEO: It’s precisely why I stay on the show, because I think we were the beginning of the movement, and it’s taken us 14 years to finally get to this place. So that’s why it is so energizing for me to stay on it because, with this journey that we’ve made, you’re starting to see the results of the trails that we blazed 14 years ago. We’re now seeing the change that we contributed in creating.
It’s not over by any means, but we blazed so many trails: Shonda putting the first woman of color on television in 40 years (in a leading drama role, Kerry Washington on Scandal), putting some gay characters. I filmed a scene last night on the show with these two brilliant actors, and one of them was from North Carolina, and he says he was gay. He said he felt like an outcast in North Carolina as a young gay man. He watched Grey’s Anatomy with his parents, and it was the only thing that he could do with his parents to show them that he wasn’t a freak of nature, that he was normal. And watching Grey’s Anatomy with his parents really helped them to understand him and seeing that being gay wasn’t a bad thing. That helped him keep his relationship strong with his parents and helped his parents understand what being gay means and what the experience is. So it’s stories like that, that are just so moving. This show has been on the front of so many things between gay characters, characters of color, women. We’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, and I think we’re really happy that the rest of the world has caught up or is catching up.
DEADLINE: Now, are you empowered to push the envelope even more? Is the #MeToo movement somehow going to be reflected in Grey’s Anatomy?
POMPEO: No, it’s not about pushing the envelope. It’s really more about telling the stories of people who feel unheard, it’s really just telling stories about human beings that are underrepresented, human beings that are compromised, human being that aren’t treated fairly.
DEADLINE: Is this going to be your last acting job? You had said that you were not sure you want to act after you finish Grey’s. What are your personal ambitions – more directing, producing?
POMPEO: We’ll see. I know that I really like directing, and that my ambition is not to be an episodic TV Director for sure, that’s a very hard job. I’d love to direct a pilot. I really like producing, that’s really challenging for me. I think I’ve had an amazing training. I’ve had a Master Class in producing these last 14 years. I know every aspect of making a television show. Producing and directing is where I’m challenged and where I’m learning. It’s more interesting to me because it’s a skill I haven’t mastered yet.
Acting, I don’t know. If the right role comes along, and it’s interesting, then never say never, but I do have three kids. I don’t necessarily want to travel around. Acting is a tough gig in itself, and you’ve got to travel. I wouldn’t say it’s my burning desire to go act in something else.
DEADLINE: What about activism? Is it something that interests you after the end of Grey’s?
POMPEO: I certainly don’t have a desire to be an activist as a title. I think that I do have a platform, I do have the audience of young people. So I just try to be a decent human being, and I try to speak out for those who don’t have as big a voice as I do, but to actually be an activist, no.
DEADLINE: What did you think when Patrick Dempsey left the show? There were some doubts that the show would be able to continue with Meredith as the sole lead but it’s done extremely well since.
POMPEO: Patrick had an 11-year run on this show. He had an incredible 11-year run, and it’s not for everybody to stay forever. Sandra Oh had a 10-year run. Sara Ramirez did a 10-year run. It’s unusual for people to stay on a show this long. So I completely understand when people have had enough. It’s really hard to do an hourlong drama year after year after year, it takes an incredible amount of stamina. I just stay because it works for my lifestyle, and I get to be a mom to my kids, and Shonda, like I said, has empowered me in a way where my role is much bigger than it was.
DEADLINE: When you were cast in the pilot, did you think that you would get to 16 seasons and this is a show that will make you the highest paid actress in television?
POMPEO: You never think TV shows are going to go this long. Of course not, never, and especially me, I don’t ever assume things like that. I assume tomorrow everyone’s going to hate us. You got to try, you got to stay humble. In this climate, if you make one false move in this day and age of Twitter, Instagram, media, you say one wrong thing, you’re done, you’re toast. So I just always try to stay present and humble and grateful and take each day as it comes.
DEADLINE: Where do you want to see Meredith’s journey end, do you have any idea how you want her story to wrap, regardless how many more seasons the show goes on?
POMPEO: Shonda and I will decide when we end the show, and I think that Shonda will decide how the character ends her journey. That will be all Shonda Rhimes at this stage. Maybe that will change, but I think that until she says otherwise, until she says she wants Krista to decide, or me and Krista to decide, in my mind, she created this show, and it’s her right to end it however she sees fit whenever she sees fit.
DEADLINE: You have young daughters.
POMPEO: I have two daughters and a son.
DEADLINE: Do you want them to watch Grey’s one day?
POMPEO: My children are on set probably two or three days a week with me. My eight-year old has grown up on the show. She sits in the Director’s chair, she calls “Action.” She sees Shonda Rhimes and Krista Vernoff and Debbie Allen and Linda Klein and me making this show every day.
This show has been one of the most incredible gifts to give to my kids because they get to see all women in power, people of all colors in power and making decisions, being creative, having fun, working hard. I couldn’t think of a better environment for my children to be in. So yes, they will absolutely watch the show because it’s something that’s been much bigger than a TV show for so many reasons. I’m extremely proud of the show and everyone that has worked on it in the past, everybody who’s here now. It’s the beginning of a movement, and it’s so special to me for so many reasons. So I certainly hope they watch every episode twice.