Ellen Pompeo: The first 10 years on Greys it was a toxic work environment


Ellen Pompeo was interviewed by Taraji P. Henson for Variety in the Actor to Actor series. Ellen will star in the 17th – and possibly last – season of Grey’s Anatomy. She’s been speaking a lot about what the show is and was like behind the scenes lo these many years, including all the challenges and hardships. During her discussion with Taraji, Ellen didn’t mince words and declared the Grey’s set “toxic” for the first decade it was filmed.

How did you do 15? Was there any moment where you were like, “Child, I want off this bus”?

There were many moments. 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.

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. 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.

My husband says, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” 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.

I now have three kids. And we turned the culture around. 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.

I haven’t been challenged creatively at all. Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline. But for the last five years, I’ve had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera.

[From Variety]

I really appreciate everything Ellen has gone on the record for regarding pay disparity. She mentioned again in this interview that she once asked for $5K more that Patrick Dempsey just on principle because it her character’s name in the title and they simply wouldn’t give it to her. I admire her for standing up for herself and getting what she deserves. It is widely assumed that Ellen and Patrick were at odds for more than just inequal pay and once he left, it probably lessened the toxicity considerably, even though Ellen has never directly said this. Of course, those first 10 years also saw the Isiah Washington controversy as well as weathered Katherine Heigl’s dissatisfaction with the show.

Shonda Rhimes and Ellen must have a rock-solid bond because every interview Ellen gives, she throws in a line about the show that, well, just isn’t nice. I’m sure it’s all true, but I can’t imagine her boss loves hearing that Ellen has been stifled creatively for so long.




Photo credit: WENN Photos

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67 Responses to “Ellen Pompeo: The first 10 years on Greys it was a toxic work environment”

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  1. Jess says:

    I love her so much, she gives no shits. She’s always been a badass but something shifted in her and her character when Patrick left the show. I think he was very toxic and felt he was the big talent, the fact that he wouldn’t go in with Ellen and demand equal pay says a lot about his character. I love watching her shine and knowing her worth, and damn did she get paid! Grey’s really has changed for the better the last few seasons, the vibe is completely different and I love it. Yes it gets silly and dramatic but they’ve covered a lot of important issues as well, and I appreciate that.

    You know it burns Patrick’s ass that the show didn’t fall to pieces when he left!

    • Moses says:

      Ellen is not the first to say things were terrible behind the scenes. TR said something similar, and so did Katie Heigl. I always thought she was being a diva, especially how she left, but maybe she hit her limit and refused to show up until things improved?

      • Carol says:

        I am not sure I see exactly why Ellen’s badmouthing of the show, especially “I haven’t been challenged creatively,” makes her so worthy of extra praise while Katherine’s comment made her deserving of all bad things. Color me confused.

      • Lizzie says:

        don’t forget isaiah washington outing tr knight by calling him homophobic slurs. that set must have been a hot mess.

      • Jess says:

        Carol-I didn’t think Katherine deserved the backlash she got, a lot of people hate her but I’ve always liked her for speaking her mind about the show. She was also very open about not bonding with her first adopted daughter as quickly as her husband did and I really respected her for that.

      • Jess says:

        It broke my heart when TR left the show, they did him dirty. Isaiah Washington’s Burke should’ve been the character to die, not George.

      • Scal says:

        A big part of why Heigel got trashed is because she talked badly about the writing staff and the crew AFTER they rearranged the entire shooting schedule around her movie schedule. They had made sacrifices to help out a coworker, and then she went on to bash their writing, bash the timing of shoots etc on late night.

        The writers got their revenge with that whole Denny/ghost sex storyline.

      • AryasMum says:

        IW was wrong and was punished severely by losing his job and his career for quite a while. What’s always pissed me off is he was set off by Patrick Dempsey strolling in late for the umpteenth time like the diva he is, and Dempsey was never held accountable.

        I also think Shonda was pissed that she had to fire IW because TR and Katherine (rightfully) didn’t let the story die, and she punished both actors with horrible writing and death for George.

        If that show was toxic for a decade, Shonda was part of the problem.

      • insertpunhere says:

        @Aryasmum, I feel like most people don’t switch right to homophobic slurs even when set off. When I’m set off (which I try not to be at work because I’m a professional), I may swear a bit, but I certainly wouldn’t take it out on an uninvolved coworker or employee, and it would never even cross my mind to be a bigot because someone annoyed me.

        Patrick Dempsey sounds like he may be an entitled jerk, and if IW had gone off and screamed or cursed at him, I may be willing to give that a pass, but let’s not pretend it’s his fault that IW is apparently a bigot.

      • AryasMum says:

        @insertpunhere – Oh, I don’t think the slur is acceptable in any way. It just bothers me that Patrick Dempsey helped initiate this whole episode, and then just got off scot free when everything blew up.

      • Bella Bella says:

        I’ve never understood the Isaiah Washington-is-a-bigot story. I knew him when he was just starting his career and he wasn’t homophobic AT ALL. Many of his friends were gay. It just wasn’t a deal. I’ve always felt that he got thrown under the bus somehow by Grey’s.

    • TQB says:

      I think Patrick had some sort of midlife crisis. The fame went to his head and you can just kind of see how he started out a relatively decent castmate and then just went downhill to the point of leaving his wife. It’s good for Ellen and the show, but also for him, that he stepped back and got his head together. He does a lot of awesome stuff for my community (he lives in Maine when not working) and it was good to see him get his shit together in his personal life.

      • AryasMum says:

        It’s been heavily rumored that he cheated on his wife with a crew member, and that’s part of the reason why Shonda didn’t like him in the end.

      • Jess says:

        I totally believe the cheating rumors simply because they made his character cheat as well, and he was barely in the season, plus his death was ridiculously bad. I think it was Shonda’s final f*ck you to Patrick.

  2. Lucy2 says:

    Really interesting that so much of it seem to stem from Patrick, I wouldn’t have guessed that at the time.
    I appreciate her bluntness, and I’m glad it ended up in a place where she is content. It’s a shame anyone had to suffer a toxic work environment, let alone for 10 years there.

  3. Abby says:

    I watched every single episode up to a point in college and as a young professional and even a newlywed, then I ran out of time for the shows I used to watch by myself and got too far behind to catch up. That was somewhere right before Patrick left though. But this show was my LIFE for a long time. Cried my eyes out over some of those characters leaving, was really invested, just really really loved it.

    I feel like maybe I should go back now and watch!

    • Kimmy says:

      It’s all on Netflix!! I’m the same way. I fell behind for a few years, but was able to catch up. Now I’m still 100% invested in this show. I feel like I have to see it through to the end!

      • Abby says:

        YESS! I got behind in an era where shows were only online for like, 3 or 4 episodes. I went on maternity leave and expected to catch up, but we switched cable providers and it wiped out all my saved episodes. It’s a silly excuse, but I literally quit watching a bunch of shows and never got caught back up at that point. BUT NOW! 😀 I think I would like to get back into it. I feel like this show defined my 20s.

  4. Eva says:

    Her honesty is so refreshing. And you get the feeling she’s not doing it to complain or badmouth anyone or paint herself as a victim, but because she doesn’t want to pretend everything’s great all the time.

  5. SM says:

    I love not only how fierce and no bullshit she is but also how realistic she is. It is about other things for her rather than making art. She is on a conventional show and the managed to make it as successful as it is possible in the age when tv is changing so much, she made it inclusive and diverse and those are well justified and admirable goals. I think that she probably rolls her eyes at all those artists suffering for their art (which is a legit claim, a lot of abuse issues in Hollywood could be solved if people making movies had a healthier approach towards the movie making) If you watch a bit of her convo with Taraji, you will spot that. Ellen is all business, all about pay and Taraji is like: huh, I take roles to learn my craft, not being lured by awards/praise or check. And she says that at the same time noting that she needs to take up so mich work because she need to pay the bills.

    • Yup, Me says:

      I noticed that in the conversation Ellen had with Gabrielle Union, Gina Rodriguez and … I think Emma Roberts. Ellen said she is over working in exchange for creative growth. They need to 👏🏽 pay 👏🏽 her 👏🏽 her 👏🏽 money.

      I’m not mad about that. If you can work for fulfillment and money that’s a beautiful thing. But this thing where folks are supposed to accept creative inspiration in lieu of a check is not the business. I’m with Ellen- give me my money. I can create a whole life full of inspiration for myself.

  6. Lolo says:

    I don’t think not being challenged creatively is a dig at Shonda or at the show. I think a lot of actors feel that way after having played the same character for many years, like they know the character and therefore it’s not a “challenge” anymore. She’s basically saying she has prioritized providing a good life for her family (very, very good) over some actor-y thing and she’s also tacitly acknowledging that at 40 years old in Hollywood this is her lane and she’s staying in it. Considering how many Americans work multiple jobs and still struggle to keep their heads above water, this attitude from an incredibly privileged person is rather refreshing. And I feel like something Shonda would appreciate.

    • TQB says:

      I completely agree. Sometimes we forget that women like Ellen (and Mariska Hargitay, and others) are working moms and acting is a job. I don’t watch Supernatural but I’m happy it’s been on forever because the cast is a whole bunch of people who deserve regular paychecks. For what all these people go through to “make it” in Hollywood – I have nothing but respect for a woman like Ellen who says, this is a good job and I know when I’m going home every night to my family.

  7. Eleonor says:

    Grey’s anatomy is my guilty pleasure.
    And the equal pay story says A LOT. She is Meredith freaking Grey.

    • Abby says:

      right? LITERALLY the show’s namesake. She should get top billing.

      All the time when people would die off, I would be like “at least Meredith is there. She has to be there!!”

      • Eleonor says:

        I was going to ask for a salary raise, so I asked my male colleagues in my position to tell me how much they are paid. I had to insist a lot, they perceived me like “out of touch”. I ask myself if I was man…

    • Tourmaline says:

      Yes, that is insane. From the start she was absolutely the main character.

  8. AmyB says:

    I am a long time Grey’s Anatomy fan, having seen the series many times over and love Ellen Pompeo! I love that she doesn’t give a shit and just says it like it is. I agree with others speculating that some of this toxicity probably did have to do with Dempsey. And let’s face it, the show did not weather and die after his “beloved” character was killed off and that probably does piss him off lol. The controversy with Isaiah Washington and TR Knight is well documented, but that was back in Season 3, and Katherine Heigl, who Shonda Rhimes has come out and said was basically a diva and an asshole was written off by Season 5. So yeah, I think Ellen is talking about Patrick Dempsey here.

    I still love how Grey’s is continuing though, they still come up with new exciting storylines and great new characters, even though truthfully, my favorite is those first couple seasons with Meredith and the original interns 🙂

    • Scal says:

      I’m worried she’s talking about Sandra Oh as she left at the end of season 10, and Dempsey left at the end of season 11.

      • AryasMum says:

        I’ve always believed that Shonda writes off a character in reflection of how she feels about the actor. If she likes you – Callie, Cristina, April, Arizona, Burke – you are written off with a happy ending.

        If she doesn’t like you – Ghost sex and bizarre exit, mowed down by a bus, or good God, smashed by a plane and eaten by wild animals. Derek was killed by being a moron, and I believe he was even driving the type of car that Patrick races. They were all put in their places.

      • Andrea says:

        Interesting….I heard Shonda was good friends with Patrick’s wife and when he went through his midlife crisis and dated someone else, she decided to end him on the show. Interesting that the wife took him back and they patched things up.

      • AryasMum says:

        I think there was a lot of tension at work because he was openly having an affair with a crew member, then he abruptly quit the show and she rewarded him with a lousy death.

      • Shirurusu says:

        Oh I hope it’s not about Sandra, she was always my favourite! @ Aryasmum- if it’s true Shonda Rhimes kept writing off characters like that I have to admit I think she’s kind of part of the problem, she’s like it’s my way or the highway with everyone it seems! Lucky for Ellen Pompeo she staid on her good side… But then I haven’t liked Shonda much since I saw her Ted talk, it was pretty self centered and weird to me, and I have huge respect for her as a professional and show runner :/

      • AmyB says:

        I am a long time Grey’s fan, and I never heard any bad press about Sandra Oh. Plus the way she was written out – not smashed by a bus, or killed in a plane crash. That’s also a good sign.

  9. Millenial says:

    This is a good example of why good shows should end after 7-8 years. Grey’s hasn’t been good since around that time frame (IMO). Grey’s has been lucky, though, that several original cast members have stayed (Ellen, Justin, Chandra, etc…). I tend to think they are like Ellen — just want the money to secure their futures and have stopped caring about being creatively fulfilled.

  10. K says:

    For those who love her, have you seen how she really is in Punk’d? She was so mean, jealous and petty toward a waitress and accused her husband of crushing on this total stranger and practically ripped his head off for giving a big tip. She’s not a nice person. I was shocked when I saw the episode. Hope she has changed since then but it wasn’t like she was super young back then.

    • minx says:

      I just looked it up. Hoo boy, she does not come across well.

    • Raina says:

      K, swear to God that literally stuck with me all these years…her nasty voice and attitude. Blech.

      • minx says:

        Telling her husband he was going to have to “make it up to her” —are they still together? Then when she told the waitress “you can find the hat at any Gucci store”—like Nyah, Nyah, you can’t afford Gucci. She also sounded extremely stupid when she talked.

      • Andrea says:

        OMG—the comments on the waitress’s foundation and get her on a greyhound bus to vegas!! Not to mention the brutal way she is going to kill her for flirting with her fiance. And the crab cake didn’t do anything for me. Oh dear. I also love how she says he has to spend the rest of the day making it up to her. Wow, what an insecure woman!! I am beyond words. I don’t understand why she says in interviews that she doesn’t understand why people think she is mean from this…are you kidding me!?! That’s how she actually is…

      • AryasMum says:

        What’s surprising is that she signed a release for it to be aired. I know they punk’d A-Rod years ago and he refused to sign the release. I guess Ellen is unafraid to be who she is, even if it’s unflattering.

  11. AryasMum says:

    I was happy that Ellen got that very noteworthy raise, but I’m not sure it was a step forward for women. To accommodate the pay increase, they fired two female veteran fan favorites.

    • FHMom says:

      I guess you’re not a fan of Ellen, huh? I was really sad to see Arizona and April go. They, along with Owen and Maggie, are my favorites.

      • AryasMum says:

        I actually really like Ellen and cheered when she got that contract. But April was my favorite and she’s now gone. Arizona was a veteran and she’s gone. And Ellen has been coupled in a disastrous (IMO) romance with a weaker actor. I stopped watching because I never remembered it was on, and I no longer like any of the storylines. Also, all of the romantic couples are weak and uncompelling for me.

  12. SKF says:

    I am at a loss as to why Ellen is “refreshingly honest” and Heigl is still trashed for… being honest.

    Honestly I think Heigl has gotten the short end of the stick for a long time. She stood up for TR Knight when homophobia was happening on set.

    She rightly said that the women in Knocked Up were portrayed as humourless shrews (100% correct) and has been ripped for it ever since even though Seth Rogen now looks back on his older work with similar criticisms and has only positive things to say about her these days.

    She pulled herself from contention for awards in a season that was pretty crappy for her a for sure she could have done that with no comment; but she was outspoken about it – as she’s always been about everything. And we all know no one likes a mouthy woman. Yes it was a bit ungrateful and rude. How has that turned into a career-killer and example of the “worst” celebrity behaviour out there? She wasn’t wrong, you know? Her storylines sucked that year. Her pulling out gave others a better run. Yes she handled it poorly; but… that’s not the biggest crime?

    Finally her mother is apparently a pain in the A and a total stage-mom. There are so many of those in Hollywood and it would be very hard to fire your mother who you are close to – or even correctly see her bad behaviour.

    That is the sum of her crimes. She still gets dragged for all of this a decade later. And yet Ellen can call the set toxic for a decade (which reflects very poorly on the showrunner) and basically shame other actors openly and also say she is bored and hasn’t been creatively challenged for years and I only doing it for the money… and that’s fine? Lauded even?

    Again, I don’t get it.

    • Steph says:

      Totally agree. kH was talking about the toxic environment when it was toxic and not 6 years later. Shonda was the show runner. She sets the tone for the set. She played favorites and damaged the reputation of the ones she didn’t.

      KH was named a diva bc of her comments about Greys and that she found knocked up misogynistic. Seth Roger shit on her bc of the last comment, but last week gave an interview shitting on one of his movie role choices as being idiotic.

      My point is, the same people that criticized KH for being blunt are hypocrites.

    • TQB says:

      After the Weinstein thing showed me how easy it is for big wigs to manipulate an actress’ public image in the press, I completely agree. Heigl spoke her mind. Sure, she could have been “nicer” or more private with her grievances. Sounds like tone policing to me. By making her out to be a shrew or a whiner, they discredited her complaints without addressing them.

      • TQB says:

        ETA: I don’t have to personally like her (I don’t) to think she was treated unfairly.

    • perplexed says:

      I don’t see a difference either, but I suspect Ellen Pompeo can get away with it because she has power. She’s now the highest paid actress on television. Katherine Heighl spoke out when she was still up and coming. Maybe age plays a part too. Pompeo is now 50. Heighl must have been much younger at the time when she spoke about certain things. I think you’re given more lee-way when you’ve “earned your stripes.”

      Maybe Pompeo also got the go-ahead from Rhimes to speak out as well. If you get the approval from your producer to speak up, people probably perceive your speaking out differently.

      I never really thought Heighl was a horrible person or anything, just outspoken and not necessarily that strategic in when she chose to speak out, even though she might have been correct about some things.

      Ellen Pompeo can speak out now, because what can anybody do? That whole show rests on her. Once she’s gone, the heart of the show is gone. The newer actors are probably “nicer”, but they’re also a little more annoying onscreen. She carries that show.

    • Holly hobby says:

      BecAuse Ellen knows how to play the game that’s why. If you look at the press she did pre Dempsey, she never was really critical and didn’t make waves. That’s how she’s a survivor. She played her cards right.

    • AmyB says:

      Katherine Heigl was named a diva and asshole primarily for what she did when she pulled herself out of Emmy contention for “poor writing” on behalf of the writing staff of her show – like seriously? I have seen her later say she made a huge mistake in doing that, which she did. But I also agree with what others are saying, Ellen Pompeo knew how to play the game right, that’s for sure.

  13. tuille says:

    These pics are different. Ellen stands like an adult, not with legs crossed like a little girl who has to pee.

  14. Andrea says:

    Grey’s has been my guilty pleasure from the beginning. A dear friend who passed away in January 2008 initially introduced me to it and I watch it religiously in honor of him now.

  15. perplexed says:

    There must have been more than one toxic person on the set if it was that bad. I don’t think only one person can do that much damage.

    • Sonia says:

      Ever had a toxic boss? It makes the entire atmosphere of the building or wing or office. All of it.

  16. A.Key says:

    On a completely different note, what the hell happened to her face???

  17. Amelie says:

    I wonder about Shonda Rhimes though. I know she’s been hailed as an example to POC for being so successful in television and for representing POC in her shows. All well and good (I don’t watch any of them, I watched GA when it was initially popular and then stopped). And I believe some of the actors misbehaved, they are actors after all. But I feel like Shonda Rhimes has a mean streak and if you even put a slight toe out of line or slightly piss her off, she will make your life a living hell. I get why Isaiah Washington was booted off the show, that was pretty clear. The other firings (Katherine Heigl and Patrick Dempsey) are murkier but I believe they were being difficult and Shonda just had no patience. But what did TR Knight ever do? I’ve never heard a person whisper one bad thing about him. Did he voice maybe that his character was not getting enough screen time? From what I remember his storyline just faded away and then he was randomly killed off.

    I just know I’d think twice before working for Shonda Rhimes. She doesn’t seem like someone very pleasant to work for and I think Ellen Pompeo is hinting that she was part of the problem. I don’t think Shonda is a main showrunner on GA anymore and not has involved as she used to be. I doubt Ellen would be saying any of this if she was still managing things directly. I dunno, I’ve just always gotten this very weird vibe from Shonda but that might just be me.

    • AryasMum says:

      IMO, TR (by way of Katherine Heigl) didn’t “shut up” about the homophobic slur, and Shonda was pressured into firing IW. She loved IW and he came close to getting the role of Derrick. As Ellen tells the story, she thought it was too close to RL as her boyfriend (now husband) was/is black.

      And in no way am I blaming TR and Katherine, or excusing IW. I’m not a fan of how Shonda loses interest in her older projects, or how she often treats her employees.

      • Amelie says:

        Oh I didn’t think of that, she maybe harbored resentment towards TR for being forced to fire Isaiah Washington? Calling someone or even using the slur word Isaiah used is just unacceptable. Maybe it was just an isolated incident that got blown out of proportion into the public eye, who knows. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be fired. But drama seems to follow Shonda wherever she goes. That can’t be a coincidence!

      • anon says:

        “But drama seems to follow Shonda wherever she goes. That can’t be a coincidence!” She doesn’t “go”, she creates products from scratch. But proceed with your conspiracy theory…

    • Carmen says:

      After the way Shonda Rhimes destroyed “Scandal”, I will never watch another show she is involved with.

  18. Kath says:

    I find it weird that Ellen’s negative comments are praised as “truth-telling”, while Katherine Heigl was ripped to shreds for saying similar things.

    Also, I find it equally weird that Ellen says “at 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money” when she’ll be 50 this year.

    OK, I’m nitpicking, but she strikes me as not the nicest person herself.

    • perplexed says:

      She was correct to say 40 because she was already drawing a comfortable paycheque from the show at that age.

  19. please says:

    ABC gave Ellen a chance to prove that she can carry the show. She proved it. They dumped Shonda and went with Ellen, their star. The toxic environment was from shonda, the showrunner.

    • Shirurusu says:

      Is that what happened? I just know I watched Shondas Ted talk and was really surprised by how self absorbed she seemed… I really haven’t liked her since although of course she is talented at what she does and very successful