Ellen Pompeo: Denzel Washington ‘went ham on my ass’ when he directed ‘Grey’s’

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Tonight, Grey’s Anatomy returns for an historic eighteenth season, after Covid cut the 17th season short. There have been tons of pop-culture pieces about what Grey’s Anatomy means and THR did a fascinating “oral history” of Patrick Dempsey’s dramatic exit from the show, with interviews from every major cast member. I read part of that feature and it made me seriously wonder about Shonda Rhimes’ “no a–holes” policy, because it honestly seems like Grey’s has been on for so long, it’s turned everyone into a–holes. Especially Ellen Pompeo. My theory was somewhat confirmed this week when Ellen told a story on her own podcast about the time Denzel Washington came in to direct an episode. Apparently, Ellen’s behavior was pretty bad. But what’s worse is that she’s telling the story like she’s the heroine of the tale.

Denzel Washington made his small-screen directing debut on Grey’s Anatomy back in 2015, with the season 12 episode “The Sound of Silence,” but according to series star Ellen Pompeo, things got a little loud during the filming of one particular scene when the two got into it. Pompeo shared the story on a new episode of her podcast Tell Me With Ellen Pompeo, in which she reunited with former castmate Patrick Dempsey. As the two discussed directing — with Pompeo suggesting Dempsey do more of it — he asked her what it was like when Washington came on board to helm an episode the season after Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd was killed off.

While she began by saying Washington was “amazing,” Pompeo went on to discuss a heated exchange the pair had. “He went nuts on me,” she said, adding that she was telling a “good Denzel story” from his time on set before detailing exactly what went down.

Pompeo was shooting a scene for the end of the episode in which her character, Dr. Meredith Grey, is asked to listen to an apology from a man who seriously injured her, leaving her with a broken jaw. (The story was inspired by a real-life incident in which an “epileptic patient goes into a seizure and beat up a nurse,” Pompeo explained.) It being an emotional scene for the actress to shoot, she ended up improvising dialogue in the moment in response to an acting decision the guest star made.

“He made this choice to speak very softly. And [Meredith] was pissed that [she] had to sit there and listen to this apology, and he wasn’t looking at [her] in the eye,” Pompeo recalled, wavering between talking about herself and the guest star as actors and characters. “Again, we love actors who make choices, right? And I yelled at him, and I was like, ‘Look at me when you apologize. Look at me.’ And that wasn’t in the dialogue, and Denzel went ham on my ass. He was like, ‘I’m the director. Don’t you tell him what to do.’ And I was like, ‘Listen, motherf‑‑‑er, this is my show. This is my set. Who are you telling?’ Like, ‘You barely know where the bathroom is.’ And I have the utmost respect for him as an actor, as a director, as everything, but like, yo, we went at it one day.”

As Pompeo shared more of the story, she said she ended up having a little chat with Washington’s wife when she came to the set. (Pompeo had said earlier in the podcast that Washington’s wife was the one who told him to direct Grey’s, as she was a fan.)

“I was like, ‘Yeah, he yelled at me today. Yeah, he let me have it today, and I’m not okay with him, and I’m not looking at him, and I’m not talking to him,'” Pompeo said. “So we didn’t get through it without a fight, but you know, that’s actors for you — passionate and fiery — and that’s where you get the magic, and that’s where you get the good stuff. So it was an amazing experience, it really was.”

[From EW]

So… Denzel tried to direct the scene because he was actually the director and Ellen threw a tantrum? On one hand, men get away with treating other people like this all the time. When men do it, they are called “passionate” and “authoritative.” On the other hand, I feel like if anyone – male or female – started bitching out Denzel Washington, there would be issues. Especially since Ellen does not think she was in the wrong at all, and she sees nothing wrong with her behavior.


Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, Backgrid.

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92 Responses to “Ellen Pompeo: Denzel Washington ‘went ham on my ass’ when he directed ‘Grey’s’”

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  1. DC Gal says:

    It’s a fine line between being assertive and not conforming to gender expectations. Like a few years ago when she talked about getting 20 million or whatever for Grey’s.

    But more often than not she really comes across as very full of herself. I honestly don’t get her appeal at all and have no idea how she was ever cast on Grey’s. If she ever felt lucky that she was on such a long-running and lucrative show, she has long since stopped.

    • BothSidesNow says:

      @ DC Gal, I have never understood the reason why Grey’s is still on, frankly, but that’s just MO.

      I read about this last night and I was job smocked as I read, and re-read, what she said to Mr. Washington. The fact that she views the show as “her” show and she was incredibly disrespectful and unprofessional to him, as the director and his stellar reputation, was screaming to me that she thinks that highly of herself. Denzel Washington is an icon with decades of acting and directing that make him one of our greatest artists in my lifetime. Not only that, but for Pompeo to act as if she “put him in his place” was extremely difficult to read that this is how Pompeo views herself and her delusional of grandeur. She should have been kissing the ground he walks on. But then to read what the comment are also including, her statement to Viola Davis and Jerrika Hinton!! On top of telling Mrs. Washington how she treated her husband as if she was proud of putting him down, or in his place!! Pompeo is a terrible person, inside and out!! I am certain that once Grey’s is done, she will be labeled as difficult, but rightly so.

    • HeyJude says:

      She’s an okay TV actor. Who hit the right note at the right time on an impeccably written show (when it debuted), and that’s bought a lot of loyalty from her niche of show fans, I get that.

      What I don’t get is having zero idea where Denzel Washington is on the cultural significance pecking order not just vs. her individually, but frankly their entire damn TV show.

      Wowza, someone cannot read a room.

      • kimmy says:

        thats a really good way to describe early Grey’s. Gosh, those first 3 seasons….I will still rewatch them from time to time.

  2. Amy Bee says:

    She’s such a terrible person.

  3. Leanne says:

    It sounds like they were both a-holes to me

    • Lucy2 says:

      Yeah this feels like a big clash of egos.

      Ultimately, I think he was in the right though, as he was the director and had obviously spoken with the other actor about what they wanted to do. But geez, can’t either of them talk to each other normally without yelling about it?

      • BnlurNforever says:

        She’s the one telling the story, right? We haven’t heard his side since he hasn’t discussed this. Unless, or until he weighs in this is not a both sides situation. I’m side eyeing her because she’s shown herself to be very clueless sometimes, or instant remarking that the NAACP awards and HBCUs are no longer necessary. Frankly, I just don’t trust this woman’s take on anything and I don’t care about her mixed race family.

      • lucy2 says:

        True, her version could be exaggerated. I’ll be curious to see if any leaks come out of the set like (uh, Denzel didn’t yell and was totally professional) or (that was a bad day, everyone was yelling).
        I don’t really follow her much, but I remember she has made some very problematic statements.

      • BeanieBean says:

        Denzel probably gave it 0 thought afterward.

      • Tisme says:

        Yes total clash of EGOS. I can’t stand either of them. They both have displayed that they are assh*oles over the years, in real life.

    • SaySo says:

      It sounds like she was trying to direct when that wasn’t her job and got called out by the actual director.

      • Green Desert says:

        @ SaySo – exactly.

        My dislike of both-sides-ism arguments has increased greatly over the past few years. Long history in this country of white women telling stories about black men. It used to be that the black men were lynched due to these stories. But now these stories have an undercurrent of racism that the storyteller isn’t even always aware of.

        See: Ellen Pompeo, Katie Couric, Facebook, your local news

  4. RoyalBlue says:

    My God. She has no sense of self awareness.

  5. Noki says:

    She is not likeable at all and she should thank her lucky stars she has had a well paying steady gig for this long.

  6. Neners says:

    So….She improvised, the director didn’t like her creative choice and asked her to walk it back, and she blew up.

    Look, I actually get it. Ellen knows her character better than anyone but still and probably is pretty obstinate about letting anyone tell her how to play that character at this point. But still. I would’ve kept that story to myself.

    • Juju says:

      I don’t interpret this as just improvising. It was like she was giving the other actor notes/direction and Denzel stepped in. The fact that she didn’t defer to the director was unprofessional. It’s not like she was pushing back against some thing that was unsafe or made her uncomfortable. She was trying to direct the actor she was in the scene with.

      • Pamplemousse says:

        I’m pretty sure it was her character telling the other character to look her in the eyes? So she improvised her lines, she wasn’t giving him notes.

      • pottymouth pup says:

        in addition to improvising the reaction, the guest actor made a perfectly reasonable choice how to play the apology and her response was to improvise a completely inappropriate response from her character (one that was would not only have been damaging to the patient making the apology but would have had any staff that witnessed it up in arms). Makes you wonder how big of an AH Pompeo really is in real life

      • Juju says:

        Pamplemousse: it seems like she was telling the actor what to do under the guise of saying it in character while the camera was rolling. Improvising a directive is totally different than just improvising. And if she would’ve just talked to the Director and said she really liked the choice the actor was making and thought her character would be irritated by it and pointed out that something different.

        And the end result was that the director told her not to do it and she said he couldn’t tell her what to do…. Which is actually what a director’s job is.

    • The way I read this was that she was improvising based on how she thought her character would react to the mannerisms of the actor’s character, but that Denzel misinterpreted it as she, Meredith, trying to direct the actor in a rude manner on how he should’ve been playing the scene. But instead of just clearing up the misunderstanding by explaining that she was improvising, she just went nuclear on him, calling him motherfucker and talking down to him. I don’t doubt that Denzel in general has a huge ego himself, but this is her version of the events and she still comes off looking completely terrible to me, not him. Also I may be reading too much into it, but there is a weird undercurrent to the way she told this story, almost like she was mostly gleeful about being able to put someone of Denzel’s caliber “in his place”

  7. AMM says:

    Ellen went ham on Denzel and then went on to share the story like she’s a victim. She’s so problematic. Her comments on MeToo abt women learning to flirt from childhood and how that makes us complicit in our own sexual harassment was gross. Her comments about “us” no longer needing HBUs and separate awards for black artists, the many people she was responsible for being let go from Greys, even costing a black actor the male lead on a huge show just bc she was already married to a black man.

    Who in the network supports her ridiculousness? She wasn’t well known or particularly talented when she started Greys, but she showed up and was allowed to make major decisions from day 1 and then just got worse from there.

    • Fortuona says:

      So you believe the man sacked for calling someone a F on set ,then went on TV while saying it again . And this was a man who had been fired from his 2 previous jobs for being violent with female staffers saying ‘I did not get the job because she was banging a Black guy’

      And who are these multiple people she had let go ?

      • SayWhaaa says:

        @Fortuona – Actually, Ellen said that herself.
        ‘You know they wanted Isaiah Washington to be my boyfriend,’ she said at the time. ‘Shonda really wanted to put a black man in the mix. I didn’t think they were really going to put an interracial couple on the show and I didn’t want him. It was too close to home.’

  8. souperkay says:

    It’s on a long list of being a jerk for her like victim blaming victims of sexual assault, saying reverse racism exists, saying HBCUs are not needed, declining Isaiah Washington as Derek Shephard, condescending Shonda Rhimes, only considering bargaining with Patrick Dempsey & not her other castmates so only her & Patrick had pay parity, getting Jerrika Hinton fired for taking polaroids on set that Ellen did not approve of, using white woman tears to escape a real conversation with Viola Davis, and that’s only what we know about mostly because she has said them loud & proud out of her own mouth.

    I love Grey’s Anatomy but she sucks as a person.

  9. Carnivalbaby says:

    The more I read about her the more I’ve come to realise how disgraceful this woman is. Shonda really knew how to pick them for this show. I stopped watching after the Isaiah Washington incident and never looked back.

  10. Laalaa says:

    I… actually don’t think she’s telling it like she is a heroine? The tone I get is – I went nuts because I was the egomaniac and Denzel was the director who had the guts to tell me so?

    • BnlurNforever says:

      I didn’t get that at all. If that’s what she was saying she wouldn’t act like their actions were equal. She’s basically saying she told him, was proud of it and still is, but opinions may vary.

  11. Lemons says:

    Girl…this is Denzel Washington. He could act circles around your a** and is now doing YOU the favor of directing you. Let him do his thing, then ask in the next take if you can improvise. It’s his episode to direct. You’re there to act.

    Like…it sounds like she really decided to start yelling after the first take, and Denzel is probably like…please just do the scene as written and we’ll go from there.

    • Seraphina says:

      Correct, first he is the director – show some respect to the position he has. Second it’s Denzel – way above her. As @RoyalBlue stated, no self awareness. And this is all I needed to read: ‘Listen, motherf‑‑‑er, this is my show. This is my set. Who are you telling?’ Like, ‘You barely know where the bathroom is.’ Then YOU direct the shows and don’t bring actors of his caliber so that you can pull in ratings.

  12. Bren says:

    I stopped watching the show years ago because I can’t stand her.

  13. Willow says:

    And why did drag his wife into it? It was a work argument and Ellen just walked up to his wife and said, your husband was mean to me?

    • Miranda says:

      Right? I’m guessing the logic is similar to that which tells us that, if a man is accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s his wife’s fault for not keeping him satisfied at home. Denzel’s wife is obviously to blame in this situation because she didn’t “train” him properly or something.

  14. Pinellas Pixie says:

    My wife and I just binged all 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. I have a lot of questions but the one that remains consistent is…how did Ellen Pompeo get cast as the lead on that show? She is not a good actress and often sounds like she is reading her lines. So what is the deal? How did she get cast and what gives her the right to disrespect Denzel? IDC if she is the star of the show, he is a major actor and director who has proven himself in many arenas. She has done Grey’s Anatomy. Her sense of entitlement is nauseating.

    • lucy2 says:

      I only watched the first 2 seasons of it, but from what I remember, I liked all the other characters way better than hers.
      I think there are a ton of people who love her and the role though. I don’t get it either, but it’s been around forever.

      • Seraphina says:

        I have not watched one episode – and it was on my lost to binge but after all the reading here – I will pass.

  15. tanesha86 says:

    Why bring Denzel on to direct if she wasn’t going to follow his direction??? I couldn’t imagine acting like such an entitled jerk to a Hollywood legend just doing his job. I’m so over Ellen Pompeo, at this point both she and the show can go.

  16. BnlurNforever says:

    First Katie Couric now Ellen trying to own Washington in problematic encounters and then telling it to the world like they did something special.

  17. Kristin says:

    She’s always been an asshole. I remember that old MTV show Punk’d where they would prank celebrities. Her prank was she was out at a cafe outside with her husband and the waitress flirts with her husband in front of her. Most women, including myself, would roll my eyes and just laugh about it. But Ellen was such an over the top dick about it. She was incredibly rude to both the waitress and her husband. And wasn’t remotely nice about the whole thing when the prank was revealed. She seems pretty rude and humorless to me so this story doesn’t surprise me.

    • Omg, that was HER??! I had no idea who she was at the time but I very clearly remember that episode, because she acted like a complete lunatic! I felt so sorry and embarrassed for her husband!

      • Christine says:

        I actually liked it, because she was full on using her Boston accent, which made me realize she is not a horrible actress. Her real accent is THICK.

      • Fp says:

        You can see the husband utter dismay when she mouths off something like “I let you use my card.What did you do?”
        In reference to her husband tiping the flirty waitress 200 usd instead of 20.

  18. Merricat says:

    If she thinks conflict and anger and shouting at each other on the set is the secret to acting “magic,” she has a dysfunctional relationship with her career. Wow. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  19. kimmy says:

    I wonder if she really said those things to Denzel, or she’s just trying to make herself sound bigger by claiming she went “head to head” with Denzel?

    Either way, it shows her brattiness.

  20. NewKay_ says:

    Good. She’s awful. Clearly he knew it.

  21. Ann says:

    I can’t believe this show is still running. I have watched it, and it’s a good show for the most part, but Jeez, even MASH only went on for 11 years.

    As for Ellen, I mean, it’s one thing to push back at a director about choices. I think it’s OK to suggest one’s character might react differently, but to yell at the director and say “THIS IS MY SHOW!!!!” is not OK. It’s not HER show, she’s just one (albeit fairly big) part of it. She sounds like a piece of work.

  22. Tomato says:

    Pretty sure that ad-libbed line didn’t even make it into the episode.

    Also, that episode is terrible. Shondaland people love to pat themselves on the back for colorblind casting, but this is one of the instances in which it was actually really problematic. As one of the most popular shows in the country, they absolutely should not have cast a black man to violently assault the much-loved white female title character. They’d probably say “but his character was in fugue state” and “he was the best actor for the job,” but it was completely irresponsible and ruined what would have been a great episode for me. And this is speaking as a faithful watcher of Grey’s.

  23. Case says:

    I never particularly liked her, but yikes. “My set” and “my show,” is she serious?

  24. NotSoSocialButterfly says:

    He was the director; she should have not interfered with the direction… at least not in such a disgustingly disrepectful way.

  25. Millennial says:

    It’s clear everyone on this show is miserable, I don’t know why they keep it going.

  26. remarks says:

    Did she really call him “motherfu—-“?

  27. Erica says:

    She is the literal WORST. Like as a person I think she’s terrible but I will never understand how the hell she was cast as the LEAD of this show. She is suuuuuch a terrible actress.

  28. RavenA206 says:

    I woke up to her being dragged all over Twitter and it was a bright start to my day. I am so tired of her problematic ass and white women forming like the Avengers to defend her. She uses her black husband and biracial kids as a shield against her racist nonsense and I wish she would sit her mediocre, 3-expression having, Missy Anne, Karen Jr. ass down somewhere and thank her lucky stars that she fell ass backwards into such a high paying gig for having virtually no talent. Shutting up is always free.

  29. AmelieOriginal says:

    I watched Grey’s religiously the first few seasons, it was THE show to watch on Thursday nights on TV (what a distant memory now that streaming exists! It was very much in its infancy back then). But it became so repetitive with its storylines and I stopped watching after maybe season 3 or 4, I can’t remember. I’m surprised it’s still on the air and I wonder who the heck still watches it (but clearly people do or it wouldn’t have 17 seasons). I didn’t hate Meredith as a character but I didn’t love her either. In fact, I kind of thought all the characters were annoying except for Bailey. These behind the scenes stories are interesting, though I wonder why we are getting so many of them. Is the show ending anytime soon? I would maybe watch the finale for the heck of it, even not knowing most of the characters on it by now.

    Anyways this story does not put her in a good light. Not a bad story to share but she should have framed more in a “I was a total ahole when Denzel directed the episode and he probably hates me” kind of vibe.

  30. Meg says:

    I think denzel has been a cold and uncooperative i n press interview for some time, so i wouldn’t be shocked and doesn’t seem too much of a stretch that he’s touchy and defensive because i could see this ad lib being interpreted as a direction note when that may have not been the intention of her ad lib, but her reaction of this is my show you dont question me is totally out of line

    • Kfg says:

      What? He’s not cold he just doesn’t play step n fetch it or fake humble when he’s an amazing actor and director. He doesn’t have to play nice with racially biased media bc he’s beyond that. Also, she’s a bigot and really thinks having a black husband gives her carte Blanche to be condescending towards other black ppl.

  31. Hyrule Castle says:

    The more she speaks the more I question why cast members quit, especially Sandra Oh & Justin Chambers.
    I know they said something about trying new things, but I still wonder.
    Especially Chambers, he quit mid season.

    She’s problematic & has been for years.
    Everyone talks about Dempsey being toxic but she’s got white woman victimhood down cold.

  32. Grant says:

    I’ve heard Denzel is a huge @$$hole himself so I’m not so quick to jump on the Ellen Pompeo hate train.

  33. Huma says:

    I loathe Ellen, but I think people are completely ignoring that TV directing and film directing are very, very different beasts. The director is king on a film set (and very occasionally on the set of prestige TV) but on the set of a TV show like Greys Anatomy the director is just a hired hand and the showrunner and producers like Ellen are in full control and calling the shots. At absolute best the director of an episode can hope to influence things and argue their case, but they don’t get final say and they defer to others. If Denzel actually told her not to ad lib in the way she claims then he was the one over-stepping.

    I get that it’s Denzel Washington, but he’s the one who chose to direct an episode of an ABC drama. You don’t take that gig thinking you’ll be in charge unless you’re coming in with a lot of entitlement.

    • WithTheAmerican says:

      This. she doesn’t need to cede power on her show to anyone, especially not a guest director. he was telling the lead actress and a producer of the show to not have a take her way. This makes him sound like he has issues with women having power.

      • Ann says:

        Interesting. I did not know that and I imagine most people don’t? So she shared a story that made her look bad because most people don’t have the context to understand her POV here. I am not defending her but I wasn’t there and I don’t know how these things are supposed to work.

        It is possible that they were both being Divas, who knows.

        Anyway, I haven’t watched the show in years and I’m surprised it’s still running.

      • BeanieBean says:

        Interesting perspective you two have brought up. Makes sense.

  34. Tamara says:

    I never watched this show because she just looked annoying to me on the previews and then I heard her voice on the first episode & never watched again. I also never bought into the ‘Dr. McDreamy’ BS about the man who starred in an 80’s teen movie & played the geek! Shondra has had a long run with this show but Scandal & How to Get Away With Murder had me hooked.

  35. Big Little Sighs says:

    If she is this horrible to Denzel and academy award winning actor beloved by millions over decades- just imagine how she is to the other directors brought in. The stories they must have about her.

  36. Little Red says:


  37. ohrhilly says:

    If we want to he honest here, it’s Shonda’s show, not hers.

  38. paddingtonjr says:

    Well isn’t she smug telling Denzel Washington how things are done on GA! I understand she feels ownership over her character, but she and Denzel could have had a discussion, maybe she could say she thinks Meredith would say x, he could say he wanted to try a few takes, etc. No, she had to him who was in charge and then gloat about it to his wife. Keeping it classy, Ellen!

  39. Jumpingthesnark says:

    I’m getting Big Karen Energy from this one.

  40. A says:

    So I just binged Grey’s Anatomy recently, and I remember this episode. Her decision in terms of how she wanted to act in this scene, the ad-libbed dialogue and whatnot, sounds like the far worse choice than what that scene eventually became. The way it actually wound up being on the show (which I imagine was likely Denzel Washington’s decision as a director) was much more powerful and interesting than whatever the heck she wanted to do here.

    Having Meredith scream at the man for not looking her in the eyes while he apologizes would have been completely different to how the story was pointing in that episode, and gone against how her character has developed over the course of the show. Meredith Grey is often shown as having compassion for people who seemingly deserve it the least, but are actually in need of it the most. One of the most prominent themes of the show overall, even from season 1, has always been how situations that seem clear cut on the surface, are often much more morally complicated and murky underneath.

    Meredith Grey would have never yelled at a man who assaulted her while having an epileptic seizure that he could not control, bc he didn’t look her in the eye when he came to apologize to her for what he did. At one point in the episode, she had her jaw wired shut bc of the injuries, and even then, when she woke up, one of the first questions she had was how the man who assaulted her was doing, bc he was her patient.

    So why the fck would an actress, who’s portrayed this character for years now, who seemingly owns the show like it’s her own fiefdom, make such a piss poor character decision, and then expect to not be challenged on it by her director? Yeah, sure, she’s your character, and you’re entitled to make whatever bad choices you want to make in your portrayal of her. But why the fck would someone else let you do that, when they are directing the story, and have a hand in how it’s shaped?

    The whole episode stuck with me because of how it was resolved. It was immensely more powerful and fitting to have her sit with the man and quietly bear witness to his intense shame and remorse for what he did, and empathize with him, bc that’s often what Meredith Grey does. Not many people would have forgiven that man, and that’s okay too. But she did, without an iota of egotism. That’s who that character is, and it seems to me like Denzel Washington, who only directed one episode, seemed to have a better grasp of that than Ellen Pompeo, which is utterly insane to me.

  41. Valerie says:

    Nice power trip, Ellen.

  42. Normades says:

    Everyone on the defend Denzel train 😂
    They’re probably BoTH egotistical jerks

    But seriously never saw an episode and don’t care. Denzel did not need that for his career and probably really regrets doing it now.