The Hollywood Reporter published a frank and fascinating discussion with Ellen Pompeo, who just signed a new deal that makes her the highest paid actress on a primetime drama (after headlining one of the highest-rated shows on TV for 14 seasons). She’ll be earning over $20 million per year for starring in Grey’s Anatomy, which airs in about 220 territories around the world, alongside a fat seven-figure signing bonus, lucrative backend equity points for her show, a producer’s credit on the upcoming Grey’s spinoff, and even office space for her production company. In short: Pompeo is gettin’ PAID.
But that’s not really what she sat down to discuss. Instead, her focus is on how she finally arrived at this kind of payday. How she learned to value herself, fight for her own worth against her male co-stars, and how being financially powerful has an important side-effect for women: it allows them to avoid being taken advantage of by the predators of Hollywood. She also gives a very honest outlook on the career of an actor, and the options available creatively. This is not the publicist-approved chatter we’re used to hearing from our network stars. This is a dose of real-talk from a tough-as-nails Boston badass in the midst of the Time’s Up era. And after hearing what Ann Curry had to say this morning about workplace equality and the importance of breaking the glass ceiling, Ellen Pompeo’s insights feel like the perfect follow-up. Here are some highlights, but the whole article is worth a read.
On age and relevance as an actor in Hollywood:
I’m 48 now, so I’ve finally gotten to the place where I’m OK asking for what I deserve, which is something that comes only with age. Because I’m not the most “relevant” actress out there. I know that’s the industry perception because I’ve been this character for 14 years. But the truth is, anybody can be good on a show season one and two. Can you be good 14 years later? Now, that’s a fuckin’ skill.
I’m not necessarily perceived as successful, either, but a 24-year-old actress with a few big movies is, even though she’s probably being paid shit — certainly less than her male co-star and probably with no backend. And they’re going to pimp her out until she’s 33 or 34 and then she’s out like yesterday’s trash, and then what does she have to take care of herself? These poor girls have no real money, and the studio is making a fortune and parading them like ponies on a red carpet. I mean, Faye Dunaway is driving a fuckin’ Prius today. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Prius, but my point is, she had no financial power. If we’re going to invoke change, that has to be part of it.
On being the star of a show, but not valued as one:
For me, Patrick [Dempsey] leaving the show [in 2015] was 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. 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 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.”
So, what does it look like when he leaves the show? First, it looks like a ratings spike, and I had a nice chuckle about that. But the truth is, the ink wasn’t even dry on his exit papers before they rushed in a new guy. I was on vacation in Sicily, decompressing — it was a long working relationship and it was a tumultuous end and I needed a moment to just chill with some rosé — and they’re calling me, going, “What do you think of this guy?” “What do you think of this guy?” And they’re sending pictures. I was like, “Are you people fucking nuts? Why do you feel that you have to replace this person?” I couldn’t believe how fast the studio and the network felt like they had to get a penis in there. We brought in Martin Henderson, but they didn’t love the storyline, so that ended.
On knowing her value:
Now, maybe it’s my Irish Catholic upbringing, but you never want to [be perceived as] too greedy. Or maybe it’s just that as women, that’s our problem; a guy wouldn’t have any problem asking for $600,000 an episode. And as women, we’re like, “Oh, can I ask for that? Is that OK?” I’d call Shonda and say, “Am I being greedy?” But CAA compiled a list of stats for me, and Grey’s has generated nearly $3 billion for Disney. 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.”
On Time’s Up, and her own run-in with Harvey Weinstein:
In the last few weeks, a lot of us actresses in town have been having these meetings [as part of the Time’s Up initiative]. We’ve been sharing stories and trying to figure out how we can promote change and use our voices to help other people. And I’ll tell you, sitting in rooms full of Oscar-winning actresses listening to how they’ve been preyed upon and assaulted is frightening. And it confirmed that my path really was the right one for me, because I’ve chosen to financially empower myself so that I never have to be ducking predators and chasing trophies. It’s not for everyone. You have to be more interested in business than you are in acting.
By the way, I saw the other path. My agent once sent me to see Harvey, too. I went right up to his room at the Peninsula, which I would never normally do, but Harvey was a New York guy, so it made sense. Plus, it was in the middle of the day, and he had an assistant there. He didn’t try anything on me. Had he, I’m a little rough around the edges and I grew up around some very tough people, so I probably would have picked up a vase and cracked him over the fucking head. But I also feel completely comfortable saying that I walked into that room batting the shit out of my eyelashes. My goal in that room was to charm him, as it is in most rooms like that. You think, “Not only do I have to show that I’m a good actress, but that director also has to in some way fall in love with me and at least become enamored with me.” That never felt right or good to me. And I’ve had conversations with my agent 17 years later where I said, “You sent me into that room knowing …” They claim they didn’t know.