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When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong: Denzel Washington vs. Ellen Pompeo

By Brian Richards | Social Media | September 30, 2021 |

By Brian Richards | Social Media | September 30, 2021 |


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The eighteenth-season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy airs later tonight on ABC. But before viewers once again get to see Meredith Grey and her fellow physicians at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital saving lives and having all sorts of entanglements that will start plenty of drama and make them argue with each other while Lorde is singing in the background, the show’s lead actress, Ellen Pompeo, dropped a new episode of her podcast, Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo. On this episode, Ellen sat down for an interview with her former Grey’s Anatomy co-star, Patrick Dempsey, a.k.a. Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd. Surprisingly, the topic of discussion among them was not the recent news that an unauthorized book about the series by author Lynette Rice called How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy went into detail about how Dempsey was (allegedly) a planet-sized asshole on set who made work difficult for his colleagues, and for the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, and that was why his ass got sent to the unemployment line.

No, when it came to working on the set of Grey’s, the topic that actually came up was about what it was like for Ellen to work with Dustin’s favorite actor, Denzel Washington, who directed an episode during the show’s twelfth season.

The two-time Oscar winner was brought on to direct an episode of Grey’s by producer Debbie Allen, who, as Pompeo explained, was looking for ways to keep the series star “interested” in the show after most of the original cast had departed.

“After you left, I was like, ‘Eh, why do I have to stay here?’” Pompeo admitted to Dempsey. “‘Everyone’s gone. I gotta go now. Sandra’s gone, Patrick’s gone, I gotta go, too.’”

But the promise of working with Washington was something she couldn’t pass up.

“He came probably three weeks prior so he could get caught up, because Denzel doesn’t watch much TV, he’d probably never seen the show,” she noted. “He did the show because his wife is a big fan… I think he saw it as a good exercise to just come in and direct something quick.”

“But, imagine Denzel Washington coming on to direct an episode of Grey’s Anatomy? That’s something that I never thought that I would see, ever,” Pompeo added.

“I heard about it, and I was pretty jealous,” Dempsey admitted. “I was like, ‘Oh it would be great to work with him.’”

However, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the whole episode, Pompeo recalled, despite the fact that Washington’s “presence was amazing” on set.

“Superstars are superstars for a reason,” she said. “There’s just an energy and a vibration that they give off that makes them super charismatic. Patrick has it, Obama has it, anyone that I’ve ever met that’s, like, crazy charismatic has it. And Denzel has it in spades, for sure… But, Denzel’s a movie star, right? He doesn’t know sh*t about directing TV.”

The episode was season 12, episode 9, “The Sound of Silence,” in which Pompeo’s character, Meredith Grey, is brutally attacked by an epileptic patient, who breaks her jaw, among other injuries. Not only did Pompeo have to navigate acting in an episode with very little dialogue, due to her character’s jaw being wired shut, she also faced the wrath of her A-list director when she ventured off-script.

“One of the scenes at the end of the episode, I have to go [confront] this man who beat me up,” she recalled. “And so Meredith was really hesitant and reluctant. My jaw was broken, and I couldn’t bring myself to go hear the apology from this character… She was just at the point where she wasn’t having it.”

“I didn’t really want to talk to this actor [Dohn Norwood] or see this actor before we did this scene, so I didn’t have much interaction with him at all. And then, he apologized to me, but he was doing it really softly. He made this choice to speak very softly. And I was pissed that I had to sit there and listen to this apology. And he wasn’t looking at me in the eye… and I yelled at him, I was like, ‘Look at me! When you apologize, look at me!’ And that wasn’t in the dialogue.”

The creative choice didn’t sit well with Washington. “Denzel went ham on my a**,” Pompeo recalled. “He was like, ‘I’m the director! Don’t you tell him what to do!’”

However, the actress said she held her own in the on-set exchange. “I was like, ‘Listen, motherf**ker, this is my show! This is my set! Who are you telling- You barely even know where the bathroom is!’” she continued.

“I have the utmost respect for him as an actor, as a director, as everything, but we went at it!” Pompeo added. “And then his wife came to set to visit, and I was not talking to him. I was mad at him. And I told his wife, I was like, ‘Yeah, he yelled at me today. He let me have it today, and I’m not OK with him, and I’m not looking at him, and I’m not talking to him.’”

For his part, Dempsey said he could empathize with the pressure cooker of emotions that can boil over on the set of a dramatic project.

“When you’re in a moment like that, you’re living in that emotion all day long. Things can set you off really quickly… You are raw the whole day,” he said. “And it’s important to create the right atmosphere on set where you’re safe to be able to do that. “

“We didn’t get though it without a fight, but, you know, that’s actors for you!” Pompeo agreed. “Passionate and fiery, that’s where you get the magic. That’s where you get the good stuff. It was an amazing experience.”

“We were fine after that,” she added of her relationship with Washington. “He’s just one of the best to ever do it.”

Like most white women who recount stories to others (and it’s usually to other white people) about how they had to raise their voice and put their foot down because they didn’t like the way something was being said or done, Ellen seemed as if she expected people to find this anecdote to be endearing and empowering and maybe even a little bit charming. Especially considering the reputation she has for her lack of filter and her zero-tolerance policy for bullsh-t when it comes to discussing her work on the show, how much she is paid for her work on the show, and the authority/responsibility that comes with being Number 1 on the call sheet. Unfortunately for Ellen, this was not the response she got when sharing this story with the public, and it sure as hell wasn’t the response she got from Black Twitter.

Most of the tweets in response to Ellen going off on Denzel the way she did were of the “Are you f-cking kidding me?” variety, and other tweets pointed out that this isn’t the first or second time that Ellen has stuck her privileged foot in her mouth when it comes to her interactions with Black people. There was that time when she did a group interview with Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and Shonda Rhimes as they all discussed their experiences working on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, and about the racism and sexism that they’ve dealt with as part of working in Hollywood. And Black Twitter brought up this part of the interview where Ellen was quick to use her White Woman’s Tears and run away in order to avoid any consequences of being a little too eager to blow off how Viola was described by the New York Times as being “less classically beautiful” in comparison to Kerry Washington, especially since Viola clearly didn’t feel the same way.

Shonda, you were just saying that television shows are made by a homogenous group. They’re also reviewed by a homogenous group. I want to ask you about ­Alessandra Stanley’s piece on How to Get Away With Murder in The New York Times, where she said that your biography should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman and that Viola was “less ­classically beautiful” than some other, lighter-skinned black actresses. Did anything ­positive come out of the backlash to that piece?

[Collective groans around the room]

RHIMES: There were articles written in response that made me feel like, “Oh my God, there are some thinking people out there!” Because if that had gone uncommented upon…

POMPEO: If any good comes out of ignorance, then I’ll take the ignorance. [Davis lets out a big sigh.]

Do you feel that way, Viola?

DAVIS: I understand what Ellen is talking about, but I’ve been on the other side of ignorance.

[Pompeo’s eyes well up with tears. She leaves the room.]

Colorism and racism in this country are so powerful that the Jim Crow laws are gone, but what’s left is a mindset. As an actress, I have been a great ­victim of that. There were a lot of things that I am that peo­ple did not allow me to be until I got the role of Annalise.

There was that time when she appeared on The View in 2011, and stated that because she is married to a Black man and is raising children with him, that she’s not here for any criticism or commentary about her character on Grey’s Anatomy also adopting Black children. Ellen also stated to the panel that there should no longer be organizations like the NAACP or awards shows like the NAACP Image Awards that seemingly encourage separation instead of inclusion.

And when she said this about her very first meeting with Shonda Rhimes regarding the possibility of her doing Grey’s Anatomy, which also came from Rice’s book about the show.

And also when Ellen said in 2019 that Kamala Harris, before she joined forces with future President Joe Biden and became Madam Vice President, was “overconfident” when she was debating with Biden at the second Democratic presidential debate.

The internet did not respond kindly to Ellen Pompeo calling Kamala Harris “overconfident.” The Grey’s Anatomy star was tuned into the second Democratic debate on Wednesday but riled people up with remarks about Harris on Twitter.

Pompeo’s controversial comment came in response to a Bloomberg tweet suggesting that an “emerging trend” in the debate was that Kamala Harris only wanted to debate Biden. The star’s response: “Because she’s overconfident and believes he is her only competition.”

Many interpreted her criticism as a “racial comment,” and took Pompeo to task. “Black women are allowed only a certain amount of confidence,” one person tweeted. “Must always yield something to whatever white man is around.”
Others suggested that her comment was meant to suggest Harris was being “uppity” and said that “white women need to do better.”

There’s also this comment in Rice’s book from Ellen’s former Grey’s co-star Isaiah Washington (who is also guilty of sticking both feet in his mouth and causing plenty of f-ckery as a result), in which he stated that he auditioned to play Dr. Derek Shepherd and not Dr. Preston Burke, but because Ellen wasn’t interested in an onscreen interracial relationship, that he didn’t get the part. Ellen’s reason, according to this 2013 article in the New York Post?

“You know they wanted Isaiah Washington to be my boyfriend,” Pompeo says, calling from her home a few days later. “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.”

And courtesy of this very same book, there is now a rumor that the real reason why Jerrika Hinton, who played Dr. Stephanie Edwards on Grey’s Anatomy, left the show in 2017 was not just because she was looking to pursue different career opportunities, but it was because she would take photographs on set with her Polaroid camera, and was punished because she did so without permission from Ellen.

“Jerrika was always laughing, but maybe she was a little naive,” Norman Leavitt, the head of the makeup department on “Grey’s” until 2018, said in “How to Save a Life.”

“She hadn’t been around a lot, so maybe she didn’t quite understand the power Ellen had,” he added. “If she’d gone and said, ‘Is it okay if I take these Polaroids?’ Ellen probably would have gone, ‘Okay.’ But by just doing it and not including her, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.”

Representatives for Pompeo, Hinton and Leavitt didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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Yeah. All of this is a lot to take in.

Even in the happiest and healthiest work environments, it’s expected that co-workers will occasionally butt heads and have a difference of opinion with each other and with their supervisors about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Especially when it’s a director working with a large ensemble cast and with hundreds of other crew members on a tight shooting schedule that could even result in 15-to-20-hour-long days. (The exact kind of working conditions that the IATSE regularly call out via their Instagram page, and have been fighting to change for the better). And when you have two successful and powerful actors like Denzel Washington and Ellen Pompeo (who also aren’t known for being shrinking violets when it comes to expressing their opinions about anything) working together on the same set, it’s going to get heated when one of them, who is an unstoppable force, collides with the other, who is an immovable object. But much like how Liam Neeson really felt the need to confess during an interview that he wanted to find a random Black man and just kill him after one of his close friends was sexually assaulted, this was not a story that needed to be shared with the rest of the world. Considering how “Karen” has recently become a popular slang term to describe white women who are loud and aggressive and entitled when dealing with anyone who isn’t white, Ellen Pompeo really needed someone to tap her on the shoulder and tell her that she is not the hero in her story, and that Black people would be more than willing to point this out to her.

So far, there has been no comment or response from Denzel Washington about this conflict with Ellen Pompeo. (Let’s also not forget that Ellen isn’t the first white woman who recently had some sh-t to say publicly about her interactions with Denzel, and who also got called out for it by Black Twitter). But I’m sure that he’ll have something to say about it during the promo tour for his upcoming film, The Tragedy Of Macbeth, when reporters decide to bring it up.

To quote both Claude and Dustin, here’s hoping that Denzel got some payback by taking home plenty of food from Craft Services on the Grey’s Anatomy set.

This has been another episode of “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Header Image Source: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Kelsey McNeal/ABC via Getty Images