It’s said you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the same apparently applies to TV shows. In Variety’s latest “Actors on Actors” interview, Ellen Pompeo said she almost quit Grey’s Anatomy — more than once. In fact, the series’ star said that, as successful as Grey’s is (and has been), its early years were plagued by “turmoil” behind the scenes. So despite playing titular character Meredith Grey on one of TV’s biggest hits, Pompeo considering walking away from the dream job altogether.
With season 15 recently wrapped and several more seasons already ordered, Grey’s isn’t going anywhere just yet. And sitting down with fellow female TV leading woman, Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, Pompeo confirmed she’ll appear on the upcoming season. But there were times the actress couldn’t foresee a future with the show at all. “There were many moments when I wanted off the bus… It’s funny how it works. I never sort of wanted off the bus in a year that I could get off the bus, you know?” Pompeo told Henson, elaborating on her then-unhappiness, “We had a serious, serious culture problem on Grey’s for a good number of years — I would say the first 10 years. We had serious, serious culture issues. Very bad behavior, really toxic work environment.”
Wondering why Pompeo would stick around if she was so miserable? If you guessed money, you’re right. Well, you’re sort of right. Pompeo’s motivator was making a living, but doing so was driven by a huge shift in her lifestyle: starting a family. It wasn’t until after she married husband, Chris Ivery, and the two went on to have their first daughter, Stella, that Pompeo knew she needed to stick it out. “I think that’s when things really started to change for me, because I had someone other than myself to think about,” said Pompeo, who also shares 4-year-old Sienna and 2-year-old Eli with Ivery. “So at that point… I was 40 years old… and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, at 40 years old, where am I ever gonna get this kind of money? And I need to take care of my kid, so I’m gonna stay.’”
But that realization came with another, just as clear. If she was going to stay, she was going to do whatever was in her power to create an on-set experience she “could be happy about and proud about” — as opposed to the “disaster behind the scenes.” To that end, she turned to yet another huge incentive to stick around: show creator and former showrunner Shonda Rhimes. The two immediately began implementing positive changes, like hiring Debbie Allen to be executive producer.
Their Grey’s troubles weren’t entirely over, though. In season 11, Pompeo’s male co-star Patrick Dempsey (aka Dr. Derek Shepherd) left the series. When the studio and the network voiced concerns over the show being able to survive without the male lead, Pompeo made it her additional mission to prove them wrong. “I hit the milestone of showing that I could carry the show and that we didn’t need a male number two, that we were gonna be OK, we did that. We turned the culture around, we did that. So I’ve hit some really instrumental marks that have made me feel accomplished in a different way, more form a producorial side,” she explained to Henson.
And as Pompeo tells it, a lot of credit for her continued involvement goes to her first Grey’s boss. Rhimes, it would seem, helps to create and encourages a work culture that empowers women. “She lets us be mothers and I’m grateful to be able to have had a job where I could really juggle both and I don’t have to compromise my family life for a job. I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to go anywhere,” gushed Pompeo. “It’s been really good to have three little kids and have this show. It’s been an incredible blessing.”