Ellen Pompeo has spent 14 years (and counting) on Grey’s Anatomy, but in a recent interview she revealed she almost cut her time on the hit show short because of a “toxic work environment.” Speaking to Taraji P. Henson for Variety’s Actors on Actors series, Pompeo revealed there were once “serious culture issues” on set. (Pompeo has played the show’s lead character, Meredith Grey, since the medical drama premiered in 2005.)
“It’s funny, I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off,” Pompeo says. “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.”
She goes on to explain that she focused on making lasting changes on the show and seeing more results after season 10.
“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,” she says. “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.”
What’s more, “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.”
Pompeo has spoken out about wage disparities in Hollywood before, which she knows about firsthand: She says at the beginning of the series Dempsey was paid almost double her salary. “He had a television quote. I had never done TV,” she explains.
“I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating season three,” she says. “No one was offering that up.”
Last year Pompeo became the highest-paid actress on a TV drama when she inked a $20 million deal for the show’s fifteenth and sixteenth seasons. And she’s still focused on changing the culture behind the scenes. “I haven’t been challenged creatively at all,” she says of the show. “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.”