Ellen Pompeo discusses working with Denzel Washington, her Grey‘s character, and how she manages to have fun
Adulteress. Whore. Medusa. These slurs are just some of the nicknames title character Meredith Grey (star Ellen Pompeo) has heard over her years at Grey Sloan Memorial. A little under twelve years ago, Meredith first graced our TV screens as an intern at Seattle Grace Hospital. Through the subsequent years, her character would see and hear it all. And Ellen Pompeo has seen it all as she has consistently inhabited the character of Meredith Grey.
I caught up with Pompeo earlier this week as the actress, producer, wife and mother was taking some time out for a little pampering. She discussed the mid-season opener (directed by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington), her blossoming talents as a producer, and her methods of having fun after all these years.
AwardsDaily TV: Hi Ellen. How are you? Are you on set right now?
Ellen Pompeo: I am not. I actually having a pedicure. [laughs] This is the only time for me to get my toenails, Jazz. I mean… mamma needed some love, so I had to come and take care of myself one day. I took an hour for myself.
ADTV: Sometimes you need that. You need a little pampering. I remember when I first watched Grey’s in 2005. Did you ever think you’d still be doing this in 2016?
EP: No, I had no idea. No one, including [Shonda Rhimes] expected the show to go this long. It’s an unbelievable gift, and a fantastic challenge also just to keep it going this long and to keep the quality as good as it’s been is a challenge we’ve all been really excited by.
I really get excited by it. I love a challenge. It’s my personality.
ADTV: You never know what’s coming next. As you say with the writing, the chemistry, the actors, that’s what keeps me coming back. What do you think keeps people coming back week after week, year after year?
EP: I think it’s a combination of things, it’s not just one thing. From what I gather from the fans and social media, the show makes people feel things, and it makes people think. It makes people laugh and cry, and those are two things people love to do. The show is an emotional journey and people really look forward to that every week. We’re able to touch and move people, and twelve years later that’s incredible.
I think that’s what it is. There’s something about the show that we move people.
ADTV: You sure do. You mentioned social media, so many fans have said they’d like to see Meredith and Alex get together. How do you feel about that?
EP: Oh do they? I didn’t know that.
ADTV: There’s a few people out there who have said they’d like to see her get together with him.
EP: I think whatever Shonda’s vision is, I usually trust that and it’s worked out so far. [laughs]. How I’ve been able to do this so long is I just keep my heart and my mind open to whatever is next. It’s served me well so far.
ADTV: Meredith is something of a heroine. She’s gone through so much and has survived. As you said, you trust Shonda’s vision, where would you like to see Meredith go?
EP: You know, I don’t ever have ideas in mind where I want her to go. I don’t do that to myself because that’s a trap. Because you don’t know what Shonda is going to do. I’ve learned that in twelve years, I keep my heart and my mind open. I try to tell the stories that she wants me to tell. It doesn’t do me any good to want something for the character because I can only get disappointed if that doesn’t happen. Ultimately, I have to serve the story. So, I don’t waste my time wanting things for the character. I really focus on what piece of the story that I’m telling. I focus on how can I make my performance honest and true as I can to our seasoned fans. Staying in the moment and being present is my sole focus.
ADTV: Talking about the journey your character has been on, one episode that has been amazing was when Denzel Washington directed the episode where Meredith was attacked. What was your reaction when you read that script and how was it working with Denzel?
EP: When they first told me that that was going to happen to Meredith, I initially, like everybody else, I cringed. I thought, “Can the audience handle something else happening to Meredith?” I did question it, and I had heard Shonda was going to write it. So I said, “OK, I’m on board. I’m super excited.” Then I said, “Listen, if they don’t like it, it’s not my fault.” [laughs]. I just have to tell the story. I don’t have to write it.
I got that info a few weeks ahead of time about what was going to happen. It turned out that Shonda wasn’t going to write it, but Denzel is going to direct it. He’s definitely one of my favorite actors. I was super excited that someone of his caliber would come and direct a 12-year TV show. I thought it was so generous of him, and I was really moved by his eagerness to come and hang out with us for a couple of weeks. I was super inspired by him.
What was different about it is that series television is so difficult to shoot. We’re really shooting a movie every eleven days. We take eleven days to shoot an episode. It’s 60 pages – a lot of material. He’s all creative and that was so amazing and so refreshing to have that experience twelve seasons in.
ADTV: I’m not going to ask about the toughest scenes, I want to know about the fun stuff. We’ve been with Meredith now for twelve years, what have been some of the highlights for you?
EP: So many scenes that I had with Sandra Oh (Cristina Yang). I’m most proud of my scenes with her. We had some incredible moments together. We had some intense scenes too. I think the scenes with her are the ones I’m most proud of.
ADTV: Well, you know I’ve been told to ask you if Christina’s coming back, because now’s the perfect time for her to return.
EP: [laughs] I don’t think Sandra has any plans to come back, not that I have heard. When people are ready to leave the show, they’re ready and they want their separation from the character, from the show, and it’s only fair. They have walked away from the character. That’s something that actors have to deal with. You’re finally ready to walk way and do that, but the audience won’t let you. [laughs]. I would love to have her back, but I don’t think she has plans to come back. But you never know, maybe for the series finale she would come back.
ADTV: Oh those Greys fans. I tweeted that I was interviewing you, and my twitter exploded.
EP: Our fans are very serious, Jazz [laughs].
ADTV: I was reading Paul Lee’s comment: “There’s no end in sight for Greys.” Are you happy to play Meredith for as long as it runs?
EP: No. I wouldn’t say forever and there’s no end in sight. I can’t talk about specifics, but I think Shonda and I want to end the show on a high note. There is an end in sight for sure. It’s not this season.
ADTV: You’re an inspiring leading lady. Now you have a production company, Calamity Jane. What can you tell us about that and your project such as Final Confession?
EP: We’re out there trying to sell TV shows. It’s super challenging because everybody is trying to sell TV shows. I love finding the material, and I love the development process. I guess that’s why I can stay on Grey’s because I feel creatively fulfilled in other ways.
I feel the producing, the developing of ideas, and even if people say no, it’s okay because it’s the development and watching how things change. It’s getting to get up and bat all the time. You’re constantly having to knock down doors. I’d rather do that and have a steady day job which allows me to have creative freedom. I’m having a lot of fun with the producing for sure. It scratches all my creative itches. It’s just using a different muscle.
ADTV: Would you ever like to direct?
EP: I have thought about directing our show a bunch, but I think I’d be interested in directing something else. For sure, I’d be interested in directing a pilot or an episode of something new that I’ve helped develop and create. I kind of side-share direct now. [laughs] I’m always jumping in and saying annoying things to actors which I’m sure they love. I feel like I have such emotional instincts when it comes to acting, so that part of it comes easy to me. To direct actors, I really feel like I have a knack for because I have this intuition.
The technical piece is less interesting to me, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do it. With our show, our scripts are so long, it’s hard to be creative to do our show. You really have to be super technical to make sure that you can shoot seven scenes with ten actors and get it done in under fourteen hours.
That was what was so great about Denzel’s directing. He’s never really seen the show. He was coming in just as an actor, as a director. His only concern was the storytelling and the performance. He is just a completely different animal than what we’ve ever had before. That was so refreshing.
ADTV: When you’re off and you get to watch TV, who are some of the women you enjoy watching on TV?
EP: Let’s see because some of the shows I watch aren’t very female centric. I love Robin Wright on House of Cards. I love Mister Roberts. I think Juno Temple on Vinyl is AMAZING! She’s killing it. I love Juno Temple. That’s what I’m watching right now. I’m watching Vinyl. Viola is amazing on How To Get Away with Murder. She’s riveting. So is Sarah Paulson [on The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story].
ADTV: I’ve recently spent time in Cedars, and it was exactly like what you see on Grey’s and Seattle Grace. Everything that I saw happen there, I’d seen on Grey’s, and it was really bizarre in that sense. So, have you have any bizarre hospital experiences, aside from child birth?
EP: I mean no. I actually haven’t. I volunteer at L.A. Children’s sometimes, but nothing strange. You had a strange experience? Tell me.
ADTV: It was just bizarre. I was in the OB/GYN ward. I sat in the food court watching the doctors, I was in the ER. It was straight out of the show, and I asked myself, I think I tweeted how much time did Shonda spend here doing her research because it could have been an episode. It was really bizarre in that sense.
EP: I mean think about it. Think about going to work every day and people could die. It’s just an intense world. It’s really such a fantastic set up for drama and emotion because you have these super high highs and super low lows. It’s quite a rare experience. That’s why most hospital shows… the good ones… run forever like Chicago Hope and E.R.
ADTV: Right. You have doctors who come in, perform these surgeries that save lives and then at the end of the day she goes home to her family.
EP: She goes home, eats a cheese burrito and watches Scandal. It’s crazy. It’s such a fun part to play, because in what other situation would I be able to do at my age, 46, what other situation would I be able to play comedy, drama, intensity, over the top, and get paid the way I get paid? Also where else do get to play the range of things I get to play and get to act with some amazing co-stars and guest stars? It’s really still so fun for me.
ADTV: How do you still keep it fun after all these years?
EP: It’s challenging. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t, but I fight to do that and to keep it fresh. If that means going to Shonda or going to the writers and going to Debbie Allen and say, “This needs to happen. We need to do this.” I’m very much in everybody’s face making sure that the quality is that we are making the best show we can make. I guess that’s what keeps it fresh for me. I want it to be good. I want the show to end on a high note.