How Ellen Pompeo Negotiated Her Massive 'Grey's Anatomy' Salary After Patrick Dempsey's 'Tumultuous End'
By Antoinette Bueno
Ellen Pompeo is dramatic television's highest-earning actress, but she didn't get there without plenty of tough battles.
The 48-year-old Grey's Anatomy star has stayed on the medical hit drama for 14 seasons, and is signed on for two more seasons after that. According to The Hollywood Reporter, her new deal has her earning more than $20 million a year -- $575,000 per episode, along with a seven-figure signing bonus and two full backend equity points on the series, estimated to bring in another $6 million to $7 million. In a candid discussion with THR, Pompeo describes how she fought her way to get to the best deal possible for herself, and to know her own worth.
The mother of three says her former co-star, Patrick Dempsey, leaving the show in 2015 was actually a turning point for her. Pompeo claims the network would frequently use his presence on the show as a negotiating tactic against her.
"They could always use him as leverage against me -- 'We don't need you; we have Patrick' -- which they did for years," she says. "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," she continues. "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.'"
Ellen Pompeo Becomes Highest-Paid Actor in Primetime Drama
It seems there's no love lost between Pompeo and Dempsey, as the actress admits she "had a nice chuckle" after ratings spiked when he left the show. However, she says the network quickly began looking for a male star for the show.
"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?'" she recalls. "And they're sending pictures. I was like, 'Are you people f**king 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."
Eventually, Pompeo says she became more empowered as her boss and mentor, Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, became more powerful as well.
"What happened is that I went to Shonda and I said, 'If you're moving on to Netflix and you want the show to go down, I'm cool with that. But if you want it to continue, I need to be incentivized. I need to feel empowered and to feel ownership of this show,'" she says.
"It's also why our relationship is so special," she says of Rhimes. "I was always loyal to her, and she responds well to loyalty."
Pompeo also acknowledges the scandals over the years when it comes to Grey's Anatomy's cast, including both Dempsey and Katherine Heigl's drama-filled departures.
"Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that we had a real problem at Grey’s for a long time," she admits. "On the outside, we were a massive success, but there was all of this tumult on the inside: It was a lot of rivalry, a lot of competition. It starts with actors behaving badly, and then producers enabling them to behave badly. And, by the way, I'm guilty of it, too. I saw squeaky wheels getting all the f**king grease, so I was like, 'OK, that's how you do it,' and I behaved badly as well. I mimicked what I saw. I'm not perfect."
Pompeo says some of the resentment is television stars wishing they were movie stars -- an issue she admits she herself struggled with at first.
"There are behavior problems because actors are miserable that they're not Leonardo DiCaprio or Margot Robbie," she muses. "That's actors: They want to do whatever they're not doing. You could give them a f**king beautiful chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles and they're gonna say they want strawberry."
"I'm not the most 'relevant' actress out there," she also says. "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 f**kin' skill."
Last November, the Grey's Anatomy cast celebrated an incredible 300 episodes. Pompeo told ET she was still shocked by the longevity of the show.