"I do not want to be the grapes dying on the vine," she said. "Already to watch myself age from 33 to 50 now onscreen, that's not so fun. Because you really see it because I'm in the same clothes, I'm in the same character. The way I see myself aging, that's a motherf**ker."
"But at the same time, I think the overall goal of my life is to always keep my ego in check. I don't want to tell myself lies. I don't lie about my age. I don't put anything in my face. I don't want to tell myself any lies. I'm not doing myself any favors," Pompeo continued. "But certainly I think to dip out sooner rather than later, at this point, having done what we've done, to leave when the show is still on top, is definitely a goal. I'm not trying to stay on the show forever. No way. The truth is, if I get too aggravated and I'm no longer grateful there, I should not be there."
At this point, though, Pompeo is still thankful for her role, something she largely credits with being a producer on the show.
"The not getting bored and phoning it in, it's a marathon, not a sprint. You've got to know when you can slow down and when you can speed up. I just try and check myself all the time," she said. "Being engaged in the story and having some control over my storyline and talking about things that I think are interesting is kind of what helps."
"What at this juncture keeps me going is because the show is such a monster, we have this enormous platform and we have some sort of leeway to talk about human trafficking, to talk about sexual assault, to talk about big pharma," Pompeo added. "So if we can impart some ideas, I think it's an important platform. So I try to stay in a place of gratitude."
Pompeo did admit that one time she came close to leaving the show when Sandra Oh departed in 2013.
"To be honest, when Sandra Oh left the show I was like, 'Ugh. How do I go on without Sandra?' Because, as amazing as Patrick is, he wasn't really in the show that much. His impact is so huge obviously, he's such an iconic part of the show, but more of my work, my day-to-day scenes, were with Sandra," Pompeo explained. "And she was such an amazing scene partner. Then I was like, 'Is there a show without Sandra?'"
At the time, Pompeo also had to weigh her options based off of the potential for her career post-Grey's.
"Sandra's a different kind of actor. She was on a super successful show before Grey's... You never doubt whether Sandra's gonna work again, right? She'll work forever, right?" Pompeo said. "But me, I was like, 'Am I gonna work again or am I just gonna be so typecast?'"
After deciding to stay then, Pompeo next faced a choice of whether to stay or go when Patrick Dempsey, her onscreen love interest, left the show in 2015.
"When Patrick left, I had something to prove. Because now we circle back to that negotiation conversation. He left season 11 and then I was renegotiating season 12, so I could've left because the man left, which is not a story that I want to tell, like, he's not here anymore so I have to go," Pompeo said. "So that story then becomes, what can I do without the man? Because they had put that in my head for so long, that I was no good without him. So then I had to then rewrite the ending of that story and say, 'Well, who's right? Are they right or am I right? Am I actually good without him?' So I had to take over that script and rewrite that story and prove to myself that they were wrong in all the things they put into my head over all of those years."
Her choice to stay crystallized after confirming that she'd get a say in her storylines, as well as committing herself to changing the environment on set.
"After Patrick left I said, 'OK, I am going to stay. I'm going to prove that they need me.' But then also I really wanted to change the story of the experience of the show and I wanted to see if we could turn the culture around and we could make the set a happy place," Pompeo said. "It was a lot of bad behavior being taught, being shown, being copied, so that was another challenge for me.
"I have this opportunity to make this bundle of money because the studio needs me, but what else could I do?" she continued. "What else could I do for me? What other challenge can I present myself with?"
Grey's Anatomy's 17th season is in the pre-production phase now.