Ellen Pompeo Says There Were 'Many Moments' She Wanted Off 'Grey's Anatomy' For 'Toxic' Environment

Ellen Pompeo
Jon Kopaloff/WireImage

"We had a serious, serious culture problem on 'Grey’s' for a good number of years."

Ellen Pompeo was not always happy playing Dr. Meredith Grey.

In Variety's latest "Actors on Actors" conversation, Pompeo sat down with Taraji P. Henson and opened up about wanting to leave Grey's Anatomy throughout its first decade on the air.

"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, 49, admitted. "... 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."

Things on the long-running ABC series began to change when Pompeo had her first daughter, 9-year-old Stella, during season six. Pompeo and her husband, Chris Ivery, also share 4-year-old Sienna and 2-year-old Eli.

"I think that’s when things really started to change for me, because I had someone other than myself to think about," she said. "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.'"

Pompeo called the changes in the entertainment world over the last decade "remarkable" and said that, after the Grey's 10th season, the cast and crew experienced "some big shifts" in front of and behind the camera.

"It became my goal to turn that set around and to have an experience there that I could be happy about and proud about because we had had so much turmoil for 10 years," Pompeo explained. "And so then my mission became, 'This can’t be all the show was: just, you know, fantastic to the public, and a disaster behind the scenes.'" 

"Shonda Rhimes and I, who's the creator of the show, the showrunner at the time, decided that we want to rewrite the ending of this story and we want to turn the page and start a new chapter and turn the culture around behind the curtain," she continued. "And we brought in Debbie Allen as our executive producer... and we made some changes and we had to reimagine what behind the scenes at Grey’s Anatomy looked like. And so, for the past five years, we’ve been on a mission to change the story behind the scenes of Grey's Anatomy." 

Despite the positive changes on set, it was almost all for naught when Patrick Dempsey -- who, Pompeo revealed, was "paid almost double" her salary during the first two seasons of the show -- departed the series in season 11.

"I think that the studio and the network believed that the show could not possibly go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to sort of prove that it could," Pompeo said. "... 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 from a producorial side."

After initially being draw to the role of Dr. Grey thanks to her smart, leading lady status, Pompeo chose to remain on the show largely thanks to Rhimes' leadership and support.

"Shonda Rhimes has been amazing," Pompeo said. "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. It's been really good to have three little kids and have this show. It's been an incredible blessing." 

"... I started off not married, no children. I got married and had children," Pompeo added. "So I think the character has evolved, you know, as my life has."

While Pompeo confirmed that she will fulfill her contractual obligation to appear on season 16, she offered no further promises about her future on the series, which, she admitted, has not challenged her "creatively at all" as of late.

"Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline, like, the rape storyline that we did was moving. And we're being able to tell these stories that are having an impact on social issues, which are desperately needed in these times. But I think I've only been challenged sort of producorially for the last five years," she said. "... I've had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera, so that really kept me going." 

Days after the interview was released, Pompeo tweeted at her fans in regard to her quotes about the initially "toxic" workplace. "Hey! Anyone having feelings over Variety piece. It’s not worth getting yourself upset over not singling anyone out..as a show we all had a part to play in the environment me included..as many workplaces do..We changed that story. That’s the story we all have the power to change!" she wrote.

Watch the video below for more of Pompeo's thoughts on Grey's Anatomy.