'I don’t know that this is the last year? But it could very well could be,' Pompeo tells 'Variety.'
Ellen Pompeo's time as Meredith Grey may be coming to an end. In Variety's Power of Women issue, the 50-year-old actress and producer -- along with co-star Chandra Wilson, showrunner Krista Vernoff and director/producer Debbie Allen -- discuss Grey's Anatomy's impact since its 2005 premiere, while its leading lady hints at its end.
"We don’t know when the show is really ending yet. But the truth is, this year could be it," Pompeo says of the show's upcoming 17th season, which is set to premiere Nov. 12.
While Pompeo notes that, as a producer, she's "constantly fighting for the show as a whole to be as good as it can be," she wants Grey's to end before it overstays its welcome with audiences. Both ABC and Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes have previously said that the show will end when Pompeo exits.
"This is the last year of my contract right now. I don’t know that this is the last year? But it could very well could be," she says. "I don’t take the decision lightly. We employ a lot of people, and we have a huge platform. And I’m very grateful for it."
"I’m just weighing out creatively what can we do," Pompeo continues. "I’m really, really, really excited about this season. It’s probably going to be one of our best seasons ever. And I know that sounds nuts to say, but it’s really true."
"I’ll say the pilot episode to this season -- girl, hold on," she says. "What nobody thinks we can continue to do, we have done. Hold on. That’s all we’re going to say about that!"
From Vernoff and Wilson's viewpoints, though, the show doesn't have an expiration date.
"We’ve blown past so many potential endings to Grey’s Anatomy that I always assume it can go on forever," Vernoff says, before Wilson confirms that she'll stay on the show till its end.
"In my mind, Bailey is there until the doors close, until the hospital burns down, until the last thing happens on Grey’s Anatomy," Wilson says of her character, Dr. Miranda Bailey. "That is her entire arc."
Grey's Anatomy's success didn't come easily. In fact, getting it off the ground with the stories and characters Rhimes wanted was a fight.
"We fought for the right for Meredith and Bailey to be whole human beings, with whole sex lives, and not a network TV idea of likable," Vernoff says. "You might not have been likable, but now you’re iconic."
After the show was a clear success, off-screen drama with cast members including Katherine Heigl and Isaiah Washington plagued the set.
"At the time, it was just a real combination of exhaustion and stress and drama," Pompeo recalls. "Actors competing with each other -- and envious."
"There was a lot of drama on-screen and drama off-screen, and young people navigating intense stardom for the first time in their lives," Vernoff adds. "I think that a lot of those actors, if they could go back in time and talk to their younger selves, it would be a different thing. Everybody’s grown and changed and evolved, but it was an intense time."
The show's on-set environment turned a corner after Allen signed on as its EP/director in 2015, following Derek Shepherd's (Patrick Dempsey) onscreen death. What had been 16-hour work days, 10 months a year -- something Pompeo says caused "people to be exhausted, pissed, sad, depressed" -- turned into a manageable schedule.
"We were really broken [before Allen signed on]. And so much of our problems were perpetuated by bad male management," Pompeo says. "Debbie came in at a time when we really, really needed a breath of fresh air, and some new positive energy. Debbie really brought in a spirit to the show that we had never seen -- we had never seen optimism! We had never seen celebration. We had never seen joy!"
Though the road hasn't always been smooth, Pompeo remains grateful for the show and in awe of how it continues to "bring people together" after more than 15 years on-air.
"The show, at its core, brings people together. And the fact that people can come together and watch the show, and think about things they may not have ordinarily thought about, or see things normalized and humanized in a way that a lot of people really need to see -- it helps you become a better human being," she says. "If this show has helped anybody become a better human being, then that’s the legacy I’d love to sit with."