Katherine Heigl Addresses Her 'Grey's Anatomy' Exit With Ellen Pompeo: 'I Was So Naive'

The former co-stars get candid about their past in Variety's 'Actors on Actors' series.

Ellen Pompeo and Katherine Heigl are saying "all the things we weren’t going to say" in their new one-on-one interview for Variety's "Actors on Actors" series.

The former Grey's Anatomy co-stars, who played Dr. Meredith Grey and Dr. Izzie Stevens on the long-running medical drama, sat down with one another to discuss everything from bizarre fan encounters, to their least-favorite iconic scenes from the hit show, to the ABC executive who almost didn't put it on the air.

And, of course, they get into Heigl's controversial exit from the show in 2010, with the actress admitting, "I would not trade anything for my 20s, but I absolutely had no idea who I was and what I wanted and who I was supposed to be and who to make happy."

Controversy around Heigl's role on the show started during the 2008-09 season, when the actress publicly announced that she wouldn't be submitting herself for Emmy consideration that year, saying that she "did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination."

Tensions between Heigl and Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes continued to rise until March 2010, when they reached an agreement to immediately release her from her contract, making the Jan. 21 episode her final appearance on the show as Dr. Izzie Stevens -- until an unexpected cameo in season 16, in an episode marking Justin Chambers' departure from the show.

In their sit-down, Heigl and Pompeo discuss how the show's overnight success thrust them into the spotlight, paving the way for intense emotions on set.

"I think that gave me this confidence that was a false sense of confidence," Heigl recalls. "It was rooted in something that couldn’t and maybe wouldn’t always last for me. So then I started getting real mouthy, because I did have a lot to say, and there were certain boundaries and things that I was not OK with being crossed. I didn’t know how to fight that."

"Listen, nobody likes a super confident woman," Pompeo agrees. "And that’s why they’re taking away reproductive rights, and voting rights all over this country, is because they don’t want women to find their power. They don’t want women to have a voice. They don’t want women to have control because they know that we can do it better than they can."

Heigl admits that, looking back now, she feels she was "so naive" in how she handled the situation.

"There was no part of me that imagined a bad reaction," she admits. "I felt really justified in how I felt about it and where I was coming from. I’ve spent most of my life — I think most women do — being in that people-pleasing mode. It’s really disconcerting when you feel like you have really displeased everybody. It was not my intention to do so, but I had some things to say, and I didn’t think I was going to get such a strong reaction."

The actress admits that it took her almost a decade to have a fresh perspective on the situation.

"It took me until probably my mid- to late-30s to really get back to tuning out all of the noise and going, 'But who are you? Are you this bad person? Are you ungrateful? Are you unprofessional? Are you difficult?' Because I was confused! I thought maybe I was," she shares. "I literally believed that version, and felt such shame for such a long time, and then had to go, 'Wait. Who am I listening to? I’m not even listening to myself. I know who I am.'"

"You were just a little early, because they came out with this thing where everybody has their own megaphone and they get a blue check. It’s called Twitter," Pompeo teases. "You were just a little ahead of your time, lady."

"I was just vibrating at way too high of a level of anxiety," Heigl notes. "For me, it’s all a bit of a blur, and it took me years to learn how to deal with that, to master it. I can’t even say that I’ve mastered it, but to even know to work on it, that anxiety and fear — and stress is stress. And if you leave stress too long, unmanaged and unaddressed, it can be debilitating."

The actresses both speak to how much the landscape of television production and public discourse has changed since their first days in Seattle Grace scrubs, with Heigl noting that her recent experience on Firefly Lane, working with a new generation of young actors, made her feel "protected in a way that I didn’t realize how unprotected we were."

"That’s one of the things I try to do now as a producer, specifically on Grey’s, is try to offer support — try to have a place for people to talk through things," Pompeo agrees. "There was no one to tell me, 'This is OK. This is not OK.' There’s a very exploitive nature to what we do."

The actresses share a laugh when admitting that life in such a bright spotlight would be hard for anyone to manage -- except maybe Zendaya.

"She’s perfect and gorgeous and the most gracious young woman and has handled an enormous amount of attention and fame with incredibly impressive grace," Pompeo marvels. "But not everybody can do that. And there has to be some forgiveness, or some grace, for not everybody being able to handle every situation perfectly. I’ve certainly never handled every situation perfectly. I’d like to see other people try to walk a mile in your shoes during that time, and let’s see how they would’ve handled it."