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Ellen Pompeo Says ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Had A ‘Really Toxic’ Work Environment

The actress and producer is speaking out about the "bad behavior" she witnessed in the show's early days.

As high-key dramatic as “Grey’s Anatomy” has been over the past 15 seasons (see: deer defibrillation, icicle-related violence, ghost sex, etc.), series star Ellen Pompeo is hinting that the real drama went down behind the scenes.

Pompeo, who is also a producer on the long-running ABC drama, spoke out about the “really toxic work environment” she experienced in the first decade of the series’ run in Variety’s latest “Actors on Actors” conversation with Taraji P. Henson.

Henson asked Pompeo if there was ever a point where she wanted “off this bus.”

“I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off,” responded Pompeo, who recently extended her multimillion-dollar contract until Season 17. “The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment.”

Pompeo didn’t elaborate on that statement directly, but the Emmy-winning drama has famously weathered its fair share of public scandals over the years ― be it actor Isaiah Washington using an anti-gay slur to describe his co-star T.R. Knight, or Katherine Heigl dropping out Emmy contention one season because she didn’t think her material was good enough.

Katherine Heigl, Justin Chambers, Sandra Oh and Ellen Pompeo in "Grey's Anatomy."
Katherine Heigl, Justin Chambers, Sandra Oh and Ellen Pompeo in "Grey's Anatomy."

Pompeo, however, said her priorities shifted when she welcomed her first child with husband Chris Ivery, and her desire to pursue other and potentially less lucrative projects waned.

“Once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family,” she continued. “At 40 years old, where am I ever going to get this kind of money?”

But after Season 10, the actress pledged to change the culture, as many of the “Grey’s” stalwarts had left the series and a new crop of actors joined the cast. 

“We had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years,” Pompeo said. “My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes. [Series creator and executive producer] Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me.”

Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey pictured together during the ninth season of "Grey's Anatomy." 
Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey pictured together during the ninth season of "Grey's Anatomy." 

Pompeo, who now stands as dramatic television’s highest-earning actress, also mentioned the pay disparity between herself and co-star Patrick Dempsey, who was paid almost double her salary at the start of the series.

“The studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead,” she continued, referring to Dempsey’s exit in Season 11. “So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission.”

And so she did: “Grey’s Anatomy” recently made history this year as TV’s longest-running medical drama and remains the network’s No. 1 series for the 2018-19 broadcast season.

Still, Pompeo admits that she’s hasn’t “been challenged creatively at all” in recent years.

“Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline,” she said. “But for the last five years, I’ve had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera.”

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