'Grey's Anatomy' Star Ellen Pompeo Says Actresses Need to Ask For What They're Worth

Ellen Pompeo poses at the Disney ABC Television Group party during the 2015 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The hit medical drama and flagship of “Shondaland”, Grey’s Anatomy is currently filming an astonishing 15th season. In the midst of the current media storm over #MeToo and concerns for equal pay for women, the star of that show sat down with the Hollywood Reporter and talked about her own fight for equal compensation even as the title character.

Typically these discussions tend to devolve into “victim status” and politically correct ambiguity. However, Ellen Pompeo’s article – part interview, partly written by herself – is shockingly refreshing and brutally honest. Most celebrities don’t care to talk about their earnings in public, but Pompeo unapologetically pulls back the veil in the hopes of inspiring other women to find the same empowerment she did.

Pompeo is currently the highest paid actress ever on a prime time drama, to the tune of $20 million per year…and that’s just her base bay.

 Pompeo’s new pact will have her earning more than $20 million a year — $575,000 per episode, along with a seven-figure signing bonus and two full backend equity points on the series, estimated to bring in another $6 million to $7 million. She also will get a producing fee plus backend on this spring’s Grey’s spinoff as well as put pilot commitments and office space for her Calamity Jane production company on Disney’s Burbank lot.

The Boston native (and quite delightfully, she cusses like one) tells HR that even though she was the title character, her male co-star (Patrick Dempsey) was making more than her and had more influence. At one point she asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle but was denied. When Dempsey left the show and ratings dropped, she sought out Shonda Rhimes for advice.

“As a woman, what I know is you can’t approach anything from a point of view of ‘I don’t deserve’ or ‘I’m not going to ask for because I don’t want other people to get upset,’ ” Rhimes says now. “And I know for a fact that when men go into these negotiations, they go in hard and ask for the world….Decide what you think you’re worth and then ask for what you think you’re worth. Nobody’s just going to give it to you.”

Pompeo did exactly that and ended up with a sweet deal for herself.

Now, maybe it’s my Irish Catholic upbringing, but you never want to [be perceived as] too greedy. Or maybe it’s just that as women, that’s our problem; a guy wouldn’t have any problem asking for $600,000 an episode. And as women, we’re like, “Oh, can I ask for that? Is that OK?” I’d call Shonda and say, “Am I being greedy?” But CAA compiled a list of stats for me, and Grey’s has generated nearly $3 billion for Disney. When your face and your voice have been part of something that’s generated $3 billion for one of the biggest corporations in the world, you start to feel like, “OK, maybe I do deserve a piece of this.”

What I said to Shonda is the truth: “I don’t get to do anything else, and that’s frustrating for me creatively. I make 24 episodes of TV a year, and as part of this deal, I cannot appear anywhere else. And directing is cool but, to be honest, it just takes me away from my kids.” Then I said, “So, it’s got to be a ton of money. And it has to help me with my producing because producing is something I really enjoy. That’s my creativity now.” Acting, to me, is boring. An actor is the least powerful person on set, so I don’t care about chasing roles.

The 48-year-old mother of three hits on an important point lost in the hashtag activism of the “equal pay” movement. Women are often paid less than men because they are afraid to ask for what they’re worth. Artists like Rhimes and Pompeo found out the hard way that no one will give a woman what she deserves just because she’s a woman. Women have to be bold enough to demand equal compensation. When men make up the majority of power players, women have to learn how to speak their language in order to be heard about their worth.

That’s just what Pompeo (inspired by Rhimes) did. Instead of feeling helpless and complaining about it, she figured out what she was worth to her show and acted on it. It turns out, when the only other original character left the beloved medical drama she was actually worth quite a bit.

Pompeo says actresses need to be more concerned about the business than the art if they want to climb the ladder.

In the last few weeks, a lot of us actresses in town have been having these meetings [as part of the Time’s Up initiative]. We’ve been sharing stories and trying to figure out how we can promote change and use our voices to help other people. And I’ll tell you, sitting in rooms full of Oscar-winning actresses listening to how they’ve been preyed upon and assaulted is frightening. And it confirmed that my path really was the right one for me, because I’ve chosen to financially empower myself so that I never have to be ducking predators and chasing trophies. It’s not for everyone. You have to be more interested in business than you are in acting.

She goes on to explain that maybe that’s not what every actress wants. If an actress is just looking to be a working artist, the path Pompeo blazed might not be the best option.

So, again, if you’re 100 percent an artist, this path, my path, is not going to fulfill you. I talk to a lot of girls who are on network shows, and they have the same culture problems that we had. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that we had a real problem at Grey’s for a long time. On the outside, we were a massive success, but there was all of this tumult on the inside: It was a lot of rivalry, a lot of competition. It starts with actors behaving badly, and then producers enabling them to behave badly. And, by the way, I’m guilty of it, too. I saw squeaky wheels getting all the fucking grease, so I was like, “OK, that’s how you do it,” and I behaved badly as well. I mimicked what I saw. I’m not perfect.

As she works and meets with other actresses to discuss #MeToo and equal pay, the veteran of tv and film is careful to say that the solution isn’t cut and dry or partisan. And she credits Shonda Rhimes with giving her an education that money can’t buy.

I should also say this: I don’t believe the only solution is more women in power, because power corrupts. It’s not necessarily a man or a woman thing. But there should be more of us women in power, and not just on Shonda Rhimes’ sets. Look, I only have a 12th-grade education and I wasn’t a great student, but I’ve gotten an education here at Shondaland.

 

The entire article is well worth the read. It is refreshing to hear an actress take responsibility for her future rather than depending on the men around her to automatically recognize and reward her value. Pompeo does that with an appropriate compassion for other women struggling to find the same strength and tact. Her approach and attitude should be held up as the standard.

Listen up ladies: hashtags get you red carpet interviews, but knowing and demanding what you’re worth is the only thing that brings home the bacon.