Most devoted Grey’s Anatomy fans can rattle off any number of facts about the show’s title character Meredith Grey: grew up the daughter of brilliant, but austere, surgeon Ellis Grey, married former boss Derek Shepherd on a Post-it Note, considers Cristina Yang as her person, almost died from a bomb explosion, hypothermia, a plane crash and a rogue gunman.
But far less is known about the woman who deftly embodies her each week. Asked to name some details about Ellen Pompeo, your average viewer would probably know that she’s a mom (she and music producer husband Chris Ivery, 52, share daughters Stella, 10, and Sienna, 5, and 2-year-old son Eli) and that she brilliantly negotiated her way to becoming the highest-paid actress on a TV drama. Other than that, well…she seems pretty cool.
It’s not so much that Pompeo, marking her 50th birthday today, is some sort of enigma or the crazily secretive type. Rather when you become so successful at giving life to the same character for so long—season 16 of the Shonda Rhimes creation is airing now—it can be hard to determine where the dark and twisty surgeon ends and Pompeo herself begins.
Because it’s not as if they have nothing in common. Like the Harper Avery Award-winning Meredith (or, should we say Catherine Fox Award-winning?) Pompeo knows a bit about being a badass. While to our knowledge she’s never performed an abdominal wall transplant or held a bomb in place with her finger, she did rightfully claim the salary she deserved and then literally told the story of how she did it in an effort to help other women get theirs.
At first she was admittedly reticent to share the nitty-gritty details of her $20 million-a-year payday. “It felt incredibly uncomfortable and awkward to talk about money,” she told E! News last year, “and I think that that was precisely why I had to do it. Because basketball players and baseball players are celebrated and lauded for these big giant contracts…women, for some reason aren’t seen in the same way…I thought, ‘Well, there’s a bigger reason than just me to do this.”
She wasn’t being a braggart or showing just how far she’d come from her humble upbringing, rather, she was handing women the roadmap to uncovering their own well-earned treasure. “I wanted to show my struggles, that it isn’t easy,” she explained to E! News, “but if you’re bold and you do speak up and if you do say unpopular things then you just might be part of some change.”
So, yeah, she and Meredith not so far apart in that regard.
And not unlike a the future medical savant, the actress went through her own childhood trauma. One of Pompeo’s earliest memories is of her older siblings (she is the youngest of six) trying to revive their mom after she suffered a fatal overdose. As she summed up to Good Housekeeping, “My life started out with tragedy.”
Her childhood wasn’t all that much easier. Growing up in an outsized family in an Italian-Irish neighborhood Pompeo has equated to the backdrop from the bloody mob drama The Departed made her tough. “You can’t get out of where I come from if you’re a wallflower,” she told the mag. But the transition wasn’t entirely seamless. “I was pathetically insecure,” she said. “I didn’t have a mother to tell me how amazing I was.”
But she did have the will to pull herself up by those proverbial bootstraps. As her brothers and sisters “were smoking pot and watching The Three Stooges” as she told Playboy, she was being shuffled amongst babysitters and various relatives. “My mother came from an Irish family of 11 kids and, of course, had a sister who was a nun, so I spent time at a convent and with an aunt and uncle who lived in New York and took me to the theater.” It was there, as she sat mesmerized by a Rockettes performance, that she settled on her future career. “Afterward,” she told Allure, “I stood up and said, ‘That’s what I want to be. They’re alive. That’s what I want to do.'”
With high school in the rearview, and a brief stab at college, she fled to Miami at 19, earning a job as one of the city’s surliest cocktail waitresses.
“I wouldn’t say I was a good drink maker, but I was a very good hustler,” she told Playboy. “I’d abuse the customers, yell and scream at them and make them wait. If they put money down on the bar and it wasn’t enough, I’d go wait on someone else who was giving me enough money. If they put another five down and I made them wait longer, pretty soon there would be $20 on the bar. Then I’d come over and give them a drink.”
When hustling bros out of cash grew tiresome, Pompeo headed back to New York, feeling wholly overwhelmed by her acting dreams. But while tending bar once again at the city’s SoHo Kitchen, an agent approached offering guidance. “I thought she was trying to pick me up, at first,” the star admitted to Diane Sawyer in an ABC News interview just weeks into her Grey’s run. “I’m always very, very leery.”
But the agent was legit and soon Pompeo was booking commercial roles that gave way to bit parts on Law & Order, Friends, Strangers with Candy and Law & Order again. And in 2002 her film career kicked off in earnest with a turn in Moonlight Mile opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, who, incidentally, had tried to pick her up in a parking lot weeks before filming.
The part earned her critical acclaim (the late Roger Ebert noted her “kind of scary charisma”) and attention from the likes of Sam Mendes, Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty. “They were all, ‘We were blown away by this performance’ and ‘You’re a superstar,'” she would later relay to The Hollywood Reporter.
With roles following in Catch Me If You Can and Old School the actress seemed just on the cusp of that breakthrough role. But when it came, it didn’t look anything like what she would have imagined. When her new CAA agent approached with the script for a half procedural, half rom-com pilot penned by a then-unknown Rhimes, “I was like, ‘I’m not going to be stuck on a medical show for five years,'” she recalled, “‘Are you out of your f–kin’ mind? I’m an actress.'”
But as he gently remind her, she was also a woman in need of rent money. So she auditioned with his assurances that the drama would likely never make it to air.
Which, whoops. Because obviously the show took off soon after its March 2005 premiere and everyone involved was thrilled, with the notable exception of Pompeo who recounted her reaction to THR as dread: “I knew I was f–ked.”
It’s not that she was ungrateful, but being a network star meant agreeing to curb her film career and accepting that she won’t be competing with her peers for Oscar nods. Her sole Golden Globe nomination came in 2007, though, in proof to how valued she is by her fans, she’s a regular winner at the People’s Choice Awards. “What happens in network TV is that it’s super-mundane and there are super-long hours and its not necessarily the most creative space,” she admitted to THR, “so actors get frustrated and they get angry.” (See: the turmoil surrounding Isaiah Washington.)
Embodying a role to the point that it appears effortless often means accepting that the accolades won’t be rolling your way no matter how well you nail your performance. “I’m not the most ‘relevant’ actress out there. I know that’s the industry perception because I’ve been this character for 14 years,” she said. “But the truth is, anybody can be good on a show season one and two. Can you be good 14 years later? Now, that’s a f–kin’ skill.”
And the steadiness of one gig in one place has its benefits. For instance, she and Ivery have been able to put down solid roots at their hilltop L.A. spread, a place so homey, “It’s hard to get me out of the house once the sun goes down,” she admitted to Good Housekeeping.
Though when she first crossed paths with Ivery at an L.A. Whole Foods in 2003, she didn’t exactly envision this type of domestic bliss. Having grown up just miles from her Massachusetts home, he had the same hard scrabble roots, plus a series of arrests to boot. “I knew his background and I knew the circle in which he ran and I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she told UK’s The Telegraph (by way of TV Fanatic). “You think you want to get away from your past and be this completely different person.”
Then they ran into each other again two days later and she started questioning if maybe he was being placed into her life for a reason. Six months later the duo were officially a thing and in 2007 they covertly wed at New York’s City Hall with mayor Michael Bloomberg serving as officiant.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for March of Dimes
“At that point, I was really dying for privacy,” she explained to Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest last year. “So we flew out on a redeye Thursday night. Friday morning, we woke up, went to City Hall, had the wedding really quick, and then we went to a waffle lunch after.” Their honeymoon: a Knicks game before they flew back to their life on the West Coast.
Stella Luna Pompeo Ivery joined them in 2009, followed by Sienna May, whose 2014 arrival Pompeo kept quiet for months. “I felt an obligation to keep the surrogate’s privacy,” she explained on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in October 2014, just hours after she announced her new addition. “That was of utmost importance to me.” Eli Christopher rounded out the family in late 2016.
By then she and Ivery (a man she describes as “a fantastic guy” with “so much swag”) had long since hit their stride with Pompeo telling Us Weekly her best marriage guidance is “don’t try to change people. They are who they are and they were fine when you married them, so don’t expect them to change.”
And the ABC star had managed to navigate the whole working mom situation thanks to Rhimes’ liberal bring your child to work policy and outside assistance she’s refreshingly honest about. “I’m in a very blessed situation,” she told E! News back in 2012, long before Stella and Eli made their appearances. “I’m incredibly lucky compared to most. I can afford help and I’m fortunate where I can bring her here if I miss her. She’s not in preschool yet so she can spend time on set with me. So I think everything in my life is a blessing. I’ve got my little challenges, but they’re insignificant compared to what real working moms go through.”
Off the clock, Pompeo makes time for family hikes with her brood—though she admits 5-year-old Sienna is “a little iffy” on the situation, tending to get tired halfway up—and helps them refuel with their own homemade kitchen creations. “I’m actually a terrible baker,” she recently admitted to Us Weekly, “but I think baking is such a great way to teach them math. You know, it’s a half cup of this, and a quarter cup of this.”
Really, though, they’ve already received the best lesson in numbers from Mom. Because after years of trying to work with costar Patrick Dempsey to negotiate a joint top-tier deal (“He was never interested,” she told THR) she glimpsed her window of opportunity when he exited the drama in 2015. “They could always use him as leverage against me—’We don’t need you; we have Patrick”—which they did for years,” she explained.
Absent McDreamy, ABC was extra incentivized to hold onto the Grey in Grey’s. And when Pompeo’s team slid her a list of stats that showed how the show, which still garners some 12 million viewers, had earned parent company Disney nearly $3 billion, “You start to feel like, ‘OK, maybe I do deserve a piece of this.'”
Asked to name her terms, Pompeo told Rhimes, “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.” The result: she netted $575,000 per episode along with a signing bonus and some $7 million in backend deals, plus office space and pilot commitments for her production company Calamity Jane.
Remaining in Shondaland also means continuing her higher learning. During the past decade Pompeo’s had the chance to try her hand at directing (thanks to a push from her legendary costar Debbie Allen who, as Pompeo explained in an ABC featurette, “doesn’t take no for an answer,”) and received what she’s labeled “a Master Class” in producing.
“Look, I only have a 12th-grade education and I wasn’t a great student,” she reasoned to THR, “but I’ve gotten an education here at Shondaland.” As have her kids. Her eldest “gets to come here and see fierce females in charge,” she noted. “She loves to sit in the director’s chair with the headphones on yelling ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’ She’s growing up in an environment where she’s completely comfortable with power. I don’t know any other environment in Hollywood where I could provide that for her. Now I hope that changes…and soon.”
Raise your hand if you can see that as part of Pompeo’s next act. Because while she humbly brushes off the idea of herself as an activist—”I just try to be a decent human being, and I try to speak out for those who don’t have as big a voice as I do,” she noted to Deadline—she’s a fixture at events such as the March For Our Lives and has worked to raise funds for charities like The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.
And before she hangs up her scrub cap for good (“It’s about time that I mix it up,” she hinted to Entertainment Weekly last year, “I’m definitely looking for a change,”) she has every intention of making some noise.
Asked to describe her ideal storyline, she told E! News, “I’d like to get into neurological diseases, and disease in general and talk about what’s causing it. What we’re ingesting, what we’re inhaling, the chemicals that are in our food, water, air—what really is making people sick. I’d love to deal with that.”
And while she admits such a script may not be super sponsor-friendly we’d expect little else from a series that’s already tackled gun violence, racism, police brutality and the #MeToo movement. Because at this point, what do they really have to lose?
“We’re in a competition with ourselves, like: Can we keep the quality up? Can we keep the storytelling up? Can we keep this audience?” she told E! News of their drive to churn out top-notch, thought-provoking entertainment. “So, it’s kind of a fun competition we’re in with ourselves.”
When it comes time to cede the stage, she has some thoughts about how she’d like that to go down, though, as she pointed out to Late Late Show host James Cordenin September, “I can’t really say what I think, because if we really do what I want to do, that would give it away.” Having the original cast back could be tricky, with so many of them being killed off, so they’ll have to work something else out.
“The ending, the final episode, matters so much,” Pompeo said. “Are you kidding me? And the fans are never going to be happy no matter what. Sopranos, Game of Thrones, they’re pissed no matter what you do. So, there’s a lot of pressure on that final episode.”
No doubt the show’s devoted fans will commit every last detail to memory.