When actress Ellen Pompeo appeared on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter in January for a story titled “How I Fought to Become TV’s $20 Million Woman,” women at InStyle, and everywhere, applauded. Not only for the dollar amount Pompeo secured—her deal nets her $575,000 per episode of Grey’s Anatomy, now entering its 14th season—but for how honest and disarmingly blunt she was about prioritizing financial stability over the fickle glare of big-screen stardom. In the end, it seems like a philosophy worth sharing.
Laura Brown: Ellen, your salary negotiation, and the way you discussed it so frankly, was totally baller, if I can use a dude term.
Ellen Pompeo: Ha! Listen, I’m so thankful. It’s so hard for me because I’ve been on Grey’s Anatomy forever, and I don’t chase relevancy or trophies. There’s a price to pay for that, you know? A lot of girls would rather have the attention, and then they realize in their 40s that they have no money to feed their kids and they’re fucked. It’s been a healthy path for me. I made the choice to be OK with no awards and no attention and make it about just going to work and punching the clock. Which I think is healthier for the ego later down the line.
LB: I think it’s essentially asking yourself: How do you define success?
EP: Right. The definition of success, I think, is different for everybody. That’s the most important thing to note. But my definition of success is happiness.
LB: Do you remember the first time you fought for yourself professionally?
EP: I mean, I’ve been fighting since the very beginning. When I started this show, I didn’t know that on a SAG
contract you’re not able to renegotiate until Season 3. So it wasn’t until Season 3 that I found out I was actually being paid less than [co-star] Patrick Dempsey.
LB: Even though it was Grey’s Anatomy and you were Meredith Grey.
EP: Even though it was Grey’s Anatomy. But the truth is, he had done 12 pilots before me, and I hadn’t done any. I had no TV quote. I’d only done movies. So he simply had more TV experience under his belt.
LB: So then, when you found that out, what did you do?
VIDEO: Ellen Pompeo: "Own Your Shit"
EP: I said, “Well, I have to be paid the same as him.” I wasn’t trying to get more. I was just trying to get the same.
LB: What was the first reaction?
EP: In all negotiations they don’t immediately give in, and this is also quite a big cast, so they have everybody to deal with, but eventually we got what we wanted. I would say the only time you ever have a good negotiating position is if you’re completely willing to walk away. That’s the only real strength you have. And I never really was there until this last round. I asked for everything on Grey’s because I saw a piece of paper that told me it had generated $3 billion for Disney. That information changed the game for me: knowing my numbers and having information as to what my actual worth was. Over the years lots of characters have come and gone, lots of writers have come and gone. The one thing that’s remained on the show is me, so that’s how I arrived at my confidence.
LB: When you were given more responsibility on the show, how did you feel?
EP: Shonda [Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy] had said to me, “What do you need to stay?” And I said if I could take on more and feel ownership of this show and be a producer, then I’d be inspired to stay. I needed inspiration—we work 10 months out of the year, so I can’t appear on other television shows or anywhere else per my contract. I needed to have more duties other than acting.
LB: Does that ownership make you feel stronger?
EP: One hundred percent. And also from a business standpoint, what I learned on this show … it’s been quite an interesting journey. Like I mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter article, we had a lot of culture problems I was determined to change. The way we run the show now has the actors feeling involved, having a say. It makes everybody invested in a way they never were before. But had I not had those hardships or stepped on all those sharp stones, I would not have learned any of these lessons, so I’m grateful for all of them, honestly.
LB: How important is female friendship and being good to other ladies in all of this?
EP: Oh my god, it’s everything. It’s everything.
LB: What women have helped you on your way up? Obviously, Shonda is the main one.
EP: Yeah. And Debbie Allen. I met her on the set of Grey’s. She plays Catherine Avery on the show. She came on first as an actress, and then she became an executive producer. Debbie is the one who kept saying, “You are a director. You don’t even realize it. You’re standing around telling everybody what to do. What you’re doing is directing—you might as well sit in the chair.” And I was like, “No, I don’t want to ... I want to be home with my kids.” So she’s really the one who inspired me. She has been so generous with me and so uplifting.
LB: What’s a character trait you have that you will never apologize for?
EP: My honesty. I crave honesty when I read interviews. But my honesty has gotten me in trouble. I’ve tried in the past to defend people and come from a good place—but the way my words get edited, my intentions get misunderstood, and then I end up hurting feelings. I forget that my words can be edited to create a catfight.
LB: So how do you deal with that?
EP: I try to address it. Anytime I know something has come out that other people perceive as hurtful, I immediately call that person and apologize. You have to own it when you’re wrong. I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, and no one can expect us to be. The closest we can get is to be true and respectful to each other.
LB: Do you have any tips for communicating with people above you in a professional hierarchy?
EP: Yeah, I lead with kissing ass.
LB: Please elaborate.
EP: Well, you always want to start with the positive. Come from a place of gratitude—which is not something I always led with when I was younger. I try to think about what it would be like to be that person and have to hear people complain. And I attempt to never call anyone with only a problem—I’ll also have a solution.
LB: What makes you feel the most empowered at work and in your daily life?
EP: I think what makes me feel the most empowered is when I trust my gut and it pays off.
LB: What are you ambitious for?
EP: I’m ambitious to spend as much time with my kids [Stella Luna, 8; Sienna May, 3; and Eli Christopher, 1] as I can. To find that balance because I do like working. I really enjoy being in the world and accomplishing things. And now my producing career is really where my ambition is.
LB: What three things would you suggest for someone who wants to really own their shit?
EP: OK, first, I would say to own your shit you have to be 100 percent honest, 100 percent real about your experience, and not be worried about what people think of you, which is hard. It’s hard to get that when you’re younger. There’s something about age that frees you up and you care so much less about what people think. Second, talk the talk and walk the walk. To be fair, if you need your image to get jobs or your next job, you have to be more careful about what you say. I do understand that. Three, stop trying to be perfect. You can’t feel like, “I have to be perfect. I have to dress perfect. I have to look perfect. I have to be on every red carpet.” You can’t do it all, and you have to be OK with your flaws. I’m not down with this fucking perfection, you know? I’m not trying to come off as something I’m not. Owning your shit is owning who you are and not trying to be anybody else.
Photographer: Phil Poynter. Fashion editor: Jessica de Ruiter. Hair: Ben Skervin. Makeup: Lisa Storey. Manicurist: Michelle Saunders.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download March 16.