Shades of Grey

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Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo reveals her frustrations with the series and how its success was a Hollywood long shot. Words Matt Pomroy

‘That’s not the direction that I thought the show was going to take when I signed up for it,’ says Ellen Pompeo, smiling sweetly and complaining bitterly at the same time. She’s sitting in a hotel room with Time Out and is referring to the third series of the wildly successful medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, of which she is the lead star. ‘The more they stay away from the soap opera elements the happier I am,’ she adds with a Princess Diana tilt of the head and a coy disarming smile.

Ellen may not be happy that the series is becoming a soap opera on screen – which frankly, it pretty much was from the start of the first season – but there’s no doubt that it’s fast becoming a soap off screen. Fellow actor Isaiah Washington was effectively sacked recently after allegedly using a homophobic word during an argument with Patrick Dempsey, and was overheard by their co-star T.R.Knight.

Knight then lodged a complaint. It seemed like nothing, but the brouhaha led to Washington appearing on Larry King Live apologising and defending his side of the story (even going as far as to say he’d seek professional help) while Knight went on the Ellen DeGeneres talk show to come out of the closet.

For some it was a depressing example of America’s twin cannons of political correctness taken to extremes, and an obsession with celebrity. But it was interesting to see Washington claim that Walsh exaggerated everything to gain leverage with the producers to garner more airtime for his character and also a higher salary. Predictably, Ellen won’t discuss the issue during the time we have together, in the presence of a publicist.

‘We’re currently on vacation so we haven’t seen each other,’ comes the factual, but evasive, reply to the question she knows every journalist will ask of her today. But does she think they will all be closer as a group after this? ‘We’re all pretty close already and we spend a tremendous amount of time together. I don’t know that it will bring us any closer and we all get on quite well.’

Apart from, of course, the fighting, name calling and bitching, seeing as some of the cast have reportedly been complaining about who gets paid more than whom. The Forbes ‘Celebrity 100’ list claims the cast of the series earn a combined total of US$33million per season. According to Reuters, which even saw fit to report on this – illustrating the interest in the series – Pompeo will be the highest paid at roughly $200,000 per episode.

Presumably, she’s happy with her money but clearly isn’t too enamoured with the direction the writing has been taking of late. Is this something she can influence? ‘No, I just go with what they write,’ she replies. ‘You always have ideas, and actors are creative people. In a series it’s more difficult than in films because there you get to read the beginning, the middle and the end. But on a TV series you have no idea what the writers have in store for you.’

The small and cute-looking 37-year old pauses and then gently intones, ‘We just get paid to act.’ So does Ellen have some trepidation going into a TV series and not knowing how it’s going to pan out? ‘Oh sure. I did think a lot about that but it was a chance to have a steady job…well possibly,’ she says. ‘When you shoot the pilot you have no idea. But I was pleasantly surprised when it was successful.’

Among the fighting, complaining and all the rest of the off-screen drama, the cast were right to be pleasantly surprised once the series became a hit – and a huge hit as well – as none of them were in possession of CVs that would wow a casting director. Aside from Sandra Oh’s appearance in the film Sideways, there was not an abundance of instantly recognisable actors in the cast, but the group beat the odds.

‘Anytime in Hollywood when you have a success of any kind it’s quite rare,’ she agrees, having been one of those actresses that had been on the edges of stardom for so long. Close enough that she didn’t have to spend her days as a waitress, but just not getting the big break for a long time.

She was given roles as Ben Affleck’s secretary in the film Daredevil and a part in the excellent Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but frustratingly her scenes in both those films failed to make the final edit. Just before getting the role of Meredith Grey she auditioned for a television pilot called Secret Service, but it never made it to the screen and (somewhat appropriately) it’s hard to find proof that it even exists.

‘When you look at how many movies or television shows are made then you see how hard it is to make something good. We were all quite surprised because so many TV shows come out each year and air for three or four episodes, then you never see them again. Maybe one in 40  shows is a success.’

One of the reasons that critics and the viewing public have hailed the series a success is the racially diverse cast, and significantly, the differences aren’t exploited as crass devices to propel the storylines. Sandra Oh told Time Out last year that ‘the multi-racial casting is an intense political and artistic statement’, and Ellen agrees: ‘It does have the power to address social issues and I don’t think it takes advantage of that as much as it could – I don’t think we are the first racially diverse cast, but I think that it’s fantastic that people want to give us credit for that.’

However, she goes onto state that, ‘in the third season some of the storylines are less realistic than they have been in the first two seasons.’ She really doesn’t like the third season. So as an actor how does she hope her character’s story develops into the fourth season? ‘I don’t care,’ comes the reply. ‘As long as the writing stays smart and intelligent then I’m happy. As long as it doesn’t become too silly then I’ll be happy too.’

Whether it’s becoming more like a daytime soap or not, the ratings are still good and the cast are highly paid, even if they appear to have issues with everything from the wages to the writing, to each other. Would you prefer it to be grittier like ER? ‘I don’t generally compare the show to anything else, but it’s a great job and we’re paid very well. And for the most part it’s relatively simple compared to what most people have to do for a living.’

Well, it’s certainly easier than being a real medical intern who gets badly paid. ‘Yes, or just a job where people work tremendously long hours. There are people around the world who do hard labour and backbreaking work for pennies, so we’re all grateful for the situation we are in. But the series could go off the air next year. At any moment the fans could abandon the show and at that moment the network will take it off the air.

So I may only have another year left with the series or I may have six. That’s why I don’t make plans for the future.’ So does she have anything else lined up after Grey’s Anatomy? ‘I don’t know what I’ll want to do when this is over. But I think I’ll want to go back to film and play different characters after playing just one for so long. That’s if I’m still interested in acting in three years time… I might be into something else by then. Who knows. You can’t predict life.’

For Time Out, July 2007

Click here for original PDF – ELLEN POMPEO

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