Ellen Pompeo is currently a very rich woman. Get that money, Dr. Grey.
In an astonishingly candid essay about how she negotiated her recent $20-million payday for Grey’s Anatomy—surprising in that few performers of any gender have ever been this frank and this specific about the terms of their salaries and negotiations—the actress reveals what it took to convince herself of her value as the titular lead one of the most successful and popular television drama series of all time. And, more depressingly, what it took to convince the network and studio of that value, too.
The voiceover queen and icon in scrubs is currently the highest-paid woman in prime time. Speaking strictly in terms of the demented La La Land universe of Monopoly money, she is worth every penny. Yet in an essay as-told-to The Hollywood Reporter’s Lacey Rose titled “How I Became TV’s $20M Woman,” she reveals the extent of the behind-the-scenes fight for what she deserved.
Speaking with the candor, not to mention shrugging profanity, that gave Pompeo line-cutting passes to the VIP section of the “Celebrities We All Want to Grab Drinks With” party, she reveals her ambitions as an actor (more specifically, her lack thereof), the neglect of male allies, the bleak reality for women in Hollywood, and the explicit notion that because she’s a woman she didn’t deserve an excessive payday—despite being the lead of her show.
At a time when gender pay equity is one of the more visible lightning bolts in the thunder storm of industry conversations about the treatment of women and minorities, Pompeo just became Zeus of the cause. (And if former Grey’s co-star Patrick Dempsey gets a little electrocuted in the aftermath, well, bitch should’ve aligned himself with the Goddess Pompzeus when he had the chance.)
The storm’s been brewing for a while, of course.
Jennifer Lawrence became the issue’s famous face after Sony email leaks revealed how she had been shorted in favor of male co-stars in American Hustle. Emmy Rossum made headlines when she stalled the renewal of Showtime’s most successful drama series ever when the studio balked at her request to, as the lead, be paid a higher salary than her male co-star. E! host Catt Sadler recently quit the network when she discovered that her male colleague was paid nearly double her salary despite their similar experience and workload.
But the barometric dropped in dramatic fashion these last few weeks when it was reported that Michelle Williams, the Golden Globe-nominated lead of All the Money in the World, was paid less than $1,000 to her supporting male co-star Mark Wahlberg’s $1.5 million for reshoots.
Women in the industry and in the media galvanized in support of Williams and shamed Wahlberg and the agency that negotiated the actors’ gross pay disparity. Still, the unity of those voices was barely loud enough to drown out the mansplaining and misogynistic rationalizations for why Williams only earned what she deserved.
And therein lies the majesty in Pompeo’s charged account of her own negotiations. Not to mention that gonzo payday.
What’s that cash look like exactly? It’s more than $20 million a year—which amounts to $575,000 an episode, plus an estimated $6-7 million in backend equity and a seven-figure signing bonus—for the current and next two seasons. As THR reports, she negotiated a producing fee plus backend on the Grey’s spinoff, as well as commitments to her Calamity Jane production company.
That shitload of money? It reflects a shitload of success—success that she is integrally responsible for, even if it took 14 seasons of being the face, voice, and literal title of the show for her to get that credit.
Grey’s Anatomy, after all these years, still draws 12 million viewers an episode. That’s 300 episodes of the kind of viewership that flatly doesn’t exist anymore. The series airs in 220 territories around the world, which THR translates to multibillion-dollar worth as a franchise for ABC. When it came time to leverage that into a new contract, Pompeo solicited the advice of Grey’s leader Shonda Rhimes: “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.”
Unsurprisingly, Pompeo says the turning point for her, in terms of her deal, was when Patrick Dempsey left the show in 2015. When Grey’s Anatomy started, Pompeo was still a relatively unknown actress. Dempsey was a movie star making the transition to TV. That was something that Pompeo says was routinely used against her during negotiations: “We don’t need you; we have Patrick.”
This is where you might as well just drain out all your blood, put it on the stove, and set it to boil yourself.
This excuse, first of all, assumes that a male co-star, regardless of his pre-show fame, has more value than the woman whom the show is about, to the point that her character’s name is in the title. But, as we’ve seen, it was also a fallacy: Ratings surged after Dempsey left, and have remained strong with Pompeo as the sole lead draw.
Pompeo also said that at one point she asked for a ceremonial $5,000 more than Dempsey, on principle as she was the show’s star. When she wasn’t granted the request, she didn’t walk away, and her reasoning elucidates how gender pay disparity perpetuates itself—and why every Twitter troll who suggests that actresses like Michelle Williams are simply bad at negotiating can take a flying leap.
“I could have walked away, so why didn’t I? It’s my show; I’m the number one,” she said. “I’m sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, ‘I’m not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house.’”
Pompeo also revealed that she had asked Dempsey to negotiate together in solidarity, à la the cast of Friends and The Big Bang Theory, in order to achieve pay parity, and he had no interest. Girl, bye!
If the All the Money in the World disaster taught us anything, it’s the necessity for male allies, protection from agencies, and the support of the institutions that hold the purse strings. That nugget about Dempsey is a bombshell. And I bet Pompeo knew it.
The information she offers in the essay is raw and unfiltered. It’s specific and personal to her own experience but, because of that, it speaks truth to power throughout Hollywood and to most other industries.
She’s self-deprecating and self-aware without minimizing her worth or the significance of her negotiations. She talks about how she’s perceived, and how that contrasts with her value and her work.
And she speaks matter-of-factly and with great humor about the reality of what it means to be a working actress: “I’m not necessarily perceived as successful, either, but a 24-year-old actress with a few big movies is, even though she’s probably being paid shit — certainly less than her male co-star and probably with no backend. And they’re going to pimp her out until she’s 33 or 34 and then she’s out like yesterday’s trash, and then what does she have to take care of herself? These poor girls have no real money, and the studio is making a fortune and parading them like ponies on a red carpet.”
May there never be as powerful an indictment of how little we value our female legends than the phrase, “Faye Dunaway is driving a fuckin’ Prius today.”
But more than that, the way she owns up to scandals on set at Grey’s, cops to her own petty behavior, reveals the lethargy actors can feel, and explains how her own apathy at times blinded her to her own worth gives the piece authority through candor. In illustrating how valuable Shonda Rhimes was in advocating her payday, she reveals that change requires the support of those within the system, but also the willingness to recognize your place within it, too.
“I’m 48 now, so I’ve finally gotten to the place where I’m OK asking for what I deserve, which is something that comes only with age,” she says. “Because 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. 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 fuckin’ skill.”
Damn straight it is.