Ellen Pompeo wasn’t fairly paid for “Grey’s Anatomy” until Shonda Rhimes got powerful

It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top.
It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top.
Image: Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich
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In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, actor Ellen Pompeo lifted the curtain on years of behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the $20 million contract she signed late last year. The deal makes her the highest paid actress on a television drama.

Pompeo’s contract is more than just a lot of money for her role on the series Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a lucrative arrangement that includes producing fees, a share of the show’s income, and office space and pilot commitments for her own production company. In an industry notoriously stingy with opportunities for women over the age of 35, the contract secures for Pompeo wealth and a creative role beyond acting, a job she said she finds increasingly “boring.”

Despite the fact that Grey’s Anatomy is one of the highest-rated series on television, and that Pompeo’s Meredith Grey is the titular character, the actor battled unsuccessfully for years to achieve wage parity with her former male co-star Patrick Dempsey, she said in the Hollywood Reporter interview.

“At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and I’m Meredith Grey,” Pompeo said. “They wouldn’t give it to me.”

What shifted the equation was the growing power of Shonda Rhimes, the show’s creator, head writer, and executive producer. In the 14 years since “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered, Rhimes became one of the most powerful creative and commercial forces in television. Last year, she signed an unprecedented deal with Netflix that grants her broad creative freedom and a nine-figure salary estimated at $25 million.

But before Rhimes left ABC, she made sure that Pompeo was able to leverage that success into wealth of her own. “In Shonda finding her power and becoming more comfortable with her power, she has empowered me,” Pompeo said. She explained:

What happened is that I went to Shonda and I said, “If you’re moving on to Netflix and you want the show to go down, I’m cool with that. But if you want it to continue, I need to be incentivized. I need to feel empowered and to feel ownership of this show.” And she was like, “I absolutely want to keep the show going. It’s the mothership, so let’s find a way to make you happy. What do you want?” . . .

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.”

Rhimes isn’t the first woman to elevate another as she ascends in her industry. Previous studies have found that companies with women in leadership roles perform better, raise senior women’s wages faster, and hire more female executives. Her willingness to ask the actress what she wanted from her career, listen to the answer, and guide her in the negotiations to get it helped seed future opportunities for women in the industry. Pompeo’s company has already sold one series to Amazon and is in talks for another at ABC.

“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,” Pompeo said. “But there should be more of us women in power, and not just on Shonda Rhimes’ sets.”