‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Star Ellen Pompeo on Female Directors, Motherhood and Politics

Ellen Pompeo
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After 13 seasons, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Ellen Pompeo made her directorial debut on this week’s episode of the long-running medical drama.

What took so long? Well, Pompeo is busy.

She’s been at the top of the call sheet on the ABC juggernaut since its premiere in 2005, and she balances leading “Grey’s Anatomy” with her other full time job: being a mother to three young children at home.

“I’m already there really a lot of hours. Directing is even more hours. The idea of spending more time there really has never appealed to me. So basically that’s it,” Pompeo tells Variety when asked why she waited until the middle of Season 13 to sit in the director’s chair. She adds, “As far as creativity on ‘Grey’s,’ you’re kind of trapped in a hospital and there’s only so much you can do, so I wasn’t that excited about it creatively.”

Pompeo says she was convinced to direct partly because of Debbie Allen, who is in charge of appointing all of the episodic directors on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and also because of her evolution on the series, thanks to creator Shonda Rhimes allowing her to learn from the sidelines about directing, producing, and storytelling, in addition to acting.

“We never can tell the way we’ll evolve — emotionally or spiritually or creatively, you never know how you’ll evolve and what will interest you creatively,” Pompeo explains. “The show has had a lot of changes and that’s precisely how the show keeps going because it does continue to change. People change, the cast, behind the scenes, the writers, everything changes. So the circumstances just changed, and when Debbie asked me to do it this time, I was more open.”

Here, Pompeo talks about her decision to finally direct, plus opens up about work-life balance, the lack of female directors, and the lack of women in politics…

Have Debbie Allen and Shonda Rhimes been asking you to direct for years?

To be honest, no one has ever asked me before. I have a pretty busy home life — I have three kids, and one of the things I’m proudest about is being able to achieve a really healthy balance. Not only do I have a great job on this show that continues to be super successful, but I have a great home life, and I cherish that a lot. I try to devote equal time to both. So no one has ever approached me about it before, and Debbie did and she started last year asking me, and I started saying no, no, no, and then she just kept at it. Debbie Allen doesn’t take no for an answer! I thought about it and everything she said was true — I do know more about the show than more of the directors that come in, so if they can do it, I certainly could. It wasn’t a question of if I could do it; it was a question of, do I want to spend that much more time here?

How much of a time commitment was it for you to direct the episode?

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It was a month and I banged it out and I’m really happy that I did it. I’m lucky that I live really close to where I work, and my kids get to come to set and they get to hang out — it’s a very family-friendly set, so I just worked around that challenge by bringing my kids and my family to set all the time.

Was the schedule and time commitment the most challenging part of directing, or did you find anything else to be especially difficult?

I think the most challenging thing is just the sheer hours.

How did you decide which episode you wanted to direct?

I really wanted to direct a script from [writer] Meg Marinis and Shonda was kind enough to grant me that wish. Debbie is in charge of booking the directors so she had to just figure out in the schedule where there was space. We have a good amount of freedom because we have so many in-house directors from Chandra Wilson to Kevin McKidd and Debbie, too. We don’t book the whole season of directors ahead of time, so there were some spaces open, so it was just a matter of what slot was open and there were only a couple of episodes not spoken for, so it was pretty easy to set.

You mentioned some of your cast members who have directed. Did anyone give you advice?

No, not really. I’ve been there so long. I see everybody do it. Sara Fischer, who’s in charge of production for Shondaland and who is a remarkable human being, gave me the best piece of advice, which was to have an answer for everything and to wear sneakers, and I already do that every day [laughing]. I was already all prepared.

There is a lack of female directors in the industry. “Grey’s Anatomy” has so many female directors. Do you think that “Grey’s” is helping to pave the way for female directors?

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Shonda Rhimes is definitely walking the walk. I can’t really say enough about her leadership skills and the way she’s running the company and how far she’s come. Her evolution as a leader has been very inspiring to watch. Obviously when we started, she didn’t have any employees and it was her first show and she never had a show before. So with respect to breaking down boundaries and creating an environment for people in-house to learn and create and grow is something that she definitely talks the talk and walks the walk. I don’t know if one show can change the stats and if one show is enough to move the needle with respect to the whole television business, but certainly, our numbers are much more impressive than I’m sure any other show. I doubt there’s another show that hires as many women as we do — which is so weird to me because women are such amazing multi-taskers. Directing is multi-tasking. It’s baffling to me!

It’s also baffling to me that there aren’t more women in politics because running the country is multi-tasking, and women are notoriously better at that than men. It’s so curious to me how we end up in these dynamics. Clearly, our president cannot tweet and do anything at the same time. [Hillary Clinton] can manage her emotion and tweet, all at the same time.

Would you want to direct another episode of “Grey’s”?

I am going to do another one next year. Obviously the challenge for me is I can’t not be in front of the camera. They can write me lighter when I direct. But I would direct a bunch if I could not act as much, but that’s not really an idea that anyone is interested in. Right now, I’m just scheduled to do one next year because they really want me in the show — you know, a lot. And I understand that and it’s fine.

Well, the show is called “Grey’s Anatomy,” after all.

Yeah [laughing]. I would love to direct another show or I’d love to direct a pilot where I could be really creative from the start and conceptualize everything and create a whole entire body of a story. That would be really exciting to me. That comes so easy to me, being on a television show for 13 seasons — I really have learned so much about storytelling and about all sides of it, so it comes pretty easy to me.

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  1. louis martin lepine says:

    True fan of the show. It’s always nice to be mind blowned thinking the episode will go one way and end up completely different. As for the idea of one show being enough of a launch to a career?… Iseem to think so, and it has to go deeper. I believe the ability to take the main character of a show, make him evolve dramaticly and still keep control the environment around him. The longer you do so the longer the show goes on and better the main character gets. Breaking Bad, with the chemisttry teacher doing everinthing for his family to despritly fighting his own diabolical self, Jacks teller is the sons fighting the outlaw and being a family man, or any main character in grey,s anathomy such as alex carev and his demons. I believe that is the real stepping stone for any creator.

  2. Shonda & Debbie Allen are creative & excell at their jobs. As a previous Co-Chair at the DGA for Women I certainly appreciate what these women do in hiring women directors and being true to their commitment. So pleased that Ellen made the time commitment to direct. Every success ladies.

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