Ellen Pompeo has spent 18 seasons playing Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. The show is the longest-running medical drama in TV history, so it should come as no surprise that doing something for that long can either make or break your creativity.
“I’m very intense, clearly. And I’ve been on the same show for 18 seasons. It takes a lot of passion and intensity to continue to do the same thing and continue to make it better,” says Pompeo, on the most recent episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation.
For Pompeo, it’s been a task of finding new ways to keep Grey’s Anatomy relevant to audiences, as well as exploring new ventures outside of acting, such as her new podcast, Tell Me, through the podcast studio Cadence13.
However, as Pompeo admits and learned firsthand, sometimes that aforementioned intensity can spill over in situations that have made her check herself.
On Tell Me‘s premiere episode with her former costar Patrick Dempsey, Pompeo recounted a tense moment she had on the set of Grey’s Anatomy between herself and Denzel Washington, who was a guest director. The headlines that followed the podcast episode called out Pompeo’s behavior in the situation.
“Emotionally, I’m in a space of really being careful about what I say,” Pompeo says. “Being an outspoken charismatic woman, I’ve put myself in situations where things I say, they can pluck out five words and make it appear as if I’ve said something else. So I would say right now, I’ve touched the electric wire on the fence, and I’m just a little bit in shock. I’m in a space where I’m just trying to be super careful about what I say, because I definitely am a target.”
In this episode of Creative Conversation, Ellen explains how she keeps her creativity fresh, her struggles with being a perfectionist, and putting herself out there in new endeavors.
“One of the most important things that I’m realizing and looking at now is, tonally our show, 17 years ago, we didn’t know what we know [today] about the medical world. The pandemic has shone a light on the medical community like we’ve never seen before. The inequity in medicine, the racism in medicine—those are themes that are very hard to look away from, for me, anyway. We didn’t talk about those things 17 years ago.
“I am more interested right now, in this moment, of tonally being a little bit truer to what doctors really face and what it means to be a physician, what it means to be a healer. What toll that takes on a human being to have to give, give, give of yourself every single day. And how much of yourself do you give, and how much of yourself do you protect? Those stories are very interesting to me. Albeit not exactly the tone that we always strike on Grey’s.”
Why so serious?
“What’s interesting is, people involved in this [podcast Tell Me], I won’t name any names, but they said, You don’t have to work so hard. You don’t have to prepare so much and kill yourself over the guests. You can just relax and chill out and go to your guest house and have conversations. And I was like, What? No, I can’t. I have to read everything they’ve ever done. I have to watch everything. I have to listen to everything they’ve ever said. I really put a lot of myself into things to make everything the best it can be. It’s also funny that white men said that to me. It occurred to me, ‘Oh, I guess, if you’re a white guy, you can just chill and half-ass it.’ There’s the soundbite right there! Ellen says, ‘If you’re a white guy, you can chill and half-ass it.’ Take it!
“I wouldn’t say this is fun for me right now, and maybe that’s where my learning curve needs to be? Maybe I need to learn to have more fun with the things that I do. I’m too intense. I’m like, Is it good?”
Creativity on repeat
“Figuring out how to make a scene that you’ve done 30 times, how to make it feel fresh and new again, [that] is the hardest piece of creativity. It doesn’t get enough credit, actually. It’s very easy to be creative when you’re doing things for the first time. Everybody can be creative when you’ve never done this scene before. Can you do this same exact scene in the same room that you’ve done it [in] 1,000 times before? Can you stay present and make that scene good? To me, that’s the ultimate creative challenge.”