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Ellen Pompeo on the future of “Grey’s Anatomy”

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For 17 seasons actress Ellen Pompeo has starred in the longest-running primetime medical drama on American TV. But now her character on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Meredith Grey, has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Will she, and the show, survive? Correspondent Tracy Smith reports.

Video Transcript

- For 17 seasons, fans of the TV show "Grey's Anatomy" have watched Ellen Pompeo's character graduate from intern to surgeon. This morning, she's out of the hospital and in conversation with Tracy Smith.

TRACY SMITH: So you had this garden before COVID.

ELLEN POMPEO: I did, yes, luckily.

TRACY SMITH: You might not know that Ellen Pompeo is quite the home gardener.

This is amazing. Why did you decide to set this up?

ELLEN POMPEO: I-- you know, I grew up with gardens as a kid. Shall we go in?

TRACY SMITH: Yeah.

Last week, we got a tour of the nursery shed--

ELLEN POMPEO: I have parsley and cilantro. This is all my herbs.

TRACY SMITH: --outside the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband and three kids.

ELLEN POMPEO: Oregano is really good-- they say it's like-- it has antiviral properties. So like oregano oil for flu and colds is really good. But I just, like, chew on the leaves and--

TRACY SMITH: You chew oregano?

ELLEN POMPEO: Yep, I chew oregano.

TRACY SMITH: You are an Italian girl.

ELLEN POMPEO: I am an Italian girl. I say I cook like an Italian and tell a story like an Irish.

TRACY SMITH: Or course, she's a lot better known for something else she's been helping to grow for the past 17 years.

ELLEN POMPEO: That's one of us down there, the first one of us. Where's your loyalty?

TRACY SMITH: Her show, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," happens to be the longest-running prime-time medical drama on American TV, 17 seasons and counting.

- Doctor, quick, he's sick. He's badly sick.

TRACY SMITH: By comparison, "Dr. Kildare" only lasted five years. The landmark CBS series "M*A*S*H" ran for 11.

- Pupils are sluggish. Ophthalmoscope.

TRACY SMITH: And the perennial favorite "ER" said goodbye after 15 seasons.

ELLEN POMPEO: So pick me. Choose me. Love me.

TRACY SMITH: As the show's title character, Dr. Meredith Grey--

[EXPLOSION]

--Ellen Pompeo has survived all manner of calamity and heartbreak.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

But this season, Dr. Grey herself has COVID-19.

ELLEN POMPEO: Do I choose? Do I get to decide if I go back?

TRACY SMITH: And in recent episodes, she's been drifting in and out of a dream sequence, from which she may or may not awaken.

- Meredith!

TRACY SMITH: And now, millions of fans are on pins and needles waiting to see if Dr. Grey and her namesake show lives or dies.

Are you looking now-- and I'm not trying to make you give anything away.

ELLEN POMPEO: [LAUGHS] Yes, you are.

TRACY SMITH: I'm not I swear I am not.

ELLEN POMPEO: Yes, you are. Everybody does. I can't say.

TRACY SMITH: OK, maybe a little.

ELLEN POMPEO: I can't say. We honestly have not decided. We're really trying to figure it out right now.

TRACY SMITH: You're in the middle of deciding whether it ends or it doesn't end.

ELLEN POMPEO: Yes, it's what story do we tell? To end a show this iconic, how do we do it? I just want to make sure we do this character and this show and the fans-- I want to make sure we do it right.

- Derek.

TRACY SMITH: And you can bet it'll be heart stopping.

- It's OK.

TRACY SMITH: For her, emotions seem to come naturally. Born in a working-class Boston suburb, Ellen Pompeo had, by her own admission, a melancholy childhood.

ELLEN POMPEO: I was quite sad as a child. I think people might have-- you know, my sisters or my family might have other impressions of me. But I definitely, you know, had a very sad childhood because I lost my mother when I was four. So that shapes your entire existence, I think.

TRACY SMITH: How does something that traumatic affect a kid? I mean, how did it affect you?

ELLEN POMPEO: I think it probably made me want to get out of there. You know, that place represented sadness for me. So I thought maybe anywhere but there would be better. And luckily for me, I found a way to monetize all my emotion. You know.

Well, Chandler and I used to make out, a lot.

TRACY SMITH: Like most struggling actors--

ELLEN POMPEO: Are you my dead head?

TRACY SMITH: --Pompeo's first onscreen roles were mostly small and often forgettable. That is, until her agent convinced her to stop taking bit parts and do a TV pilot for a medical show.

ELLEN POMPEO: I got cut out of a bunch of movies. So then it came to a point where then I needed money. So I did the "Grey's" pilot.

TRACY SMITH: Because you needed money.

ELLEN POMPEO: My agent said, you know what? I said, I don't want to be stuck on a medical show for six years. I don't think I'll be happy. I think I'll be bored. And he said, you know, Ellen, just take the job. It's going to last, you know, a month, six weeks at best. And these things never go. So I said, oh, they don't? And he said, no, no. It'll just be a job, and you'll be right back to being broke and unemployed and complaining in a couple of months. And I said, OK.

I need to feel as valued as you say you value me. I need to be able to look in the mirror. This is just not enough.

- Do you have a number in mind?

TRACY SMITH: And now, 17 years later, Pompeo says she's learned just what she's worth to the network and how to ask for it.

You are one of the highest-paid actors on TV. And I would imagine that-- I know that didn't come easy.

ELLEN POMPEO: No. Of course not. No. But in my specific instance, I had a very specific number that I can see what "Grey's Anatomy" has generated. I can see exactly how much that show makes for one of the biggest corporations in the world.

TRACY SMITH: And her end of the deal is reported to be $20 million a year.

- Grey?

ELLEN POMPEO: Yeah?

- Well done.

TRACY SMITH: And as for what comes next, Pompeo says even she doesn't know.

I mean, as we sit here, we don't know whether Meredith is alive or dead, basically.

ELLEN POMPEO: Right. We don't know. I'm in that "we."

TRACY SMITH: You're in that "we."

ELLEN POMPEO: Yeah.

TRACY SMITH: You really don't know at this point.

ELLEN POMPEO: I mean, you know, we-- we have choices.

TRACY SMITH: This is not bad for a girl from Everett, Mass.

ELLEN POMPEO: Nope. No, it's not bad.

TRACY SMITH: But no matter what happens on the show this season, Ellen Pompeo will, to some, at least, always be Dr. Meredith Grey. And she, in a way, will live forever.

It's a blessing, of course. You're on a hit show.

ELLEN POMPEO: Of course. Yes.

TRACY SMITH: But at the same time, you do have to kind of go, OK, now I'm in this box. What-- what comes next? How do I find my way out?

ELLEN POMPEO: Yeah. I guess you could look at it like that. I looked at myself as if I was in a box when I was 35 years old. Now I'm 50, and I would never look at myself that way. So with age comes wisdom.

TRACY SMITH: And now how do you see it?

ELLEN POMPEO: And now how do I see it? Well, I could do anything I want, or not do anything at all. [LAUGHS]