In a candid and wide-ranging interview with Variety, Ellen Pompeo and Taraji P. Henson opened up about the obstacles they’ve faced in their acting careers, including pay inequity and difficult environments on set.
Pompeo, who stars as Meredith Grey on the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the challenges of doing 15 seasons of the show. “The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment,” she said. “But after Season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years. My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes.”
So she and the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, decided to address the situation and “rewrite the ending of this story,” Pompeo said. “That’s what’s kept me.”
She noted that actor Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, saying, “The studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission.”
Henson, who plays fan favorite Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, discussed the decision to take the role, describing her mixed feelings when she first read the pilot. “I thought, the NAACP, they’re going to get me for this one,” she said, explaining that Cookie “calls one son who’s gay the F-bomb, and she beats one son with a broom. This is something that has never been shown on national television — certainly not by a black woman. When you’re a person of color, you have to be careful about the roles you pick. You want to uplift the people. Once I got past the fear, I was able to really see her.”
Pompeo replied, “I think that Caucasian actresses don’t understand the nuanced struggles that you have as a black woman, and the roles you choose — what you’re sidestepping, what you want to make sure gets out there. It’s a whole different layer of difficulty that I certainly didn’t understand when I started my show.”
Both women talked about pay as well, with Henson saying pay in Hollywood isn’t necessarily about talent. “It’s about money: Are you bankable? I had to continuously prove that,” she said. “I’ve been trying to prove and improve. I was asking for half a million. I didn’t get paid that until I did my first Tyler Perry film. He was the first person who paid me $500,000. I was never in a position where I could not take a job. By the grace of God, they have all been really good characters. But it was never a situation where I was like, I’m not going to do that. Now, I’m finally there.”
When Henson asked Pompeo if she and Dempsey got paid the same when the show began, Pompeo said, “He was being paid almost double what I was in the beginning.”
Read the full story at Variety.