Why Shonda Rhimes and Ellen Pompeo’s relationship is so much more important than you might realize
On Wednesday morning, Grey’s Anatomy fans rejoiced on social media after The Hollywood Reporter released an interview with Ellen Pompeo, who confirmed that she had negotiated a new salary and signed on for two more seasons. While the internet cheered the actress for her realness and blunt takes on being a woman in Hollywood, one other detail really stood out: Shonda Rhimes and Ellen Pompeo have an important relationship, the kind we wish every woman was lucky enough to have.
Pompeo says in the interview that it was Rhimes who told her to go to the network and negotiate for what she thought she was worth. She reveals she once asked Patrick Dempsey to negotiate with her to ensure they were both getting fairly compensated (he declined). She also once asked for $5,000 more than him and the network wouldn’t give it to her, despite the fact that she was the actually the main character. When Pompeo learned that Rhimes was going to do shows for Netflix, she approached the showrunner to see what was up. She put it like this:
"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?"
But it was more than two women trying to figure out how to make the show keep working, though they seem to have done that, too. The conversation was about getting paid and feeling satisfied on the job, which is something we don’t hear about very often from two women who work together in Hollywood. Pompeo said that as Rhimes was more comfortable with her own power (which admittedly takes some getting used to), she empowered Pompeo to stop worrying about whether she was being too greedy or asking for too much. They felt free to be frank with each other, too. Pompeo said that she told Rhimes the truth: That she didn’t want to direct, she wanted a creative outlet in producing and the leeway to work on other things within her Grey’s contract. Pompeo said:
"In Shonda finding her power and becoming more comfortable with her power, she has empowered me. And that took her a while to get to, too. It was part of her evolution. It's also why our relationship is so special. I was always loyal to her, and she responds well to loyalty. So, she got to a place where she was so empowered that she was generous with her power. Now, what did that look like? It looked like her letting me be the highest-paid woman on television, letting me be a producer on this show, letting me be a co-executive producer on the spinoff and signing off on the deal that the studio gave me, which is unprecedented."
For the record, Pompeo is said to be making $575,000 per episode, plus all those producer benefits and backend deals.
They’ve been working together for over a decade, so you know that the two women have had their ups and downs. As Pompeo said, they have a “special” relationship and, while all of our other faves might have the same kind of business friendships, we never get to see it framed that way.
The amazing thing here: Rhimes and Pompeo don’t pretend that they’re BFFs.
Maybe they are — they certainly have to spend a lot of time together and have both been working with the Time’s Up initiative. But when they speak about each other, it’s not about “girl power” or their Shondaland “squad.” It’s about how Rhimes understood what Pompeo was about, and they empowered each other to keep a $3 billion machine (yes, that’s how much Grey’s has made over the years) running at full steam.
In Hollywood, we often hear women talk about how much they “love” each other and their emotional connection to each other, and how that’s the predication for their professional relationships. And hey, that’s amazing! We all need friends. But Pompeo and Rhimes always focus on the business side, which is such an important thing for other women to learn and model for others. Far too often, we pit women in Hollywood (and elsewhere) as either best friends or enemies. It’s like women who are in the same industry can either be Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps and hold hands on the red carpet (which is delightful to watch!) or they have to hate each other, which is likely often just something made up by the media because we don’t see them skipping around Beverly Hills together.
The need to focus on women being *best buds* or catty is so sexist, as is assuming that if two women are in industry power team, it’s because they are friends. No — maybe they are just combining their power for mutual success. Maybe it isn’t personal at all. Women are capable of doing things that aren’t steeped in emotion all the time.
And we don’t impose these same assumptions on men. We don’t assume that the guys from the Hangover movies all vacation together or that Judd Apatow and one of the many actors he’s made famous are BFFs. They all might be — friendship is a beautiful thing. But the way that Rhimes and Pompeo (and, frankly, all the other lead women that Rhimes works with) talk about how fulfilling their professional relationship with each other is is so refreshing. Female friendship is great. Female business partnerships? That’s hot. Pompeo said that it’s sort of strange to watch her 8-year-old daughter grow up being “comfortable” with power, and that it’s something she learned working with Rhimes.
"I should also say this: 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. But there should be more of us women in power, and not just on Shonda Rhimes' sets. Look, I only have a 12th-grade education and I wasn't a great student, but I've gotten an education here at Shondaland. And now my 8-year-old daughter gets to come here and see fierce females in charge."
We should strive for that kind of balance in our lives, too. Admittedly, it’s not always simple or clear cut when you’re not conquering the world, one feminist TV show at a time. Like Pompeo said, it’s all about sharing the power and resources we have, whether it’s a great negotiating tactic, not being afraid to collaborate and challenge other women at work, or just having each other’s back. You don’t have to be best friends with every woman you respect. Business and best friends don’t always mix anyway.