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Ellen Pompeo on Grey’s Anatomy Twists, Shipping Meredith and Alex, and Ageism in Hollywood

As Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo has the distinction of playing one of the longest-running characters currently on television — and one of the longest-suffering characters too. This season alone, Meredith’s coped with aftermath of her husband Derek Shephard’s death and confronted the doctor responsible for it; and in tonight’s mid-season premiere (directed by Denzel Washington), she’ll suffer a violent attack at the hands of a patient. Cosmopolitan.com spoke to Pompeo on her lunch break earlier this week to talk about Meredith’s future, why ageism is alive and well in Hollywood, and what she and Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes have discussed about the end of the series.

Meredith is savagely attacked by a patient in the mid-season premiere. How does this twist compare to some of the many other big twists or shockers on the show?
That’s what Shonda does best, is give us these big twists and turns. And even though the fans get upset at these big, dramatic changes, I cannot tell you how important big, dramatic changes are for the writers, who have to write 24 episodes of television [every season]. One of the most amazing things to come out of this year is the addition of Penny, who is played by Samantha Sloyan, and who was the doctor who made the fatal mistake to not get a CT on Derek Shepherd. That part of episode five, the dinner party, where it’s revealed that Penny is [in Seattle], was one of the most compelling episodes of this season. And that could not have happened had we not had the changes that we had last year.

Unfortunately, these big changes are tough. And they’re tough for us emotionally, too, when we lose people, but that helps us act, and it helps us tell the story. Sorry, I got off on a tangent, but this [twist] ranks right up there.

What was your reaction to the script?
I was skeptical when they told me that something else catastrophic was going to happen to Meredith. I said, “Well, how is the audience going to respond to that? And how do I tell that story truthfully, being that I’ve just played the story of losing my husband?” But the fact that Denzel [Washington] stepped in makes everything OK. It gives everything a justification, because he’s such a creative genius that he can get away with anything … I can’t say enough about how he inspired me. I certainly gave it more than I usually do for him. I really wanted to inspire him and make him grateful that he came to work with us. I didn’t want him leaving here saying, “Why did I go and do that?”

How did Denzel come to be involved?
He’s very good friends with Debbie Allen, who’s our directing producer and also plays Catherine Avery. She’s our boots on the ground for the actors. She helps our communication with the writers run smoothly, so everyone feels like they’re heard. She had this idea to bring him in. And I think that Pauletta Washington, who is Denzel’s wife, is a big fan of the show. Behind every great man, there’s an even better woman. I’m sure that Pauletta whispered something in his ear.

But ultimately, we can’t take any credit away from him. He was gracious enough to come here and inspire a group of actors who, you know, we come to work every day, and it gets tedious! I’m not gonna lie. It’s a great job, we’re super blessed, we’re living our dream, all those wonderful things. But I’d be lying if I said 12 seasons didn’t get tedious. To have someone like him come in, that’s moving. That’s a fire under your butt.

It seems like the two of you formed a strong bond in the process of doing this.
He’s one of the best to ever play the game. To be on the show this long, I don’t expect opportunities to be with creative geniuses like that anymore. You sort of think that piece of it is behind you. We get to work with Shonda Rhimes, that’s pretty great. But if I had a list of five actors that I wanted to work with, he’s definitely one of the five. So to be able to work with him in any capacity, even if it’s not acting, is a dream come true.

Is the attack something that will move Meredith forward in her life, and if it is, can you give us a sense of where she might be moving to?
So, after the attack, she goes into therapy, which is an idea that Shonda and I discussed. And then in therapy, she starts exploring what it means to be alone, and [how] she’s never alone, and how alone does she want to be? Everyone else thinks it’s time for Meredith to move on and start dating again. And so Meredith has to explore that opportunity of, “OK, what does dating again look like, and how do you do that?” We’re moving toward Meredith dating again, so everyone has to get ready for it. I can tell you that I’ve shot a few scenes, although I don’t know where they’re going to go, but I have shot a few scenes, and I’m very happy and excited with the way this is unfolding. It’s exciting for Meredith, and it’s some happiness, some light. I hope we get to keep going to down that path.