When Ellen Pompeo sees Katherine Heigl before our photo shoot, she offers a greeting worthy of Barbra Streisand. “Hello, gorgeous!” Pompeo exclaims, giving Heigl a hug. And suddenly, it’s like no time has passed since “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered as a midseason replacement in 2005 — after ABC executives considered not airing the show at all — in the time slot after “Desperate Housewives.” Ultimately, these two women somehow not only surpassed the ladies of Wisteria Lane, they redefined pop culture.
Throughout this reunion, we seriously take you back to the first days of TV’s longest running primetime medical drama. As “Grey’s Anatomy” became an overnight sensation, Pompeo and Heigl were launched into the stratosphere of fame together, for better and for worse. On the plus side, the Shonda Rhimes-created series revolutionized television, with women and actors of color leading the show. Yet the sudden, sometimes toxic attention — as well as spending those long days and nights on the infamously grueling set during the early years — taught both of them hard-won lessons. “If you cannot stand up for yourself in this industry, very few people will stand up for you,” Heigl says to Pompeo. “So you’d better learn how to, and you’d better be OK with them not liking you for it. ”
Their time together on the “Grey’s Anatomy” set also created a bond that’s lasted to this day. Pompeo has been the still-popular drama’s mainstay, though her character, Meredith Grey, recently left the show’s Seattle hospital for Boston. Pompeo will begin filming a limited series for Hulu this fall, playing someone who isn’t Meredith for the first time in 18 years, which Pompeo laughingly calls “an interesting experiment.” But she assures us that we’ll still see Meredith on “Grey’s” when it begins its 20th season.
Heigl’s Netflix drama “Firefly Lane,” in which she played talk show host Tully Hart, recently wrapped after two tear-jerking seasons, after which she returned to her home in Utah. Heigl left “Grey’s Anatomy” in its sixth season in 2010, taking her fan-favorite character Izzie Stevens with her, having acquired a reputation — one she dismantles here — for being, as she puts it, “ungrateful” and “difficult.”
During their conversation, the two actors laugh about how young the rabid fan base of “Grey’s” is these days, discuss what they’ve learned over the years and bolster each other — like old friends do.
ELLEN POMPEO: Rock, paper, scissors — shoot.
KATHERINE HEIGL: You start. You’re more professional.
POMPEO: You don’t have a good memory! OK, so let’s start there.
Do you have a memory of when we met? Because I was thinking, and I don’t remember.
HEIGL: I don’t have a specific memory, but I remember that first week before we started filming the pilot. Peter Horton had us doing all those actor exercises, which I had never done before, but it did bond us. Didn’t we do trust falls?
POMPEO: Good memory! I remember you had my baby shower for me.
HEIGL: I did.
POMPEO: That was very nice.
HEIGL: By the way, I still have all those photos. I meant to put together an album for you. I know it’s been 13 years, but it’s not too late, is it?
HEIGL: OK, great. I’ll send that all to you.
POMPEO: Are you kidding? I would love those photos. Speaking of the kids — how old is your oldest?
HEIGL: My oldest, Naleigh Moon, is 14. Isn’t Stella a September baby?
HEIGL: Naleigh is a November baby, and I remember that time so clearly, because you hadn’t even had Stella Luna yet when I got Naleigh. We had little play dates, which was fun. And you made us Bolognese one day, and it was incredible. My mother still talks about it.
POMPEO: She does?
HEIGL: My mother loves Bolognese.
POMPEO: Has Naleigh seen the show?
HEIGL: No. I haven’t gone there yet with her. Stella has, right? You’ve watched it together.
POMPEO: Right. Everyone in her class in the sixth grade had, which I thought was a bit crazy, knowing what’s in the first seasons. She was like, “Mom, I’m the only one who hasn’t seen it.” So I said OK. In the summer, she started watching it. And at first I was like, “Oh, this is so amazing, and we’re going to watch it together.” Then it was episode after episode after episode, and I was like, “I don’t have the stamina for this!” I filmed all these episodes; I can’t now go back and watch it again. What’s interesting is I hadn’t watched a lot of “Grey’s,” because we were always working.
HEIGL: Really? When I was on, I watched every episode when it aired. I was anxious to see how it all turned out.
POMPEO: Yeah, see, that was not good for my mind to do that, so I avoided that. Many of the episodes I was seeing for the first time with Stella. It’s pretty cool to be a part of something that’s lasted this long.
HEIGL: There would be scenes that I would be so embarrassed to be sitting next to her watching. I’d be like, “Can we fast forward this moment?”
POMPEO: Yeah. This is sex with the ghost.
HEIGL: Yeah, that. The oral sex with the ghost while somebody else was watching in the room. I don’t know how I’d explain that.
POMPEO: Do you remember the deer?
HEIGL: Yes, yes. And I worked with that deer again years later. I’m not kidding.
POMPEO: Are you serious?
HEIGL: I’m not exaggerating! I worked with that deer years later in a different show I was doing. I’m like, “I know that deer. I saved that deer on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”
POMPEO: You knew for sure it was the same deer?
HEIGL: No, they told me. But it would be amazing if I had recognized the deer. So, Ellen, it is really devastating for the world that Meredith has left Seattle. What was it like that last day on set?
POMPEO: It’s a little bit of trickery, because I’m not completely gone. Actually, the storyline is very cool. There’s a lot of real research that’s changing very rapidly about Alzheimer’s disease and about what they believe is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s pretty controversial. So Meredith’s character left to go to Boston because her daughter needed to go to a special school. I will be making some appearances hopefully next year, if I can find some time.
HEIGL: So we don’t have to completely say goodbye.
POMPEO: No, it’s not a complete goodbye. And I think we’ve got an interesting story to tell. Then I’m going to shoot a show for Hulu. We’re going to start the Hulu show in September, and the working title is “The Orphan.” That’s going to be a very interesting role to play. I haven’t played another character in 18 years. That’s crazy — crazy town, crazy town.
Let’s talk about “Firefly Lane.” There were two books written for “Firefly Lane” or three?
HEIGL: Yes, there are two books. I didn’t actually read the second book, because it’s post the story we were telling. But yeah, it has a very definitive ending — Kate dies.
POMPEO: That is the amazing thing about streaming: There is a beginning, a middle and an end, which on network television, the challenge is —
HEIGL: You don’t know. That was my first experience doing anything for streaming. I loved it, and I really loved partnering with Netflix.
POMPEO: And then you were able to shake that right off and go home and be with your kids. That’s amazing.
HEIGL: It took a minute. I had a hard time letting Tully go. It was hard to disassociate or pull her out of me, because there was so much about her that really intimidated me. She’s incredibly self-assured. She’s got a bit of an ego on her, and she just really walks into any situation feeling like she’s going to kill it. Am I going to lose those bits of her that influenced who I’ve become?
POMPEO: That’s like therapy you get paid for. Go out into the world and be a piece of her.
HEIGL: With Meredith, are you letting her go, or is she coming with you?
POMPEO: Oh no, I’ve been on the show so long, I’m happy to let that go. We’re past that point. I think it’s OK for Meredith to stop making bad decisions. One of my frustrations is the Nick and Meredith of it all. Scott Speedman plays Meredith’s love interest, Nick Marsh, and I love Speedman. Somehow, Meredith can’t figure out how to make a relationship work, still, after all this time. I felt so happy to be able to step away, and I felt like I accomplished something incredible. Everywhere, as I’m sure everywhere you go, people just run up to me and say, “I love you!” It’s weird and strange, but it’s just love coming at me.
HEIGL: It is lovely. What I find disconcerting is how young those people are that are coming up now. Like, “I don’t think you were alive when we started it.”
HEIGL: Like, I had just had Joshua. I was in the liquor store — I needed some wine. And this man comes up to me and goes, “Excuse me. I’m so sorry, but my daughter, she’s freaking out over here. Would you mind talking to her for a minute?” And I was like, “Sure. Come on over, honey.” She goes, “Do you know ‘Grey’s Anatomy?’” And I was like, “I do. Yeah.” She goes, “Do you know Izzie Stevens?” And I go, “Yes, I do.” She goes, “Are you her mother?” Thankfully that hasn’t happened again.
When did you know that “Grey’s” was going to be a hit?
POMPEO: Do you remember we filmed the whole first season?
POMPEO: It was going to air on Sunday night after “Desperate Housewives.” On Monday morning, we had to film the last day of that first season. We came into work the next day, and everybody was freaking out. The ratings were huge. I don’t even know if people can count that high anymore. Then we went on hiatus, and the show was airing. I’m so grateful there was no social media then. We would’ve lost our minds, even more than we already lost our minds.
HEIGL: It didn’t take a lot. I just remember that I was nervous that they were not going to air it. There was a moment when it was unclear. They didn’t like it.
POMPEO: We’ll be very nice and not name the executive who almost took a nap on Shonda Rhimes. I’m not saying it, but he almost slept on Shonda Rhimes — almost didn’t air that pilot! You can do your research and find out who it was. Imagine being that guy.
HEIGL: I think he still is that guy. I think he owns a vineyard now in Napa.
I’m sure for you there are lines of dialogue that people quote to you all the time.
POMPEO: So, OK, this is a real thing. My daughter and her friends, they sit around and they’re like, “Oh, she’s a ‘pick me girl.’”
HEIGL: Oh, my God! Is that what that means?
POMPEO: Yes. I’m like, “What’s a pick me girl?” They were like, “You know, girls who are like, ‘Pick me, choose me!’” And I’m like, “Hello?! Do you know who invented the ‘pick me girl’?”
HEIGL: That’s incredible.
POMPEO: Listen, I don’t know if you remember that I fought that speech so hard. That’s another really interesting thing about life — some things that I was so against, and I was like, “I can’t beg a man on TV! This is so embarrassing.” And then it turns out to be one of the most famous scenes ever.
HEIGL: It was a beautiful scene.
POMPEO: In the scene, I’m crying, but I’m really crying because I have to beg a man on television.
HEIGL: There are so many wonderful things that came out of the show. We did have a lot of fun. Sometimes too much fun.
POMPEO: Friday nights were sometimes a little too much fun. You have to understand, people. A Friday night, 2 in the morning, and you got to run real cow bowel. Does anybody know what “running cow bowel” is?
HEIGL: Explain to us what running cow bowel is.
POMPEO: This is terrible. And Katie would always advocate and try to speak up, but we used a lot of real animal parts in the surgeries back in the day. After hours and hours under the lights, it starts to smell terrible. You’re wearing a mask, so that helps, but it’s just not the most pleasant experience. Your feet are tired, and you’re staring at this cow heart and bowel.
HEIGL: I just remember by, I want to say Season 2, we’d become so desensitized to it, we’d be standing on our marks eating ramen over the cow intestines. And they’d be like, “OK, we’re ready to go.” And we’d be like, “OK, thank you so much for —” We just stopped caring. That’s when you’re like, “Things have gone too far.”
POMPEO: In the OR, it’s the one place that really made me feel the passage of time. Most of my memories are in the OR.
HEIGL: Every one of us ended up on that table, didn’t we?
POMPEO: Meredith was on it many times.
HEIGL: You were the first doctor that became a patient of Seattle Grace. What happened again?
POMPEO: Did I get blown up? No.
HEIGL: No, you didn’t blow up.
POMPEO: I almost blew up. But Kyle Chandler blew up instead.
HEIGL: He blew up. And then Sandra ended up in the hospital bed because she had a — how do you say that?
POMPEO: Ectopic pregnancy. Republicans in Congress should read up on ectopic pregnancies, and they should understand how life-threatening a condition that is and how to save a woman’s life when that happens. Sorry, I digress. And kudos to Shonda Rhimes for talking about that stuff.
HEIGL: No, kudos to Shonda for changing the entire dialogue of network television at a time that really didn’t have women in those kinds of roles in the story, didn’t have as much diversity. I was young. I wasn’t paying that much attention. It felt like a job, a great job. I didn’t realize it was as impactful as it was. Well, it’s a gift to have the privilege to grow older and wiser — we don’t all have it. We laughed so much and so hard, and the crew was so mad at us because we couldn’t pull our shit together to get through a take.
POMPEO: I remember that prom, sleeping on the floor of that VA hospital in Northridge. I remember cutting the LVAD wire in that room where you were filming that scene.
HEIGL: Oh, that whole storyline was so intriguing to me. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a dream to work with. When it got to the point where he dies and she’s laying in the bed with him, I wanted so badly to nail that scene. I wanted it to feel the way it was written on the page. I don’t like to do that whole “Go into the dark place and listen to the music that’s going to tear my soul apart” thing. And the worst was that I really went there. I was 7 when my brother died, but we were in the hospital for a week. I don’t enjoy thinking about that much or that week in the hospital or him in that bed, but I chose to do that for that scene. I don’t think I’d do it again. I don’t think I would put myself in that headspace again to achieve that. I think I would try harder to just act it.
POMPEO: But those moments are what made the show as iconic as it is. Art is always worth it, because people watch that scene and it’s cathartic for them. Most people have lost people, and everybody loves a good cry. We made people feel things, Katie, and that is the biggest gift as an actor — to be able to make people feel. It’s pretty cool. One of the reasons why the show has impacted people so much is because we were so emotional. We were able to generate so much emotion. And that always results in amazing performances. Whether actors are torturing themselves or we’re torturing each other, the result is good, and the writers know that.
HEIGL: That’s interesting.
POMPEO: And when Izzie left, there was just so much going on. It’s really hard to show up on set when there’s so much. And then there wasn’t even social media.
HEIGL: Yeah. I was up here in my head, in my gut, in my mind, in my life. I was just vibrating at way too high of a level of anxiety. For me, it’s all a bit of a blur, and it took me years to learn how to deal with that, to master it. I can’t even say that I’ve mastered it, but to even know to work on it, that anxiety and fear — and stress is stress. And if you leave stress too long, unmanaged and unaddressed, it can be debilitating.
POMPEO: This is not specific to the character of Izzie leaving, but stress on sets … I’ve only been on one set my whole entire career, so I guess people could critique this comment, but I hear a lot of stories; I don’t hear about a lot of support. That’s one of the things I try to do now as a producer, specifically on “Grey’s,” is try to offer support — try to have a place for people to talk through things. There was no one to tell me, “This is OK. This is not OK.” There’s a very exploitive nature to what we do. Intimacy coordinators create a whole other slew of problems, but the intention behind it is good.
HEIGL: I had this experience on “Firefly Lane,” because I was like, “I’m an old Hollywood broad, bitch. You don’t have to tell me how to make out on camera.” And I ended up loving this woman so deeply, and being so grateful for her, because she protected us in a way that I didn’t realize how unprotected we were. And I was so grateful to her as well, because we did have young girls on the set. There was a rape scene. And for her to be there protecting them, I felt this weight off of me in a way that I didn’t feel like I had to find a way to fight those battles for these girls. I’m always the bad guy. People like me to be the bad guy.
POMPEO: You know what I love? There’s two roles women fit into, victim or villain. And the women who are victims are only victims because they don’t have the guts to be the villain.
HEIGL: I was so naive. I got on my soapbox and I had some things to say, and I felt really passionate about this stuff. I felt really strongly. I felt so strongly that I also got a megaphone out on my soapbox. There was no part of me that imagined a bad reaction. I felt really justified in how I felt about it and where I was coming from. I’ve spent most of my life — I think most women do — being in that people-pleasing mode. It’s really disconcerting when you feel like you have really displeased everybody. It was not my intention to do so, but I had some things to say, and I didn’t think I was going to get such a strong reaction. I was in my late 20s. It took me until probably my mid- to late-30s to really get back to tuning out all of the noise and going, “But who are you? Are you this bad person? Are you ungrateful? Are you unprofessional? Are you difficult?” Because I was confused! I thought maybe I was. I literally believed that version, and felt such shame for such a long time, and then had to go, “Wait. Who am I listening to? I’m not even listening to myself. I know who I am.”
POMPEO: You were just a little early, because they came out with this thing where everybody has their own megaphone and they get a blue check. It’s called Twitter. You were just a little ahead of your time, lady.
HEIGL: Damn it, I should have waited for Twitter. I’d be huge!
POMPEO: Somehow now, collectively, the whole world gets to criticize everything and tell everybody to fuck off, and it’s OK. But when you did it —
HEIGL: They didn’t like me. Oh, well. What are you going to do?
POMPEO: You’re too hot, Heigl.
HEIGL: That must be it! That’s what I tell myself when I go to sleep at night.
POMPEO: Listen, nobody likes a super confident woman. And that’s why they’re taking away reproductive rights, and voting rights all over this country, is because they don’t want women to find their power. They don’t want women to have a voice. They don’t want women to have control because they know that we can do it better than they can.
HEIGL: I think for me, I just felt that 40 was freedom, because I didn’t have to be the young, sweet, naive, people-pleasing ingénue anymore. I had outgrown it.
POMPEO: I don’t know about the “sweet” part. I wouldn’t describe you as sweet. And that’s what people had a problem with. Sweet, they can handle.
HEIGL: I would not trade anything for my 20s, but I absolutely had no idea who I was and what I wanted and who I was supposed to be and who to make happy.
POMPEO: You’re also a child actor. You grew up on sets, being told what to do, where to go, what to say, what to feel, what to think, what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep.
HEIGL: It made life easier. But then you get older, and they expect you to make some choices for yourself. Then “Grey’s” hit, and the success happened. I think that gave me this confidence that was a false sense of confidence. It was rooted in something that couldn’t and maybe wouldn’t always last for me. So then I started getting real mouthy, because I did have a lot to say, and there were certain boundaries and things that I was not OK with being crossed. I didn’t know how to fight that.
POMPEO: But also, can I mention the incredible amount of attention that you got very quickly is another thing that is like a disease in this town. Everybody gets built up, built up, built up, built up. They create this thing, and then almost wait for something to happen. As an outsider looking in, I saw a lot around you that wasn’t anything to do with you, or your fault. Not many people would know how to react to that much attention, that much focus, that much pressure. Who can be the most gracious, perfect person when all that’s … Certainly, some people are capable of it. OK, Zendaya is capable of it.
HEIGL: Yeah. She’s great.
POMPEO: She’s perfect and gorgeous and the most gracious young woman and has handled an enormous amount of attention and fame with incredibly impressive grace. But not everybody can do that. And there has to be some forgiveness, or some grace, for not everybody being able to handle every situation perfectly. I’ve certainly never handled every situation perfectly. I’d like to see other people try to walk a mile in your shoes during that time, and let’s see how they would’ve handled it.
HEIGL: Thanks, Ellen. You’re a good friend.
POMPEO: All the things we weren’t going to say! Well, this was fun.
HEIGL: It was so fun. I love you. I love seeing your face. I love getting to sit across from you again. It’s been eight years.
POMPEO: Me too. And can we go eat? I’m starving.
HEIGL: Yeah. We’re going to drink too, right? I am!
Set Design: Lucy Holt; Production: Alexey Galetskiy/AGPNYC