Ellen Pompeo explains why she and Denzel Washington clashed on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ set

Photos of Ellen Pompeo and Denzel Washington
Ellen Pompeo has thoughts about that time Denzel Washington directed “Grey’s Anatomy.”
(Jordan Strauss / Invision/Associated Press, left; Evan Agostini / Invision/ Associated Press)

Let’s be clear, folks. Ellen Pompeo loves Denzel Washington. He’s amazing. He’s a superstar.

But dang it if the movie star “doesn’t know s—” about directing episodic TV. Or at least he didn’t know it when he directed an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” in early 2016, according to Pompeo.

The actress, who has played Dr. Meredith Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy” since 2005, shared the dish on her podcast, “Tell Me With Ellen Pompeo,” which launched Wednesday with three episodes. In one of them, she was chatting with pal and former “Grey’s” co-star Patrick Dempsey, who brought up the anecdote in question.

Washington turned out to be a “surprise” from executive producer Debbie Allen, who was looking for a way to keep Pompeo interested in the show after the departures of many of her original castmates.

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“I think he saw it as a good exercise to just come in and direct something quick,” Pompeo said, before he directed another project (which she thought was for HBO, but a timeline suggests it was the Oscar-winning film “Fences”). “Imagine Denzel Washington coming on to direct an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’? That’s something that I never thought that I would see, ever.”

But Washington wasn’t an avid viewer of the show. That was his wife, Pauletta Washington. So in addition to the whole episodic-TV thing, he wasn’t fully up to date on Dr. Meredith’s decade-long journey.

Plus Pompeo’s character had her jaw wired shut in the episode, in line with its plot, and didn’t speak through most of it.

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They were shooting a scene where Meredith goes to hear an apology from the man in the storyline who had attacked her and broken her jaw. She had intentionally stayed away from that actor in advance of the scene and didn’t know how he would play his part. And she found his choices — speaking very softly, not looking her in the eye — really annoying.

“I yelled at him,” she said. “I was like, ‘Look at me! When you apologize, look at me!’ And that wasn’t in the dialogue.”

Big mistake.

‘Denzel went ham on my ass. He was like, ‘I’m the director! Don’t you tell him what to do!,’” she said.

But Pompeo had been working on this set for more than a decade at this point. And she didn’t hold back.


“I was like, ‘Listen, motherf—, this is my show! This is my set! Who are you telling? You barely know where the bathroom is!’” Pompeo told Dempsey, seeming to exaggerate the sass factor for his benefit.

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She said she has the utmost respect for Washington as an actor, a director, “as everything, but yo, we went at it one day.” And later Pompeo explained what was going on to the person in the seat of true power: Pauletta, who had come to visit the set one day while her husband was directing.

“I told his wife, I was like, ‘Yeah, he yelled at me today. Yeah, he let me have it today, and I am not OK with him and I’m not looking at him and I’m not talking to him.”

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But yeah, Pompeo said, that’s actors for you. “And that,” she added, “is where you get the good stuff.”

Dempsey, for his part, agreed that that’s how sets work and that’s how Pompeo’s Scorpio nature comes through. And nope, he didn’t address any of those “terrorizing the set” rumors about his own time on “Grey’s.” Go figure.