On a day off from Grey's Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo is at home under a backyard umbrella sipping a Pelligrino by the pool and savoring the last days of summer. Nearby, her 3-year-old daughter, Stella, plays. Life is good. Thanks to hefty pay hikes, Pompeo's character Meredith, Patrick Dempsey's Derek and Sandra Oh's Cristina were all spared in the season finale plane crash that left Lexie (Chyler Leigh) dead and Mark (Eric Dane) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) fighting for their lives. As Grey's begins its ninth season on Sept. 27, I found Pompeo to be extremely grateful for all her good fortune and happy to be back at a job she loves.
TV Guide Magazine: I always look forward to our start-of-season chats. When we spoke last time, you were open to the possibility of coming back but wanted to make sure there was a good reason. So...what was the reason?
Pompeo: Because I'm not crazy! ABC appreciates me very much and I'm not stupid [laughs]. The network goes above and beyond and I'd be an ass---- to not acknowledge that. And [showrunner] Shonda [Rhimes] thinks she has more story to tell. You gotta have faith in her. God bless her for coming up with this much show over this many years. And what else am I doin'?
TV Guide Magazine: Well, I imagine Grey's takes up so much time that you're not free to pursue other offers that no doubt would come your way.
Pompeo: It does, but that's okay. They compensate me for it and it's been a great experience. People still love the show. As cynical and jaded as I can get about it sometimes because I've been doing the same thing for so long, the truth is everywhere I go — whether it's Toys R Us — people genuinely light up when they talk about the show. I can't ignore that, either. That's significant. If I'm bringing joy to people and entertaining people as an actor, then I should be grateful for that and act accordingly, you know?
TV Guide Magazine: Wow! I can't tell you how good it is to hear you say that. On behalf of all Grey's fans, thank you for that, Ellen!
TV Guide Magazine: Did Shonda give you any sense of what her 'more story to tell' is over the next couple years?
Pompeo: What I've heard them say is that this season Shonda wants to see her doctors, who are attendings now, teach. We have had interns on the show before and we've taught. Whether this will be different, I'm not sure.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you playing Meredith more mature now that she's an attending?
Pompeo: It's always a challenging balance, but it's always my goal to do things that make the character grow and seem more mature. At the same time, they're always going to write certain behaviors that I only have so much control over.
TV Guide Magazine: For example?
Pompeo: I know the Cristina/Meredith relationship is super integral to the show, but something Patrick and I always discuss is if sometimes my loyalty seems to be with Cristina before my husband, I don't necessarily think that is all that realistic. Otherwise you wouldn't have a very healthy marriage. I don't know why you'd be married if your spouse isn't your number one person. We try to do what we can, but in the same brushstroke, it's just a TV show. We're not really changing the world or saving lives.
TV Guide Magazine: Give us a preview of some fun scenes you've shot for the new season.
Pompeo: Maybe the audience will be excited to see the new peeps on our show. We have Camilla Luddington [True Blood, Californication and Lifetime's William & Kate], who is an absolute doll. She's a lovely young actress and I think people will enjoy seeing her. I don't know how much the other [newbies] are going to be featured. So far to be honest the focus has been Camilla, who really pops. She plays Jo, my intern. Meredith takes out all her frustrations about Lexie dying [and another tragedy to come] on Jo. I don't deal with my sister's death yet. That comes up I think in episode five.
TV Guide Magazine: I can still hear Meredith crying, "Lexie's dead," out in the forest. It seemed so real and heartbreaking. You did something in those scenes that was devastating. How difficult was it for you to play?
Pompeo: Thank you. It's not fun. I actually said to my husband the other day, as a younger actress you love the torture and the pain. Acting can be an amazingly cathartic thing — especially for young girls. And then when you get older, settled and very happy in your life, you don't want to go to work and torture your soul and feel that pain. I used to be so into that, but now when someone dies it takes a lot of work. Doing it once or twice isn't hard. It's having to do it more than twice that gets challenging.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you get to have a moment with Chyler Leigh to say, "Hey, thanks for playing with me these last few years as my kid sister and I'm going to miss you"?
Pompeo: You know, to be honest I'm not really good at goodbyes. I don't like them. It gets very dramatic on set. When Chyler died at the table read, everyone was bawling. I just can't take it. I did the tearful thing at the table read. As actors, we're dramatic and all prone to drama, so I try to say, "Hey, I love ya" and try to run away.
TV Guide Magazine: Now, apparently the series goes back to the forest for episode two.
Pompeo: Yes we do. I do like the way they start the season, which is after a three-month jump. And then in the second episode we go back to immediately following where we left off, which is an interesting way to tell a story. It's mainly the rescue and us going to the local hospital. You just see the helicopter coming over us. [The actors] didn't go back to the forest to shoot. That finale was like 11 days — like a whole pilot. There was no way we could go back and do that again. There would be no time.
TV Guide Magazine: The Cristina fans really have been begging me for some hint of where she's headed.
Pompeo: We're all in the Boise hospital where we crashed and we stay there a couple days. And then we go back to Seattle. And then Cristina leaves to go to another hospital in the Midwest.
TV Guide Magazine: What effect does losing her person have on Mer?
Pompeo: Well, obviously Meredith thinks Cristina is running away and she shouldn't. Life sucks, but you can't run every time something happens. But the reality is 50 million bad things happened there. Meredith's mother died and we all almost got shot. George got run over by a bus. In a way, it's like Cristina's speech in the finale when she spoke about being so sick of watching people die. I am so glad she had that speech because in a way it is kind of absurd all the things they have to write into series television. For that reason, Cristina is outta there.
TV Guide Magazine: And what about Meredith's career decision?
Pompeo: Why Meredith wouldn't take a job at Harvard is a bit of a stretch. But for whatever reason she doesn't and convinces everyone [but Cristina] to stay. That's a difficult thing to believe when I'm playing it, but I'm just a paid employee who has to do what they say.
TV Guide Magazine: Well you have to overlook some things so the series can continue with the cast fans love.
Pompeo: Yeah. We have a boss like everybody else. You may not always agree with it but you still have to be professional and do the best you can.
TV Guide Magazine: What effect does Derek's injured hand have on Meredith and their marriage?
Pompeo: We're trying to see how that works out. He's trying to operate. Or we'll see if he teaches or whatever. That's a big question. He's happy to survive the plane crash and that his daughter has two parents. At the end of the day, it makes more sense that Derek would be happy and not upset about his hand. We filmed a scene where Derek says, "If I teach, who cares? I'm alive."
TV Guide Magazine: What about that dream house that Derek started building around 1965?
Pompeo: We're moving into the dream house. And I think Alex takes Meredith's house.
TV Guide Magazine: Lastly, I know we have to keep secret the fate of Arizona, but what can you say about the work you've been watching Jessica Capshaw do in her scenes?
Pompeo: I'm not really around when they film those scenes, but what I can say is the scenes Jessica has are really intense and definitely challenging. But I think Jessica's going to knock it out of the park and it's going to be great for the show!