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Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo: Women are either victims or villains


By Sarah Finnan
08th Jun 2023

Grey's Anatomy ABC

Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo: Women are either victims or villains

Variety’s Actors on Actors series has given us many memorable duos over the years (Jake Gyllenhaal and Lady Gaga come to mind). This year, it was  Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo’s chat that got audiences talking. 

Two women responsible for redefining pop culture, the actors are arguably best known for their work on Grey’s Anatomy. TV’s longest-running primetime medical drama, the show first premiered as a midseason replacement in 2005… after ABC executives considered not airing it at all. 

Almost two decades later, and the show is as beloved as ever – whether that same love applies to its former stars, is up for debate… particularly where Heigl is concerned. Condemned for speaking up for herself and demanding both better pay and working conditions, Heigl was quickly brandished “ungrateful” and it’s a label that’s followed her ever since. 

She has no regrets though, telling Pompeo, “If you cannot stand up for yourself in this industry, very few people will stand up for you. So you’d better learn how to, and you’d better be ok with them not liking you for it.”

Being labelled “difficult” in the entertainment industry, can signal a death knell in terms of career progression but the standards vary greatly between the sexes; where Heigl was demonised for her behaviour, Patrick Dempsey was idolised. He was McDreamy after all. 

However, it was actually Dempsey’s Grey’s exit that had all the behind-the-scenes drama, not Katherine’s. Why did the tabloids pitch her as a troublemaker? You get one guess!

Last year, after years of rumours as to why she really left the show, Heigl tried to set the record straight… and unsurprisingly, her departure was very different to how the media spun it.

Famed for playing Izzie Stevens on the hit medical drama, Heigl’s shock exit from the Shonda Rhimes’ show was embroiled in controversy at the time. Comments she had made about the programme’s working conditions paired with her decision to withdraw herself from Emmy Awards consideration (because she didn’t feel she was given the material to warrant a nomination), led fans to believe that there was a not-so-secret feud at play. 

Details of her departure were few and far between and neither Heigl nor her Grey’s colleagues did much to clear things up. Viewers were pretty much left to fill in the gaps themselves and so was born the rumour that Katherine Heigl quit (or was fired?) because she was being “difficult”. 

Heigl went from landing small parts in a handful of fairly unsuccessful movies to starring alongside Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. She was the first-ever Grey’s series regular to win an Emmy for her work on the drama and three years after nabbing the role of Izzie, she secured the 2008 movie 27 Dresses for which she earned a hugely impressive $6 million – a 1,900% increase on her previous paycheck just months prior. 

However, upon her exit from Grey’s, the media jumped at the chance to villainise her and subsequent coverage of the star was characterised by the insinuation that she was a prima donna with notions of grandeur. The series catapulted her to international success, but the litany of negative headlines kept her as a talking point (and out of work) long after she had left the show.

Years later, it was revealed that Heigl’s former costar, Patrick Dempsey would also be leaving the show after a whopping 11 seasons. Cast as neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd, he cemented his status as one of the series’ most beloved characters and his departure was met with tears, heartbreak and a recurring chorus of “please don’t let it be” from fans.  

The actor claimed he was leaving because “it was just a natural progression”. Everything unfolded in “a very organic way”. It was “obviously the right time”. No one questioned the validity of these statements, they were taken as fact with no further background digging and Patrick Dempsey left without much more hullabaloo. 

Here’s how the tabloids spun both characters leaving the show:

‘Katherine Heigl is a nightmare to work with, quits Grey’s Anatomy in true diva style.’

Grey’s Anatomy darling, Patrick Dempsey, leaves show on good terms’

We were there. We read the articles. Cut to present day, and it turns out that what we read was very, very far from the truth.

Here’s how it actually happened in real life:

‘Katherine Heigl parts ways with Grey’s Anatomy to devote herself to motherhood’ 

‘Patrick Dempsey killed off in Grey’s Anatomy after “terrorising the set”’ 

However as Pompeo put it, “[There are] 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.”

“I was so naive,” Katherine admitted. “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?’

“I was confused,” continued Heigl. “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.’”

“Nobody likes a super confident woman,” Pompeo agreed. “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.”

In author Lynette Rice’s recent book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl said that having a family “changed everything” for her. 

“It changed my desire to work full-time. I went on family leave and just got to be a [mum], and it changed my whole perspective… that was really the turning point. So before I was due back, I spoke again to Shonda about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal ok that I was off the show. The rumours that I refused to return were totally untrue.

“[Shonda] wanted to try to figure out how I could do both [parenting and Grey’s], and I kind of wanted to do both,” she continued. “There wasn’t a great way to compromise the work schedule that didn’t negatively affect the crew or the cast. It wasn’t feeling fair to them or the show to ask them to bend around my needs.”

Regarding the whole Emmy situation, Heigl said that thoush she definitely could have handled it better, she really thought she was doing the right thing at the time. “I thought I was doing the right thing. And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, ‘No comment’, it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered [to enter the race]. I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.”

It’s still “the ‘ungrateful’ thing” that bothers her the most, however. “That is my fault,” the actress confessed. “I allowed myself to be perceived that way. So much about living life, to me, is about humility and gratitude. And I’ve tried very hard to have those qualities and be that person, and I’m just so disappointed in myself that I allowed it to slip. Of course I’m grateful. How can I not be?”

In summary, Katherine left the show to focus on being more present as a mother. Shonda was aware of this and while there were some underlying tensions (mostly thanks to those Emmys comments and a scuffle over pay), the situation was largely dramatised for media effect. 

If we got it so wrong about Katherine Heigl, chances are we were wrong about Patrick Dempsey too and it turns out he wasn’t all that McDreamy to work with. According to that same book, Dempsey was actually more McNightmare and there were plenty of “HR issues” going on behind the scenes. Accused of “terrorising the set” by some of his colleagues, executive producer James D Parriott claims that “some cast members had all sorts of PTSD from working with him.” Uh oh. 

“He had this hold on the set. The network and studio came down and we had sessions with them. I think he was just done with the show,” Parriott continued, alleging that the actor apparently “didn’t like the inconvenience of coming in every day” towards the end of his stint on the show. 

The book also goes on to detail claims from writer and producer Jeannine Renshaw of supposed tension between Dempsey and Pompeo (his onscreen love interest and the title character). Filming schedules became a bone of contention between the two with sources saying that Ellen found it taxing to hear Patrick complaining about long days and late nights when she herself was in even more scenes than he was. 

The actor still had his admirers though and Renshaw later described him as a “sweetheart”, while producer Mark Wilding said that “he really does try to do the right thing”. 

While Pompeo had remained relatively quiet on Heigl’s fall from grace, she did speak out in support of her former co-star last year, telling fellow Grey’s star Kate Walsh (a.k.a. Addison Montgomery), on her podcast that Katherine was “100% right” for speaking out about the “insane hours” they were working. 

“Had she said that today, she’d be a complete hero,” said Pompeo at the time. “But she’s ahead of her time, made a statement about our crazy hours and, of course, let’s slam a woman and call her ungrateful.” Praising Heigl for being “ballsy” enough to stand up for herself all those years ago, the actress basically confirmed that everything her former co-star had said was true. “She was telling the truth. She wasn’t lying.”

While the majority of fans commended Ellen for finally defending Katherine’s comments, many also questioned what took her so long to speak out. More than a decade has passed since Heigl first addressed the toxic working conditions and she’s suffered more than her share of retribution. But everything she said was true, according to Pompeo, so why make her bear that cross alone?

Seeing how differently both Heigl and Dempsey’s departures from the show were treated is not all that surprising. It’s something we’ve, unfortunately, grown accustomed to. We assume the worst about women, but hope for the best about men. It was obviously very difficult to work with Heigl. Good riddance to her! But oh, we love McDreamy. The show wouldn’t be the same without him! 

Men are praised for standing up for themselves, while women are demonised for it. Men leave with their reputations intact, while women are hung out to dry at the slightest whiff of self-importance. Society is quick to believe the worst about women, but is often far more forgiving to men. 

Neither Heigl nor Dempsey are completely faultless in the reasons for their departures, but there’s probably blame to be placed on many shoulders and we shouldn’t be so fast to assume we know the full story. Meredith was right, knowing is better than wondering.

You can watch Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo’s full chat below