Actress and producer Ellen Pompeo, the title star of “Grey’s Anatomy,” is now the highest-paid drama actress on primetime television, earning more than $20 million a year. But back in 2004, Pompeo was an actress struggling to pay her rent. In a new, candid interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Pompeo explains how she learned to become a master salary negotiator who used her “Grey’s Anatomy” star power as leverage to achieving financial ownership over her career.
Here are the best career tips Pompeo learned in her years behind the camera and in the negotiation room that we can apply to our own lives.
1) Know your worth
Pompeo learned to number her value from her mentor and “Grey’s Anatomy” boss Shonda Rhimes, who told her, “Decide what you think you’re worth and then ask for what you think you’re worth. Nobody’s just going to give it to you.”
Pompeo said that Rhimes’ advice and seeing the numbers of how much money her acting was generating for her employer were two turning points in her learning to ask for more money in her career.
“As women, we’re like, ‘Oh, can I ask for that? Is that OK?’ I’d call Shonda and say, ‘Am I being greedy?’ But [Creative Artists Agency] compiled a list of stats for me, and Grey’s has generated nearly $3 billion for Disney,” she said. “When your face and your voice have been part of something that’s generated $3 billion for one of the biggest corporations in the world, you start to feel like, ‘OK, maybe I do deserve a piece of this.'”
2) Gain ownership over your projects
Pompeo said that she knows she is not seen as a “relevant” actress in the public’s eyes, but Pompeo said that she has achieved a different star power than other critically-acclaimed actresses lack — a financial power that gives her autonomy and control over her projects.
Commenting on younger actresses in big movies, Pompeo said, “These poor girls have no real money, and the studio is making a fortune and parading them like ponies on a red carpet. I mean, Faye Dunaway is driving a… Prius today. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Prius, but my point is, she had no financial power. If we’re going to invoke change, that has to be part of it.”
3) Decide where you want to be in the future and plan around that
Saying that she realized that she had no “Julia Roberts” movie career, Pompeo said that she made the pragmatic choice during her “Grey’s Anatomy” television career to give up being more creative and focus her energy toward getting more control behind the camera. Now, Pompeo is a producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and the co-executive producer on the show’s spinoff.
Pompeo recognizes that this path is her own, and may not apply for everyone: “I’ve chosen to financially empower myself so that I never have to be ducking predators and chasing trophies. It’s not for everyone. You have to be more interested in business than you are in acting.”
4) Give your collaborators autonomy so they feel invested, too
Pompeo said that now she is in a position of power as a “Grey’s Anatomy” producer, she makes a point to give back and include actors into the TV-making process to make them feel emotionally invested in projects. She said that she will give actors TV scripts ahead of time when she is directing TV episodes as part of her collaborative philosophy: “You can hold actors down and try to control them, but it kills their spirit and they resent being there.”
Pompeo pointed to music mogul Jay-Z’s TIDAL business as a model example of contributors feeling financially empowered. “The artists are chasing Grammys and Lamborghinis, so they think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m rich.’ Meanwhile, Sony just made…$500 million, and they gave you $3 million and you think you’re doing amazing. With Tidal, Jay Z’s empowered artists by giving them a piece, and it makes them more invested. I love it.”
The bottom line
By learning to gain financial control over her career, Pompeo gets to be the master of it, free to help others who will come after her and freed from commercial pressures of agents telling her to take projects she does not want.
Even if we’re not multi-millionaire actresses, the lesson we can take from Pompeo is to decide early on what kind of career we want and to make sure we’re paid for what these careers are worth.