How 'Grey’s Anatomy' star Ellen Pompeo went from barely paying rent to earning $20 million a year

Ellen Pompeo arrives at the 300th episode celebration for ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy' held at TAO Hollywood on November 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Tran | Getty Images

Ellen Pompeo has spent 14 seasons as Meredith Grey, the star of ABC's hit drama "Grey's Anatomy." But though she now pulls in a remarkable $20 million a year for playing the show's titular character, Pompeo admits that working in network TV wasn't always what she planned to do.

In fact, she didn't even want to audition for the role in the first place, she tells The Hollywood Reporter in a candid, funny and occasionally profane interview. She wanted to be a movie star.

Pompeo grew up in Everett, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston, where she lived with her father, grandfather and siblings. Her mother died unexpectedly when Pompeo was five, which fed her insecurities. "I didn't have a mother to tell me how amazing I was," she told Good Housekeeping.

Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."
Richard Cartwright | Disney ABC Television Group | Getty Images

After high school, Pompeo worked as a bartender until her father encouraged her to pursue acting. Her breakout moment came in 2002 when she landed a role as the love interest in "Midnight Mile." That marked her first appearance on the big screen. She went on to nab parts in "Old School" and "Daredevil" but, by 2004, Pompeo's career had hit a wall and she was almost broke.

When her agent brought her the script for "Grey's," Pompeo balked. "I was like, 'I'm not going to be stuck on a medical show for five years,'" she says. "'Are you out of your f------ mind? I'm an actress.'"

However, he convinced her to audition anyway, if only to pay her rent. He predicted that the pilot wouldn't even air and Pompeo's fear of getting "stuck" on a medical drama would never come to fruition.

But not only did "Grey's Anatomy" air, it became an instant hit. "I knew I was f-----," Pompeo tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Suzy Welch: This is the biggest mistake people make when negotiating salary
Suzy Welch: This is the biggest mistake people make when negotiating salary

After three seasons, Pompeo had the chance to leave the show or extend her contract. She knew she wasn't likely to find a better role anywhere else, so she stayed put. "I was 36," she tells Good Housekeeping. "I knew as a woman in the [movie] business that I wasn't going to be paid the same as men." (Indeed, Hollywood's male leads notoriously make millions more than its female stars.)

With "Grey's" now in its 14th season, Pompeo is one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, earning more than $20 million a year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She'll receive $575,000 per episode, a seven-figure signing bonus, producing fees and back-end equity in the deal, among other perks.

To get there, Pompeo had to learn it wasn't "being greedy" to ask for what she was worth.

"For me, Patrick [Dempsey] leaving the show [in 2015] was a defining moment, deal-wise. They could always use him as leverage against me — 'We don't need you; we have Patrick' — which they did for years," she says.

Pompeo recalls a time when she asked to be paid $5,000 more than Dempsey on principle, since she was the Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," after all. The studio turned her down. But Pompeo didn't give up, either on her show or on her ambition.

Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey on "Grey's Anatomy."
Scott Garfield | Disney ABC Television Group | Getty Images

"It's my show; I'm the number one," she says. "I'm sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, 'I'm not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house.'"

So when creator Shonda Rhimes signed a deal with Netflix and announced plans to leave the day to day operations of the show, Pompeo felt empowered to go for the big ask. She told Rhimes, "If you're moving on to Netflix and you want the show to go down, I'm cool with that. But if you want it to continue, I need to be incentivized. I need to feel empowered and to feel ownership of this show."

Rhimes agreed to help. She asked the actress what she wanted, which helped Pompeo identify and voice her requests.

These numbers show why you should negotiate your salary
These numbers show why you should negotiate your salary

In the end, Rhimes, who Pompeo describes as a mentor, delivered, signing off not only on Pompeo's increased paycheck but adding her as a producer on "Grey's" and as a co-executive producer on an upcoming spinoff.

Fourteen years in, the role Pompeo didn't want has turned into the one that defined her career and taught her to stand up and advocate for herself.

"You never think TV shows are going to go this long. Of course not, never, and especially me, I don't ever assume things like that," Pompeo tells Deadline. "I just always try to stay present and humble and grateful and take each day as it comes."

Don't miss:

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

These top CEOs take middle class salaries -- or less
These top CEOs take middle class salaries -- or less
Related Video
These top CEOs take middle class salaries -- or less
These top CEOs take middle class salaries -- or less