Ellen Pompeo - cover story - Sean Carter
So long the underdog, Ellen Pompeo has finally hit the big time as the star of the award-winning drama ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. The product of a desperately tough childhood - and now the ‘12th most powerful’ celebrity in the world - she tells Sean Carter how it all came good
The dark back office of a Georgian house in Bloomsbury is an incongruous place to be interviewing Ellen Pompeo. But that’s where we’ve retreated after her photo-shoot is over. It’s a far cry from the sun-baked Los Angeles lot where Pompeo is usually to be found, in scrubs, as the title character in Grey’s Anatomy. Dr Meredith Grey - brisk, vulnerable, self-destructive, talented - is a lead unlike any other on American television, and her gripping screen presence and romantic ‘car crashes’ hook 20 million viewers a week.
In its annual ‘Celebrity 100′ power list the business magazine Forbes ranked Pompeo and her co-stars at number 12 this year, while the Desperate Housewives cast languished at number 47. Yet here in Dubai, where the drama is in its 2nd season, Pompeo is hardly a household name.
Male critics have sniffed at the ‘vapid’ scripts and ‘mawkish’ acting in the drama about five trainee surgeons at a Seattle hospital. But Pompeo’s portrayal of a woman totally competent in her work and an utter disaster in her relationships has forced even veteran Hollywood producers to examine how a lead who is such a mess - prone to getting drunk in bars and picking up strangers - can prove so compelling.
The tabloids, for their part, have focused on Pompeo’s weight (supposedly anorexic), behaviour on set (supposedly a diva) and, since her November engagement, the colourful past of her fiancé Chris Ivery, a record producer, and the size of the ring he has given her. This, a dazzling oblong diamond, has caused Pompeo so much angst that she is even now twisting it off her tiny hand. ‘Completely garish, isn’t it?’ she asks in her little, clear voice. ‘He got it in Beverly Hills and spent his entire life savings, which I could kill him for. I was very mad about it. Some days I really love it, and some days I just want to sell it and give the money to charity. All the magazines care about is the size. I think, “Oh, it’s absolute rubbish and I’d like to throw the ring in the sewer.”‘ She looks at me wryly. ‘I know! How fortunate of me to sit here with this giant rock when there are babies in Africa fighting for their lives.’ She has gone from making no money to making great money. How does that feel? ‘I feel guilty.’ She gives a high, truthful laugh of embarrassment. ‘I feel guilty!’
Like so many Hollywood stars Pompeo is small and fragile. Her hand, when I shake it, is like a bunch of twigs and her muscled arms are as tiny as a child’s. She is wearing a black sleeveless cotton dress over thin black leggings and Lanvin ballet flats, and in person looks completely different from on screen - younger and more innocent, a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart. Her long hair is healthy and red, her blue eyes have a tinge of green and she keeps almost constant eye contact in a way that is not at all uncomfortable. Here on her an eight-week hiatus from Grey’s, she and Ivery are looking for a London flat to buy, before zipping on to Paris and Tokyo.
You feel that it is only now, at 37, that Pompeo’s life is starting to make sense - Ivery’s too, perhaps, following his three jail sentences, two for drug convictions, before they met. He now works scouting talent for the music producer Randy Jackson from American Idol. Pompeo, meanwhile, is on her fourth season at Grey’s Anatomy, of which she is the undoubted star (with great support from Patrick Dempsey and Sandra Oh from the film Sideways). The drama has gathered Emmys and Golden Globes since it debuted on the American network ABC in March 2005. Pompeo is paid $200,000 (£99,000) an episode, and her story seems to be a Cinderella tale of late success, even including a mother’s death and a tricky stepmother.
She had a sad, difficult childhood as the last of six - she was eight years younger than her nearest sibling - in the blue-collar town of Everett, near Boston, and was four when her mother, Kathleen, died of an overdose of painkillers. Her first memory is of her siblings attempting to revive her. The trauma in this vignette is hair-raising, and she admits, putting her hand to her throat, ‘I had a tragedy as a child, obviously, my mother dying, and it sort of… I suppose I describe it as… it sort of left me with a broken heart.’ But can you mend a broken heart? ‘No, never completely.’ Her voice lifts, childishly. ‘But that’s OK, because it makes me appreciate my life.’ Had she found therapy useful with that? ‘No, I think my job is therapeutic.
‘It was quite a tragic thing, all these children having no mother; it was quite difficult on my father,’ she continues. ‘And then he remarried shortly after my mother died, and, ah, much too soon. It was… quite a bad situation for all the children.’ Why, what was her stepmother like? ‘Oh, I’d rather not discuss that. So I would go off and stay with various people. I was always being shuffled around. Who could baby-sit me this time? So I would go for the summers and the weekends to my aunt Ellen, who I’m named after, and my uncle Jimmy on the Upper East Side of New York. My uncle Jimmy took me to the theatre. And another of my mother’s sisters, Sister Maureen, was a nun and lived in a convent in the Bronx, and I would go stay there often, as well.’
Pompeo says, batting away sympathy, that those ‘different experiences’ gave her a lot to draw on in her acting. But she also concedes that, ‘I was just completely confused. I knew I had a lot of people who loved me. There were a lot of different types of people in my life, and I had all these brothers and sisters who were crazy hippy teenagers, smoking pot in the wild 1970s - rock ‘n’ roll - and I had my dear, dear grandparents…’ Everyone, but no one? She pauses. ‘I did… well, you know, I had everybody but the one person I really wanted.’
Her father, Joseph, a tobacco salesman, was a strong character. ‘He intimidated everybody. He’d wait at the window and when they dropped me off in front of the house he’d fly out of the door and rip them out of the car by the neck,’ she has said, alarmingly, of her teenage dates, but he also told her she could do anything she wanted in life. What she wanted was to act. So the moment she turned 19 she made for Miami, where she got a job as a cocktail waitress. Despite her fragile, feminine appearance, she was no pushover. ‘I’d abuse the customers, yell and scream at them and make them wait. If they put money down on the bar and it wasn’t enough, I’d go wait on someone else. Pretty soon there would be $20 on the bar,’ she once told Playboy. I love that image of you at the bar, I tell her. ‘Right!’ She laughs with real amusement. ‘Well, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Departed, but Boston, my home town, is a corrupt place. I grew up in an Italian-Irish neighbourhood, and there were Irish gangsters and Italian gangsters. It’s very much like a modern-day Gangs of New York.’
After two years in Miami she went to New York. But her dream of becoming an actress still seemed ’such a grand thing. I felt so overwhelmed, you know, “How do I figure out how to go about this?”‘ She was also suffering profoundly from her childhood. ‘It’s as if the floor beneath you is… as if a board is always going to fall through.’
She was 25 when she got her first break; an acting agent approached her as she was working the bar at the SoHo Kitchen. The agent put Pompeo up for three adverts; she got all three. Then Pompeo landed a part opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2002 film Moonlight Mile. He, by chance, had come up to her in a car park three weeks previously and told her she was ‘the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my entire life’. For her the coincidence was life-changing. ‘It sort of hit me that I was being guided,’ she says. ‘I had sort of spent my twenties up until then looking for some sign of my mother, you know, “Make the chandelier swing and show me that you’re with me.” And at that point I put my faith in the idea that life gives you signs and, whether it’s my mother’s spirit or not, I’ve had too many coincidences in my life for it to be normal.’
Another was the way she met Ivery. They had grown up two miles apart but met only in 2003 when a mutual friend introduced them at a Whole Foods shop in Los Angeles. ‘I knew his background and I knew the circle in which he ran and I didn’t want anything to do with it,’ she admits. ‘You think you want to get away from your past and be this completely different person. And then I run into him again two days later and by this time in my life I know that’s no accident. I knew he was supposed to be in my life.’ He had gone to jail briefly? ‘Oh, yes, a couple of times. But most people I knew in Boston did. It was very common, which is why I had to get out.’
Something of Pompeo’s childhood vulnerability comes off the pages of her previous interviews and you hope, before you meet her, that Ivery is good news. He drives her to work and visits the set most days; she says they do everything together. ‘To know someone - the real them, not the reinvented Hollywood them, with all of their flaws and all of their past - that’s a true relationship,’ she says. ‘I feel very lucky. It’s very solid.’
I ask what she makes of her character’s romantic travails in Grey’s Anatomy. ‘She has a complete lack of emotional intelligence,’ she exclaims. ‘I just want to smack some sense into her.’ What would she advise her? ‘Don’t ever beg a man.’ (She is referring to the scene where Meredith pleads with her married lover Derek to choose her.) ‘He should be begging you!’
What next for Pompeo? Halfway through a six-year lock-in for Grey’s, she and Ivery are now trying for children. Does their forthcoming wedding excite her? ‘No, I’m not someone to stand on ceremony. That’s why I have such a problem with the ring. It is a symbol. Just rather an extravagant one.’ She gives another high laugh of embarrassment.
I say it must feel like it’s all coming right. She smiles. ‘I think so. A friend who I moved to Miami with when I was 16 or 17, he was photographing me back then and said, “You’re going to make a great 40-year-old.” I didn’t know how to take that at 16 or 17, but I never forgot it. Now I feel like the older I get the more I am able to take on.’
Her publicist is mouthing that we have to finish. ‘I love the architecture round here,’ Pompeo says, getting up. ‘It reminds me of my home town.’ I catch sight of her in the next room as I leave. She looks different now, 17 again, a sprite, a slip of a thing, in her teenage black wardrobe. ‘I took a sleeping pill last night, which I don’t usually do, because my body is too little to take it, and this morning I was all over the place,’ she exclaims, seeing me looking at her outfit. ‘I could hardly manage to dress!’# ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is at 10pm on Thursdays on Living
M for Macabre - Marius Van Muller
There comes a time, every once in a while when I like nothing better than to brew some rich hot chocolate and curl up in bed with a truly spine-tingling read. The month of October happens to be one of those times, for glaringly obvious reasons. I have often heard it said that the written word cannot really capture the reader in the utter thraldom dictated by the dark kingdom of fear but I couldn’t disagree more. The proponents of the aforementioned view are those who are absolutely enamoured by the visual medium i.e. monster movies, to put it as politely as possible. But, let’s face it, monster movies tend to lose their charm with every passing visual. The trepidation that explicit visuals of guts and gore inspire at first eventually begins to fade into a dull disgust. But a book will never disappoint you in that respect, for those stocky, black letters are almost like spells that provoke your mind into manufacturing the most stunning and awesome of visuals and the result: an intoxicating brew of terror. Oh such is the power, the near malefic power of a book: a ghoul a page, a shiver a line…
The following is a list of my recommendations for this Hallow’s Eve:
→ The Quilt by Ismat Chughtai: Given that I am in India, I cannot escape the local influence. Another anomaly in this selection is that ‘The Quilt’ is not a book, rather it is a short-story. ‘The Quilt’ has absolutely nothing to do with the paranormal, the only skeletons that you shall find here are those that people stuff into closets that are already full to bursting. But the writing is so atmospheric, so corporeal that the narrator’s hesitation flies off the page and enters the reader. Of course, I will not be including a synopsis. Why should I spoil the fun? But I loved the way Chughtai uses shadows to their full advantage as a literary device. The fact that the story is in the first person only adds to the thrill. I urge you to lift the quilt, you might be in for a surprise… (The story can be found in a collection called ‘Lifting the Veil.’).
→The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe: To be honest, I was going to throw in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ but it was only at the last minute did good sense prevail. I do not mean to criticise the former but House of Usher is a bigger story in many, many ways. Poe is completely in his element as he fuses chilling poetry with rapturous, flowing prose. Add this to an electrifying story that entombs(!) within itself themes of vampirism, incest, interment while alive, guilt, doom and self-fulfilling prophecies. Also notice the wordplay in the title itself: ‘The House of Usher’ refers not only to the house but also to the family that dwells in it. Poe’s story is perhaps one of his most macabre creations and is so totally my pick this Hallow’s Eve. Quit it! You needn’t jump like that! It’s only the house settling…
→The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft: Albino women, strange alien deities, dark, forbidden, grimoires and vile monstrosities with foot-prints as big as ‘tree-trunks’. Such are the elements that one encounters in Lovecraft’s fiendishly clever story ‘The Dunwich Horror.’ Written with great panache, especially in terms of description, this Lovecraftian tale is not the kind that will have you gasping or screaming with fear. Oh no…it gets better than that! ‘The Dunwich Horror’ has an eerie quality about it that just disconcerts you and makes you think, may I add, not the most pleasant of thoughts. But somehow, you manage to calm yourself and go to sleep. And that, is when the screaming begins…
→ The Little Sisters of Eluria by Stephen King: How could a list like this be complete with King? The King, if you will! Yet another short story (hardly), Little Sisters is veritably bloodcurdling. King deftly portrays a decadent innocence by means of vampire motifs, blasphemous nuns and doctors who subscribe to a vile school of medicine. Lest I forget, the insect imagery is enough to make one cringe with abhorrence. You’ll probably check your sheets a few times to ensure that there’s nothing there… Little Sisters utilises characters and situations from King’s marvellously addictive ‘Dark Tower’ series but it is, in essence, a stand-alone story and one doesn’t need any prior knowledge of the ‘Dark Tower’ to be able to enjoy it. All said and done, Little Sisters is the kind of story that reaches out and grabs the reader by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last word has been read… (The story can be found in a collection called ‘Everything’s Eventual.’).
Top 3 fall trends - Phoebe D. Hewes
It's time to push those bulky ,shoulder killing bags to the back of the closet- I pods and cells get smaller and its high time the bags did too!
Invest in a good figure friendly "babby doll" dress there is nothing better to hide those heavy winter curves.
The new wedge - don't be afraid of color, but make sure you are seated most of the time!
Oriental Flavor (editorial) - Evelyn Carter
The photographers have been Kris Gautier (for the 2001 and 2002 calendars), Mathias Vriens (2003), François Rousseau (2004), Carter Smith (2005), Fred Goudon (2006), Mariano Vivanco (2007), and Steven Klein (2008). A new photographer will shoot the 2009 edition.
Mark Simpson, the writer credited with coining the term 'metrosexual', has cited the Dieux Du Stade calendar as a prime example of what he calls 'sporno' - 'the place where sport and porn meet and produce a spectacular money shot'.