Seriously overdue. Grey’s Anatomy‘s Ellen Pompeo and Katherine Heigl sat down for a frank discussion about their career for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, which debuted on Tuesday, June 6.
” I was so naive. I got on my soapbox and I had some things to say, and I felt really passionate about this stuff,” Heigl, 44, recalled of her headline-making days leading up to her exit from Grey’s. “I felt really strongly. I felt so strongly that I also got a megaphone out on my soapbox. There was no part of me that imagined a bad reaction. I felt really justified in how I felt about it and where I was coming from. 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.”
She added that she started to believe she was a “bad” person amid backlash. “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,’” Heigl recalled.
Pompeo, 53, said Heigl was a trailblazer. “You were just a little early, because they came out with this thing where everybody has their own megaphone and they get a blue check. It’s called Twitter. You were just a little ahead of your time, lady,” the actress said.
The actress, who plays fan-favorite character Meredith Grey, added that compassion is key. “There has to be some forgiveness, or some grace, for not everybody being able to handle every situation perfectly,” she reasoned. “I’ve certainly never handled every situation perfectly. I’d like to see other people try to walk a mile in your shoes during that time, and let’s see how they would’ve handled it.”
The reunion came more than 13 years after Heigl left the ABC medical drama. The Firefly Lane star appeared as Izzie Stevens for more than 100 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy until leaving the series halfway through shooting season six in 2010.
Her exit came after a public feud with creator Shonda Rhimes that started when Heigl publicly criticized the show’s writing. In a 2008 Vanity Fair cover story, Heigl called Izzie and George O’Malley’s (T.R. Knight) affair “a ratings ploy,” adding that she wanted to see more “cooperation between the business end and the creative end.”
Months later, the Roswell alum drew ire after withdrawing her name from consideration for the Emmys, one year after winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama.
“I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention,” she said in a statement at the time. “In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.”
In Lynette Rice’s 2021 book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl reflected on the controversy.
“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,” the 27 Dresses star noted.
She added that she regrets how she handled the issue. “I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter,” Heigl explained. “It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them and it wasn’t very nice or fair.”
Ultimately, the Knocked Up star was written out in season 6 with her final episode airing in 2010.
“I was just vibrating at way too high of a level of anxiety,” Heigl told Pompeo during their Actors on Actors chat. “For me, it’s all a bit of a blur, and it took me years to learn how to deal with that, to master it. I can’t even say that I’ve mastered it, but to even know to work on it, that anxiety and fear — and stress is stress. And if you leave stress too long, unmanaged and unaddressed, it can be debilitating.”
As a producer, Pompeo is trying to help actors deal with the stress that Heigl faced. “This is not specific to the character of Izzie leaving, but stress on sets … I’ve only been on one set my whole entire career, so I guess people could critique this comment, but I hear a lot of stories; I don’t hear about a lot of support,” she said. “That’s one of the things I try to do now as a producer, specifically on Grey’s, is try to offer support — try to have a place for people to talk through things. There was no one to tell me, ‘This is OK. This is not OK.’ There’s a very exploitive nature to what we do. ”
The “Tell Me With Ellen Pompeo” podcast host, meanwhile, stepped down as a series regular in the 19th season, which finished airing last month. She remains a narrator and executive producer on the show, making occasional guest appearances. The Massachusetts native will return for season 20 in the fall.