Had one thing been different, Pompeo says she probably would have left when her initial six-year contract was up.
Ellen Pompeo has become synonymous with "Grey's Anatomy" for the past 16 seasons. But for one reason, though, she may have left a decade ago.
More than likely, had she done so the show would not have survived as long as it has. Still a top ratings draw for ABC, the show has already been picked up for its 17th season ... and the 50-year-old Pompeo will be scrubbing back in as Dr. Meredith Grey.
ABC has already inked new contracts with co-stars Kevin McKidd, Kim Raver and Camilla Luddington that would carry them through a prospective Season 19. ABC president Karey Burke has made it clear the show will continue until Pompeo is ready to stop.
So why has she stuck around all these years? It turn out it has more to do with what happens off the set than on. "I didn’t grow up with a particularly happy childhood," Pompeo explained to Jemele Hill on the latest episode of her "Unbothered" podcast.
Explaining that to her a "healthy home life was more important than career," Pompeo's focus is on what she's been able to build with the security of "Grey's Anatomy" behind her.
"I have this great husband and these three beautiful children, so to have a happy home life was really something I needed to complete, to close the hole in my heart," she explained. "And so I made a decision to make money, and not chase creative acting roles."
The key difference for Pompeo was her age. She picked up the lead in this show in her mid-30s, which put her toward 40 when that initial six-year contract was coming up.
"I knew coming up on 40, it’s like, I don’t want to be out there chasing [roles]," she said. "I’d rather just see this as the blessing that it is."
On the flip side, she conceded that if she'd been about a decade younger when she started the show, she could have seen herself taking that plunge into the unknown in her early 30s. "My age had a lot to do with it," she admitted.
"I don’t like chasing anything ever, and acting to me, in my experience, was a lot of chasing," she said. "You’ve got to chase roles, you’ve got to beg for roles, you’ve got to convince people."
While she says she gets to experience some of that same sense of thrill as a producer, she's "never that thirsty" because she prioritized financial security in her life.
It's an refreshingly candid and practical explanation for why she's stuck with the same role for so many years. Certainly many people can relate to choosing financial security and stability for their families over jumping into the unknown and taking a huge risk.
And Pompeo has plenty of cautionary tales from the television industry to look at. Plenty of big TV stars have walked away from lucrative television contracts to pursue their dreams in film only to see their small-screen stardom fizzle on the big screen.
In fact, she didn't have to look too far as "Grey's" star Katherine Heigl is one of the more notable recent stars to attempt the big switch and not quite achieve the success they were hoping for.
She joins other notable actors who found movie stardom elusive after television success like "NYPD Blue" star David Caruso, "Charlie's Angel" star Farrah Fawcett," and "Cheers" star Shelley Long. Sometimes making a call for practical reasons is the right thing to do.
Plus, it's not as if Pompeo is just phoning it in. "Grey's" is one of the most critically-acclaimed dramas on television as well -- and for a network drama in the age where cable and streaming dominate awards shows, that's saying something.
Pompeo herself has been nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG Awards, and People's Choice Awards for the past eight years and counting, among several others. She may have chosen security and stability, but she continues to push herself creatively and professionally just the same.