The actress is getting candid about her life, career and important issues on her new podcast, Tell Me, presented by Cadence13. On one of her very first episodes, which launched this week, Pompeo joins her former Grey's co-star, Patrick Dempsey, for a chat about their time together on the show and their shared passion for giving back.
During the conversation, Pompeo shared one story from the set of the long-running ABC medical drama that Dempsey hadn't been there to witness: the time when she got into a screaming fight with Denzel Washington.
The two-time Oscar winner was brought on to direct an episode of Grey's by producer Debbie Allen, who, as Pompeo explained, was looking for ways to keep the series star "interested" in the show after most of the original cast had departed.
"After you left, I was like, 'Eh, why do I have to stay here?'" Pompeo admitted to Dempsey. "'Everyone's gone. I gotta go now. Sandra's gone, Patrick's gone, I gotta go, too.'"
But the promise of working with Washington was something she couldn't pass up.
"He came probably three weeks prior so he could get caught up, because Denzel doesn't watch much TV, he'd probably never seen the show," she noted. "He did the show because his wife is a big fan... I think he saw it as a good exercise to just come in and direct something quick."
"But, imagine Denzel Washington coming on to direct an episode of Grey's Anatomy? That's something that I never thought that I would see, ever," Pompeo added.
"I heard about it, and I was pretty jealous," Dempsey admitted. "I was like, 'Oh it would be great to work with him.'"
However, it wasn't smooth sailing for the whole episode, Pompeo recalled, despite the fact that Washington's "presence was amazing" on set.
"Superstars are superstars for a reason," she said. "There's just an energy and a vibration that they give off that makes them super charismatic. Patrick has it, Obama has it, anyone that I've ever met that's, like, crazy charismatic has it. And Denzel has it in spades, for sure... But, Denzel's a movie star, right? He doesn't know sh*t about directing TV."
The episode was season 12, episode 9, "The Sound of Silence," in which Pompeo's character, Meredith Grey, is brutally attacked by an epileptic patient, who breaks her jaw, among other injuries. Not only did Pompeo have to navigate acting in an episode with very little dialogue, due to her character's jaw being wired shut, she also faced the wrath of her A-list director when she ventured off script.
"One of the scenes at the end of the episode, I have to go [confront] this man who beat me up," she recalled. "And so Meredith was really hesitant and reluctant. My jaw was broken, and I couldn't bring myself to go hear the apology from this character... She was just at the point where she wasn't having it."
"I didn't really want to talk to this actor [Dohn Norwood] or see this actor before we did this scene, so I didn't have much interaction with him at all. And then, he apologized to me, but he was doing it really softly. He made this choice to speak very softly. And I was pissed that I had to sit there and listen to this apology. And he wasn't looking at me in the eye... and I yelled at him, I was like, 'Look at me! When you apologize, look at me!' And that wasn't in the dialogue."
The creative choice didn't sit well with Washington. "Denzel went ham on my a**," Pompeo recalled. "He was like, 'I'm the director! Don't you tell him what to do!'"
However, the actress said she held her own in the on-set exchange. "I was like, 'Listen, motherf**ker, this is my show! This is my set! Who are you telling- You barely even know where the bathroom is!'" she continued.
"I have the utmost respect for him as an actor, as a director, as everything, but we went at it!" Pompeo added. "And then his wife came to set to visit, and I was not talking to him. I was mad at him. And I told his wife, I was like, 'Yeah, he yelled at me today. He let me have it today, and I'm not OK with him, and I'm not looking at him, and I'm not talking to him.'"
For his part, Dempsey said he could empathize with the pressure cooker of emotions that can boil over on the set of a dramatic project.
"When you're in a moment like that, you're living in that emotion all day long. Things can set you off really quickly... You are raw the whole day," he said. "And it's important to create the right atmosphere on set where you're safe to be able to do that. "
"We didn't get though it without a fight, but, you know, that's actors for you!" Pompeo agreed. "Passionate and fiery, that's where you get the magic. That's where you get the good stuff. It was an amazing experience."
"We were fine after that," she added of her relationship with Washington. "He's just one of the best to ever do it."