Podcast of the week: The actress’s story of her on-set spat with Denzel Washington prompted accusations of white privilege, but her interview podcast does not shy from race-related issues
Ellen Pompeo was doubtless hoping for some early publicity to push her new podcast. But even a cynic would wonder if the Grey’s Anatomy star would be pleased with the kind of attention the series has garnered.
Pompeo mentions in the trailer for Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo that she was approached to anchor this interview series. She was a savvy choice. For 18 seasons, she has played Dr Meredith Grey and has a voice recognisable to millions.
Launched in late September with the release of three episodes, the show promises “in-depth, candid conversations” with a range of guests and celebrity friends who “inspire her and who do extraordinary things”. Nothing revolutionary there, yet an exchange between Pompeo and her Grey’s Anatomy co-star Patrick Dempsey in the second episode brought trouble.
It started innocuously enough. Dempsey was there to talk about, among other topics, his trip to Ireland during lockdown to film a sequel to the Disney musical Enchanted. “It was the spring of the year,” he tells Pompeo when she asks what this country is like. “You have all the lambs and all the cows and the calves and everything. It’s everything you would imagine it to be.”
As a host, Pompeo’s style is frustratingly scattershot. She often changes subject abruptly. In all three episodes, she misses opportunities for actual in-depth conversation, and her chat with Dempsey shifts from lambing season to what at first promises to be equally harmless territory: Grey’s Anatomy and its guest directors.
“And how was Denzel?” Dempsey asks Pompeo about Denzel Washington. “How was he as a director?” It is her answer to this question that prompted the backlash.
First, she talks hazily for what feels like an age about charisma, vibration and personal energy. Then she tells a story about how Washington “went nuts on me”. Pompeo describes how, while they were shooting a scene, she yelled an instruction at another actor. Denzel was displeased. “I’m the director,” he apparently scolded her. “Don’t you tell him what to do.”
Pompeo reveals that she shouted back: “Listen motherf***er, this is my show. This is my set… You barely know where the bathroom is.”
She seems to think that she is the victim in this tale.
Twitter, as well as entertainment media in the US and over here, was unleashed. Pompeo has been branded entitled, disrespectful, a ‘Karen’, a white woman talking down to a black man regardless of how successful or talented he is.
There is an irony to all of this. One of the weaknesses of Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo is the lack of an overall theme to mark it out beyond its celebrity host. Yet the blight of racism is a recurring explicit and subliminal subject.
Far less attention has been paid to the other two episodes, but both feature successful black women: Michele Harper, the physician and bestselling memoirist, and Yara Shahidi, a Harvard student and star of Black-ish. In these episodes, Pompeo touches upon some interesting race-related topics such as the eye-wateringly elitist sororities in American universities and the racism embedded in the US health system.
Pompeo is married to music producer Chris Ivery, who is a black man, and they have three biracial children. Admirably, she sounds ready to go anywhere on the subject of race — such a terrifying topic for many.
Who knows whether the controversy will help or hinder Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo; at time of writing, she has yet to answer her critics. If her response to Denzel Washington is anything to go by, we must presume that she’ll come out swinging.