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Grey's Anatomy: Ellen Pompeo disappointed over fan response to McDreamy's death

The star reflects on season 12

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Bob D'Amico/ABC

Eleven years after donning her scrubs for the first time, Ellen Pompeo tells EW how Grey’s Anatomy has kept up the heat and why she’s excited for season 13.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s made this season of Grey’s so successful?

ELLEN POMPEO: Out of curiosity, people tuned in to see “How does Meredith go on without the great love of her life?” because a lot of people really have to do that in their own lives. It’s interesting to see people carry on in the face of what seems impossible and they make it possible. I think that’s an interesting thing to watch.

Over 100,000 fans signed a petition calling for Grey’s Anatomy to bring back Derek (Patrick Dempsey), with many calling for a boycott of the show. Yet here we are at the end of season 12 and Grey’s is ABC’s No. 1 drama. How did the fans being upset about Derek’s death make you feel at the time?

I completely understood their anger, angst, and pain. Nobody wanted to lose Patrick — everybody knew how valuable he was to the show. It wasn’t a choice that we had. We both signed a two-year contract to renew, so it was a situation that came up very abruptly and nobody expected it to happen.

What upset me was how Shonda [Rhimes] was attacked. The stuff about me being hurt by the fans saying that they weren’t going to watch anymore if he wasn’t part of the show didn’t feel good, but I understood it. I understood their anger. We were sad to lose him, too, but what really disappointed me was the way that people attacked Shonda as if she had some choice.

She’s explained why the character has to end that way, because if the character rides off into the sunset on a white horse, why would he ever leave Meredith? Then that love story is ruined. If he were just to walk away gracefully, he’s no longer the knight in shining armor. And fans are always going to want him to come back, so I was just disappointed in the hate that Shonda got. I felt pretty protective of her in that moment and I was pretty disappointed that she got the blame for something that really wasn’t her fault at all.

You made a joke on Ellen that “it’s amazing how much you get done without a penis.” Did your male cast members rib you about that?

[Laughs] No, they didn’t. They were all very nice. I get put on the spot with this question all the time and it’s challenging, because no matter how I answer it, it’s going to be dissected. So in that moment, I didn’t really have time to think about my answer, to be diplomatic about my answer, but obviously I do think that women are great multitaskers.

What excited you most about season 12?

The storyline with Penny (Samantha Sloyan) [the doctor responsible for Derek’s death] was my favorite creative piece of it. I thought it was a great story to have her come back and for me to have to deal with that. And then the Denzel [Washington-directed] episode also was amazing. I was exhilarated every moment. I lived for that.

RELATED: Watch Ellen Pompeo impersonate Annalise Keating and Olivia Pope

What is it about this character that keeps you enthralled to play Meredith?

The change. Every time we get to change, every time there’s a new big storyline, any kind of change at this point is exciting and makes it fun for me to play. New characters, new actors coming on the show, it all helps.

Has this creative renaissance got you excited that there are more Meredith stories to tell?

I think there’s got to be. Shonda’s not the biggest showrunner on TV for no reason. I trust in Shonda, I trust her and I’ve been rocking with her for 12 years now and we haven’t failed yet, so I’m going to keep putting my money where my mouth is. I’m always excited to work with Shonda and to be part of whatever she is doing creatively. That’s my girl; I’ve always believed in her, I’ve never doubted her.

But have you ever needed convincing that there are more Meredith stories to tell?

Yeah, of course. With any long-running show, you wonder, “Is there more?” We always have that creative conversation. Her and I talk a lot. I haven’t talked to her yet about next season, but we always talk about where we’re going, what we’re going to do and what do you think. And even if Shonda doesn’t have answers, I trust that she’ll find them. In life, you have to take the good with the bad, and you can’t just jump ship because you have one bad season or a few bad episodes. Ultimately, you have to trust in the bigger picture, and I’ve always done that, and it’s always steered me very well.

In the penultimate episode, Meredith hooked up with Riggs, whom we then learn in the finale her sister Maggie has a crush on, which puts Mer into a love triangle going into season 13.

I am excited to play it. He’s safe for Meredith because nobody likes him and she knew she couldn’t be in a relationship with him. That triangle will be fun. I just hope it’s written differently. I would assume that it’s going to be written differently. I just don’t want to play the same thing that I played in the last love triangle. 10 years have passed, so hopefully Meredith responds to this differently than she did 10 years ago.

You helped build the Shondaland empire. How does that make you feel?

Incredibly proud. It’s not just television that she has championed. It’s not just a show. It’s not just five shows — she’s got in pop culture’s ear. She’s made every studio in this town, every TV network, every person making every movie, every writer, every director, every producer — her message has resonated with every single person that creates content in this town, that people of color, people of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, everyone needs to be included, and she’s spearheaded that. Olivia Pope was the first black [female lead] on television in, what was it, 40 years?

She doesn’t just make five TV shows — she changed the culture of how we create content. For me, that’s our march on Washington. I was part of something, and I am part of something, that is greater than just television shows. The idea of that moves me to tears to see that people can watch our shows and see themselves represented, whether it’s black people, Asian people, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, whatever it is, children with autism, gun violence, every issue that she’s tackled. She’s literally changed the culture, made everybody open their eyes, and has changed the way every piece of content is looked at today. It’s truly groundbreaking, and nothing in my life will ever compare to this experience of being with her for 12 years and what we’ve been able to accomplish on a cultural level; nothing will ever compare.

Grey’s Anatomy will return this fall on ABC. In the meantime, read our postmortem with Ellen Pompeo and Kelly McCreary on that love triangle twist here, our postmortem with Camilla Luddington on that Jo Wilson reveal here, and our postmortem with Caterina Scorsone and Kevin McKidd on Amelia and Owen’s future here. Plus: get the details on Sara Ramirez’s exit ahead of season 13.

A version of this story ran in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly featuring X-Men: Apocalypse, on newsstands Friday. Buy one – or all four collective covers – at ew.com/xmen – and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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