Patrick Dempsey: Shonda Rhimes cares deeply about 'Grey's Anatomy' fans
A week before his final episode aired, Patrick Dempsey, 49, sat down with Entertainment Weekly at Feed Body & Soul in Venice Beach, CA, to give an exclusive interview about his shocking exit on the April 23 episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Below is the entire, unedited Q&A where the actor reflects on what happened, why it happened and what he’s going to do next.
EW: Can you reflect on your time on Grey’s Anatomy?
Dempsey: It was an amazing run. At the end of the first season, I thought there was no way we could sustain 24 episodes. I had never done a run that long before. After the first season, I thought, How do we do this again? It’s a lot of work for everybody— for the writers, for the crew, anyone who is there every day. We are well-compensated and fortunate, but it’s long hours. We were doing 17 hour-days back then. Now we do 12-to-15 hours in a day. For 10 months out of the year. For 11 years. It’s extraordinary what Shonda Rhimes can do, with the shows she is running and how creative she is and how hands on she is. To sustain that is pretty remarkable.
You signed a two-year deal last year that would keep you on the show through season 12. So…?
Yes. You’re right. (Pause) It just sort of evolved. It just kind of happened. [Being written off] was something that was kind of surprising and uh, just naturally came to be. I like the way it has all played out.
Why did you sign the deal in the first place?
Job security…why not? It also came with a production deal. It’s hard to say no to that kind of money. How do you say no to that? It’s remarkable to be a working actor, and then on top of that to be on a show that’s visible. And then on top of that to be a phenomenal show that’s known around the world, and play a character who is beloved around the world. It’s very heady. It’s a lot to process, and not wanting to let that go, because you never know whether you will work again and have success again. [But] there is a time when you’re like, how much more can we do with this character? Where do they go? [And] you never know your schedule, so your kid asks you what are you doing on Monday, and you go, “I don’t know. I don’t know my schedule.” So doing that for 11 years, that’s challenging. But you have to be grateful, because you are well compensated so you can’t really complain because you don’t really have a right. But you don’t have control over your schedule. So you have to just be flexible.
How much did the show’s schedule affect your racing?
They let me race, which was remarkable. For the most part, they did a phenomenal job at scheduling and making it possible for me to race as much as I could, which I’m so grateful for.
Let’s talk about the story arc this season. Derek seemed like kind of an ass this season for taking off to D.C.
I don’t see him as an ass. It’s fascinating to see how people perceive it. My job is to make him human and to bring a point of view, which may or may not be understood. So I never saw him that way. I do what’s required to recognize Shonda’s vision. I don’t have judgment on it. It’s not my job to. My job is to do what’s in front of me. I perform.
Was that Instagram shot of you from Seattle meant to be a red herring?
It was such a big symbol for Derek. Ferry boats are a place of freedom and tranquility, and we don’t really get to go on location that much.I was really inspired by being in Seattle. I wish we shot more there. I don’t like tweeting—I prefer Instagram. I think you can say much more in an image rather than writing it.
You were gone for six episodes this season.
This was the first year that I haven’t been in every episode. I’ve been in every episode since the pilot—close to 250 episodes. That’s a huge run.
When did you find out that your character would be written off?
Things happened very quickly, where we were like, Oh this is where it’s going to go. It just sort of unfolded in a very organic way. I don’t remember the date. It was not in the fall. February or March. It happened very quickly.
Were you surprised? Was it tied to your six-episode hiatus?
It was just a natural progression, the way the story was unfolding, the way everything was unfolding in a very organic way. It was like, Okay! This was obviously the right time. It was just a nice break to sort of go, okay, how’s life looking at this time? It was good. I was in Brazil racing for the first part of it. And then it was a question of… It just played out that way. That’s a question for Shonda.
There must have been a lot of speculation about where you went during those six episodes.
Oh yes. I don’t read that stuff. It’s not productive to read. Some voices are positive, some are negative.
Will you ever talk about why you were gone for so long this season?
I don’t know.
Around the same time of your hiatus, you split from your wife. Did troubles at home affect your work life?
You’re a professional. You leave your personal life at the door. I’m not going to talk about my home life as part of the show.
Did your racing schedule become too demanding?
It was a combination of trying to schedule everything, and the level of commitment it takes to do the show, and also where the storylines were going. It was a natural way to finish it. It was time.
While you were shooting your final episode, did you think about how the fans would react?
The fans care deeply. I think Shonda cares deeply about the fans, and how they will react. Shepherd is a beloved character. People don’t want to lose him. He’s been in their lives for over 10 years. And multiple generations have discovered him. On Netflix, 8 million a week come into the show, which is remarkable. They are passionate around the world. I get to travel around the world to race, and people know who Shepherd is. It’s humbling. It is tough. I’m still processing it. It’s very new for me.
Did you watch the dailies from your final episode?
I haven’t watched an episode this year at all. I don’t watch it. I don’t enjoy watching myself.
I understand Shonda wrote your last episode.
Shonda wrote it. She’ll do a pass on every episode.
Did they tell you ahead of time that two episodes would tease the possibility of your death?
There wasn’t a lot of discussion.
How do you die in the episode?
I cannot confirm nor deny what happens, but I’m anxious to see what the response will be.
How long did it take to shoot your final episode and where did it occur?
It was spread out over almost three weeks. Everyone knew it was my last episode. Some was shot at the studio, and some on location.
Did you cry on your final day?
No. I’m still processing it. This is part of the mourning process, the post Grey’s experience.
How was final day?
It was like any other day. It was just another workday. There was still too much going on. You’re in the midst of it—you are not really processing it.
Did anyone show up to say goodbye?
It was very quiet, very quiet. I very quietly left. It was beautiful. It was raining, which was really touching. I got in my Panamera, got in rush hour traffic, and two hours later I was home. I’m emotional now talking about it because you start to look at the reality of it.
What did you imagine the last day of a TV would be like for you?
I never thought about it. You are always trying to be present. The workload plus the long hours? It’s best just to be dealing with the scenes and try to bring as much truth to it as possible.
Are you leaving in a good place with your fellow actors?
I think so, yes.
What about Ellen?
Talk about your chemistry.
[He hesitates, and then tears up.] It’s magic. It’s beautiful. We’re like a married couple. It’s beem 10 years, and it was magic from the beginning. [Great] chemistry right away.
Can you see yourself having a follow-up discussion with Ellen about your leaving the show?
I think I’m still processing stuff. I’m starting to feel [it] for the first time. I’m [also] starting to separate and pull away.
How do you feel about the way the episode played out?
The story should be impactful, to close it out for the fans. I think it’s going to be very moving. I have no idea what the impact will be or how the final cut will turn out.
Did you think word of Derek’s death would get out before the episode aired?
How can it not? I thought it was going to be really tough to keep it quiet. The crew did a great job, so did the cast. The guest players who came in were very supportive, and very moving to work with.
What did this role mean to your life?
It was life changing.
What was it like living with this McDreamy persona?
He is the ideal man, and that’s what Shonda constructed. There’s a projection [of him] onto me when you come in contact with fans, certainly with the younger and older fans. There is a certain amount of expectation. There is a responsibility to it. It made me grow, too. There were good qualities [of his]that you work on to obtain. It’s been a good experience. It’s one aspect of my nature, and hopefully I get opportunities to do other things that allow me to access different sides of myself.
When do you think Grey’s Anatomy hit its zenith?
The first six episodes were done in a bubble, so we had no idea what we were doing or how it was going to come out. And then I remember we were midseason, Desperate Housewives was the big show break for ABC. We weren’t sure we were going to get picked up and everybody was freaking out about missing pilot season. “What if we don’t get another gig? How are we going to pay the rent?” We wrapped those six shows and it premiered, and literally overnight, everything changed. After 15 years in the business, I had overnight success. I understood what that meant, and how long it took to get it. And then we were off and running. Then it changes. The next show comes along, and then it becomes the flavor of the month. But we sustained that numbers, and that’s something everybody has been surprised with. It’s a testament to everything coming together – music, editing, cast, writing – it’s a true ensemble. Winning the SAG ensemble award was the most significant award there is. It was beautiful.
Describe how people would react when you went out and about.
The energy would change when you went into a room. It was like, “Oh, they are talking about me.” It was wild. Wild.
Did women get crazy around you?
Yes. It’s crazy because you go from trying to get in a room to audition, to suddenly everybody in the world knowing you, no matter where you go. And it happened within a 30-day period. I’m glad I had the experience to handle it, because it’s very heady.
How did it affect your film career?
I went into doing Enchanted, Freedom Writers… I was working around the clock for the first few years. Racing was a sanctuary and a retreat.
How did the other cast members deal with the overnight fame?
Everybody was in their own journey, dealing with it in their own way.
Why did this show endure so much drama behind-the-scenes?
I don’t know. There’s a lot of drama in the show. People love gossip. It was unfortunate being in it, but with success comes scrutiny. If things happen, it’s going to be talked about.
Did it get in the way of making a good show?
It was a distraction, certainly, but you get on with it.
As Shonda’s world grew, how did the show change?
People would come and go, storylines would change. It’s like life, it’s constantly changing and evolving. There’s a lull and a build up. It goes up and down. It was constant.
Did you ever fear the show would suffer because of Shonda’s new show How to Get Away with Murder?
No fear. Because that moment happened when Kate Walsh left to go to Private Practice. I had already been through that emotion.
How much does each episode change from the read-through to the final cut?
You never go where you are going to go. It keeps evolving. It’s an ongoing creative process. It’s constantly in flux and very organically keeps changing, so you never know what’s happening. For me, it was an exercise in just being present and focusing on, ‘What am I doing today?’ Learn the lines, be in the moment, and go from there.
Are your kids old enough to watch the show?
They are watching it now because they want to understand, but I try to protect them from watching. I don’t like them watching my stuff. My son is into the gore and the makeup of it because of his mother. He’s fascinated by that. My other son could care less. My daughter is aware of it because her friends are aware of it. I didn’t have the boys when I started this. That was Season 2. They grew up with it. And my daughter was 2 when we started, so it’s been a big part of everyone’s life for a decade.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of things that I have developed. One is called The Limit that I sold to the Sundance Channel. It’s Mad Men in the racing world in the 1960s. That’s moving forward. I’m also talking to NBC International about a show called Fodors. It’s basically a travelogue spy thriller. I would love to do something else. I’m going to take the rest of the year off to develop. I would like to be a producer. And I would commit to a show that is 10 to 12 episodes, but 24 again? I don’t know if I would do that. It’s a very hard life. It’s financially rewarding, but there comes a point where, how much is enough, really? I’m very grateful for that character, for what Shonda and ABC have given to me. It allows me to do so many things. I want to try something different. Will I be allowed to do something different? Is Derek so identifiable that I can’t go on and be someone else? That will be the challenge, to see if people embrace me as someone else.
Will you be typecast as the nice guy again?
I will always be. I really enjoy it. I like the discovery. What I would like to do is focus on not being spread so thin, which is why it’s good to focus on the racing, while developing on this other material, and not be so diluted. Those days are over.
There is going to be an explosion on social media after this episode.
I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. It’s like a Broadway play. When you go watch the original cast, and someone replaces a cast member, it’s not the same. I think any time an original cast member has left, there’s always a void that will never be filled. But it goes on, and it will evolve.
What will you be doing on the night your final episode airs?
I’m going to be racing in Europe or Dubai. I’ll be training. I won’t be in the country. I won’t be around a TV.
How did you stay present in a role you’ve played for 10 years?
With Ellen, there was the magic. I just played with her. You have all this crazy shit going on around you, and then you’re in front of the camera. We were just present to each other and listening to each other. It was always very magical, but very professional.
Can you reflect on your favorite moments over the years?
The pilot was great. And then just the discovery of what was happening. I couldn’t believe how it came together. And the bands that came on, and the emotional impact the music had on the show. Everybody had great moments. You realize how powerful an ensemble can be, and it was the collective that made it successful, not one individual.
There are many ex-Grey’s actors now. Do you keep in touch with any of them?
No. Eric Dane, I’ve always enjoyed being around him. He’s reached out. I see him every now and then. It’s such an intense period when you spend 15 hours a day with someone over 10 years.
Did you go back and grab from the set?
No. I don’t need that. I have it inside. I don’t need to have anything material to make me remember. I’m focusing now on developing and racing and being a father to my children. Those are my priorities.
You can’t be looking forward to people asking you why you left.
Yeah, I’ve been on almost 250 episodes. Everything has a beginning, middle and an end. Hopefully I get reincarnated somewhere else and people will embrace me.
How much does racing mean to you?
I would like to be racing all the time. I love it. My dream as a kid was to be an Olympic skier. I ended up riding the unicycle to improve my balance and then that got me in a vaudeville troop, which got me performing, which led to acting. So I really love acting, but my first love has always been racing.
What does it feel like when you are driving?
You don’t think, you are present. You’re dealing with what’s happening in the moment. It’s an incredible metaphor for how you should live life. You can’t deal with the past, you can’t deal with the future. You can only deal with what’s happening right now which will inform the future. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what good acting is.
I just read an article you did for an international publication, in which there was lots of talk about your sponsors.
It helps because Tag Heuer and Spyder and Porsche are my sponsors. They make it possible for me to go racing.
Do you collect a lot of cars?
I still have my 1963 356 that Can’t Buy Me Love bought that me. That car, I won’t sell. I’ve had a lot of cars, but I don’t need a lot of cars. I don’t need as much as I’ve had in the past. Less is more.