Credit: JAMES WHITE for EW

After what was arguably the darkest season of Grey’s Anatomy, culminating in the death of Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), both the show and its leading lady Ellen Pompeo are turning over a new leaf as viewers prepare for life without the couple that defined MFEO. EW hit the set of the season premiere and sat down with Pompeo to get the scoop on what’s ahead.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you think the show has changed going into season 12?

ELLEN POMPEO: Doing a show this long, the challenge is to make every year fresh and new, and to give it a different feel to keep the audience engaged. Everyone can agree last year was pretty dark tonally. We were telling volatile stories, and this year we’re going to turn over the soil, and the show has a lighter look. It’s brighter. We’re trying to go back a little bit more to the original Grey’s and have a little bit of a lighter tone this year.

How has Meredith changed without Derek?

While Derek has always been an important person to Meredith, he never defined her. Cristina Yang [Sandra Oh] said it perfectly, that Meredith is the sun, and I think this is going to be the year that she is going to realize that. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of a show that is entering its 12th season, playing such a strong female character. I trust Shonda [Rhimes’] vision and can’t wait to see what she has in store for Meredith’s new journey.

What is she dealing with now?

She’s probably throwing herself into her work and her kids. I hope Meredith gets a nanny, is all I have to say. [Laughs]

Meredith has new roommates in Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Maggie (Kelly McCreary). What’s that like?

Meredith has always liked people around. She’s always lived in the house with everybody, so it’s come full circle. It goes right back to how we started. There will be conflict, because it’s a one-hour drama, and I’m sure there’ll be drinking and conflict, and boys will come into it at some point with three girls in the house.

After running away for a year in the wake of Derek’s death, do you think Meredith is very similar to her mom now more than ever?

Shonda’s idea is to definitely layer some of Ellis into her. That’s what makes it interesting and complex, and anytime we can rely on Ellis as a character to justify some of Meredith’s decisions, that’s always helpful in playing her. Hopefully Meredith is stronger and more thoughtful and less selfish than Ellis was. Ideally, you’d like to take the bad things from your childhood and make them make you a better person — in your real life anyway — so I’d like to think that Meredith does the same thing.

Ellis Grey tried to kill herself in the wake of Richard leaving her. Did Meredith run away so she wouldn’t repeat history?

I don’t know if you can justify what anyone does in a moment of grief. The most difficult thing we, as humans, go through is the complete loss of someone in our life. There’s no telling how you’ll react or what you’ll do. It’s a really extraordinary thing to go through the death, especially, of a spouse. I think that people don’t judge her too much for that.

Over the last 11 seasons, what do you think Meredith has learned?

I would like to think Meredith has learned to not repeat her mother’s mistakes and to not run.

Do you think there’s a chance she could open herself up to love again?

Well, it being a one-hour drama, you never know! We’re going to start seeing Meredith begin exploring the question of “Once you’ve had a perfect love and a perfect marriage, with the perfect guy, what do you do next?” A part of her is definitely going to wonder if the best parts of her love life are already behind her.

Looking back, could you have ever imagined this is where Meredith would end up?

Never. I’ve been saying we have one more year since season 2. I really could never imagine the show going this long. It’s unbelievable. The idea of engaging with our fans in season 2 and 3 would have terrified us. Now it gives us life. It’s our oxygen to be able to hear and see these kids and know how much joy the show gives them.

Grey’s Anatomy returns Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Grey's Anatomy

Meredith. Alex. Bailey. The doctors are definitely in on Shonda Rhimes' hospital melodrama.

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