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Like a surgeon, touched by fame for the very first time

It's been an amazing 14 months for Ellen Pompeo, the lead actress in ''Grey's Anatomy." She has a fan website now, ellenpompeo.net, as well as her own page on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. And in a clear sign of cultural significance, she's been ''punk'd" on MTV. We caught up with the Everett native -- who 11 years ago was tending bar in New York -- to talk about the whirlwind.

Q: How has your life changed since ''Grey's Anatomy" premiered?

A: I bought a house in Los Angeles, which is magnificent. It's an old Mediterranean house that needs to be restored. That's been the biggest splurge. I still have the same car, the same clothes. I work a lot more now. Six days a week, 15 hours a day. The schedule is absolutely grueling. I'm a lot more tired.

Q: Are you recognized a lot on the street now?

A: I get recognized quite a bit. But it's all uptown problems. People just want to say hi. One thing I don't like is people wanting to take my picture with their camera phones. It's always after I've just worked 16 hours and I look like death warmed over.

Q: You landed the role of Meredith Grey after auditioning for another ABC pilot?

A: I auditioned for a role where I was the head of the Secret Service. The character had to contend with men who were jealous of her. . . . The studio didn't go for it. But ABC said if you like, you can do this.

Q: Were you involved in the theater while a student at Everett High School?

A: Not at all. I was really self-conscious about telling people about my interest. The reactions I got were less than favorable. ''You want to be a movie star? Right. Why don't you go get a job at [Boston] Edison and call it a day?" Acting is not something that's nurtured in Everett. I couldn't wait to turn 18 and leave.

Q: How does working on the show compare to acting in a film like ''Catch Me If You Can"?

A: I've never been employed as an actor for 10 months straight. When you work in film, you go film to film to film, and then you have a couple of months off. I've had to learn to adjust to this medium. It's very difficult to play the same character for a long time. How many times can I be upset with Derek [Patrick Dempsey's character]? . . . It's harder to find inspiration and make it real for me. But I choose to look at it like an acting exercise. If I can do this, I can do anything.

Q: Does that mean you prefer film over TV?

A: Acting is acting. It's really about the individual role. . . . Quite frankly, the film roles that really take my breath away aren't pouring in. There are very few good films made in Hollywood. So I love the TV show because I get to act every day and I'm financially secure so I don't have to do bad movies anymore.

Q: Do you think your character is maturing?

A: Not at all. I think she keeps making ridiculous mistakes. I guess this is sort of the dichotomy between high book intelligence and low emotional intelligence. She has this surgery thing down pat. But why would she sleep with George [another hospital intern]? I guess a lot of women sleep with guys they should never have slept with. It's a little hard for me to relate to that. I have never slept with a guy who was like my brother.

Q: Is her crush on Derek unrealistic too? He's a married man.

A: That isn't so hard of a stretch. He is so cute. I can see how any young intern would be totally infatuated with a doctor like that. With regard to her not getting over him, it's hard when a relationship doesn't end mutually. There's always one who hangs on way too long.

Q: What can we expect from Meredith in the third season?

A: I'm really curious, but I don't ask a lot. They won't tell me, number one. But I also don't really want to know. I'll think about it too much and that will work against me. I'd rather take it as it comes and react to it spontaneously.

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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