Ellen Pompeo knows that age ain’t nuthin’ but a number. So much so that the Grey’s Anatomy star is taking on a new role, partnering with Philosophy on the beauty brand’s new #CoolAger campaign to dispel the stigma associated with getting older. But there was a time when the 46-year-old star’s age played into one of the biggest decisions of her professional career: the choice to stay on Shonda Rhimes’ ABC hit, she tells PeopleStyle.
“My decision to stay on Grey’s was based solely on age,” Pompeo reveals in an exclusive interview (on newsstands everywhere Friday!). “At 33, I was wise enough to know my clock was already ticking in Hollywood.”
The actress, who says she got a “super late start” in the industry, landing her first roles in her mid-20s, admits that if she’d been younger, “I probably would have done my time, then gone out to search for other things.” But as her contract renegotiations loomed she “was definitely aware of how challenging it would be to find other roles in my late 30s and early 40s.”
Ultimately, Pompeo opted to keep donning Dr. Meredith Grey’s scrubs — a decision that, several seasons later, leaves her with no regrets. “I thought, ‘Why would I leave something that is super successful and pays me great to search the landscape?’ I decided that I would stay on Grey’s and be grateful and try to ride it out for as long as I could. And I am very happy that I made the decision to stay. It’s only gotten better with time.”
The one hangup Pompeo’s had over the years? Seeing herself grow older on the small screen.
“Watching myself age on TV is miserable. To be honest, it’s the toughest part of my job,” she says.
Pompeo hasn’t caught up on any old episodes of Grey’s — save for the pilot — because it’s “intense.” But the actress says she’s taking the aging process in stride.
“But as uncomfortable as watching myself age is, I don’t think focusing on physical beauty is necessarily the best thing for your mind. It’s a natural thing that we all do, but I don’t think it’s the healthiest thing. The older you get, the more you realize life isn’t about your looks. Everyone ages, and it’s okay.”
Now, Pompeo wants to help other women approach aging with a sense of fearlessness. Teaming with Philosophy, she will appear in videos (such as the below) on coolager.com that aim to initiate positive conversations about aging.
“Welcome to middle-age. From here on it’s a steady decline into old age and cultural insignificance,” says a voice-over in a clip that shows Pompeo questioning perceptions of growing older.
“I was flattered to join the campaign because it speaks to stereotypes I feel strongly about. As a woman you’re not over or on the decline after having children or after 40. It all just gets better!”
RELATED VIDEO: Did You See the Surprise Ellen DeGeneres Had for Ellen Pompeo?
And Pompeo’s partnership with Philosophy runs deeper, with the brand’s Hope and Grace Initiative donating $10,000 to an organization that’s important to her: the L.A.-based Aviva Family and Children’s Services, which supports at-risk youth through therapy and other services.
“It’s so important that we do anything we can do to help our kids have some shot at a future,” she says.
For more on Ellen’s take on aging in Hollywood, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE.