atrick Dempsey is quarantining in a rental apartment in New Jersey while he waits to film a TV pilot. The room is white and characterless – at least, what I can see of it is. “I’m not allowed outside,” he explains. “I have to take two more Covid tests before I can go to set for pre-production.”
It’s only natural that our conversation would start this way. Not just because the pandemic is impossible to ignore, but because, as with most Hollywood actors, it’s the only thing the 55-year-old and I have in common. This is the man whose face people around the world grew up swooning over. Floppy haired and cheeky grinned, Dempsey cut his teeth in the 1980s with roles in Heaven Help Us, Can’t Buy Me Love and Loverboy before going on to play a series of equally charming leading men in romcoms such as Enchanted, Made of Honor and Bridget Jones’s Baby. Ask any fan of the hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, though, and Dempsey will always be known as “McDreamy”, the nickname bestowed upon his character, the selfless neurosurgeon Dr Derek Shepherd. Strangers still call him that on the street, despite the fact he left the show in 2015. But more on that later.
Today, we’re here to talk about Devils, a frenetic financial thriller based on Guido Maria Brera’s bestselling Italian novel of the same name. Set in an investment bank in London, the series follows high-flying trader Massimo Ruggeri (Alessandro Borghi) as he becomes embroiled in a political scandal following the murder of his rival, a crime for which he is the prime suspect. Dempsey plays Dominic Morgan, CEO of the fictional NYL bank and Massimo’s mercurial mentor-slash-opponent in the psychological chess match around which the story unfolds.
“It was a great opportunity to play a different kind of character, something that’s darker,” says Dempsey, astutely aware of the pivot he’s making, though it’s one he initiated in 2018 when he played Harry Quebert in the Epix miniseries The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. For Devils, Dempsey prepared by spending a lot of time with Brera, a financier and professor and sort of Italian Michael Lewis. “The way he looks at money is different to what I expected,” says Dempsey. “Yes, the story is about finance but it’s also about life.” He goes on to mention a particularly poignant scene where Massimo revisits his hometown in Italy and reflects on the consequences of capitalism and the impact of his career. These are things that Dempsey clearly spends time thinking about, too.
“The thing we’ve learnt this year is that we’re interconnected, globally,” he says. “Like, all our economies, if anything happens, we’re all affected, we’re all vulnerable to that. We all need each other for survival.”
He’s been pondering his time with Brera. “Guido is generous, compassionate, empathetic and he’s incredibly successful,” he says, “but he realises that’s not what life is about, and I think that’s what we have to look at as a society: what is the real meaning of life? Is it just about power and money? What does that get you at the end?”
The finance industry has long served as inspiration for compelling popular culture. From The Big Short to The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which are indebted to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, countless examples have emerged in recent years. And most of them have been hits. The latest of these came along last November in the form of Industry, the feverish BBC series that explored the Faustian bargain on offer to a group of very high, and very horny, graduate students in banking. Devils offers a more grown-up look at this world, and not just because the characters are older. The stakes are even higher and so is the death count. And while Industry does pose difficult questions to the viewer – such as how much a person will give up for the sake of money and power – Devils does so with a greater sense of urgency by showing how such sacrifices affect societies as well as individuals. What both shows do, though, is epitomise the perpetual appeal of financial drama. It’s not just about wanting to see powerful men yelling across the trading floor in Savile Row suits. If it was, people wouldn’t still be watching them.
“There’s this mythology of that period in the 1980s when greed was all sexy and cool,” says Dempsey, alluding to the era encapsulated by the “greed is good” mantra of Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. “But there’s a dark side to that, that’s what we’re seeing now [during the pandemic] and it’s what we need to highlight. That’s a lot of what the show is about.” Dempsey takes his point wider – something I begin to notice he does a lot – and reflects on his own upbringing.
“I came from a rural community, not a lot of opportunity, you know, hard-working, middle class people and that’s gone now,” he says. (He grew up in small-town New England.) So people’s value systems have changed? “We look at these celebrities and what they’re doing on Instagram and that’s what we think we need for happiness. Then when you get all that, you realise that’s not it at all. That’s not the key to happiness. You’re still going to have the same problems. You’re going to look in the mirror and you’re going to have to deal with those same issues.”
Dempsey, who has 5.8 million followers on Instagram, says that the pandemic has made him rethink how he uses his own platform. “You can’t be tone deaf to what’s going on in the world,” he says, after I bring up Gal Gadot’s widely derided “Imagine” video that featured numerous celebrities singing the lyrics to the famous Beatles song last year. Instead of participating in such a video, Dempsey spent much of last year helping to maintain his holistic cancer-treatment centre, The Dempsey Centre, which has had to take most of its work online. “That’s what life is about,” he says of his work there. “Being altruistic and giving back. Everything else is a distraction.”
While very nice, Dempsey, I realise, is one of those actors who swerves specificities, often ending his answers with platitudes that sound like they’ve been ripped off mugs from Oliver Bonas. Still, he does offer some insight when I probe him on the many controversies that have surrounded Grey’s Anatomy over the years. These include reports of Isaiah Washington using a homophobic slur on set, Katherine Heigl withdrawing her Emmy nominations over a lack of good material, and, of course, rumours surrounding the sudden death of Dempsey’s character in season 11. Did he ever notice the “serious culture issues” that his co-star, Ellen Pompeo, described in a recent Variety interview?
“I think any time where you have an environment where you’re working 17-hour days, six days a week, it’s very hard to keep that a healthy environment,” he says, explaining how things started to improve shortly before his departure in 2014. “I noticed things shift in the leadership of the day-to-day operations. There’s more equality within the crew and within the dynamic. People have grown up, changed and learnt, and come out the other side. That’s what life is about.” This is the second meaning of life Dempsey offers up during our conversation.
I’m keen to get Dempsey’s views on financial parity in Hollywood, particularly given that it’s something he’s experienced the weight of first-hand. In 2017, Pompeo famously signed a $20m deal, making her the highest-paid actress on a primetime drama. However, she has since claimed that, at the start of the series, Dempsey was being paid “almost double” what she was, and called his departure from the show a “defining moment” for her. “They could always use him as leverage against me – ‘We don’t need you; we have Patrick’ – which they did for years,” Pompeo said, adding that she asked Dempsey to join forces for salary negotiations, but he refused. I begin to put this to Dempsey, but halfway through my question – “Ellen said that you leaving the show was good for her, financially speaking…” – I’m sternly told to move on by his publicist.
Whatever happened, it seems that Dempsey hasn’t burnt any bridges given that he recently reprised his role as Shepherd – albeit in a dream sequence – for an episode about coronavirus. He’ll appear in at least a couple more instalments, too. “It was really a special experience for all of us,” he says. “We all cried and we all had a lot of movement emotionally. It was very healing.”
Does he mind that people still call him McDreamy? “It is what it is,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s a character that some people are just discovering for the first time, so if they see me and it makes them feel good, and my identifying that for them makes them feel validated, then I’m very happy about it.” That doesn’t mean there weren’t downsides to playing a character whose nickname derives from his good looks. I ask if he ever felt objectified. “Well certainly with Grey’s, yes. I mean, it’s the way it’s constructed. It’s an archetype and you have to hold that energy, but that’s not who I am.”
Given the swerve that Dempsey’s career has taken in recent years – he hasn’t done a romantic comedy since Bridget Jones’s Baby – it seems like he’s becoming more selective about the projects he takes on. While he explains that it can be “confining” to stick within a single genre, he admits that the industry has also changed. “They’re not making romantic comedies any more like they used to; I think that’s gone,” he says. “I’m certainly older, so I’m not going to play those kinds of roles any more.” That said, he is returning to his role as Robert Philip for Disney’s sequel to Enchanted that is due to begin filming this summer in Ireland – although, he points out, that is a pre-existing piece of material that’s being revisited after 14 years.
If Devils has taught him one thing – though by the sound of it, it’s taught him rather a lot – it’s that a project has to offer more than just a decent script if he’s going to get on board. “It depends on the director and the cast and the quality of life,” he says. “What am I going to learn from that project?” He reiterates how much he valued filming in Rome, and learning about Roman history and the ins and outs of finance with Brera. Then it’s time to make another wider point about life. “We start to look at where we are right now, in this moment of time in the context of life, and this phase. We’ll come out the other side of it eventually. So those things are important. And that type of experience is a rich one to have.” Is he at all worried about the state of the film industry? “The business will survive; we need content, so we’ll find a way to make it,” he replies, confidently. “It’s just a question of how is all this going to impact the type of storytelling that people are going to want to see? What breaks through that noise?”
Devils airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Thursday 17 February