Three times a week, Ellen Pompeo has breakfast under the low lights of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and spies on the rich and famous. "Last week I was here and I had such a 'Blue Velvet' moment," she whispers over a plate of pancakes and bacon. "I walked in and I saw Dennis Hopper. And then five minutes after he left, Laura Dern walked in. I was like, 'Oh my God, where's Isabella [Rossellini]?' I just love coming here because you never know who you're gonna see."
But the green-eyed Massachusetts native had better become accustomed to being on the receiving end of celebrity-watching. Next month, she makes her studio movie debut in "Moonlight Mile," a romantic drama in which she co-stars with young man of the moment Jake Gyllenhaal and Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter.
She's also got three other high-profile movies in the can. Due out at Christmas is Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can" with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, then February will see the release of the Marvel comic-book adaptation of "Daredevil" opposite Ben Affleck. Additionally, she's Luke Wilson's love interest in the "Animal House"-style comedy "Old School," which DreamWorks says will be released in the first quarter next year. All of which should squash her chances of remaining a fly on the wall at any Hollywood hangout.
Pompeo's seeming arrival out of nowhere is enough to make any aspiring starlet look for a new agent. While bartending at the Soho Kitchen in New York City in 1995, she was approached by a casting director. The next day, Pompeo called the woman and was promptly sent out on three commercial auditions; she got all of them. The first, a L'Oreal hair spot, "was actually really cute. They dyed my hair red," she says. "And then I booked like 20 more commercials after that because I had this great red hair."
It was enough for Pompeo to live comfortably in a West Village apartment. Then she started to get work on New York-shot episodic television series over a four-year period including "The Job," "Strangers With Candy" and two different stints on "Law & Order."
"In the first one I did, I hired my boyfriend to kill my parents," she recalls. "The second one I was a lesbian sadomasochist who killed my sister. There must be a shortage of murderesses in New York City. Isn't that hysterical? My poor father."
Inevitably Pompeo realized that if she wanted her career to go any further, she had to head West. "I'm the quintessential East Coast girl," she says. "So I put it off as long as I possibly could. But then eventually you run out of TV shows to do in New York."
Intent on getting a head start on the TV pilot season, Pompeo moved to the Hollywood Hills in December 2001. Three months later, she experienced one of those only-in-L.A. stories that can seem too perfect to believe. A guy tried to pick her up in the parking lot behind gourmet sandwich shop Joan's on Third. She says she had no idea he was actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
"She walked by and I was just blown away by this energy," Gyllenhaal says. "She does this thing with her hair where she kind of jolts it back and forth. I thought it was so sexy."
"He knocked on my [car] window in the parking lot," Pompeo says. "And he was standing there very nervous and shy. He said, 'I just want to tell you that you're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my entire life.' And he tried to run away. So I said, 'Wait a minute, come back here.' Normally, I would say, 'Thank you' and let it go. But there's something so interesting about his face, so soulful."
"I looked down at her passenger seat," Gyllenhaal says, "and I saw that there were 'sides' on it," the parts of scripts actors are given to read for auditions, "and I was like, 'Oh God, this girl's an actor." Pompeo says she told him, "Maybe we'll work together someday. Thanks for the compliment. See ya. And that was it."
But it wasn't. Three weeks later, under the urging of New York casting director Avy Kaufman, known for finding actors their breakthrough roles--like Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" and Tobey Maguire in "The Ice Storm"--Pompeo auditioned for writer-director Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile" (at the time tentatively titled "Baby's in Black") and found herself reading with none other than Gyllenhaal. "I walked into the room and he turned pale. Then I turned pale. It was so bizarre," Pompeo says.
"In walks Ellen to the room and I was like, no way," Gyllenhaal says. "I guess she had burned her forehead with a curling iron. It was just like this big scabby thing on her forehead and she was trying to hide it the best she could. But finally she was like, 'I know it's really stupid but I was trying to straighten my hair.' And she blew the audition out of the water. She walked out of the room and Brad turned to me and said, 'There's our movie.' "