The Quiet Mystery of Shonda Rhimes
Six years ago, she remade ABC's primetime with "Grey's Anatomy." Now, the network's most prolific (and reclusive) showrunner opens up about the private practice behind her expanding and evolving drama empire.
OK, so they told you I only have one hour, right?" It's a Thursday afternoon in early spring, and Shonda Rhimes has no time for pleasantries as she leans against the wall outside her office door in the headquarters of her production company, Shondaland.
"I just ran up from the Grey's Anatomy writers room, gave notes on a Private Practice script, then at 3 p.m. I have another Grey's writers meeting, then at 4 p.m. a casting session for the pilot," she says, sighing. "Apparently I'm very committed to not being bored."
As showrunner-writers go, no one is busier -- or more lucrative for her network -- than Rhimes. After seven seasons, Grey's, still averaging about 12 million viewers a week, is ABC's most valuable property -- a 30-second ad spot goes for about $222,000 -- and the third-most-profitable network drama after Glee and House; the Grey's spinoff Private attracts more than 8 million viewers, and ads go for about $143,000.
And while her executive producing effort Off the Map didn't survive ABC's fall face-lift, Rhimes is poised to bow a more promising midseason series in 2012: the damage-control-themed Scandal, starring Kerry Washington as a former presidential aide who opens her own public relations firm. "Very sad about losing Off the Map. Very excited about new show Scandal. ABC giveth and ABC taketh away…" she tweeted after the news was announced at the network's May 13 upfronts.
Rhimes, who with Grey's became the first black woman to showrun a hit primetime drama, can also look forward to her first serious chance in years at an Emmy, for two episodes she penned last season: the ambitious Grey's music event "The Song Beneath the Song," which aired in March; and "Did You Hear What Happened to Charlotte King?," Private's gritty rape episode that aired in the fall and also is garnering strong awards buzz for actress KaDee Strickland.
With three dramas slated for the 2011-12 season, Rhimes, 41, is not only primetime's most prolific hourlong series creator, she now also inhabits a historic niche in the male-dominated ranks of such brand-specific showrunners as David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco and David Milch.
Yet the Chicago native and single mother is unconcerned with this -- and anything else that might distract from her work. She only does press when her publicist forces her to. She doesn't allow reporters on the sets of her shows (she also rarely visits the sets herself because she prefers to "remain a fan"). She claims to not read reviews -- that was probably a good thing with Off the Map -- and treats her actors and producers like family, who in turn describe her as "an amazing teacher" and "a maternal figure." She rarely attends industry events and prefers to spend what little free time she has with her 9-year-old daughter, Harper (named for author Harper Lee), whom she adopted in 2002 a year before she wrote the Grey's pilot.
And really, you can't blame her. After doing damage control of her own during two PR nightmares -- the 2007 firing of Grey's star Isaiah Washington over his much-reported gay epithet aimed at co-star T.R. Knight and the hubbub surrounding Katherine Heigl's awkward request to be pulled from Emmy consideration in 2008 because the show's writing didn't "warrant" it -- Rhimes is reclaiming her station as "just a writer."
"That was the toughest time in my life," she says. "I was still writing from a place of pure love. It wasn't a 'business' to me yet. The idea that I'd ever have to talk about myself and be a public figure was totally strange. I'm a writer by nature. I'm an introvert. That wasn't what I signed up for."
The interior of Shondaland headquarters, on the sixth floor of the Los Feliz Tower at Disney's Prospect Studios in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood, feels more like your best friend's living room than the inner sanctum of ABC's most profitable drama machine.
A wall-sized bay window offers the six employees here a stunning north-facing view of Griffith Park; below the window is a mauve couch accented by red pillows. A stocked kitchen is within reach, as is a bookcase filled with dozens of three-ring binders of show scripts. A 12-inch see-through anatomy model of the male torso sits atop the case like an office mascot.
Rhimes' office is equally cozy but with less light and more exposed brick, giving more of a writers'-cave motif. She is dressed for comfort in a flowy green-and-black printed blouse, black leggings and calf-high boots, her hair sleek and shoulder-length. Being here feels a little like having office hours with your cool lit professor in college.
The academic vibe isn't an accident: Education enveloped Rhimes growing up in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest South (later renamed University Park). Her mother, Vera, attended college while raising six children and earned her Ph.D. in educational administration in 1991, the same year Rhimes graduated from Dartmouth. Rhimes' father, Ilee, was an MBA who held various academic posts and is currently the chief information officer at USC.
The family's precocious youngest child, Rhimes attended private Catholic high schools and says that much of Sandra Oh's annoying overachiever Grey's persona, Christina Yang, was born of her own teenage self. "I never understood why anyone would get bad grades," she says. "But I rebelled in my own nerdy ways. I got detention almost every day my senior year because I wore sneakers and too-short skirts."
Rhimes had "no affinity for math and science whatsoever," so she studied English literature and creative writing at Dartmouth, a time she calls "magical." She wrote for the college newspaper, dabbled in theater and dreamed of being the next Toni Morrison. "But at some point you realize that you aren't going to be the next Toni Morrison … being a sad imitation wasn't my goal," says Rhimes. She moved to San Francisco after graduation and landed in "very lowly" positions at McCann Erickson. The advertising firm had recently won the Barbie account and asked employees to reflect on their childhood experiences with the doll.
"I wrote about how, as a kid, I kept all my Barbie high heels inside the head of my Ken doll," Rhimes recalls. "They filmed a test commercial based on that copy. It was cool to see my words said out loud. I thought, 'I have a knack for this writing thing.' " Around the same time, Rhimes was rediscovering a love for television, which had first been fueled when she was a kid by seeing Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad and Oprah Winfrey each thrive in the medium. A lack of passion for her day job had Rhimes seeking comfort in reruns of thirtysomething on cable, the writing from which she adored. (In an odd twist, thirtysomething star Peter Horton would direct the Grey's pilot.) One day at age 22, it hit her. "I wanted to go to film school to write," she says. "I'd read that it was harder to get into USC's film school than Harvard Law. It seemed like an excellent competitive thing to do."
Rhimes excelled in film school to a degree that would make Christina Yang break out in hives. She earned the prestigious Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship and managed to catch the industry's eye shortly after graduation while her peers scrambled for PA gigs.
One set of eyes belonged to Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, who helped develop Grey's during her 11-year tenure at ABC (her role as executive vp scripted dramas was eliminated in March). "I saw her speak on a panel. Her hair was super-long, in braids; she was in her early 20s," says Patmore-Gibbs. "I remember thinking, 'This is not a girl.' Her presence, her material, her depth. It was like she was already 40. I knew I'd work with her someday."
After Rhimes earned her MFA in screenwriting, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith showed interest in producing a feature she'd written called When Willows Touch (Will Smith also had produced a short film of hers, Blossoms and Veils). But three weeks before production of Willows, actor Omar Epps walked away from the film and Miramax pulled its funding. "The project died," says Rhimes. "Apparently there wasn't a big market for black films set in the Jim Crow South about a body rotting in a cornfield." The setback gave Rhimes pause. Was this what she really wanted?
After briefly considering medical school, she landed a research gig at HBO on the 1995 documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream and in her free time wrote the feature script Human Seeking Same, a personals-ad romantic comedy that New Line purchased (but never made). She can't recall for how much but says, "It felt like a lot of money at the time." Suddenly Rhimes' phone was ringing.
A call she was happy to answer was an invitation to write the script for HBO's 1999 biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which earned Halle Berry a Golden Globe. The exposure put Rhimes at the top of a shortlist to pen a project for a pop star looking to diversify her portfolio.
"I remember thinking, 'Who is Britney Spears?' " says Rhimes, who, after being offered the gig, flew to Chicago to see the singer perform. "Thousands of people were screaming their brains out. I thought, 'Whatever this is, it's very interesting.' " The 2002 movie Crossroads, starring Spears, earned a respectable $37 million and awarded Rhimes the higher profile she needed to move forward. "And a gorgeous house in Beachwood Canyon," she says. "I called it The House That Britney Bought."
The March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was unkind to Rhimes, who by then had written a pilot for ABC about sexy, young globe-trotting war correspondents. "She did a great job, but the war put a damper on it," says Rhimes' longtime producing partner Betsy Beers of the project's demise. "I was amazed by what she was able to absorb and learn without ever giving up her point of view."
Their second collaboration was Grey's, which Rhimes wrote when her daughter was a baby. By then, Patmore-Gibbs, who had been itching to get Rhimes back into circulation at ABC, was championing the idea of a sexy medical drama in the post-ER landscape. "We'd just bought the spec for Desperate Housewives and were greenlighting Lost," says Patmore-Gibbs. "NBC's golden era of West Wing and ER was ending. We needed a great ensemble drama to fill that void."
Much was made of the "colorblind" approach Rhimes employed in casting Grey's (blond Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth was once in the running to play Dr. Miranda Bailey, a role that eventually was given to a black actress, Chandra Wilson). Even more curious: Rhimes never once was asked if she was planning to make, ahem, a "black" show.
"It's possible no one knew what to say," says Rhimes. "There is no polite way to ask, 'Shonda, are you going to cast this show all black?' Yes, I am black. What a 'black woman' says is whatever comes out of my mouth. Therefore Meredith and Derek are black, too."
Mostly, says Rhimes, she operated within a "totally naive" void of expectations. "I'd never worked in television," she says. "It never occurred to me that I had to take anyone's notes, so a lot of times I didn't."
Today, with Grey's renewed for an eighth season and Private a fifth, Rhimes is in production on Scandal, whose protagonist is inspired by Judy Smith, a real-life crisis-management consultant and former White House press aide.
A lot is riding on Rhimes' fourth primetime effort, a large part of which is keeping her vocal fan base happy. In fact, Rhimes, who describes herself as "the opposite of bubbly," seems most ebullient when posting Twitter missives to her 90,000-plus followers.
"I am grateful to them because, hello, I wouldn't have a job," she says. "Grey's isn't my show anymore -- it belongs to the fans. But last season, I decided to take it back. If fans got what they wanted, it'd be 42 minutes of Meredith and Derek staring into each other's eyes. Sorry, but that's not television."
SHONDA'S TV FAVORITES
- Episodes (Showtime)
- Community (NBC)
- The Good Wife (CBS)
- Downton Abbey (PBS)
- Sherlock (PBS)