The ABC showrunner has had an enviable résumé (including as Rhimes' top lieutenant) and a gripping backstory, but for 20 years she struggled to get her own show made — until 'Rebel.'
In the spring of 2015, two years before Krista Vernoff took the reins at Grey's Anatomy, she was hard at work on a pilot for Fox that veered dangerously close to her own story.
Studio City, as the show would be titled, was described in the press as a cross between Shameless and The O.C. A then-little-known British actress, Florence Pugh, signed on to play a younger, slightly fictionalized version of Vernoff, the ambitious daughter of a profoundly alcoholic mom and a cocaine dealer-to-the-stars dad. But mining her own sordid past was agony for its writer. "I had to walk off set every day and cry," says Vernoff, who found herself back in therapy, unpacking years of trauma just to eke out an hour of television.
Then came word from above: The project wouldn't move forward. Vernoff could be forgiven for being a wreck. It was one of 10 pilots that she would sell only to see them not air, and it was easily her most personal. Instead, she says, "I was almost immediately flooded with relief." Before long, she was back producing and writing on other people's shows, as she'd done for nearly two decades. Still, even as she added series and responsibilities, she wondered, "Am I always going to be in the shadows?"
On Thursday, April 8, Vernoff will put that concern to bed. Her 11th pilot, Rebel, a soapy legal drama inspired by the life of activist Erin Brockovich, has landed the 49-year-old showrunner the first series order of her career. The show, starring Sons of Anarchy hard-ass Katey Sagal, will make its debut on ABC's primetime lineup behind a pair of Shonda Rhimes creations, Grey's Anatomy and spinoff Station 19, which Vernoff will continue to run as well. As the date nears, she is, admittedly, a ball of emotion. In fact, until recently, she claims she was still running Rebel like it was somebody else's show. "I was going to make it great. I've always made other people's shows great. But it wasn't my baby," says Vernoff. "Or I didn't feel like it was my baby because I've been Charlie Brown with that football too many times."
She has managed to work facets of her own extraordinary, complicated life into this show, too, but this time, on the advice of her husband and producing partner, Alexandre Schmitt, whom Vernoff met while making Studio City, it is at a decidedly healthier distance. "Write your world," he'd told her, "but one step removed."
Vernoff was all of 11 when she learned her father was a drug dealer. Until then, she had lived in a swirl of chaos at her reliably drunk mother's home in hippie Venice Beach. "There were episodes of violence so severe it was hard not to feel like something was wrong," Vernoff says now, seated in her Santa Monica hotel room, where she's been holed up, away from her husband and three children, lost in a script.
Among her earliest memories is an altercation she witnessed between her mom and a housemate that escalated so dramatically that a potted plant was smashed over her mother's head. Vernoff can still call up the image of blood gushing down her mom's face as she was hauled off to the ER. Her other memories almost always feature her mother — a sometimes actor, sometimes waitress, sometimes legal secretary — as the attacker. There was the time she beat Vernoff's stepdad with a frozen fish; or the time she took a lamp and broke every stick of furniture in Vernoff's bedroom — then came at her daughter with the shattered end. Vernoff's dad may have been high a lot, but at least at his house she figured she could be happy. So, as Vernoff entered the seventh grade, she persuaded her mom to let her move in with her dad in Studio City.
As she'd work into her pilot many years later, she believed her dad was a songwriter, which he also was, and that he'd make it big one day, which he told her he would. She'd started rolling joints for him at 4 years old, but it wasn't until Vernoff was living under his roof that she realized weed was the least of his vices. One day she reached into his pocket to grab snack money and found a vial of cocaine. Furious that she'd been lied to, Vernoff confronted her father. "He looked at me for a tiny, busted moment," she says, "and then he goes, 'I knew you'd figure it out. Your stepmom thought we could keep it from you, but I knew you were brilliant. I knew you'd put it together. Hey, you can't tell anybody, though, because I'll go to jail for, like, ever.' "
Within a year, Vernoff was back with her mom. "If I'd stayed at my dad's, I wouldn't have made it," she says, recounting the rash of rock stars who'd pass through for a hit. Even at 11 or 12, Vernoff could see she'd be safer at her mother's, which was a complicated thing to unravel when she eventually found her way to therapy. "Violent people are rarely just violent, they can also be super loving and nurturing," she continues, and her mom had been all three. Even in poverty, she'd seen to it that Vernoff and her older sister had a roof over their heads and healthy, home-cooked meals on the table.
Her father was, in many ways, the inferior parent. Vernoff hasn't been able to shake a memory she has of him driving her through L.A.'s Laurel Canyon. "I'm 5, and I'm not belted, I'm in the front seat, holding on to the side door, which is broken, and he goes around a corner, and I go flying. I'm literally holding the car door and my dad is holding my leg, so I stay in," she says. "And afterward he's freaked but he's also laughing because he's high, and then we go get dinner, which was, like, microwaved burritos and Oreos from 7-Eleven. And of course, he's my happy place, but there's nothing safe there — there's nowhere in my life that's safe, except inside books, which I devoured, and in my own head."
By the time she moved with her mom and stepdad to upstate New York, where he landed a gig teaching video art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Vernoff was a full-blown alcoholic. "I was going shot-for-shot with frat boys at 13," she says, but those frat boys were also invested in their education, which motivated Vernoff to be as well. She received mostly good grades — particularly when she decided she cared — and won writing contests without so much as trying. "Of course, if you look at my high school yearbook," she says, "almost everybody wrote something like, 'You taught me how to drink,' or 'You made me my first margarita.' So that's a list of people I should probably make amends to."
Still, Vernoff kept it together enough to score a full ride to Boston University, and she graduated in four years with a bachelor of fine arts from the school's prestigious acting program. Then she moved to New York City, where she found work waitressing between auditions, and two to three nights a week of hard partying quickly became seven. Before long, she lost her job and her apartment and moved back in with her mom, who by then had cleaned herself up. At 22, Vernoff hit rock bottom. "I'd come stumbling home, and my mom started calling me an alcoholic, which triggered me to a fit of rage that led me to Al-Anon and then I found my way into the other rooms," she says, and she's been sober ever since. Ironically, Vernoff credits her mom, who's still alive, and her dad, who isn't, explaining, "I had a very clear map of where I was headed."
It was in a playwriting class her senior year at BU that Vernoff realized her passion was not for acting but storytelling. She'd stood in the wings, as others recited words from a play she'd written, and experienced a level of joy she hadn't felt before. Still, everyone in Vernoff's inner circle told her she was only gravitating toward writing because she was scared to fail as an actress, and she didn't yet have the wherewithal to ignore them.
"This is a thing it took me so long to understand about myself," says Vernoff, "and I just said it to Adam Arkin [a producer and director] on Rebel this week. I said, 'I don't like these actors being proposed, I'd like to suggest these actors,' and Adam wrote me back — and I love Adam — and he said, 'I'd like to suggest revisiting these actors for these reasons.' And I responded, 'As a rule, I'm not a revisit person. I'm a know-instantly person.' And I knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer."
Once Vernoff settled in Los Angeles, one gig led to another, and, before she knew it, she had written three seasons of Charmed and the studio was offering to double her salary to do a fourth. But her father had just died, at 56, which sent Vernoff spiraling — and to the horror of her rep, she rebuffed the offer. "I signed on because Charmed was a girl-power show, and about halfway through there was an episode where Alyssa Milano comes out in mermaid pasties and there was a huge spike in male viewership, and then every episode after, the question would come from the network, 'How are we getting the girls naked this week?' " she says, insisting there were no attempts at subtlety. "And they were throwing money at me, and the number keeps going up, and there's all this pressure, and all I can think is, 'I'm creating something that's now bad for the world, and I've had enough bad for the world in my life.' "
So she left and took a gig on Bryan Fuller's short-lived Fox dramedy Wonderfalls, on which, for the first and only time in Vernoff's career, nearly every line she wrote was rewritten. "I went from, 'I'll double your money,' to 'You can't get a word through,' and it was humbling," she says, acknowledging how challenging it had been for her to match Fuller's voice, which is ultimately the job of a TV writer. The following year, she set out with the express goal of finding an easier voice match, which she did with Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy. "I called my agent and said, 'I need to meet this woman,' and he said, 'That pilot has no heat. It's Patrick Dempsey, he's a pilot killer.' And I said, 'I need to meet her anyway because if I didn't know better, I'd think I'd written this in a fever dream.' "
Grey's Anatomy premiered in March 2005 and was almost immediately a global sensation. Vernoff quickly became Rhimes' go-to writer — and the only one who would challenge her. "Shonda was scary, but she wasn't as scary as my mother, and I'd say that to her," says Vernoff, who usually found herself pleading for the series' hospital patients to live. She attributes her desire — desperation, even — for happy endings, fictional or otherwise, to a semi-delusional optimism that is at once a coping mechanism and a trauma response: "If I'd allowed myself to see and feel and know what was happening around me [growing up], I don't know that I could have survived."
In those early years of the show, Vernoff identified with Katherine Heigl's overly emotional Izzie character — and she often struggled to write for the more coldly ambitious Cristina, played by Sandra Oh, with whom she felt Rhimes most identified. "And it's funny because Shonda and I had a relationship not dissimilar to Izzie and Cristina," Vernoff says, "where my feelings were always hurt by her and she was always irritated with me, but anytime anyone came at us, or when I went through my divorce or had my baby, Shonda always, always had my back."
To this day, Vernoff insists she never felt the weight of the show's success, or any pressure to sustain it as Rhimes' No. 2. But after seven seasons, she'd grown resentful. "There was this feeling of, 'I need my own. I need credit,' " she says of a perspective she shared with Rhimes, who didn't begrudge her her desire to move on. Adds Rhimes, "I don't know Krista's frustration because I literally stepped in lightning the first pilot I wrote, so I had a hard time understanding why you'd leave — but I also understood the desire to want something that was yours."
In the spring of 2011, Vernoff's latest pilot, the dysfunctional-family-drama Grace, was all but on the lineup at ABC, and she'd trained her replacements, Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, to take over the Grey's room. Then she went through another breakup, which followed a brutally expensive divorce; her "sure thing" pilot was killed; and she learned there wasn't any budget left for her at Grey's. Suddenly, Vernoff was single, jobless and genuinely concerned she could lose the house she shared with her then-toddler, Coco.
"My agents were like, 'You're coming off the biggest thing in the world, you could go run literally any show in town. Where do you want meetings?' " Vernoff recalls. "And I said, 'I'm broken. I can't go run someone else's show. I need to be home with my kid.' And they were like, 'But you're afraid you're going to lose your house?' And I go, 'Yes, I know, but I need to find another way.' "
Then came a call from Rhimes: Would she consider consulting on Private Practice? It wasn't the first time Rhimes had tried to recruit Vernoff to the show, but it was the first time the opportunity sounded appealing, particularly if Vernoff could do it without having to leave her house, which Rhimes would allow. "And so I'd hated her for not saving me a seat at Grey's," says Vernoff, "but now here she was paying me a fortune to just rewrite scripts from home, which was huge. Shonda allowed me the time to raise my daughter and to heal." Vernoff stayed single for the first time in memory; she wrote a movie and learned to play the guitar; and she took in a foster son, then 14, after his parents, who'd been friends of hers, abandoned him at her home. She'd been housing his parents, too, after they'd fallen on hard times, but then "they decided they wanted to go off the grid and didn't really have a plan for him," she says, adding: "I'm no longer in touch with them for obvious reasons, but he joined my family and we love him a lot."
In time, Vernoff took a gig with John Wells on his Showtime series Shameless, where she stayed for five seasons. She also wrote eight more failed pilots, including Studio City, through which she met her husband and, later, her two stepsons and began doing a lot of grueling work on herself. "I do believe the shifting of one's own energy and one's healing process tends to help determine the course of one's external life," says Vernoff, sounding spiritual not for the first time that day. "So every time I'd try to step out [with my own pilot], it doesn't go, it doesn't go, it doesn't go, and I had to grieve every time, but I was the secret weapon. I was always the secret-weapon writer on every staff. So what happened? I'm not sure exactly, but Shonda came back and gave me Grey's Anatomy, and it's not all that surprising it happened on the heels of Studio City."
In the spring of 2017, Rhimes was ready to hand over her baby. "Grey's was a show I was personally rewriting forever — I'd sit at every table read and look at every edit, and it was killing me," says Rhimes. "And not because I didn't love the show, but because I had so much other work and I knew the only person I could hand it over to and trust to write it was Krista. So every year I'd check in with her, like, 'Is your deal up?' And finally one year it was."
Vernoff didn't accept the offer on the spot. After a few rounds with her therapist, she returned to Rhimes' office with what she'd titled her "20 bullet points of autonomy." She needed to be certain that she and Rhimes were on the same page. "Shonda was saying, 'I'm giving you the whole show,' but I wasn't going to come back if that wasn't really true," says Vernoff. So, one by one, she read through her bullet points: "It was literally like, 'I will have full autonomy in the editing room, including music.' 'Yes.' 'I will have full autonomy over the scripts.' 'Yes.' 'I will have full autonomy over casting' — with what we agreed was the exception of series regulars and Meredith's love interests. 'Yes.' "
There were plenty of calls and emails in those first few months in which Vernoff found herself saying to Rhimes, "If you'll recall our bullet points." The cast and crew would need time to adjust to Vernoff at the helm, too. She was clear when she took over that she wasn't interested in continuing with the dark tone that Grey's had settled into, which even Rhimes was souring on. "I'd been saying for a couple of years to my head writers, 'I find this depressing.' Like, 'Where's the joy? Where's the funny? This just feels painful,' " says Rhimes, who was confident Vernoff could find the show's soapy, rom-com tone again.
But doing so was considerably harder than Vernoff anticipated, she says, "because those people had spent 14 years where no one had any power, really, but Shonda Rhimes." For much of that first season, any time Vernoff wasn't physically present to make sure the tone that she was after was protected, the cast and crew would revert. There was a scene in which Caterina Scorsone's Amelia was shaving her head due to a brain tumor, and the dialogue read, "Are you sure you don't want us to call your mother?" To which she says, "No, she didn't come to my wedding, she doesn't get to come to my brain tumor." Vernoff turned up on set to see Scorsone shaking and crying as she delivered what was supposed to be a funny line. "And I just went, 'Nooo, not the punch line!' " recalls Vernoff, who says getting the old tone back "was really hard until it wasn't — until everyone had it in their bones again."
The viewer response helped, too, as ABC's No. 1 drama lit up Twitter dashboards and worked its way back into the cultural conversation. Along the way, Vernoff was approached more than once about taking over its firefighter spinoff Station 19 as well, and each time she'd say no. But after two seasons back in Shondaland, she'd stopped having to micromanage Grey's, and the opportunity to turn around a second series held appeal. "I'd been told, 'No matter what you do at Grey's, you're not going to get credit for it because Grey's is bigger than you,' " says Vernoff. " 'But if you can take another show that's floundering tonally and turn it around, that changes your career.' " So, with Rhimes' blessing, Vernoff breathed new life into Station 19, creatively, and made certain the once-unwieldy show was on time and under budget. In late March, ABC rewarded her with what sources say is a two-year, eight-figure deal.
At some point in the process of managing multiple shows, Vernoff was encouraged by Rhimes to hire an executive coach, as she had. One of the first questions the coach asked was, "What are you doing that someone else could be doing?" To which Vernoff replied, "Nothing." So, her coach, an MBA named Lacey, rephrased the question: "What are you doing that someone else could be doing if you took the time to teach them?" Vernoff insists her workweek was cut in half once she started taking time to tell people not only when their work wasn't good but also why it wasn't good and how it could be better. "Of all the gifts I've received from Shonda," she says, "the executive coach is the greatest."
It's important to Vernoff that others know she has such things as a coach, along with a coterie of assistants and staffers, in the hope that it lays to rest any misconception that she somehow does it all on her own. With three shows and three children, "How do you do it all?" is a question she gets often. Her answer: "I don't do anything except work and play with my kids," she says. "I don't cook. I don't clean. I don't garden. I don't shop. I pay people to do all of those things, and I get home for dinner with my kids, which somebody else has cooked, and then we play cards or we watch shows. We've been watching Lost, one episode a week. So I hang out and I work, that's what I do."
Vernoff never had any intention of adding a third show to her already full plate. In fact, when her agent called to say the head of ABC wanted her to take a meeting with the producers of a potential Erin Brockovich series, she thought it had to be a joke. Then she learned Brockovich herself would be present, so she agreed to the meeting.
Brockovich describes the scheduled hour, which quickly stretched to two and a half, as an "instant love fest," and Vernoff says the same: "I walked in, like, 'Maybe I'll supervise someone who writes this.' And I walked out, like, 'I know what the show is. I'm writing it.' "
Still, everyone in Vernoff's life, including Rhimes, told her she was nuts to take it on — everyone except for her husband, who had been with her at the meeting. "Krista's friends used to call her Erin Brockovich when she was younger because she shares that same drive, that same sense of injustice and that same sense of, 'This is the most important thing in the world,' " says Schmitt. "So we both knew leaving that meeting, like, we can't not do this."
Vernoff wrote the pilot before the pandemic hit, and then she waited, and waited, all but certain it, too, would go away. Then one evening in September, she got a text from an ABC exec: The network was ordering Rebel straight to series. "You spend 20 years making all these pilots that don't go, and then on a Tuesday at 5, you're sitting in your backyard, and they order your show to series. And for a while, it wasn't real, I couldn't let it be real," says Vernoff. "But then they announced it would premiere after Station 19 and Grey's Anatomy, which is crazy, and they called it Krista Vernoff's Thursday night." She stops herself there and smiles: "I don't even have the words to describe what it is I'm feeling — and I always have the words."
Krista Vernoff’s Thursday Night
Vernoff spent seven seasons as Shonda Rhimes’ No. 2 before moving on for the first time. Rhimes had asked whether she wanted to develop another show together, to which Vernoff recalls saying: "No, because if I develop with you, I’ll always be in your shadow, and I want to be you." She returned to Grey’s as showrunner season 14. "Nobody believed I was going to hand it over," says Rhimes, who very much did.
At Rhimes’ urging, Vernoff took over the firefighter spinoff after its second season. And unlike her predecessor, showrunner Stacy McKee, who was drowning in network and studio notes, Vernoff came in with the tacit agreement that she wouldn’t be subjected to such things. Moreover, with Vernoff overseeing Grey’s and Station 19, the potential for meaningful crossover events was vast.
The soapy legal drama is, in many ways, a culmination of a few pivotal chapters in Vernoff’s life. She’s known her star, Katey Sagal, since she was 11. "Her boyfriend back then, Spider, played music [among other things] with my dad," says Vernoff, who reconnected with Sagal in the recovery community when she moved back to L.A. in her 20s — around the time the showrunner was nicknamed Brockovich for her drive.
This story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.