9:30am PT by Lacey Rose
25 Things You Learn Writing About 'Scandal' Creator Shonda Rhimes
One need not spend much time on social media to see how fans of uber-producer Shonda Rhimes reacted to her recent The Hollywood Reporter cover story.
"Awe-inspiring," tweeted one after reading about the creator of Scandal and Grey's Anatomy in the Oct. 17 issue. "An amazing role model," wrote another. Other loyal Shondaland viewers went with variations on: "Powerful," "Incredible" and "An inspiration."
But what if there was more to know about the prolific producer from THR's wide-ranging interview with her and those who work alongside her? Turns out there is. Twenty five more things, to be precise.
1. Rhimes appeared as a version of herself on the Oct. 14 episode of The Mindy Project, but she’d like to make one thing clear: “That was certainly not acting,” she says, reiterating: “I cannot act.” Mindy Kaling, who is a fellow Dartmouth alum, had asked her to come on the show and she said yes because she had grown too accustomed to saying no. “Part of me doing Mindy was just that I was going to do everything this year that I’m terrified of,” she explains, noting that agreeing to give the commencement speech at Dartmouth fell into the same category.
2. While she has managed to find a silver lining in the incendiary comments from New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley, that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to sting. “The fact that [Stanley] believes that it is praise is what makes it so disturbing and scary,” says Rhimes, adding: “Because if it’d come from a conservative paper, if it had come in the form of an insult, if it had come in the form of ‘I hate you’ and ‘I am trying to say something wrong,’ I would have expected it. But when it comes from a place where somebody is supposed to be enlightened, that’s when it is terrifying and that’s what’s happening more often than not.”
3. Years earlier, Rhimes told Oprah Winfrey that her ideal husband would not live with her but rather in the house next door. And it seems her mind hasn’t changed much since then. “I do think there’s a magical man that would live next door or on the other side of the country, and that would be fantastic,” she admits, seated in her office in late September. But as the words are flying out of her mouth, she recognizes their impact: “I always hate to say that though because I feel like some guy will read that and that will be even more intimidating. Like the guy I’m dating now is going to read that and be like, ‘Oh crap.’”
4. Rhimes’ alarm clock goes off daily at 6:30 a.m., and shortly thereafter she's waking up her three girls. Her routine had included pre-work pilates, which she says she’ll get back to once she has her kids’ school carpool situation in order.
5. Rhimes’ Sunset Gower office is lined with career memorabilia, including Callie and Arizona’s wedding cake topper, the icicle that got stuck in Cristina Yang, the Constitution that Fitz and Olivia touched, letters from Bill and Hillary Clinton, a poster from her Dorothy Dandridge biopic, her Scandal Peabody and several framed pictures, including Rhimes giving the Dartmouth commencement address and posing with her three stars, Kerry Washington, Ellen Pompeo and Viola Davis for a recent Thank God It's Thursday marketing campaign. There's a photo of President Obama on election night, too, along with a rarely-used treadmill, an official penny can from Cougar Town and a bin of toys for her youngest daughters.
See more Shonda Rhimes' Career in Pictures
6. Though her office was asked to send Scandal DVDs to the White House not too long ago, Rhimes is not convinced President Obama has seen the show. Not that that stopped him from weighing in, however. At the Kennedy Center Honors last year, Rhimes remembers him joking with her: “He said, 'The White House is nothing like Scandal. Nothing. What you’re doing is way too exciting. Nothing like that is happening around here.'”
7. No tortured artist here. “I have all these friends who just love therapy, and I always say the reason that I’m absolutely not in therapy is because then I wouldn’t have anything to write,” she says, noting that she was a “much more antsy, dark person” when she started in this industry than she is now. Those who work with her say she is far happier with both her work and her results than many in the field. “You waste a lot of time being miserable," Rhimes adds, "and I’m not really interested.”
8. Sure, there was backstage fracas to contend with early on, but the storytelling aspect of Rhimes' work has always come frighteningly easy, according to James Parriot, the experienced showrunner who was paired with then first-timer Rhimes during the early days at Grey's. With the pilot episode nearly complete, he recalls an eleventh-hour discussion about having to write single-page pitches for each of the remaining episodes in season one. “I remember on a Friday, I said, ‘OK Shonda, you want to do five and I’ll take three?’ And she said, ‘No, I can do them all,’" says Parriot. "These things are really hard, condensing it down to one page and making them work and be funny is tough. So I said, ‘Shonda, this may be tougher than you think it is. I’ll tell you what, you’ve got my number, I’ll hold Sunday open if you need me.’” But Parriot sat by the phone on that Sunday for a call that never came. He returned to work Monday morning with low expectations, and was promptly blown away by what she had pulled together.
9. Rhimes was thrilled by the decision to house all of her shows on Thursday night as well as the network’s multi-cultural push, but she could have done without network chief Paul Lee standing on the Lincoln Center stage in May and referring to her as “the Charles Dickens of the 21st century, if Charles Dickens was black and a woman.” Fortunately, the pair has a strong enough relationship where she could tell him that the latter part of that comment — which signifies that somehow her race and gender are relevant — “bugged” her, and then move on.
10. Her longtime casting director, Linda Lowy, maintains that ethnicity or skin color is very rarely discussed when casting any of her Shondaland shows, unless one's race is somehow tied to a disease or condition that a character is given or is critical to the makeup of a family. For the lead role on How to Get Away with Murder, for instance, white and non-white actresses were both considered before Viola Davis landed the part. Says Lowy: "Shonda and I have never really had a whole conversation about diversity or about blind-casting and we’ve never had to because really even 12 years ago when we were working on the pilot of Grey’s it was, 'Do we really have to be talking about this still? Does it even need to be said?'"
11. Since Rhimes doesn’t have enough on her plate already with three shows, three kids and plenty of development, she’ll be adding a pseudo memoir to the mix next year. The focus will be on her life as a working mother and the extraordinary balancing act that has come with it. “It started out because I literally have cards on my desk that say, 'Shonda Rhimes, adoption doula,' ” she says, noting that she’s often — and willingly — fielding questions on the topic of adoption and, more recently, surrogacy (her first two daughters were adopted, her third arrived via surrogacy). “I kept thinking I should write all of this down for my daughters… and since I’m a person who really likes a deadline, I thought, if it’s a book, then I really have to write it down.” Said deadline has not yet arrived.
12. These days, binge-watching episodes of Orange Is the New Black or having a bottle of wine with girlfriends is considered relaxing, though it's not entirely clear Rhimes knows what that word means. Her Kindle is loaded with books that she hasn’t had a chance to read yet, including Hillary Clinton’s new-ish memoir, and the last movie she remembers seeing and truly enjoying was 2012’s Argo. Must-see-TV in her house these days: Curious George and Sesame Street.
13. If you’re expecting Rhimes to be in any way embarrassed by her early stint as the screenwriter of the Britney Spears film, Crossroads, you'll be in for a surprise. In fact, a poster from the movie is one of the first things you see hanging in a conference room as you make your way to her office. “I still get people that come up to me who are like 25 and they’re like, ‘I loved that movie,’” she says, adding with a laugh: “Know your audience, man.” (The dramedy also starred a young Taryn Manning and Zoe Saldana, with whom Rhimes has pictures that she says she’s saving for a classic “Throwback Thursday” shot on social media.)
14. Off the table, at least for now? Another spin-off, Private Practice style. Sorry Scandal fans, that B613 offshoot she'd flirted with is no longer appealing. “I can’t figure out what it would be,” she says, “and I don’t really want to do one.”
15. Though Rhimes' prolific Twitter feed can feel like an ode to pop culture, Rhimes acknowledges that she watched very little television as a kid. “We spent a lot of time reading,” she says, a byproduct of being the daughter of two academics. She added of her then Chicago-based parents: “Their idea of a really good time was playing chess. They are two serious nerds, in a great way.”
16. Even in the early days at Grey's Anatomy, Rhimes says she had little trouble being decisive or dispensing her opinions. The bigger challenge, as she remembers it, was having to work with a staff of some 300, a culture shock for someone who had previously written screenplays alone in her pajamas. “Somebody would say to me, ‘What color shoes should Meredith be wearing?’ And I knew that answer. I could tell you why the interns should be doing this activity. That stuff was in my head because I had really spent time to measure who those characters were,” she says. “What was not easy was the having to interact with all of those people. I am, by nature, an introvert, and I was much more of an introvert when this whole process started. So I found it all fairly painful."
17. The character on TV that Rhimes wishes she created? Easy, she says, "Crazy Eyes" from Orange is the New Black.
18. When did Rhimes know she was having a real impact? Apparently it wasn’t until the end of Grey’s second season, when she attended the upfront with her entire cast in New York. Prior to that, the gang had been so busy filming on a remote lot in Los Angeles to notice who or how many were watching. So, when Rhimes and her cast walked out of the hotel for dinner that May, they found themselves swarmed by fans. “There were like hundreds of people outside and they all started screaming all of our names, including Shonda,” she recalls. “We stood there for a minute and then we all turned and ran back into the hotel. It might have been Justin [Chambers] who said, ‘What’s happening?’ And I said, 'I don’t know.' We were all really freaked out, and that was the first time we realized the show is popular.”
19. Rhimes loves the idea of other people creating shows a la Murder via her Shondaland production company, and she is very keen on lending her support, be that reading drafts, watching rough cuts or running interference with the network. What she isn’t as comfortable with yet is delegating on her own creations. In fact, her initial plan had been to have Grey’s spin-off Private Practice be a show that somebody else ran for her but that never came to fruition. “I couldn’t do it, and I don’t know if I would be able to do it now,” she admits, noting that there were several reasons she had trouble handing Private over. “ I felt a responsibility to Kate [Walsh, the star] and to the network. And I’m a perfectionist. I have my hand raised in front of the class and if I give it to somebody and they don’t have their hand raised in front of the class and I’m wrong then it’s still on me.”
20. In the wake of the New York Times/Stanley flap, you can't help by wonder if Rhimes finds herself surprised or, worse, frustrated by the fact that race and gender so often become part of the conversation when discussing her success. The answer, clearly, is yes -- to both. “It makes me feel like people are stupid, and I think that’s my problem,” she says, suggesting it was only recently that she came to realize: “Wow, everything is just seen from a white male perspective. Like, ‘normal’ is white male and everything else is ‘other.’ And I feel like that’s ridiculous!” Part of the problem, she adds, is that that kind of behavior is so foreign to her working in Shondaland that when she sees it occur elsewhere she’s that much more confused.
21. Rhimes likes to say that she can write anywhere so long as she has headphones, so the natural follow up is: what's playing? Right now, it's a lot of Prince, Donna Summer and disco. But last season, she says she wrote Grey's exclusively to '80s covers, and Scandal to Marvin Gaye. (At THR's photo shoot, Rhimes was more interested in Beyonce.)
22. Her list of TV icons is lengthy, and it begins, as most lists do, with Norman Lear. She cites Jenji Kohan, a friend, as well as the work of Howard Gordon in that grouping of influences, too. And it was shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity and Gordon's 24 that inspired her to transition to TV a decade or so earlier.
23. Rhimes' favorite part of the storytelling process? Not the breaking of stories or the actual writing, but the table read. "When the script is finished and you’re sitting around at a table read and all the actors are reading the words that you’ve written and you’re hearing it out loud for the first time, that is always, every single time, no matter what, a magical process," she says.
24. And how about her favorite scenes? Rhimes has a few. There was the speech on Grey's where Meredith tells Derek that he doesn't get to call her a whore; and Papa Pope's big Scandal monologue when he tells Olivia that she needs to be twice as good as everyone else or when he sits chained up, telling Fitz that he is just a coddled boy. There's also the final dance scenes between Meredith and Cristina on Grey's. Even though there wasn't a lot of dialogue in the latter, she says "it epitomized a lot of what the show meant." As Rhimes sees it, her favorite scenes are those where her characters get to reveal something of themselves that hasn’t been revealed already, when they get to surprise themselves or others with what comes out of their mouths or when they speak a truth that viewers haven’t heard before.
25. Ask those who have worked with Rhimes to describe her and her process, and you hear tales about how passionate and definitive she is. But perhaps it's Sandra Oh, who exited Grey's earlier this year after nearly a decade with the show, who sums it up best: "She's plugged into her own voice, and it's very much from the gut," she says. "And she’s just a f—ing good writer."