Shonda Rhimes Opens Up About 'Angry Black Woman' Flap, Messy 'Grey's Anatomy' Chapter and the 'Scandal' Impact
TV's most powerful showrunner talks candidly about the role of race and gender in Hollywood and the conversation that, she says, "pisses me off"
This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In early August, Shonda Rhimes read a draft announcement for an event where she was set to appear. It called her "the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood." She crossed out "female" and "black" and sent it back.
As the mastermind of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal and the producer of top-rated newcomer How to Get Away With Murder, all for ABC, she didn't believe either modifier was necessary — or relevant. "They wouldn't say that someone is 'the most powerful white male showrunner in Hollywood,' " she contends, her tone turning momentarily stern on this morning in late September. She pauses to gather her thoughts and then continues: "I find race and gender to be terribly important; they're terribly important to who I am. But there's something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it … that pisses me off."
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For years, Rhimes has kept relatively quiet on such matters, preferring instead to make her statements onscreen, where she has displayed a talent for crafting complex, original characters unconstrained by such singular definitions as "black," "Asian" or "gay." But her own race and gender had become an unavoidable part of the conversation a few days before our meeting, when The New York Times ran an essay about Rhimes by TV critic Alessandra Stanley. It began: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.' "
Stanley went on to make the tendentious claim that Rhimes modeled black characters on herself, among other tone-deaf assertions, including the description of Murder star Viola Davis as "less classically beautiful" than other well-known black actresses. Social media erupted. Vulture's Margaret Lyons called the piece "muddled and racist"; The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum added "incendiary." Others were less kind. Rhimes herself jumped in almost immediately, wondering to her 700,000 Twitter followers why she's not labeled "an angry black woman" when her white characters rant, too.
When I join Rhimes, 44, a single mother of three, in her homey office at Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios, the furor has settled down and she's reflecting on the positives that have come out of it. "Some really amazing articles were written that had the conversation that I've been trying to have for a very long time, which, coming from me, makes me sound like I'm just, 'Rrrraw!' " she mimics a roar, her painted nails clawing the air. Her inbox has been deluged with notes from concerned friends and colleagues, many of whom called for the piece to be retracted. Rhimes would prefer it remain: "In this world in which we all feel we're so full of gender equality and we're a postracial [society] and Obama is president, it's a very good reminder to see the casual racial bias and odd misogyny from a woman written in a paper that we all think of as being so liberal."
The irony, of course, is that Stanley intended not to bury Rhimes but to praise her and her growing influence on the TV landscape. And for good reason: Rhimes not only has redefined what is possible for African-American actresses — before her Kerry Washington-led Scandal, a black woman hadn't headlined a network show since Teresa Graves fronted Get Christie Love! in 1974 — but also has demonstrated how broadcast drama can thrive in a deeply competitive environment. Her shows, distinctive for their hyperarticulate dialogue, hairpin plot twists and steamy love triangles, deliver a consistent and enviable mix of ratings and real-time buzz. Grey's rounded out the most recent season, the show's 10th, as the No. 1 drama among that coveted 18-to-49 demographic; and Rhimes' White House melodrama, Scandal, which is said to generate more than $200,000 for each 30-second ad, isn't far behind. That success hasn't translated to a shelf full of Emmys, but critics have grown more admiring with each passing season. Time's James Poniewozik recently wrote that Rhimes produces "smart, pulpy shows that emote like pop ballads, look like America and run like hell."
For fourth-place ABC, Rhimes has become so valuable that the network's entertainment president, Paul Lee, has entrusted her with the entire Thursday lineup, the most lucrative night of programming on TV. "Shonda has this ability to create television events," he says, days before her trio of shows collectively debuts to a same-day audience of 37 million. And even at that size, she has managed to maintain an intimacy with her audience — a genuine connection at a mass scale. Adds Lee, "Shows that really pop have strong voices, and there's no stronger voice in America than Shonda Rhimes."
If there are premiere week jitters, they are not visible as I wind through the halls of her Shondaland headquarters, a maze of offices and conference rooms lined with framed reminders of the prolific showrunner's success. Sitting at the end of it is Rhimes, the picture of calm with her Jimmy Choo flats kicked aside and a venti cup of iced green tea in hand.
Over the course of a two-hour interview, she is charming, frank and, once or twice, a little prickly, candidly discussing her rocky early years on Grey's (more on that later) and her more recent concerns about not confining herself to a single network. Having spent her entire career at ABC, she says she made the rounds to other studios earlier this year to assess her options.
"It wasn't really about money, though don't get me wrong, it's very important in a world in which women are paid 77 cents on the dollar to be paid in a way that felt correct," she says. "I wanted more control. I wanted the autonomy. And I wanted to feel like if I was making shows, I could sell them anywhere. I'm in a lovely position that whenever we pitch something, ABC buys it, which is great, but I also wanted the ability to say, 'This is not for you.' "
In May, ABC Studios announced it had signed Rhimes to a new four-year deal. The pact is said to bring her eight figures a year, plus advances against her backend, easily one of the richest deals in television. More significantly, it provides her that additional freedom she craved, though ABC's drama chief, Channing Dungey, shoots down a frequent rumor that she doesn't get creative notes. Rhimes has been assured that cable is a viable option, too, but she says she doesn't have the bandwidth to write anything more this year.
For now, Rhimes will look to empower other writers to create shows through her production company, Shondaland, as Scandal producer Peter Nowalk did with Murder. She'll work with those proteges, reading scripts, watching rough cuts and running interference with the network, though her best writing advice, says Nowalk, is often "trust your gut." The culture Rhimes has built is one of fierce loyalty, where writers move with her from one series to the next. "Most writing staffs have this crazy high turnover, and then everyone's really miserable, and I don't understand that," she says. "I don't know why you don't grow people to then be able to take over as you. That's how I can have more shows."
Those who work for her use words such as "definitive," "passionate" and "engaged" to describe her leadership style. "Shonda's not to be messed with," jokes Tony Goldwyn, who directed an early episode of Grey's and later its spinoff, Private Practice, before moving in front of the camera as the fictional president on Scandal. "Most of the conversations I have with her, she'll either say, 'Yes, I like that. That's a good idea. Will you do that?' or she'll say, 'I hear you, but this is how I want it.' " Having spent nearly a decade in her writers rooms before taking the reins on Murder, Nowalk says he finds that kind of directness refreshing: "You know exactly what she thinks at all times."
Rhimes has grown more comfortable with being a brand, too. Her office is decorated with series mementos (the top of Callie and Arizona's wedding cake from Grey's, the constitution that Fitz and Olivia touched on Scandal) and keepsakes (letters from Bill and Hillary Clinton, her Scandal Peabody), and her active Twitter feed demonstrates both a genuine love for TV and a gift for savvy self-promotion. Her name has become a sales tool, used by ABC executives to promote her work, just as they would with a Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams.
All of the attention, however, remains a challenge for a woman who considers herself innately shy: "I don't know too many other writers who people can recognize their faces … so that was a little disturbing for me and my kids," she says, adding with a mix of humor and horror: "My 12-year-old instinctively says to people: 'No autographs, please. She's with her children.' "
Betsy Beers, her longtime producing partner, who takes development and other business needs off of Rhimes' plate, marvels at her discipline: "She's incredibly good at organizing her time and focusing, whether it's on a script, a rewrite, a cut, a table read or a casting issue." But ask Rhimes at your own peril how she manages three shows and three kids. "The question drives me nuts," she says, her warm smile momentarily gone. "What does Chuck Lorre say when you ask him about work‑life balance?" She had a similar response earlier in the summer when reporters asked her about her furniture and what she was serving President Obama at a fundraiser at her Hancock Park home. "I started saying to people, angrily, 'Did you ask John Wells any of those questions?' " she says. "They were like, 'No.' And I'd say: 'Because he was at work, right? Well, I'm at work, too.' "
Which is not to say Rhimes hasn't given the topic a great deal of thought. In fact, it was a key part of the commencement address she gave at Dartmouth, her alma mater, this past spring. To the question, "How do you do it all?" she said the real answer is, "I don't. … If I am at home sewing my kids' Halloween costumes, I'm probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby's first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter's debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh's last scene ever being filmed at Grey's Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off."
Rhimes shares several traits with her characters: the dedication of Meredith Grey, the drive of Christina Yang and the steely confidence of Olivia Pope.
But growing up the youngest of six in the middle-class suburbs of Chicago, she was simply the introverted one with her head in a book. Her parents, both academics, encouraged her voracious reading habit, implementing a rule early on that their daughter could read anything she wanted. "I remember very clearly being 7 or 8 and reading The French Lieutenant's Woman and asking my mother what the definition of something was and her being like, 'Dictionary's over there,' " says Rhimes, who often has described her younger self as a Tracy Flick-type with her hand raised at the front of the class. Her rare moments of defiance came later in high school when she'd tweak her Catholic school dress code with miniskirts and high-top sneakers. "In the world in which I never ever, ever did anything wrong, I think it was my one rebellion," she says, smiling again.
By the time Rhimes arrived at Dartmouth during the late 1980s, her interests had expanded. She studied literature and creative writing, wrote for the college newspaper and got involved with the school's theater department. She has since written characters, beginning with Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey, as Dartmouth graduates, and will cameo in an upcoming episode of The Mindy Project as the college's reigning beer pong champion. (Mindy Kaling also is an alum.) But Rhimes hadn't been back to the New Hampshire campus until this year, when she was asked to deliver the graduation speech. She leaned heavily on themes that have resonated in her own life, including the importance of being a doer rather than a dreamer.
"I wanted to be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. That was my dream," she told the graduating class and the tens of thousands more who have watched it on YouTube. "[Then] I read an article [in The New York Times] that said it was harder to get into USC Film School than it was to get into Harvard Law School, and I thought, 'I could dream about being Toni Morrison or I could do.' " She ditched her entry-level advertising gig at McCann Erickson and was accepted at USC.
Rhimes credits her early success in part to mentors like Debra Martin Chase, a prominent African-American producer, who hired her as an intern at Denzel Washington's Mundy Lane when Rhimes was in film school. Chase was impressed by her sense of character and commerciality. "When you're young, you tend to be a bit myopic in being totally led by passion, but she wasn't afraid to have a sense of the marketplace," says Chase. "She didn't think that that was contrary or undermining art to have a sense of what would sell and what wouldn't." The pair also shared a strong desire to expand that marketplace to include a more multicultural world that wasn't being represented. When Chase hired Rhimes to write The Princess Diaries 2 years later, one of the first decisions the women made was to add a black princess (Raven-Symone) to the cast.
In those early years, she also wrote the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which earned star Halle Berry a Golden Globe, and a Britney Spears dramedy, Crossroads, which earned Rhimes her house. (A Crossroads movie poster hangs in the Shondaland offices.) But her life, like that of many others, changed on 9/11. Rhimes, who was in Vermont writing a screenplay at the time, found herself reassessing her priorities, and becoming a mother shot to No. 1. When she returned home to Los Angeles, she hired an adoption attorney; less than a year later, Harper, her first of three daughters, arrived. (She adopted Emerson in 2012 and welcomed Beckett via surrogacy the following year.)
At home with a baby for the first time, she got hooked on shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity and grew eager to segue to TV. Her first pilot, about female war correspondents, landed at ABC, but the network opted not to move forward. "It just seemed like a really tough kind of franchise to sell," says Steve McPherson, who was running ABC at that time. (Sony announced earlier this year that Rhimes was rebooting it as a feature, though now she says she may go another route.) Her next pilot was set in a hospital in Seattle. The title was Grey's Anatomy.
The show that would define Rhimes' career, and reinvigorate the possibilities for broadcast drama, got off to a shaky start.
As McPherson recalls, her 2005 script impressed his entire team — "She could walk that line between real human drama," he says, "and great romantic comedy that feels very accessible to people" — but the pilot didn't capture that same tone. Among his other notes: The show needed a guy's guy, he told Rhimes, prompting her to create Justin Chambers' Alex Karev character.
Rhimes, who had wrapped production on the entire first season before the show launched in late March, remembers even more intervention on episode two. Initially, the hour included a scene in which Christina (Sandra Oh) and Alex make a bet to see how quickly they can run up and down the hallways of Seattle Grace delivering tragic news to patients, only to be caught and shamed by their last one, an elderly woman in her final days. The network was horrified. "I think the term that was used to describe me to my face was, 'If you think you're funny, you're sick,' " says Rhimes. "I was stunned."
A team of angry executives descended on Rhimes' editing room, carrying a list of items they wanted excised. "I remember sitting there thinking to myself, 'How much change can I make so that I still feel like I'm doing my show but also gets them the hell out of my editing room and [ensures] this never happens again?' " she says. A compromise was reached — the "runner of death" scene was removed — but the friction continued, and she found herself having to have another unpleasant conversation, this time with McPherson, after the fourth or fifth episode was delivered. "He said really horrible things to me," she says, declining to reveal anything more than: "I literally started keeping a list of how many times he said a certain swear word to me. After that, I was like, 'OK, we're dead.' "
Then the series premiered to a massive 16 million viewers, and everything — including her relationship with the network — changed.
"I remember telling Shonda, 'Whatever happens, you've made episodes that you're proud of, they're testing well, the network has given you their best slot [behind Desperate Housewives]; if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but you still have to feel very good about what you've done," says veteran producer James Parriott, who had been brought in early on to shepherd Rhimes, a first-time showrunner, through the process. Parriott jokes that when the series exploded out of the gate, his role changed: "It was to say, 'OK, calm down, the zeitgeist hits once in a lifetime.' Then, of course, it's happened again and again for her."
The following year, Grey's was granted the plum post-Super Bowl slot, and 38 million tuned in. Hefty ad revenue and credit for helping to turn around ABC followed. Then came word that Isaiah Washington had referred to his co-star T.R. Knight with a homophobic slur, a situation that got messier — Washington repeated the slur as part of a denial backstage at the 2007 Golden Globes — before he eventually was fired that June. Not long after, Emmy winner Katherine Heigl landed the series back in the news by announcing that she was withdrawing her name from awards consideration because she hadn't been provided the material "to warrant an Emmy nomination." The actress, whose profile had soared higher than her castmates', remained on the show for a few more bumpy seasons before making her exit in 2010.
For Rhimes, those early years were a steep and often public learning curve. "It's not for nothing that I have a show [Scandal] that's about a professional crisis manager," she says. "I learned a lot of stuff." She's able to laugh about much of it now, recalling the time Disney's Anne Sweeney sent over a gift basket of champagne after the show's 2007 Golden Globe win: "We were supposed to share it with the cast and the crew, but Betsy and I put it in my office, and every day that we solved another publicity crisis or got through another trauma of some sort involving all of that crap, we would drink one of the bottles," she says. "After like three weeks, we called Anne Sweeney and told her we needed another basket."
By all accounts, Rhimes runs a tighter ship today.
Although her perfectionist tendencies coupled with Scandal's breakneck story pace can wreak havoc on deadlines — "We're always behind," she admits — the operation runs smoothly and the cast is tight-knit. "There are no Heigls in this situation," she says, choosing her words carefully. She adds later of her "no assholes" policy: "I don't put up with bullshit or nasty people. I don't have time for it."
Her Scandal actors willingly live-tweet every episode, a tactic that has been replicated across the industry, giving the audience a real-time connection to the show. In its fourth season, the series — rare in its ability to bridge that high-low divide that often separates TV audiences in a scattered landscape — counts Lena Dunham, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama as fans. "Shonda has changed the culture of television in that more and more people can turn on the television and see themselves," says Washington. "And the thing about her storytelling is that the humanity of her characters allows people to find the sameness in the differences."
The fall schedule at ABC reflects how Rhimes' influence has extended beyond her own handiwork, with new shows built around leads who are Asian (Fresh Off the Boat), Latina (Cristela) and African-American (Black-ish) — though all three lean into race and ethnicity as storylines in a way that Shondaland shows generally avoid. Rhimes wasn't in any way consulted about the network's multicultural push, but she says she was relieved to see the effort being made. She has been asked too often over the years why there are so few nonwhite actors fronting network shows, and her response has always been the same: "I don't think you're asking the right person," she says. "You should ask the people who aren't doing it, why is it so hard for them?"
She has more to offer on the subject of time management, which she is asked about just as frequently. Next year, she will publish her first book, part memoir, part guide to being both a single mother and a high-powered showrunner. Since she adopted Emerson, now 2, Rhimes has drawn a hard line at working on weekends, optimizing that time with her children, close friends and nearby family. There's a boyfriend, too, though she isn't interested in discussing him. During the week, she's trying out a new plan where she leaves the office around 5 p.m. to be home for dinner with her kids, or "tiny humans," as she refers to them on Twitter. (She can go back later, if need be, a benefit of being only 10 minutes away.) She's built a playroom at Shondaland, too, and evidence of small children — namely, a teddy bear and a bin of toys — are visible in her office. Tuesday mornings are reserved for playgroup, and until she gets into a carpool groove, she can't get to Sunset Gower before 9 a.m.
Rhimes encourages those who work for her to take time for them, too. It was that nurturing side, along with her all-embracing attitude, that drew Murder's Viola Davis to Shondaland. "It's a brand and a world that was inclusive of people who look like me," says the two-time Academy Award nominee, whose previous parts were considerably smaller. Davis maintains that she's been waiting too long for this type of formidable role to let some ugly comments in Stanley's New York Times essay get her down: "As a woman of color, you've heard every label by the time you get out of the womb."
She's more protective of Rhimes. "Shonda is a black woman, and I understand that that's a part of what people want to write about when they write about her," says the actress. "But here's the thing: After you write about that, write about something else. Write about her vision, write about her courage, write about her talent, write about the fact that she's been able to achieve something that very few people have been able to achieve. Write about that."