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Shonda Rhimes is one of the most prolific producers, writers and showrunners in Hollywood, one who can count shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Bridgerton among her credits. But recently, she dabbled in her first limited series, Netflix’s Inventing Anna, now nominated for three Emmys, including best limited series.
The show is based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article about Anna Delvey, also known as Anna Sorokin, a fake German heiress who conned various Manhattanites into giving her hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, goods and services.
“The article by Jessica Pressler was so interesting to me and so vivid, and I remember reading it and then reading it right away a second time and thinking it builds such a vivid world that I got excited just about the possibilities of doing this kind of character study of this person,” Rhimes tells THR.
Here, the showrunner talks about the challenges of telling such a story, why two-time Emmy winner Julia Garner (who has earned two Emmy noms this year, for Inventing Anna and Ozark) was the perfect actress to play the title character and why she never wanted to meet the real Anna Delvey.
How did the project get started?
I had a lot of respect for [Pressler] and for her writing. I wanted to try to convey that, because I think people try to do a lot of things when they’re getting a project. There’s a lot of hype and a lot of promises, and I just felt like it made the most sense to me to be honest with her about what I thought worked, what I thought was so amazing about it, how we would work together, and what I thought the process would be. Working with Jessica turned out to be one of the most fun things I’ve gotten to do in terms of a project and working with the creator of the original material.
You optioned the rights to the article shortly after it was published in May 2018. How long did preparation take, and when did you start production?
(Laughs.) I laugh because it was an interesting project. We started in 2019, and we finished it in 2021 because of the pandemic. It was a long project. It was so long, in fact, that I remember hitting a point where I was like, “I’m not even sure if what it’s about is relevant anymore,” because we’re in such a different place in society because of this pandemic. We started it before Anna even went on trial, so we were writing during the trial and trying to figure out how the show was going to end and waiting for the trial to be over and all kinds of things. It was a really interesting project in that sense.
What helped you decide on Julia Garner for the role of Anna?
She’s incredibly talented. We’d met and talked to a lot of people and, you know, Julia’s a really versatile, smart actress. She approaches things very intellectually. And it felt like an interesting fit.
What were some challenges apart from COVID with adapting such a complicated story?
A lot of it was in how to tell it. You know, we had the most unreliable narrator in the world in Anna; we tried, but we were never going to get any truth from Anna. Granted, the woman’s on trial, so it’s not like she’s going to give us her truth. But we just knew you had an unreliable narrator, and so the challenge, really, was figuring out how we were going to tell the story and coming down to the idea of really telling it through the people who had stories to tell about Anna because the reality of it is, there is no Anna. Anna doesn’t really exist, she’s an invention. And that was interesting to me, to hear everybody’s thoughts about who she was and what she’d done in their lives.
Did you guys talk to every character that was represented on the show, or was there someone you couldn’t really get to?
We couldn’t talk to Rachel [Williams, whom Delvey scammed out of $62,000]. We had to rely on other people’s stories and do some inventing and, in that [case], we did hear a bunch from Anna about that. But in reality, that was important to me, because I didn’t want that character to be treated badly or portrayed in a way that felt nasty. I wanted to make sure that all of these women felt like the three-dimensional women they were, and so we worked really hard on that.
So you did get to speak to Anna directly?
I always say I didn’t have access to Anna purposely. Jessica had access to Anna — Jessica really was our interviewer on the ground. She went to the prison, and we videotaped an interview with Anna where she answered all of our questions. But I purposely didn’t want to meet Anna because I knew two things from hearing everybody’s stories: Either people fell in love with her and lost all objectivity, or they hated her guts and just couldn’t cope. And I felt like I didn’t want to be stuck in a position where I had these feelings for this person that were going to color how I was going to tell the story. I didn’t want to think like, “Oh, this poor girl,” or I didn’t really think she’s this monster.
From everything I’ve seen of her, she seems very charming.
She’s delightful. You know, we asked her, “What was the time you were happiest?” And she’s sitting in prison, in a prison jumpsuit, being filmed, and she says, “Right now.” She says it with such competence that for a moment you’d like to think maybe she’s right. I think that what’s interesting about her to me is that a lot of the lies she told … We were living in an Instagram society where everything was [about] how does it look on Instagram, how does it look on paper? And she embodies that in such a big way, and I feel for her because I wonder who she’s going to be in 10 years, who she’s going to be in 20 years. She’s got a lot of growing up to do.
Where do you strike the balance of sticking to what happened and taking some creative liberty to drive the story forward? As you said, you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.
There’s so much of the show that feels like it’s straight out of Anna’s mouth, that we had to take some liberties with, but we tried really hard to strike a balance between sticking to the facts that really mattered, and the accounts that really mattered, and then just trying to build the moments, to express a moment that maybe happened in life, but didn’t happen the way we unfolded it. You know, we wanted to make sure that we were creating these moments and telling them in a way that was vivid and visual and worked for story. That’s why we said “inspired by,” so we didn’t feel married to sticking to the facts. One of the ways that was the most clear was our creation of the reporter who was inspired by Jessica Pressler to create a way into this world, because we needed somebody that you were going to sympathize with and really care about.
The show isn’t a biopic, after all.
Right. We weren’t telling a biopic, because that’s an important distinction to make. And there were so many elements of that show that were facts … I’m not even sure I could tell anybody because they came from sort of secret notes somewhere. But there was also stuff that we invented because it needed to be invented to make the story really sing and be what it should be. I had an incredible team, my writing staff was just incredible, and [it was this] wonderful, amazing staff of writers who really took ownership of the work. They were dedicated and amazing.
How did working on this differ from your previous shows?
Doing a limited series is always a huge difference. It was just a very different kind of show. It was more of a character study than anything else I’ve done, and it was a hugely different experience. Luckily, I worked with a lot of the same people. I worked with Lyn Paolo on costumes; she did costumes for Scandal. I worked with Tom Verica, who was one of my favorite producing directors that I’ve always worked with. He was a producing director on Scandal, so we had a lot of people that we knew, but you know, a limited series is just a very different animal.
Did you have any trepidation taking on this story?
I think at this point in my career, I am just interested in jumping in and having fun and enjoying the ride of whatever’s happening. I’ve been able to let go of that fear that we have of failure. Failure is just another way of learning something, so I really have learned to let go of that and to really just try to enjoy the work. That was part of coming to Netflix in the first place: I wanted just the chance to enjoy the work. I had a lot of fun.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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