Anatomy of Shonda Rhimes, the Busiest Woman in Hollywood
Ellen Pompeo, Shonda Rhimes, Kate Walsh
Shonda Rhimes truly is a busy lady. Not only does she executive-produce two shows on the air — Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice — but her new political drama Scandal premieres next month, and she's got a period piece in contention at ABC. And while there's speculation her load could lighten should Grey's or Private fail to be renewed, Rhimes assures us that's not likely. TVGuide.com caught up with the showrunner for an uncensored look at everything on her plate, including actors' contracts, Private's move to Tuesdays and her upcoming projects.
You have two shows on the air with a third premiering next month and a fourth in development. What does a typical day look like?
Shonda Rhimes: It's busy, but oddly enough, with Grey's in Season 8, Private in Season 5, and Scandal wrapped for the season, I feel like I've learned my job well enough that I hope that's it not too taxing. It's mentally taxing, but somehow I feel like I've finally figured it out and hit a stride where everything clicks the way it should.
At the beginning of this production year on Grey's, there was some uncertainty about which actors would be continuing. How did it feel heading into what could have been the final season of Grey's Anatomy, or did you not even think of it that way?
Rhimes: No, the network has not allowed me to think of it as being the final season of Grey's Anatomy. That wasn't even a concern for me. I know that Grey's is going to live on past this season. So whether or not I feel like it could, it's going to.
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Will the next season be similar to what we've seen the last eight years or are you planning any major changes?
Rhimes: Honestly, I really don't know. I feel committed to staying with the show as long as it feels interesting. I have some interesting ideas.
Was it difficult writing episodes not knowing who might or might not be returning? Or did you just charge ahead like you would during a normal season?
Rhimes: No, we definitely didn't approach it the way I approach a normal season. But I like the challenge and that's been one of the things that's always been fun about getting to do this show; trying to figure out what the next challenge is going to be every season. This season the challenge was that we didn't know how the season was going to end. So in a way, it forced us to be creative in a different way. You want to keep it fresh after eight years and we were able to do that because we had this new problem to contend with.
The biggest question, obviously, is Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey. Do you have a back-up plan should they decide not to return?
Rhimes: I can't even begin to address that concept.
There are a lot of major milestones coming up, things fans have been waiting a long time for. First, the McMansion. How long have you been waiting for that moment when it would finally be finished?
Rhimes: I don't know if it's as big a moment for me as it's turned out to be for the fans. There were many times where we were like, "Oh, we should finish the house now." And it felt like we don't want to spend time dealing with the story of the house. There was a lot of that in some veins and then there were some moments in which it just didn't feel quite right. It does feel right to deal with it and talk about it and have it be done at the end of Season 8 when Meredith is graduating from being a resident.
Catch up on Grey's Anatomy with our episode recaps
Speaking of, the original interns are in their final year of residency. Will their transition be a major part of the last few episodes?
Rhimes: Yeah, it really is and we've been feeling it in the writers' room. As we read the scripts, there's a strong sense of nostalgia because it really is an end of an era for these characters and that's a milestone for us. They're finishing their residency, they're going to be Attendings. I suppose you could keep them as residents forever but that just didn't feel right in terms of what we wanted to do.
The alt-reality episode was a good way to call back to a lot of those moments from the past seasons. Will there be more of those moments?
Rhimes: Yeah, I think there's a little bit of that. There are people coming full circle and it's really the time to look at them, see how they've grown and how they've changed from the people that we first met.
Not everyone can get a happy ending. Why did you choose Cristina and Owen to be the couple that hit the most rough patches?
Rhimes: That's interesting. I guess I don't look at it that way, like I'm not trying to make Cristina and Owen hit rough patches because not everyone can get a happy ending. I really look at the characters and think, "What is the journey that they're on? What do they still have left to learn? What struggles are they still juggling?" I try to look at them as people and it feels to me like Cristina still has a lot of unresolved issues. And more importantly, she's in love with a person who has some unresolved issues with her as well. But, to me, Cristina Yang is an extraordinarily gifted surgeon first before she's anything else. While she's expanded and grown in a lot of areas, that is still who she is and she fully expects and believes that if Owen's going to be in love with her, he's a man who's got to be in love with an extraordinarily gifted surgeon first and deal with all that comes with that.
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You've really gut-punched the audience a couple times this season with them.
Rhimes: I know, and I'm not really trying to. It truly isn't about playing with the audience. It really is about this journey for these characters and how to keep it honest. Sandra [Oh] and Kevin [McKidd] have been really engaged and they have to spend a lot of time together talking about this stuff. You have big arguments in terms of what we're going to do, because we all feel really passionately that they can all come to an agreement. After eight seasons to have a cast that's not phoning it in, it's the most exciting thing in the world.
There's been talk in the past of Derek, Addison and Mark in med school. Would you ever consider flashing back to that, not unlike the Ellis-Richard flashback episode?
Rhimes: Maybe. Possibly. We've actually talked about that. Frankly, the biggest problem with that is not finding a young Addison or a young Mark, although that would be difficult, it's finding a young Derek. Finding a young Derek is, to me, one of the hardest things in the world, so it just feels difficult to do.
What draws you to do episodes like the musical and the alt-reality? And are you already thinking of what you want to do next?
Rhimes: I don't think we think of it like, "Oh we want to do a musical!" The musical came out of, "What's the next challenge?" and also "What's the best way to tell this particular story?" Those things come because they feel organic, so there's no plan for what we're going to do next.
Having Scandal premiere on Thursday nights is bittersweet, I'm sure, because it pushes Private Practice to Tuesdays. How did you feel about that move?
Rhimes: It was difficult. It's an interesting moment for me because am I upset that Private Practice is losing its time slot? Damn straight. Am I thrilled that the network seems to think that Grey's Anatomy is still a strong show enough to launch a new series behind? Absolutely, that's wonderful. And am I glad that if we're going to launch a show we're going to put it in what they consider to be the strongest timeslot? Yes. I'm very excited for Scandal. But that's three different hats and there was a lot of... let's say heated discussion about this choice. I feel very strongly about Private Practice and really feel like that show has done its job for the network for a really long time and I should hope that we get to continue doing that job.
Watch full episodes of Private Practice
Does the move to Tuesdays signal the end of Private Practice?
Rhimes: I wasn't seeing it as signaling the end of Private Practice. We'll see. I can't guarantee anything. I don't program the network, so that's not my job to even decide that.
What was your initial goal or vision when you spun Addison off and do you feel like she's on track with what you imagined?
Rhimes: Yes and no. My initial thought for sending her off was very different from what the show is just becoming. Because I feel like the show's evolved and it evolved into a thing that I really, really love. It started with her going to L.A. to say, "I want to have a baby." That really has been the journey of this character. We've been watching her navigate her world, figure out who she is and come into this world in which she stops thinking of herself as simply a cheater and finds her own redemption. Yeah, she's headed on the right path for that.
You've said before that audiences will be pleased with the Addison baby story line by the end of the season. Will there still be life for her after that?
Rhimes: Oh yeah, I absolutely think so.
Speaking of babies, next to Chandra Wilson — whose real-life pregnancy was written into Grey's second season — Caterina Scorsone's pregnancy is the only other one you've written into one of your shows. Why?
Rhimes: Here's what's interesting: We had a story line planned, and then I had a woman who told me she was pregnant and things dovetailed beautifully. I had been positive we were going to tell the story line, and Caterina telling me she was pregnant allowed us to tell it. It's not the story that people think. It's going to be a really interesting story, and it's been a really great challenge for Caterina as an actor, who is so versatile and so game for anything.
Private Practice's Caterina Scorsone expecting first child
Turning to Scandal, what made you want to dive into the political side of things?
Rhimes: I think it's because it's a far cry from what I've done before. I've really loved Grey's and Private, but at a certain point you want a new challenge. I get itchy and I start looking around for a new challenge and a new world. The thing that all my shows have in common are smart women, I like to believe anyway, and that's what Scandal has in common with these shows. I don't think the venue really matters so much, if it's medicine or politics, you're watching people playing at the top of their game.
I've asked Ellen, Kate Walsh and Kerry Washington the same question: What does it take to be a Shonda Rhimes leading lady? All three of them had the same answer: You would have to ask Shonda. So, what does it take?
Rhimes: Casting is a very interesting process. I feel like I cannot tell you what it is about a particular person or why. I just know it when I see it. Generally for me, I'm looking for women and men who spark my imagination, who make me think, "Oh I can't wait to tell this story with them," or, "They're versatile enough to do this many things with." That's really what it's about. I just like to work with women that I like. I've learned this is a very long marriage doing a television show. I like the people that I work with to be people I enjoy, so you want to cast people who are as excited and enthusiastic as you are.
Which brings us to Gilded Lilys, which has a strong male perspective in the pilot. What was it like switching gears?
Rhimes: I'm producing it, but it's KJ Steinberg's show. I didn't have to switch any gears at all, I just have to stand back and say, "You know, that's really smartly written, I have this thought about Page 52." KJ came in and we were talking about ideas and I said, "God, I want a period show. I want to do a show where people are wearing corsets and where all of the sexuality is hidden and where everything is repressed." That's the opposite of what goes on now where everything's just out in the open. The idea of doing it in turn-of-the-century New York was even more intriguing because that's such an interesting time historically. I've never seen a show set in exactly that moment in time and so it was perfect. Betsy Beers and I have had the best time in the world working on this show.
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Is there any one thing you'd never do on one of your shows?
Rhimes: I can't possibly box myself in with a rule like that because I always said I would never allow Meredith to want a child until I figured out how to allow Meredith to want a child. So it's impossible for me to say that there's something I would never do.
Is there anything you did in one of your shows that you would have changed if you could go back?
Rhimes: Nope, and the only reason I say that is because you've got to live without regrets.
If someone said to you 10 years ago that someday you'd have three shows on the air with a fourth in development, how would you have responded?
Rhimes: I think I would have thought it was hilarious because I wasn't even considering working in television 10 years ago. My daughter is nine, she's going to be 10 in June. 10 years ago in June, when I was in my house with a small, small baby, that's when I started really watching television, that's when I first started to think, "God, all the good stuff is happening in TV."
What would you say is the greatest lesson you've learned from your years in the television business?
Rhimes: Television is truly a collaborative process. What most people instinctively do in this business is you get this show and you're so desperate to keep it on the air that people get afraid to actually seek the help of the people around them. So then you find yourself doing everything yourself and that is an exhausting process. Shawn Ryan actually said this once and I thought it was just a very clean way of saying it, "If you spend the time in the writers' room that you need to spend in the writers' room downloading your brain, your life goes so much easier. If you keep it all inside your head, you kill yourself."