Shonda Rhimes wants her characters to feel like human beings — even if it makes them less likable. Rhimes revels in her characters' moral and ethical gray areas. In the first episode of Grey's Anatomy, the title character (Ellen Pompeo) goes binge-drinking before enjoying a one-night stand with a strange man. It didn't necessarily make her lovable, but it made her feel real. We spoke to Rhimes, who is among the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, about how The West Wing and Buffy inspired her, her race-blind approach to casting and what she's learned about portraying lesbians on television.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows or entertainment figures inspired you or your work?
Shonda Rhimes: I wouldn't necessarily say "inspired" my shows, but inspired me in terms of character development. I was a huge, huge, huge fan of The West Wing and a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I felt like they were different from everything else that was on television at the time, but I also thought they spent a lot of time trying to tell stories in unique ways.
TVGuide.com: Tell me how you got involved in the television business.
Rhimes: I'm just a screenwriter; I was writing movies. I became a parent and suddenly your whole world changes when you have a kid and I started to watch a lot of television, a lot of stuff I hadn't seen. I watched all six seasons of Buffy on DVD over two weeks in which my daughter wouldn't sleep. I realized that while movies are fun and great, a) I wanted to write for grownups a little more because I was doing a lot of teen girl movies and b) I felt like it was clear that on television, your characters could grow and change and develop and be incredibly flawed in ways that they couldn't be in a big studio movie at the time.
TVGuide.com: Besides the fact that it's a proven format, why medical shows?
Rhimes: The first pilot I wrote for ABC was The Untitled Shonda Rhimes Pilot, which was about war correspondents. It was about four women who covered war and drank a lot and had a lot of sex and on a bad day, people died. And they really loved it but politically at the time it just wasn't right.
But I really liked the idea that I was going to write about a bunch of women. [Grey's Anatomy] initially started out really being about five interns who were super-competitive, that it was a world in which being cutthroat was in fact rewarded and it was a world in which on, a bad day, you killed somebody. That to me felt really interesting.
TVGuide.com: How do you go about casting a show? Is it color-blind? Gender-blind?
Rhimes: When I wrote the pilot to Grey's, I didn't put race to anybody; there was no ethnicity. I basically said we're just going to bring in great actors and whoever is right for the part will get the role.
Linda Lowy, who is an amazing casting director, she casted Grey's and Friday Night Lights, she's amazing, was very excited about that and the studio was completely on board with it. People would come in and we'd have a black woman, a blonde woman and an Asian woman all competing for the same role. The only tweaking I did was I asked Sandra Oh if she wanted her character to have a Korean last name, but the character remained exactly the same.
The thing I find scary and disturbing about television sometimes is that people think because you're somebody of color you have to be referred to or defined by your race. It doesn't really make sense because that's not how I live my life, or how most people live their lives.
TVGuide.com: What's your policy on diversity in casting? Is there a concerted effort or does diversity happen organically?
Rhimes: A lot of other people who are older than me fought very hard so that I could get to write a television show and let people just be people. We don't have a black character on a show and just talk about it all the time that they're black, or they have these shoes because they're black. Characters just get to be characters.
TVGuide.com: What did you learn from the fallout of the Callie-Erica story line that you might have incorporated into the Callie-Arizona story line?
Rhimes: I learned that we were in the awkward, strange, uncomfortable position of being the only network show with lesbian characters and when you're the only, everyone's staring at you and dissecting everything you do. Really we were just trying to find the most organic way for the characters to play out their relationships.
I didn't read or know about the feedback with Callie and Erica. What I was looking for with Arizona was a pediatric surgeon and then I noticed that there's really good chemistry [between Callie and Arizona]; they play really well together. There's a little spark there that feels interesting. Let's put them together romantically and see what happens. To me, the difference in the relationships is that Erica came out at the same time Callie was discovering she was bisexual and defining herself. Arizona is a character who's known who she is since she was a teenager and is very comfortable with who she is. She's not struggling at all; she already knows her place, which I liked. I felt like there was something about being a strong, confident lesbian character that was interesting.
TVGuide.com: Whose idea was it to create a Grey's Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice? What have the challenges been?
Rhimes: I had this dinner with [ABC president Steve McPherson] where I said I wanted to do it, and he's no idiot. He looked at me and said great, before I had a chance to think about how serious I was.
Two shows is a huge challenge and it's not like I have somebody else running my shows for me. I am sitting here typing on scripts for Grey's and then I pull up a script for Private and I work on that and then I have to cut Grey's and I have to cut Private — it's not easy. The first season, which was the year of the strike, almost killed me. If we hadn't gone on strike, I don't know that I would've survived.
TVGuide.com: Let's talk about TV coverage on the Internet. What do you think about this instant feedback culture? Does it influence you?
Rhimes: I think for a long time we'd really try to stay here in the bubble. The Grey's cast went through relative obscurity to being incredibly famous incredibly fast. For the cast's sake, and also for the writers' sake, just so we can concentrate on the work, we really stayed in the bubble. It's only really lately and with the advent of Twitter that I've actually been paying a little more attention to what's written. But to stay creative, you can't get too emotionally involved in people saying they love something and you can't get too emotionally involved in people saying they hate something.
TVGuide.com: What about spoilers and scoop? Are they a necessary evil?
Rhimes: It usually just makes me insane and I sort of came into Season 6 going, you know what, if it makes more people watch the show, great, if it gets people talking — the idea that any attention is better than no attention at all. If they want to spoil stuff, I'm not going to get upset about it because we always have more stuff planned.
TVGuide.com: What advice do you have for others in the TV/entertainment business?
Rhimes: When my parents' friends' kids in college call, I always say this: If you can think of any other thing you want to be, almost as much, kind of as much, a little bit as much, go and do it instead. If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, work in a library and you can give yourself as much joy, why would you put yourself through this? If I had any other marketable skill, I would do something else.
Here's the thing, I love my job, I can't imagine doing anything else. It has the highest highs and the lowest lows, but it's not easy. For every person who gets to do what I do, there are a million people who wanted to and never got to do it and are sort of stuck here.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows do you watch?
Rhimes: I watch Dexter; I'm a big fan of the serial killer. I watch Modern Family and Cougar Town. I watch 30 Rock and The Office even though they air opposite us. And then it depends on the season, I watch Project Runway and Top Chef. I watch a lot of BBC: Doctor Who, Torchwood...
TVGuide.com: Any show you wish you'd been involved in?
Rhimes: We're pretty happy here, and I don't say it because I think my shows are so special or so great, but because we're the happiest writing staff I've ever heard of.