A Hollywood Game Changer

by Rory Evans
Photograph: Illustration: Kagan McLeod

Shonda Rhimes cannot take complete credit for va-jay-jay. No, the ­Emmy-nominated writer and pro­ducer says, the word “came through our office, but we didn’t make it up.” It was Grey’s Anatomy, however, that in 2008 turned this euphemism for vagina into part of the vernacular.

Such is the impact of Rhimes’s flagship series, now in its seventh season. And with two other shows under the aegis of her Shondaland production company—Private Practice, now in season four, and Off the Map, premiering early next year—Rhimes is one of the most powerful and prominent African-­American women in television today. Mention this to her, though, and she deflects it with one word: “Oprah.” Rhimes is not eager to dwell on the rarity of her achievements or the oft-noted diversity of her shows’ casts, preferring to emphasize that the series she steers reflect the world as she knows it. The reach of her shows (all on ABC) ensures that her experience will be shared with some 22 million people each week.

Rhimes grew up the youngest of six children near Chicago, the daughter of a professor and a university administrator. She says she “spent a lot of time in hospitals” as a kid, thanks to “the worst immune system in the world,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that all three Shondaland series center on doctors. “I was super clumsy,” she adds. “If I could split my lip open skating across the floor in my socks, I would. A lot of people think hospitals are scary, but I always felt at home there.” She worked as a candy striper in high school and even thought about becoming a doctor. “I also thought I was going to be a chef and an astronaut,” she says, “until I realized I just wanted to write about them.”

After graduating from Dartmouth College and working for a time in advertising, Rhimes went to the University of Southern California film school to study screenwriting. She scored with her first feature credit—­cowriting the TV biopic Introducing Dorothy Dan­dridge, which won Halle Berry an Emmy and a Golden Globe—­and stumbled with the critically lam­basted Britney Spears film Crossroads. In 2002, Rhimes, who is single, adopted a daughter, Harper, now eight, and turned her energies back to TV, creating Grey’s Anatomy. In the years since, she has been named one of Time’s 100 people who are transforming the world and has been honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for work that sparks social change. She talked to More about medicine, mothering and making a TV world that reflects reality.

Is it safe to assume you watched General Hospital every day after school like the rest of us?
I did! I completely did. We film on the same set as General Hospital, and I still have these moments when I’m like, Oh my God, it’s Luke! But it’s funny—I never associated that show with medicine. I just thought it was a place full of intrigue and excitement.

That sounds like what you’ve created on both your series. Is that also how Off the Map will be?
Well, Off the Map is about doctors who are working in a remote, fictional Central or South American town, serving both the locals and the tourists. They were disgraced back home for whatever reason, and it’s their last chance to be doctors. Jenna Bans, who wrote on Private Practice and Grey’s, created the show. And my role is like being the grandmother: I get to hold the baby, love the baby and give the baby back.

Is giving the baby back something you’ve had to learn? How are you at delegating?
I’ve been lucky that on the two shows that are closest to me, I am ­surrounded by people I like and really trust. But there are things I won’t give up. I love to work with the editors on the cuts of my shows. I love to write, so I do that as much as I can. There was a period when every Grey’s script went through my computer, and that’s not true anymore. Private Practice is still getting on its feet, so every script still goes through my computer from page one.

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