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.

I hear you write the season finales of your shows first, then work backward to create the episodes’ arc. Has that been your approach toward life as well?
Definitely. My mother always said that she would get calls from me in college, and when most kids would call needing money or wanting to talk about a boyfriend, I wanted to talk about my plan. On a weekly basis. I’ve loosened up in my life, but I have to say that my OCD about organizing really helps with the shows.

What intrigues you about medicine?
The idea that the body is a machine that you can open up and rearrange and put back together is a magical thing to me. What makes an hour of televised medical drama so good are the stakes: It’s life and death, and emotionally transformative for the patients and the doctor, and there is also a moment where you just laugh at the absurdity of life.

Your shows are known for being racially diverse. What’s your casting process?
I really don’t imagine that people are a race before we cast. Ninety-nine percent of the time, even with the guest casts, it’s not about “These people are Asian.” It’s just, “Bring in some actors, and let’s see who’s good.” Linda Lowy is my casting director, and she pushed agents around town to bring in people of color. We are looking for chemistry. Or someone would come into the room, and we would fall in love with them, like, “OK, they’re that character.” That’s what happened when Sandra Oh read for Cristina [on Grey’s].

You’ve said that the networks have a responsibility to show a diverse world. Do you think they’re doing their job?
I don’t know if the other networks are, but ABC tries: I get the memos, and I know that they are really making an effort. I just think the world on TV should look like the world we live in. I remember watching The Cosby Show and being transfixed not just because it was a funny show but because, oh my God, finally there was a family on TV that looked like me—a typical American family that also happened to be black.

Did you ever feel that doors were closed to you as an African-American woman?
I’ve never felt like that. Part of that is because I wasn’t expecting anyone to treat me differently, so no one did. I think people treat you how you tell them to treat you.

What prompted you to adopt?
I had always been such a careful planner, and after September 11 I was like, “What am I waiting for? If the world is going to end tomorrow, what is the thing of all the things I’ve ever wanted?” Being a mom was one of those things. And my daughter was born nine months and two days after September 11. That was the day the plan changed.

Has being a working mother gotten easier as Harper has gotten older?
It’s never going to get easy. Your kid is always going to look at you and say, “I wish you didn’t have to go to work today, Mommy.” That will always kill you.

Does it kill you more as a single parent?
I don’t know, because I’ve never been­ a married parent! But I do feel it ­keenly—my kid and I are a little tribe of two, and it’s painful for me to feel like she’s not getting all of my attention. But all of my friends feel this way with their kids. I think I’m luckier than most, because I live 15 minutes from work, and when I travel I can bring her, and when I go to work I don’t leave her with a caregiver—I leave her with my older sister, Delorse.

Is it harder to get a date as a single mom or as a successful woman?
When you tell a guy you have a baby and he takes off, you know right away what kind of guy he is. It’s the best bullshit meter in the world. And success does scare some guys away. I am, at this point, almost completely undatable. I say that in a joking way, but it’s a little true. Everyone I meet on a daily basis works for me in some capacity. Not a lot of guys are more successful than I am. Plus I have a child. I am too tired to put on high heels and go out to a club. Ever. So it’s not simple—but I’m optimistic.

Have you picked up any practical knowledge from your shows? If someone has a heart attack at a wedding, do they say, “Shonda! Do CPR!”?
I always say that some of the most dangerous people on the planet right now are the writers, the actors and me. We know just enough to really hurt somebody. A friend will say to me, “I have this symptom,” and I’ll be like, “Well, it’s definitely this then!” Even when they’re not calling me for a ­diagnosis—they might just complain about something on their leg—I’ll say, “It could be a sarcoma.” I tell people to go to the ER all the time, like, “You could be having a heart attack!” They call me later and tell me that wasn’t it.

The last question is a fill-in-the-blank: Shonda Rhimes = Mc_______.
Oh, gawwwwd. I got nothing. That’s too much. You cannot go around attaching McNames to yourself.

Rory Evans profiled Cynthia Nixon for the May 2008 issue of More.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of More.

First Published Mon, 2010-09-27 13:05

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