The mastermind behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, Shonda Rhimes is the most powerful person making TV right now. On the eve of her first book, Year of Yes—an account of the transformative year she spent saying just that (out November 10)— she sits down with ELLE Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers to talk about creating 3-D characters, TV with a point of view, and complicated endings.
Check out the Elle interview highlights below:
On addressing hot-button issues like, police brutality, in her shows:
ROBBIE MYERS: I’m so interested in what I’ll call the Michael Brown episode of Scandal, where Marcus says to Olivia, “Your black card’s not getting validated today.” I thought, Wow, I’ve never heard that on TV. But it does bring up the idea—and people will be talking about this a lot now that we’re in an election cycle—that there’s a monolithic black community. It’s the same thing for women—“the women’s vote,” as if….
SHONDA RHIMES: That episode was very interesting for us because Zahir McGhee, whose name is on the episode, [and] I basically wrote it together. He really did a good job with it, but [we] couldn’t be from more different worlds: He wanted Marcus to have attended a black college, and I didn’t want him to—I thought it meant something different. It was just a giant battle that we waged about every detail because [McGhee] was a young black man from Baltimore, and I grew up a lot like Olivia Pope. I was trying to explain to him, There is this weird belief from people on the outside and from people in black communities that there is only one way to be black. And I say it in the writers’ room all the time: My Black Is Not Your Black. What’s terrifying is that, just the same way we’ve all accepted that normal is white, everybody seems to buy into the idea that there’s only one way to be black or one way to be Hispanic. That’s as damaging as anything else.
RM: With that episode [in which a 17-yearold black man is killed by a white cop], you responded almost in real time.
SR: That’s what was both heartbreaking and ironically, sadly, fortuitous. I woke up knowing that we were going to go write “The Lawn Chair” after Ferguson. I watched that coverage and was horrified. I woke up the next morning with this image of this man, of a lawn chair and a shotgun and a child underneath him. The episode came out of that. We shot that episode in October or November. I remember thinking, This is going to feel dated when it comes out. And then the police just kept killing black men. Literally the [day before] it aired, they released the Ferguson Report, and it was worse than the press had ever thought.
On Olivia Pope’s relationship with President Grant and her father:
RM: I remember Spike Lee, when he talked about making She’s Gotta Have It, said that movies and television never showed black people kissing.
SR: Ever. There’s no black love. Why is that not shown on a constant basis?
RM: You’ve pushed that a lot.
SR: Yeah. For many showrunners, you have one black character or one Asian or one female, and then that character seems to represent everybody in your head—as opposed to making that character a person. And then all they can talk about is: I’m black or I’m Asian. It’s one of the reasons why I loved Grey’s: It made it impossible for anyone to say, Well, that character can’t say that. Bailey gets to have a full and wonderful love affair with her husband. It’s like, Look! This is a couple. And they’re in love. And they were the only in-love and healthy couple through the whole thing. And we get to see Richard Webber and Catherine Avery get married and then be in love and fight and come together. And you get to see Annalise and her very screwed-up relationships going on, which is so valid.
RM: People ask you, Why does Olivia only go out with white guys? She doesn’t, but she is in love with the president.
SR: She is in love with the white, Republican president. She is in love with the man her father could not be more unlike. And that is what Rowan has been railing against. If you take it to its bare bones, metaphor scrubbed away, she is in love with the thing that her black father, who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, could not be more disgusted by.
RM: That relationship is really intense and complicated.
SR: It’s very Shakespearean. I’m kind of obsessed with it. [For] their first big scene together in that airplane hangar, I wrote this draft, and everybody read it and they were like, “This is crazy! Nobody behaves this way!” I said this to the writers’ room: When Olivia’s father shows up, blackness shows up. All of the enraged black people who are watching this show, they show up with Rowan. He’s pissed off. He’s very disappointed in his daughter. He has raised her to be somebody completely different. He’s been [working for a secret spy agency], but from his perspective, he’s a very good guy doing the best he can and trying to get her on the right road. I have great love for him; I think he’s a very interesting character.
RM: I do too. And the actor.
SR: Joe Morton is amazing. That character wouldn’t be that character if he weren’t played that way by Joe Morton.
On how the actors in her shows help shape their characters:
RM: So it was its own organic thing?
SR: The way I write my shows, every character is its own organic thing. No character has a life at all until I see it played by somebody. Olivia Pope went an entirely different way when I saw her played by Kerry [Washington]. Cyrus wasn’t gay until I saw him played by Jeff [Perry] and I went, Oh, that’s why he’s this way. I create 50 percent of the character; the actor creates 50 percent of the character. My contract with the Scandal actors is, You’ll say every word as it’s written, and I’ll never tell you how to do it. So, literally, I stare at this footage and then run back upstairs to the writers’ room and say, Nope, that’s not what’s going on. What’s going on is this, because they’ve played it this way and it’s amazing.
On how she took hold of her own power:
RM: One thing that is really important to me, to our readers, and to the idea of the Agenda: how women accrue power, and then what they do with it. As you grow in these executive positions, you learn about your own competencies, including things you never thought you were good at.
SR: It’s not just that. I think power is useless unless you know you have it. I’ve seen that a million times. And I feel like it happened with me for a while. I was always like, Why are people behaving this way? And now I know they were trying to treat me as if I were powerful. But because I was not ready to be powerful, I was like, What’s happening? The minute you realize or accept the concept that, Yes, I am a powerful person—guess what? The people who need to treat you that way to get things done—the business guys, and the money guys, and the finance people—they fall in line.
RM: So how did you take hold of your own power?
SR: I realized I was never going to get any further than I was if I just allowed myself to be the very nice girl who wrote stuff. And I had other things that I wanted to do. All of the things that are possible are never going to happen if you’re busy waiting for someone to give you something. You have to take it. You were talking about what you do once you have the power, how do you spend it. What’s great about where we are now: I’m in a lovely place where our notes are very collaborative, where [the network executives] trust what we’re doing. So now I can make a comfortable place for other writers to make their shows, which I think is very exciting. Betsy [Beers, her producing partner] and I are curating new shows very carefully. A lot of producers like to make a ton of shows and see what works. I don’t want to make a ton of shows that are crappy.
RM: I used to work at Seventeen magazine, and girls would write in by the thousands, pre-Internet. Ninety percent of the questions were, How do I get a boy to like me? And I was like, Wrong question! The question is: Do you like him? How does he treat you? Eventually, I realized we’re kind of hardwired to want to be attractive.
SR: People want love. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For me, the idea that you think you’re going to get someone to like you—that’s the sad part. But the reality is, yeah, people want love. We’re often attracted to the wrong person. If that person is not looking at you, he’s probably the wrong person.