It’s a miracle when any television show actually makes it on the air and then another miracle when and if it actually becomes a success. That doesn’t seem to be the problem for writer Shonda Rhimes, who currently has two long-running one-hour drama series on the air (Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice,) and is adding a third tonight in the Kerry Washington-starrer, Scandal.
Whether she’s writing about the latest hurdle in the Grey’s relationship between Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), the sexual abuse suffered last season by Charlotte (KaDee Strickland) on Private Practice or the fact that much of Scandal revolves around the lead character’s inappropriate affair with the President of the United States, Rhimes writes characters and stories that resonate with its audience and leave them wanting more.
Earlier this week at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, a panel entitled An Evening With Shonda Rhimes and Friends was held with the prolific television writer and producer along with cast members from Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh), PP (Strickland and Taye Diggs) and Scandal (Washington, Katie Lowes and Tony Goldwyn).
While there are many television writers out there, Pompeo said that being a part of “Shondaland” (the name of Rhimes production company) is an amazing thing for what it has brought to those in front of and behind the scenes. “It’s given so many actors jobs, so many stories have been told across race, across sexual orientation, across age, young and old, her stories employ everybody,” she explained. On Grey’s, for example, Pompeo added that there’s something for everyone in terms of the talent Rhimes regularly employs. “Everybody gets a chance to shine and in Hollywood a lot of older actors don’t work anymore and on our show we have older actors almost every episode and get to come and shine the way they did in the ’70s or ’80s. The number of shows that she has, the number of actors she employs, the number of different people that she gets to shine lights on is something I’m so proud to be a part of.”
Also discussed during the panel was that one of the core relationships is not the buzz-worthy unions between Meredith (Pompeo) and her now-husband Derek (Patrick Dempsey) or Cristina (Oh) and her husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) but between Meredith and Cristina. “I don’t know whether you remember in the pilot our characters were enemies, we didn’t like each other and I think that’s just the beginning of great romances,” Oh explained. “I think one of the reasons why people are invested is because there’s almost 200 episodes of seeing these two characters, just for example the Meredith-Cristina storyline, spend time together, fight, get alienated from each other, are there to depend on each other, are there cracking jokes with each other and just to be able to come back again and again and again, I think [that] creates that kind of bond.”
Oh added that the camaraderie between Meredith and Cristina does not end on the show itself. “Ellen and I really keep each other going,” she said, smiling at her co-star, who sat next to her. “Ellen and I are very different — personally we’re very, very different. I think our outlook on life is different but in that way we’re able to keep each other in check but also really tell the other person like from our perspective.”
Pompeo stressed that the Meredith/Cristina bond is one that is like any other relationship we might see on television. “Relationships of all kind, whatever the relationship is, whether it’s sexual, friendship, whatever, they all take work,” she said. “And there’s something that has to be nurtured and go through rough times and share the happy times and the joy. Relationships need to be nurtured for actors as well as people and it’s something we work on all the time.
On Private Practice last season, Strickland’s character, Dr. Charlotte King, was sexually assaulted in a story that went far beyond one “very special episode” and the actress talked about how she was able to tackle the difficult material. “For me,” she said, obviously still emotional from the experience, “the great fortune I’ve had throughout this process, it’s on the page … literally, every second of that script was clear, (snapped fingers) like that — it affected me on such a deep level [and] with great pride I say that I felt used, I felt purposed as a human being telling that story because I know it really helped so many people. And no matter where you have to go as an actor when you are helped by a crew the way I that I was and you are trusted the way Shonda trusted me to show up for Charlotte and to show up for my art, you show up and you do it.” Strickland won a Prism Award in 2011 for her work in that impactful storyline.
Having three series on the air simultaneously must come with a strong creative charge by Rhimes but what exactly inspires her to write a new series such as her latest, Scandal when she already has two series to worry about? “I get excited about something and then I sort of have to write about it, that’s sort of how it works,” Rhimes explained. “Betsy [Beers, Executive Producer on Grey’s, PP and Scandal, who was also on the panel] introduced me to Judy Smith, who is the real crisis management/PR/fixer person who really the character of Olivia Pope (Washington’s character on Scandal) is inspired by. Judy came in and sat down and told us about her life, which included representing Monica Lewinsky, representing the family of Chandra Levy, representing Michael Vick, doing all these interesting things that ran the gamut &mdash I think she literally fixes people for a living — she walked out of the room and I turned to Betsy and I said, “I see a hundred episodes and I have to write this.” That’s how you want it to be. You want to get excited about something.”
Casting is another thing that is often unpredictable for Rhimes and there doesn’t seem to be a sure-fire formula for finding that right actor for any particular role. “A lot of talented people come in the room and then there are people who come in the room who just have something special; there’s a spark there that we get excited about, Betsy and I do. We look at each other and go ‘Oh my God. That’s amazing.’”
And while some showrunners insist on having elaborate backstories and story Bibles for their series and characters, Rhimes doesn’t necessarily follow that method. She explained the actors of Scandal would often come to her looking for insight into the lives of their characters. “They would come to me and they would say things like, ‘What’s my backstory? Where am I from?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Where did I go to school?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Have I ever been married before?’ ‘I’m not sure.’” Instead, Rhimes often takes her cues from watching what the actors do in front of the camera. “It goes in one end of the soundstage and comes out the other end of the editing room and then I see what [the actors have] done with the words that I wrote, that the other writers wrote — and a lot of times it becomes this interesting conversation and I’ll write something [and] it will play a totally different way that I thought and I’ll look at it and go ‘Oh, that’s what that character is doing’ and it will change the arc of the story. It will change who they are and where they’re going and what’s going on.”
Scandal premieres tonight at 10/9c after Grey’s Anatomy (9/8c) on ABC. Private Practice returns April 17 in its new Tuesday at 10/9c timeslot on ABC.