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Shonda Rhimes has been a major force in television for over a decade.
Her first show for ABC, “Grey’s Anatomy,” aired in March 2005 as a mid-season replacement. It quickly became one of the most-watched (and talked about) shows on television, and starts its fourteenth season Thursday.
Rhimes went on to create “Private Practice,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” In August, Netflix announced an exclusive multi-year development deal with Rhimes, under which all of her future productions will be Netflix Originals.
Business Insider recently sat down with Rhimes in New York City to discuss the future of her storytelling, being a working mom, and the short film “Meet Diana,” a collaboration with the soap brand Dove. “Meet Diana” tells the story of Diana Wright, a teacher and mother of two, who lost her leg in a car wreck.
In our interview, Rhimes talked about diversity – a word she says she hates – in television, how it’s changing, and how it can continue to evolve and represent everyone in an authentic way. For this to happen, Rhimes says that diversity starts in the writers room. And although she hears people in the industry say it’s hard to find women, people of color, and LGBTQ people who write for TV, it’s actually not.
“It’s almost like there’s camouflage and they are not looking at them,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Carrie Wittmer: Diana, [the subject of the short film] has been through so much. She lost her leg, but she’s so confident and sure of herself. What did you learn from being around her?
Shonda Rhimes: She’s a quiet energy. But that quiet energy is very powerful. She’s very confident about who she is. And the fact that she has such presence and confidence. And you feel like she’s always been that way. It was that fact that really drew me, and this idea that being that sure of herself comes from just who she’s always been and then having this accident. A lot of people would’ve crumbled. I think I probably would have been in a corner somewhere thinking I can’t do anything. It just made her more of who she was, as opposed to being a stumble or a hurdle or something.
Wittmer: I wanted to be her.
Rhimes: Right? I was like, if only I could spend more time with you, there’s so much I could learn.
Wittmer: Is telling diverse stories – from Diana’s to your shows – come naturally to you, or is that something that you’re always thinking about? You have a character on “Grey’s Anatomy” [Arizona Robbins, played by Jessica Capshaw] who, like Diana, has lost one of her legs in an accident.
Rhimes: I don’t think I ever sought out the idea, “We’re going to show a diverse group of people!” I wanted to see people on television who look like me, and I wanted to see people on television who look like my friends. And I didn’t relate to a lot of the women on television because they didn’t seem realistic. It was just about writing people I wanted to watch, and writing people who felt like the people I knew. That’s what we ended up doing. So it’s never about, “Well can we make a story about this kind of person?” Mostly, it’s about the characters. For instance, Arizona Robbins. A character will get into a situation and I’ll say, while we’re doing this plane crash it makes sense for her leg to be crushed, and her girlfriend is an orthopedic surgeon, so lets talk about the ways that that would be a story. So it really came from that, and exploring what that would mean for a person.
Wittmer: Have you ever struggled to maintain your standards of beauty in such an industry that’s so focused on looks?
Rhimes: Oh, that’s interesting. You know what’s interesting about this industry? I’ve never once thought about that. I never once thought about how I look in this industry in that way. Probably because I’m not in front of the camera all the time. I’m behind one, and I’m writing words for other people to say and I try to be very encouraging of my actresses and my actors to be themselves.
Wittmer: There were some awesome wins at Emmys that awarded diverse stories in television. From “Atlanta” to “Master of None” to even “Big Little Lies.” What can storytellers do to keep telling these stories, so this changes the industry for good and isn’t just a trend?
Rhimes: I think it’s telling that you said the word trend. The goal is to make sure it’s not a trend. I don’t know what I can do to encourage it. I tell the stories I tell and I do it naturally. And I’m sure Aziz [Ansari] tells the stories he tells naturally because those are the stories he likes to tell. And I’m sure Donald Glover does the same thing. That’s how that works. People tell the stories that make sense to them. That kind of thing starts in the writers room. You have to have more people who don’t look like you in the writers room. I try to have some people who don’t look like me in my writers room. I think it’s important to have a group of voices, of people who can dissent.
Wittmer: Yeah, so not just white dudes.
Rhimes: Yes. Just to tell the different sides of the stories and opinion. Otherwise, you’re just shouting into your own mirror.
Wittmer: Have you ever struggled to find the right people for your writers rooms?
Rhimes: It’s never hard to find a white guy.
Wittmer: Oh, definitely not.
Rhimes: It’s true. But no, it’s not hard. What’s interesting is that I hear all the time, “Oh, it’s so hard to find diversity” – which is a word I can’t stand. They say it’s hard to make it happen because no one can ever find anyone. It’s like saying I can’t find a model of color, which I find insane. There are plenty of beautiful women everywhere. There are plenty of writers everywhere with voices. It’s almost like there’s camouflage and they are not looking at them. I’ve never had a problem. We have people say, “there’s not enough women writers.” I have a writers room that is almost nothing but women over at “Grey’s Anatomy.” At “Scandal,” we have literally one person who could be considered a straight white male. And we all realized that in the same moment, it took us three years to realize it. So it’s not about who you are on the outside. It’s really about what you have to bring to the table.
Wittmer: Nicole Kidman mentioned in her Emmys speech how hard it is to be a working mother. When she worked on “Big Little Lies,” she couldn’t put her kids to bed. How do you set an example for women who are ambitious with their careers but also want to be mothers? And honestly, how do you do it?
Rhimes: There is no such thing as balance. That I will say right away. I loved what Nicole said, what Nicole said I found very moving.
Wittmer: I was sobbing.
Rhimes: Unlike most women, Nicole told the truth about what working is like. She told the truth about the fact that she’s not there, she can’t put them to bed, and that’s been really hard. That is motherhood. If you are a working mother you are often not there as much as you’d like to be. I said this once somewhere, that if I’m standing on set watching some amazing thing being shot, then I am missing my daughter’s science fair. Or if I’m at my daughter’s dance recital, then I miss Sandra Oh’s very last day, and very last scene being shot on “Grey’s Anatomy.” That’s what happens. Those are the trade-offs. You have to make a decision that you’re going to miss one thing and be good at another. I’ve always said if I’m winning at one thing, I’m failing at another. And a lot of people say, “failure?” And I say, “yes!” I like to call it failure because it makes me feel better.
Rhimes: Has your work and experience working with Diana and these other women inspired you in any way that we might see in the future one of your shows?
Rhimes: Working on the Dove campaign, I think I was very sure of myself. I thought, “We are so diverse and we tell every story and I’m the queen of telling and covering everybody’s story.” And it was really fascinating talking to these women. Because what I started to think about was that all of these things I think to tell naturally, that’s wonderful. But there are some things that I hadn’t thought about telling stories about naturally. One woman was talking about not necessarily feminine-looking or feminine-identifying women, and how we never really see that on television. And another said that there are maybe, like, three heavy women on television who are not portrayed as people obsessed with their weight. There are stories to be told that are still untold and characters to be portrayed that haven’t been portrayed correctly. So there’s work to be done.
You can watch “Meet Diana” below: