Shonda Rhimes Talks Strong Women, Weak Men and Setting an Example for Her Daughters

Shonda Rhimes is the woman behind “appointment TV Thursday.”

ByABC News
September 18, 2014, 7:53 AM
PHOTO: Shonda Rhimes, creator of "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," and the new ABC show, "How to Get Away With Murder," takes Robin Roberts behind the scenes of her TV shows.
Shonda Rhimes, creator of "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," and the new ABC show, "How to Get Away With Murder," takes Robin Roberts behind the scenes of her TV shows.
Todd Wawrychuk/ABC

— -- “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are some of the most buzzed about television productions of the fall, and they’re keeping the shows’ creator, Shonda Rhimes, very busy.

“GMA”’s co-anchor, Robin Roberts, visited “Shondaland,” the name of Rhimes' production company and the term she and her colleagues use to refer to their workplace.

During the interview they talked about the last time a producer had three top shows on at the same time.

“I think it was Aaron Spelling -- “T.J. Hooker,” “(The) Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island," Rhimes, 44, said.

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Rhimes, a producer, director and writer, told Roberts what it was like for her to know people were watching her shows and connecting with her.

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“I remember my first experience, “Grey’s (Anatomy),” I felt like I was kind of just writing in my diary,” she said. “And it felt really surprising to me that I everybody else was watching.”

Rhimes is known for vetting her casts closely. Actress Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” has said auditioning for Rhimes was like being vetted for the White House, but harder.

“I'm with people for 11 seasons or six seasons or four seasons,” Rhimes, said, explaining the process. “And so it's a marriage. It's a family.”

There’s no shortage of drama on Rhimes' productions.

Rhimes and her team of writers shocked viewers with the last season’s finale of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which saw the apparent departure of Dr. Cristina Yang, one of the pivotal characters on the medical drama.

Now, Rhimes is bringing film star Viola Davis to TV in the new series “How to Get Away With Murder.”

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Rhimes doesn’t hide her pleasure.

“That is a miracle to me, right? … Viola Davis is on our TV. I can't believe it,” she tells Roberts.

Rhimes is often credited for breaking race and gender barriers with her casting, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“Yeah. I mean, I feel like the television landscape should look like the world we see outside …,” she said. “The package that people come in is the package that they come in. What's inside is what's the most interesting thing.”

When Roberts asked her how many times she was told “no,” Rhimes replied: “I will be honest and say not very many … I mean, “Grey’s Anatomy” is my first job in television. Which is fantastic. And I'm thrilled that it is. But it -- it was pretty magical.”

She added that “struggled in others ways" before getting to where she is today.

When Roberts asked who would play her, Rhimes said it’s already happening.

“I think (the character) Meredith Grey, you know, Ellen Pompeo, was already playing me. I think Sandra Oh was already playing me. I think Chandra Wilson is already playing me,” she said, referring to the female stars of “Grey’s Anatomy," and later adding: “I think I'm being played every time I write a character. Those people are playing me in a lot of ways.”

She said someone once asked her what it was like to get to write the voice of a black woman on “Scandal.” “And I said, ‘Well, you know, McDreamy's been speaking in the voice of a black woman for a long time now.’ So it's been fine,” she said with a laugh.

“McDreamy” is the heartthrob surgeon Derek Shepherd, who is played by Patrick Dempsey.

Another head-turning leading man is President Fitz Grant, played by actor Tony Goldwyn on “Scandal.”

“He plays the damsel in distress a lot. And he plays it in a very masculine, interesting, complex, you know, well-acted way,” Rhimes said.

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Washington plays a powerful political fixer and Goldwyn’s president is emotional and gets into situations that need the fixer’s ongoing services. It’s a role reversal.

“It's a very interesting gender switch that we purposely have done,” Rhimes said.

Rhimes said she’s often asked how she writes such smart, strong women.

“And I always say, ‘Is the alternative stupid, weak women?’ Like-- I don't know any of those,” she told Roberts. “And nobody asks, "How do you write smart, strong men?" That's not a question that anybody's ever asked before.”

Rhimes believes she’s set an example for her three daughters.

“I feel like -- I look at them and I go, ‘Their mother is happy. Their mother is fulfilled,’” she said. “They never have a mother who sort of -- didn't get to do. Which is nice. There are sacrifices that go with that. I think there are sacrifices that go with anything. But I do feel really proud that they get to grow up and think anything is possible for a woman.”

“Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” both air on ABC. “How to Get Away With Murder” has its series premiere on ABC on Sept. 25.

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