Shonda Rhimes took a break between executive producing 5 hit ABC shows (FIVE) and seeing Hamilton for the millionth time to grace the Vulture Television Festival this week and it was step one in a dream come true.
When I first wrote about the event a few weeks ago, I knew this was THE event I needed to attend.
— Constance Elly, 2nd of Her Name, of House ConStar (@ConStar24) May 22, 2016
Not only is Shonda Rhimes a QUEEN in the Black Girl Nerds community and has professed her love for us in Elle Magazine, but she’s — of course — a personal hero of mine. I love television and while my dream to work in the medium began before Shonda Rhimes came into my life, the SuperBowl episodes of Grey’s Anatomy back in 2007 solidified that dream. Being able to breathe the same air as her, and shake her hand (more on that later), was a dream come true. And it was, as I said earlier, only Step 1 in my vision of someday working with/for her.
The panel (moderated by New York Magazine and Vulture Hollywood editor Stacey Wilson Hunt) was classic Shonda if you’ve been following her interview sprees over the last couple of years. Year of Yes — overcoming her notion to constantly say no due to her social anxiety being a “titan” of ABC television, and how her yeses led to healthier choices in her work and home life. Here are some things she discussed:
- Shonda’s first big “no” as a showrunner was during the casting of Grey’s Anatomy. Everyone wanted a particular actress to play Cristina Yang (whose last name might not have been Yang at the time), but Shonda wasn’t feeling it. She fought everyone on this actress (who she can’t even remember now, though I’m sure tons of other people do). Then Sandra Oh came into audition for Bailey and something clicked for Shonda.
- Shonda turned down Oprah. OPRAH. Early on, when Oprah first wanted Shonda on the show, Shonda’s nervous, social anxiety led her to say NOPE! She basically ran for the hills at the invitation. She’s obviously been on Oprah since, but that’s how you know you’re 1. a socially anxious writer and 2. a big deal, to be able to turn down Oprah and have her still want to call you back.
- “I’m a titan…I don’t know why we attach shame to success.” Don’t feel that calling yourself a writer is diminishing yourself. And if you’re more than a writer, don’t hide behind “just a writer.” “You have to own what you do and who you are.”
- A lot of Shonda’s early work had LOTS of women writers and producers. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge & Crosswords, so she didn’t experience the fact that it wasn’t always like that.
- On any given day, Shonda tries to carve out as much writing time as possible, in between two different writers’ rooms, the edit bay, chats with execs, putting out fires, making sure her writers and actors are nurtured and taken care of, and her personal duties as a woman and mom. If she can do it, we should be able to too, right?
- Edit rooms are dark, and therefore good for naps.
- When Shonda hires a writer, she gives them chances. She doesn’t understand how someone spends time hiring a writer then fires them quickly for not working out. As a showrunner, you have to work with them and help them sound like you.
- You don’t come to Shonda unless you have a solution to the problem you’re about to talk to her about.
- On Sara Ramirez leaving Grey’s: It wasn’t a big planned thing, the storyline was going to go a different direction, but the ending of the season worked out for Sara planning to take a “break.” Shonda found out about 3 days before the public did, so the season finale was already written.
- But when an actor leaves, she isn’t necessarily surprised. She even tries to anticipate it. It’s hard working on a TV show with 23 episodes a season, you can’t really take other work (she notes that Ellen Pompeo hasn’t done any other acting since starting Grey’s in 2005), and it’s gruelling. When an actor has done 10+ years (like Sandra Oh, Patrick Dempsey, and now Sara Ramirez), Shonda respects their decision because she’s always surprised they’ve committed this long.
- If her nerd cred hadn’t already been solidifed, two things: “What kind of book was your favorite growing up?” “A book was my favorite kind of book.” & “Was there an actor or moment that really made you starstruck?” “”Im very nerdy. so when I met David Boreanaz, I nearly embarrassed myself. I whispered “Angel!” I think he ran away and will never speak to me again.”
- “Besides Hamilton the Musical, what’s made you angry you didn’t create it?” “I loved Selma. I thought it was beautifully made and very subtle. I’m also obsessed with Underground.”
- Shonda is SEVERAL seasons behind on Game of Thrones, so DON’T spoil it for her. (I tweeted that and I had to block two people in my mentions who said they were going to spam her with spoilers. Why are people SO rude?)
- Shonda is back to “no.” Her last yes is her long overdue upcoming vacation.
- “Why do you need to put the word “strong” in front of the word female, because those are the same thing.”
- “If you can’t justify it with character, you can’t justify it.” On grounding her outrageous plots. She balances the crazy with really thinking about how these characters would act in this situation.
- “The definition of a writer is someone who writes. If you don’t write every day, you’re not a writer.” I know Daniel José Older would disagree, but I appreciate both of their points of view. I can’t get to Daniel’s POV, until I’m doing Shonda’s on a consistent basis.
- She doesn’t feel that they “get away” with their risky content. They just get creative within the FCC rules. She actually really respects the boundaries set by the network/studio.
After the event, a friend of mine and of BGN (Kendra James over on Twitter), who’s written work that Shonda has read before, got the opportunity to go say hi. Of course I tailed along. So I MET SHONDA RHIMES. As I said, Step 1. She was very nice, very quiet (I imagine after a long period of questions, she was tired and drained. Introvert problems), but she complimented Kendra’s writing, asked my name, and shook our hands. Then we left because we didn’t want to make it uncomfortable and she was probably ready to be out of there. But I hyperventilated for a straight minute.
It was so great getting to see Shonda in person, meet her, talk about the West Wing with her for 30 seconds, and cover this awesome event. Thanks for Shonda Rhimes for being so gracious with her time, thanks to Vulture for getting her in the room, and for the press team for allowing Black Girl Nerds access.
I didn’t get to go to too many Vulture Fest panels, and I wish there were more diverse offerings (sadly, the Shonda Rhimes and Trevor Noah events were at the same time), but overall, from what I saw, it was a fun, well-organized festival with a really nice staff of employees and volunteers. The fact that they were able to get Shonda Rhimes, in all of her shy, writer-brain-don’t-pay-attention-to-me glory shows that they’re people she felt safe with. Hopefully, next year’s fest is even bigger and BGN gets to go to more events.