10 Invaluable Lessons from Mega Boss, Shonda Rhimes
What would the world be like without Shonda Rhimes? It’s a tough question to ask, considering the fact that she wrote the movies Crossroads, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, in addition to writing and creating television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal. Luckily for all of us and our deep, pressing need for White House coitus, it’s a question we need not ask. For Ms. Rhimes is here, and she is here to stay. She was also, literally, here yesterday.
For the annual Vulture Festival, Ms. Shonda Rhimes, Boss Lady Extraordinaire and the beloved overlord of Shondaland, graced Milk Studios Sunday afternoon. And as you might expect, it was glorious. She sat down with New York Magazine and Vulture Hollywood editor Stacey Wilson Hunt to talk about her recently released book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, as well as books in general (she’s a huge fan), her love for Veep, and Crossroads—a film that some would probably consider to be her magnum opus, and a sequel for which is not entirely out of the question (“If Britney [Spears] says she’s up for it!” she said). She also spoke about Vermont, jam, and encountering people who were inspired to pursue medicine after watching Grey’s Anatomy. In fact, the entire talk was teeming with juicy tidbits about Ms. Rhimes; her life; and her engrossing, fantastic shows. Unfortunately we don’t have time to list them all here, so we offer you the next best option: the ten most memorable lessons Ms. Rhimes taught us from her talk yesterday.
She Was “A Doormat”
One essential takeaway from Rhimes’ talk yesterday is that boss ladies can be human, too. “I was a doormat, in the biggest way,” she told the crowd yesterday—the type who, if you had asked her for $500, would’ve found a way to shell it out. Part of learning how to say “yes”—which she details in her book—was about learning how to say “no.” “And a lot of it was figuring out how to stand up for myself, figuring out how to tell people ‘no.’ And—yeah, people were not pleased with that,” she said. But then again, it did give her more time to say “yes” to her kids.
When Grey’s started taking off, Rhimes explains in her book, her success and renown began to rise at a rapid rate. She wasn’t used to this and, as such, struggled to reconcile her fame with the rest of her life—particularly her writer friends who were still very much struggling to make names for themselves. “Fatness made for a really nice balance,” she wrote in her book. “Fat and successful seemed less threatening.” In fact, throughout her career, she has tried to downplay her success to make herself more relatable to her peers. Oftentimes, she’d find herself saying, “I’m just a writer” in order to make her immense success and enviable job “feel like it was okay to my writer friends.”
“I have a lot of fondness for fat Shonda,” she admitted yesterday. “Fat Shonda” was her protective shield that she wore during “a time when I really needed to be professional and working and not deal with the crap that Hollywood sometimes throws at you.” And luckily, as fat Shonda, she didn’t have to. “You’re invisible in Hollywood if you don’t look a certain way. So I got to be invisible in a lot of rooms, and because I was invisible in a lot of rooms, I also got a lot of opportunities that probably wouldn’t have come my way because I was a woman or a woman of color. Like I almost didn’t exist in a lot of really key ways that were helpful at the time.” It’s appalling to think that being heavier made her “invisible,” but it’s also just another version of the same tale that we hear from countless women in the industry.
Recently, however, Rhimes realized how absurd it is to downplay her success. “I don’t know why we attach shame with success,” she said. “You have to own what you do and who you are and there should be no shame in it.” Which is precisely why, at her Ted Talk, she went up on stage and said, “I am a titan.” “I felt a little bit outrageous saying that, but then I gave all these facts about what I do for a living, and they kind of add up,” she told us. Tell ‘em, honey.
If Her First Spec Hadn’t Sold, She Could’ve Become Dr. Rhimes
And could be taking your pulse right about now. Luckily for us, it did, and it was called Humans Seeking Sane. But if it hadn’t sold, Rhimes, superhuman to the stars, obviously had a backup plan. Queen was already admitted to a post back laureate program. “Let’s be clear: I almost failed chemistry, like, twice. So I was very lucky that that script sold.”
She’s Modest AF
When asked how it felt when ABC told her they wanted to buy Grey’s, she said it felt “fun.” “Because I never thought we were going to make more than the pilot. So I thought ‘this will be fun, I’ll figure out how to make a pilot,'” she said, drilling her perfection, like a machete, deeper and deeper into our hearts. Even when they told her to make 13 episodes, she was still incredulous. “I thought, ‘Well okay, then I’ll get to figure out how to make TV, that’ll be fun.’” Her gut-wrenching modesty stayed fully in tact, even after wrapping those 13 episodes. “[After] we made all the episodes and [had] wrapped, I was like, ‘This is it! See you all later, this was awesome.'” It seems fairly impossible for her to be more perfect, even if she tried.
She’s Got Mad Social Anxiety
Hard to believe for someone who’s responsible for two extremely successful shows and has her own metaphorical land (Shondaland) that she fabricated in her head that lives primarily on TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday), but Boss Rhimes is not as confident in social situations as Olivia Pope’s gait would lead you to believe. “I’m the worst pitcher in the world,” she said yesterday. “I have huge social anxiety, I’m terrible at speaking in public, I could not look anybody in the eye.” When she went to pitch Grey’s Anatomy, she said, she had her hand to her mouth, muffling her entire voice.
Later on in her career, when Grey’s was becoming a bona fide hit, Winnie Holzman, the producer of My So-Called Life, called her up and asked her to go to lunch. “I…went, which is really rare for me because I’m socially awkward,” she reminded the crowd. In case anyone had forgotten.
TBH, She Has No Personal Failures
One of the many poignant questions Hunt asked Rhimes was whether or not she had any personal failures that, in retrospect, ended up helping her career. Something that didn’t work out but that she “loves” because it “lead [her] towards something else.” To which Rhimes took a couple seconds to think, and then responded with a conclusive “no.” “I don’t know what lucky star I was born under, but at this point, not yet. But that means it’s coming,” she said.
Noise-Canceling Headphones Are Her Kryptonite.
Like any good writer, Rhimes has trained herself with noise-cancelling headphones —“the over-the-ear kind, not the in-your-ear kind, those don’t work.” With those bad boys, she can work anywhere, apparently under any condition. And that includes “in a corner on a field.” Without them, she’d apparently be useless. (Doubtful.)
As for what’s playing from those prodigious headphones, that “depends on what mood I’m in.” Right now—and actually, for the past couple months—her mood has been Hamilton. Wrapped up in a neat little humble brag, Hunt added, “She saw it for the fourth time a couple nights ago.” We get it, Hunt. You guys talked before the show. Alone. And probably after.
She Has a Soft Spot for Scandal‘s Cyrus
Let me rephrase that. She doesn’t just have a soft spot for Mr. Bean—“I really really love Cyrus,” she said. And she knows this isn’t exactly a popular opinion either. “I think I might be the only person on Scandal that has a fondness for Cyrus.” So what is it about him that she’s so smitten with? Is it his crater-like forehead creases? His temper that goes from zero to 100 faster than you can say, “No one takes down Command”? Actually it’s his innate love for his country. “The man is a true patriot who’s trying to do better.” Well we can’t argue with that. She did, after all, make him.
Huge David Boreanaz Fan
Yes, you heard that right. And really, you can’t blame the Boss. Unlike most millennials, she was fully conscious during Buffy’s run on air—and very much into it too. Apparently she’s had many “holy shit” type of moments in her career thus far, but the one where she may have embarrassed herself the most was her run-in with Boreanaz. “I think I actually stood there and said ‘Angel’ like six times before he basically ran away. And I don’t think I’ll live that down. I don’t think he’ll ever speak to me again. But I still got to meet him.”
Things You Can Do to Avoid Pissing Her Off
When a new writer comes onto one of her shows, they must be trained—that is, they must be molded and chiseled into a Shondaland native. “You gotta sit somebody down and tell them this is the Shondaland way or they’re never going to survive,” she said yesterday. And among the many things that fall under “the Shondaland way”? “You have to show up in a room with notes,” she said. “You don’t come to Shonda unless you have a solution to the problem you’re about to tell her about. Don’t come and pitch me a problem. You have to pitch me a solution.” Noted. Also, shaking. “If you’re going to be in a room, you have to talk,” she said, and that doesn’t include being agreeable. “If you’re going to talk, don’t just agree with me; I love nothing more than people who are willing to argue. If you’re not willing to argue, you shouldn’t be in that room.”
Nor should you be in that room if you haven’t come prepared, or done all of the necessary homework. “You should be reading the first draft of a script, the third draft of a script, and the production draft of a script to figure out the differences and why those things are different and what went wrong between what was written the first time and what we ended up shooting,” she said. “You should read every single room note, every single day, whether you’re in the room or not, and be well versed in it. We put the notes that I say in bold because then you know that those are the law. And everything else is discussable.” Like I said, Boss.
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Images taken exclusively for Milk by Kathryn Chadason.