Photo by ABC/Frank Ockenfels
Issue: Winter 2005
Alumni Profile - Shonda Rhimes
Cutting It in Hollywood
MFA ’94 makes no bones about it: She’s a “medical junkie.” Growing up,
she reveled in watching real-life surgeries on TV. A career in medicine
seemed the natural next step but for one minor speed bump: “I have no
science aptitude,” Rhimes admits.
What she does have is an
aptitude for writing, which Rhimes has combined with her operating room
preoccupations to fashion a dream job. As the creator-executive
producer of ABC’s second-year medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” Rhimes
probes, via the spoken word, the professional and personal lives of
surgical residents at a Seattle hospital. “Now I get to be a doctor
without actually having to do any of the work,” she says.
Rhimes started prepping early on for her wordsmithing career. She
dabbled in writing while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, then
penned short fiction and worked in theater while an undergrad at
Dartmouth College. While earning her master’s in the USC School of
Cinema-Television, she wrote a thesis screenplay that led to her big
break: writing the 1999 HBO docudrama Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Other feature-film assignments followed, including Britney Spears’ film debut, Crossroads, and The Princess Diaries 2.
But Rhimes wanted a change. “I [was] having a lot of fun getting into
the minds of 12-year-olds,” she says, “[but] I just decided one day I’d
like to write for grown-ups.”
Television, with its character-driven bent, seemed like her best bet.
Her first pilot script, about war correspondents, never got shot, but
her second, “Grey’s Anatomy,” did. Debuting in March 2005, the show was
an instant ratings hit and went on to win three Emmy nominations and a
26-episode fall pickup.
Anatomy” executive producer Shonda Rhimes: ”As long as I’m writing
things that make me happy, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Photo by ABC/Craig Sjodin
TV isn’t brain surgery, Rhimes, a first-time series showrunner, feels a
bit like the medical interns she puts under the microscope each week.
“You work a lot of hours, you don’t get a lot of sleep, you’re not
entirely sure you know exactly what you’re doing, but you’re trying
really hard to keep the ‘patient’ alive,” she says, reflecting on the
12-hour days she puts in writing and doctoring scripts, as well as
consulting on casting, production and editing.
But Rhimes isn’t complaining. “I love the show,” she says. “I like the
competitive nature of being a [resident]. There’s something really
interesting about the idea that ... the only people you actually can
know are the people you work with, but they also happen to be sort of
Rhimes hopes those sorts of conflicts are what will keep the series
thriving for years. Meanwhile, she has two more teen-girl flicks in
development and someday hopes to direct her USC thesis script, a dark,
And her number-one ambition? “As long as I’m writing things that make
me happy and I’m enjoying [myself], it doesn’t feel like work,” she
says. “That’s pretty much my only goal: to make it not feel like work.”
– Sandy Siegel