Photo by ABC/Frank Ockenfels

Issue: Winter 2005

Alumni Profile - Shonda Rhimes

Cutting It in Hollywood

Shonda Rhimes 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.

“Grey’s 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

Though 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 your enemies.”

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, Southern-gothic tale.

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