Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV The force behind ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder says she has fought to get important images — like same-sex couple love scenes — on air.
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Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV

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Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV

Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's taking a couple of days off. We're going to hear the interview Terry recorded yesterday with Shonda Rhimes. She's the creator of the TV series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," and she's executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder." Those three hit-shows are ABC's Thursday-night lineup. Rhimes is a major force in network television and in the greater landscape of American popular culture. With "Grey's Anatomy," she became the first African-American woman to create and run her own network TV show. "Scandal" was the first network drama with an African-American leading lady in 37 years. Now Rhimes has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes," which is about the year she said yes to things - the kinds of things she'd previously said no to.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Shonda Rhimes, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I'm not really sure how you survive having three shows on the same night. It's a lot of TV to be responsible for. What is your role now in each of those shows?

SHONDA RHIMES: On "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," I am the writer, executive producer, creator. On "How To Get Away With Murder," I'm just the executive producer.

GROSS: Just - OK (laughter) merely.

RHIMES: It's more like being the grandmother - you hold the baby, but then you get to give the baby back, whereas the other shows, I'm responsible for everything.

GROSS: Honestly, how do you keep so many characters and so many plots and subplots in your head?

RHIMES: I don't know. I mean, I've been doing it for a long time, so at this point, the two worlds are very clear and very set to me. And it doesn't feel like I'm juggling. It just feels like I'm going back and forth from one neighborhood to the next.

GROSS: Do you ever worry about advancing to the point where you don't even get to write anymore - you're just like overseeing things? Is that something you want to prevent from ever happening?

RHIMES: Absolutely. I think my goal is to find a way to spend all of my time writing. I mean, sort of, true success is I'm doing nothing but writing, if I do my job correctly.

GROSS: So your first big show, of course, was "Grey's Anatomy." Why was your first show a medical show? I mean, there had been very successful shows before that. Why did you want to do a medical show yourself, and what did you think would be different about your show?

RHIMES: You know, I started out - the pilot that I wrote first was a pilot about journalists - it was about war correspondents, actually. And it was about very strong, competitive women who really enjoyed covering war. And it didn't get made because we were kind of at war and they'd felt inappropriate, actually, to see people really enjoying covering war when real soldiers were dying. And I thought to myself, well, I really enjoyed writing this pilot experience. I'd love to do it again. And I was at ABC, and I said, well, what does Bob Iger want? And somebody said, well, he really wants a medical show.

And I thought, well, that's right up my alley because I love watching all those surgeries on the - on those cable channels, and I think all of the stuff is really interesting, and I'd been a candy striper in high school. And so I really kind of tried to apply those kinds of women, the kind of women that I'd been really interested in, women who were really competitive and who loved their jobs more than anything - to the world of surgery.

GROSS: Because you're involved with firsts, there's even more pressure on you than there'd be typically, probably on a showrunner. As you point out with "Grey's Anatomy," if it failed, it would mean that giving an African-American woman her own show with a cast that looked like "The Real World" was a mistake. And as you put it with "Scandal," if the first network drama with an African-American leading-lady in 37 years didn't find an audience, who knows how long it would take for another to come along. So, you know, you're under the pressure of having all these shows and of dealing with all these, like, firsts. What's your approach to dealing with so much pressure?

RHIMES: You know, now I'm in a place where I feel like it's not a thing that's pressing on me anymore. I don't look at it in that way. But when it first started, it really did make me a workaholic. It made it impossible for me to feel like I could let up on myself ever. Everything really did have to be perfect because if it wasn't perfect and we failed, then I could point to a reason why we had failed. And it would have been my fault, and I really didn't want any of the shows to fail and I didn't want to responsible for that. I didn't want to feel like somebody was going to say, well, you know, we had it - we had a show with an African-American lead, but it failed - and have it be my fault. That did not seem tenable to me.

GROSS: You have - I don't know if you still have this - but you've had a message on the bottom of your emails that you don't accept work emails after 7 o'clock or on weekends. Let me see if I can find it so I can - do you want to recite it or should I find it so I can read it?

RHIMES: Yes. I don't read work emails after 7 PM or on weekends. And if you work for me, may I suggest you put down your phone.

GROSS: OK.

RHIMES: That is what it says.

GROSS: How do you do that? How do you not, I mean - the work day doesn't end until after 7 for a lot of people, how do you manage to just, like, turn it off at 7 o'clock and on weekends?

RHIMES: You know, it was a very hard thing to do, but two things have happened. One - I've learned to delegate a lot more. There are some very confident people who already know the answers to the questions and they shouldn't have to feel like they have to ask me at this point. And they should have the right to make those decisions for themselves. And two - work will happen 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year if you let it. We are all in that place where we're all letting it, for some reason, and I don't know why. And it suddenly occurred to me that unless I just say that's not going to happen, it was always going to happen.

And there used to be a time when we'd all get in our cars or our parents would all get on the train and come home from work, and that would be it. You'd get a call in the middle of the night if you were a doctor to deliver a baby, and that would probably be it. And why are we doing this to ourselves? There's nothing so urgent - that's what I found interesting. Since turning off my phone at 7 PM, there has never been a thing so urgent that I regret having my phone off. None of these things is urgent, at all. People think that it's urgent, but when the - in the long run when you look at it, you think, that's the silliest thing ever.

GROSS: So when you say that you're turning off your phone, are you putting more pressure on other people to handle the problem, or are you giving them permission to turn off their phones, too?

RHIMES: Yeah. I mean, if we're not shooting, if we're not filming, if you're not standing on the soundstage, turn off your phone and go live your life. You know, our writers, you know, we go home at a certain hour, and everybody should go home...

GROSS: But if you are on the soundstage and you are shooting?

RHIMES: The people who are working on the soundstage are - well, they're at work. It's a different thing, their hours of work are very different from mine. If they are on the soundstage, by the way, they have gotten to work at maybe 10 AM, and they're shooting 10 AM to 10 PM. I got to work at 7 AM or something like that. So their hours are just different. But I feel like when you leave work, you should get to leave work.

GROSS: So does this make it possible for you to spend more time with your children?

RHIMES: It does. It also just makes it possible for me to feel more present when I'm there. Your mind isn't drawn back to work, you're not always glancing at your phone, you're not always concerned about what could be. I've learned to stop worrying about what might be lurking in my email box.

GROSS: Does it make you like your work more in the sense that it's not feeling as oppressive because you turned it off?

RHIMES: You know, I think I had reached a point where I felt a little bit resentful of how many emails I was getting. I get about 2,500 emails a day, by the way.

GROSS: Are you kidding me?

RHIMES: No.

GROSS: How much of that is, like, junk email and, like, shopping catalogs and stuff like - do you know what I mean? Like...

RHIMES: Yeah, this is not junk email.

GROSS: Wow.

RHIMES: That doesn't include the junk email. And a lot of it's redundant questions because people want to make sure. Some of it's just getting things like call sheets or schedules or, you know, things for the shows. Some of it's - notices that cuts have come out. Some of it's - drafts of scripts, some of it's, you know, BS and P-notes from the networks. Sometimes you're just copied on other people's emails, but it's a ridiculous amount of emails, and the tension that that created for me, just seeing the sheer volume of emails in my email box, it just - it was bad. And I thought, I don't want to get resentful. I really love my job. I mean, this job is pretty great. So if you can find a way to shut it off, shut it off so that when you come back, you come back excited.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Shonda Rhimes who, as I'm sure you know, created "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and is the executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder" - that's ABC's Thursday night lineup. She has a new memoir now, called "Year Of Yes." We'll take a short break and then talk some more, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Shonda Rhimes who created the ABC shows "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How To Get Away With Murder," she's the executive producer of that. She is the showrunner and writer of the other two shows, and they are ABC's Thursday night lineup. She has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes."

You write in "Year Of Yes" that you had to learn how to use the power that you had once you became a showrunner - the showrunner of "Grey's Anatomy." And an example of that is you were casting for the character that became Cristina. Sandra Oh was the actor you eventually cast, but before that, there was another actor who I guess the network wanted to play that role and you - you weren't really sold on it, but you were afraid to say anything. Can you tell us that story?

RHIMES: Yes, we had an actress - you know, before we'd even met Sandra Oh, there was an actress that everybody liked. The studio liked her, Betsy Beers, who's my producing partner, liked her, the casting director liked her, everybody liked her. And she was a lovely actor. And everyone wanted to cast her, and I did not. And it wasn't because she wasn't great, it was just she didn't, as I say, fit the key that turned the lock that made the story happen in my brain. And I couldn't reconcile that, but I was very afraid to say I didn't want her. And it was because I'd never done a television show before, and I had never sort of stood up and said, you know, no before and I kept thinking if I do and everybody disagrees with me, something bad will happen. They'll either cast her anyway and I'll realize I don't have any power here, or they'll fire me, you know, any number of things could happen, and I was really nervous about that concept. And in the end, Linda Lowy, the casting director, called me up and she said, if you cast this woman and she is in your show, it won't be your show anymore. It won't feel like your show, and it won't effectively be your show because somebody else will have made the choice for you. And so I had to get on a phone call with everybody and say I do not want this woman on the show. I don't want to write for her, she's not right and sort of stand up for my vision. And everybody was a little bit stunned, but they all said, oh, OK, and accepted it. And two days later or a day later, Sandra Oh walked in the door. And thank God she did. But...

GROSS: How did you know she was right?

RHIMES: I can't tell you, but I knew almost instantly. And she came in to read for Bailey. She came in, read for Bailey and I said that woman is Cristina. It was just - it's one of those moments when you just know something, and it clicked. She turned the key that fit the lock, you know, that made the story happen in my brain. And it felt correct for me.

GROSS: So once you accepted that you were able to use the power that you had, how did that change how you used your own power?

RHIMES: It became really clear to me that if I couldn't trust my own gut, if I couldn't sort of have an idea that what I needed to have happen, that my vision wasn't the vision that we were following, then we wouldn't be following a vision at all. And that that was the only thing I had to go on was my creative spirit and my vision. And it was also the idea of power isn't power if you don't know you have it. If you don't know you have the power and you're not using it, then you're not powerful at all. And that's a lesson I've learned over and over and over again, I think.

GROSS: Your shows have sex in them, and standards have changed in the past 15 years of, you know, since you've been working on television. But I'm not sure which direction they've gone in looser or tighter or maybe back and forth. So tell us a little bit how the standards have changed about what you can say and what you can show.

RHIMES: There was a time before "Grey's Anatomy" started that ABC had "NYPD Blue," and David Caruso was naked. You saw a naked backside on television. And that certainly was over by the time "Grey's Anatomy" came on the air. You could not do anything like that, that wasn't even a consideration when we started. But we did sort of have a nice layer of standards that I thought were - were good. I mean, you can be sexy without being, I don't know, inappropriate on network television. I always like to say our shows should be something that, you know, before 10 o'clock, if your kid wanders into the room, they should be able to glance at the TV, watch what's happening, but not quite know what's happening. That's always my standard. They shouldn't be sitting there watching it with you, but if they wander through the room and happen to see something, they shouldn't see something that, like, shocks them.

GROSS: And at 10 o'clock?

RHIMES: Post 10 o'clock, I feel like your kid's supposed to be in bed. I mean, my kid's supposed to be in bed. But also post 10 o' clock, the rules are different. The rules are just generally different for - the BS and P rules are different in general. FCC rules are different in general. It's supposed to be more grownup television. I think there's a lot more you can do that we're not interested in doing, actually, on our shows.

GROSS: So do you find that either the network or the American public has a different set of standards regarding sex scenes or romantic scenes between a straight couple versus a gay couple?

RHIMES: I don't know, you know, what's interesting is is our audience...

GROSS: Because you've had both on your shows, that's why I ask. So I'm, like, wondering if there's a double standard.

RHIMES: Our audience has been very supportive of whatever we've shown. And we haven't really had that kind of pushback from our audience. I will say that I've gone toe-to-toe a bunch with Broadcast Standards and Practices over that very issue. And our network president has stood behind me and gone toe-to-toe with me on that very issue, you know, too because it is interesting to me that we've done some scenes that were shot-for-shot the exact same scene as a scene that had a man and a woman in it and had to fight for the scene if it had two people of the same sex in it - fought and won but had to fight. But I think that that's a - it becomes a matter of people's comfort level, you know, a lot of BS and P is the person who's there, it's their taste. And you're having to fight past, in a very clear way, someone else's taste, and get to what the real rules are. And, you know, we have really great people that we're working with, you know, over at BS and P, and so it's a give and a take, I think, a lot of times.

GROSS: BS and P is Standards and Practices.

RHIMES: Yes, I'm sorry, Broadcast Standards and Practices.

GROSS: So what kind of pushback do you get when they say, no, no, you can't do that when it's a gay couple?

RHIMES: You know, we hear that you can't do something, and usually, you know, it depends on what's happening. Some - you know, there are times when I look at a scene and I go, straight or gay, I look at a scene and I go, that does go a little further than I thought we were going to go. Many times I say, that's a lovely note and I decline to take it. And that's when a lot of conversation starts to happen, and I say, you guys get back to me when you've finished having your conversations. And, you know, I really will fight very, very hard for something. I'm waiting to be censored, and, you know, I'm really waiting for the moment when someone tells me that if I don't change something, they will censor me. I feel like that's going to be an interesting moment.

GROSS: Do you envy the freedom that writers for premium cable networks have?

RHIMES: Sometimes but sometimes not, you know, I always say, like, we're incredibly creative within our fences 'cause I don't feel like we're pushing boundaries. We're very creative within our fences, and because we have the fences, they make for very creative moments. We come up with some stuff that I don't think any of us would've come up with had we not had the fences. I never would've come up with the phrase va-jay-jay had I not had the fences. There's a lot of other things that I wouldn't have done visually had we not had the fences, and I think that they're better sometimes.

GROSS: OK, va-jay-jay, I'm glad you brought it up. I was going to, I'm glad you did (laughter). It's a name for - a word you use for a woman's genitals.

RHIMES: Yes.

GROSS: Why do you need to use it? Why can't you use the word vagina?

RHIMES: Well, we can and we do, but we had reached a point at some point in, I think it was season two of "Grey's Anatomy," where I think they'd said we'd used it too much or something. And I'd really had a problem with the idea that we couldn't use it because we'd had an episode where you could say - we said penis 17 times or something.

GROSS: But who's counting (laughter)?

RHIMES: Yeah - but they were.

GROSS: Yeah, I know.

RHIMES: You could say that as many times as you wanted, but you could only say vagina a certain number of times before somebody just had a heart attack. And I was really upset about it, and I was, like, this is a medical part of someone's body, it's a piece of someone's anatomy. We actually should be calling people's body parts what they are. This seems ridiculous to me that we're saying we're offending someone's sensibility by naming something that 50 percent of the population possesses. I don't understand. And they would not budge, they would not budge, and it was the Super Bowl episode that we were doing, and Doctor Bailey was giving birth. And I was, like, she's a doctor, she's giving birth, and in the end because there was just no more time, I had to come up with a different word and the word we came up with was va-jay-jay.

GROSS: You know, it's brilliant that you came up with a word that you can use, and it kind of bothers me that you had to do that and that we in broadcasting often have to do that in the sense that yes, we all have genitals. I don't think we want to contribute to people being ashamed of the fact that they have a body.

RHIMES: Yes.

GROSS: And by having to use a word that you might teach a child, like a 3-year-old, it's kind of like you're being forced into the position of infantilizing us.

RHIMES: Interestingly enough, to me, it's not a word I would teach a child. My 3-year-old uses all the correct words. But what I do think is that, at the very least, what it did for many women who were never going to say the word, it gave them a language to talk about it, which I thought was helpful, and then for us on the show I was, like, that's - we literally only said the word I think once on the show. And then from that moment on I was, like, we're never using the word again, we're going to say the word vagina as many times as we can possibly say it because now it's kind of a cause to me that we're not allowed to say this word on television. It doesn't make any sense, and now it's not even an issue. We've sort of made that issue a nonissue by, I don't know, desensitizing BS and P by saying it so much.

DAVIES: Shonda Rhimes is creator of the TV series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" and executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder." After a break, she'll talk about her childhood and about how she eventually overcame her inhibitions about being a public figure. Her new memoir is called "Year Of Yes." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes is the creator of the TV series "Grey's Anatomy," and "Scandal," and she's executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder." Those three hit shows make up ABC's Thursday night lineup. Rhimes has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes."

GROSS: Your book is about your year of saying yes because your sister told you that you don't say yes to things. You're always saying no. For example, what were some of the things you were saying no to that your sister thought you should be saying yes to?

RHIMES: It was almost everything. If I was invited to a movie premiere, if I was invited to a screening, if I was invited to a party, if I was invited to an award show, if I was invited to be on a talk show, if I was invited to give an interview, if I was invited to speak somewhere. It didn't really matter what the invitation was. Sometimes it would just be - an actor would invite me to dinner at their house. I would say, no. It was too much, like, the concept of being out there and socializing and getting out into the world was scary to me, I think. And I hadn't been doing it enough. And I hadn't been out enough. So I'd just been going to work and coming home. And you don't realize how much of a rut you get into. But after 10, 11 years, it becomes a real rut, and you suddenly don't even know how to get back out into the world.

GROSS: Was it because you were too busy or too uncomfortable?

RHIMES: I think it's both. I think, first, you're too busy, you know? At first, I was - I always say, like, you don't lose yourself all at once. You sort of do it, you know, like, one no at a time. You start to, you know, decline invitations 'cause you're working too hard. And then you start to decline them because you don't really know everybody that well, and everybody else seems to know everybody really well. And then you start to do it because you haven't been out in so long that you feel uncomfortable. And then you start to do it because being at home feels really good. And then you start to do it because you have no other reference point.

GROSS: And where does your book, "Year Of Yes," come in? Did the publisher - is that one of the things you said yes to - that your publisher said, you should do a book?

RHIMES: Yeah. I was supposed to write another book, and I was having a hard time writing it. It was a memoir about becoming a single mother and adopting. And I was just having a really bad time writing the book. It was hard coming - you know, coming out. And my daughters were getting older. And I thought, I don't know if I want to tell the story this way. And my book agent said, well, you've been having this year of yes that you've been telling me all about, and it's been fascinating to listen to. Why don't you write a book about that? And I thought, well, I'm saying yes to everything, so, yeah, I'll do it.

GROSS: Pile it on. I'll do something else (laughter). It's like - I don't know how you have time to do all this.

RHIMES: It's interesting because everybody says that to me about things that involve writing. And things that involve writing are not work in that sense. You know, when everybody says, like, how did you have time to write a book, or how do you have time to write all these scripts? That is not something that I feel like I need to figure out how to have time to do. If you asked me how would I have time to - I don't know - throw a dinner party or how I would have time to - I don't know - run a bunch of board meetings? That I get. But this is like breathing for me. It's not labor-intensive in the way that, I think, for other people, they imagine it to be.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Shonda Rhimes. She has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes." And of course, she's the creator of ABC's Thursday night - "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," "How To Get Away With Murder."

I'm always interested in hearing how people decide what - if it's a conscious decision - what kind of family they'd like to have and how they go about trying to create it. You have three children - two are adopted, one is through a surrogate - and you've done this as a single woman. At what age did you know that you were going to have children with or without a partner?

RHIMES: I think I've always known I was going to have kids. It's very interesting 'cause I was talking to somebody else about this. It's a thing that's always been there the same way the fact that I always wanted to be a writer has always been there. I've always wanted to have kids, and I always knew I was going to have kids. Was I ever going to get married - that was never there, that was like, maybe. But there was a very big certainty that I was going to have kids. I'm the youngest of six, I'm from a huge family. Everybody in my family has kids. There's like - I don't know - 17 grandkids already. And it's just the world that I grew up in that felt very clear to me that children were something that I definitely wanted to have.

GROSS: At what age were you ready to say, I'm moving forward, I'm doing it now? Where were you in your life at that point?

RHIMES: I exhaled because I'm going to tell you this story that I - that I love to tell but I don't love to tell. I was, I think, 30 years old - 31 years old, and I had just broken up with some boyfriend, and I had rented a house in Vermont for a month, and I was going there to write and feel sorry for myself and hate boys. And I got on a plane and I flew out there and the house was in the middle of nowhere. And the next morning, 9/11 happened. And so I was sitting in this house in the middle of nowhere with nothing but, like, a satellite TV watching what I thought was the world come to an end. And I thought, well, the world's going to end and I've done nothing - like, I'm a child, I've done nothing. And I got out a piece of paper and I made a list of things I was going to do if the world didn't end. And at the top of the list was adopt a baby because I knew that that was, like, I cannot have the world end and have never been a mother. I will be devastated. And the world didn't end, and I went home and I hired an adoption attorney. And nine months and two days after 9/11, my daughter, Harper, was born.

GROSS: So this was before "Grey's Anatomy," right?

RHIMES: Yes.

GROSS: But...

RHIMES: So I always say I had a daughter and then I had shows and then I had two more daughters.

GROSS: Your mother had six children - your parents had six children.

RHIMES: Yes.

GROSS: And she went to college, she was a professional. Had you watched how she managed to make that work?

RHIMES: My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in seventh grade. And then she went to college. And then when I went off to college, my mother went off and got her PhD. And we graduated the same year. The year I graduated from college, my mother got her PhD. She was - she got her hood. And it was really great. I was really proud of her. And the year I got my first job, she got her first job. So it was very cool to watch her evolve in this way - go from being, you know, a stay-at-home mother of six to being a full-fledged professional out in the world. And for her, I think it was incredibly freeing and very exciting to have a huge second act. It's why I always feel like when people say, I'm too old to do something or I could never do that, I'm always like, my mom had six kids and then she became a professor - like, what do you - what're you talking about? Anything is possible.

GROSS: You write that, as a child, you were highly intelligent, way too chubby, incredibly sensitive, nerdy and painfully shy and that you had no friends.

RHIMES: Yeah, for - definitely for a time, absolutely.

GROSS: Why didn't you have friends?

RHIMES: I think...

GROSS: For all the reasons I just mentioned?

RHIMES: I think all of those reasons speak - yeah, speak for themselves.

GROSS: Did it bother you that you didn't have friends?

RHIMES: Yeah, it really did. And I spent a lot of time - I have all of these little journals I spent all this time writing in and writing stories for myself in and creating worlds in. And I spent a lot of time writing and a lot of time reading. You know, people always say, like, where did you grow up? I'm like, I grew up in books, I grew up in my journals, I grew up in those worlds that I was writing about and reading about. And I was perfectly content, which is what's really great about it - is that once I started doing that, I was perfectly content and existed quite happily. You know, I didn't spend my entire life not having friends growing up. But during that period of time, it really did sort of save me.

GROSS: It's really important to you, as a show creator, to have characters that reflect the diversity of American life. When you were growing up, did you feel like you had characters that you can identify with in the sense that, you know - of them being African-American? I know there's many of ways - many ways to identify with characters, they don't have to, you know, look like you or be from the same background as you, but it's nice to see characters who are from, you know...

RHIMES: Yeah. What's interesting is that I was saying this to somebody else the other day - Oprah was ruling daytime television, Cosby was ruling nighttime television, Whoopi Goldberg was ruling Broadway and Eddie Murphy was ruling the movie theaters in the late 1980s when I was a teenager and deciding that I wanted to be a writer for real. So to me, everything felt very possible.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Shonda Rhimes. She has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Shonda Rhimes, the creator of "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How To Get Away With Murder," which is ABC's Thursday night lineup. Now she has a new memoir called, "Year Of Yes." So we were talking about your year of yes in which you decided to say yes to things. What about saying no? How hard was it for you to learn to say no, like dating back to when you had to say no in casting "Grey's Anatomy" to an actress who you didn't think was right for the role - talented, but incorrect for you? Was learning to say no hard? And after a year of saying yes, did you start to say no a lot more again?

RHIMES: Saying no really is saying yes to yourself. One of the things that I really had a difficult time with was the ability to say no and was the ability to have the difficult conversations that go with saying no. And figuring out a way to make it possible for me to stand up and advocate for myself in that way was very hard. I literally - I ended up writing myself a little script and putting it on a Post-it note and sticking it to the side of my computer and then reading it aloud whenever I had to give a very difficult no. But I also found it wildly freeing once I started doing it because once you start telling people no - and their reaction always tells you, A, who they are and, B, what situation you're in. You know, if you say no to somebody - you know, somebody asks you for a ton of money and you say no to them and they respond with vitriol and hatred, then you know exactly who they are now and what their relationship is to you. Everything's been defined, and everything's clear. And now you know where you stand. If you are in a negotiation and you say no, either they're going to back away or they're going to give - you know, they're going to give in. You know where you are, and you know where you stand. It becomes a very interesting tool to use, really. It allows you to see things in a different light. And I started thinking of it that way as opposed to thinking of it as something that was going to be dangerous or be hurtful or be scary to do.

GROSS: So I want to ask you something about writing and acting. And this relates to something that you said when you were being interviewed by Elle Magazine. You said that, my contract with the actors on "Scandal" is you'll say every word as it's written, and I'll never tell you how to do that. Would you elaborate on that?

RHIMES: Yeah. I always feel like there's two parts to a character. You know, I bring the words, and they bring the spirit. So there's always just a beautiful magic to I'll write something - we consider that text. It goes down to the soundstage. They act it. I never tell them what the intentions are, what I want from a scene, how it needs to, quote, unquote, "be." You know, a lot of showrunners, a lot of creators really have very specific ideas about how they want their scenes to play. I write the words, I let them play the scenes, and then I get to watch them in the editing room and discover something about the characters that maybe I didn't know before and find something magical has happen that's very exciting to me or discover something that just floors me or throws me in a whole different direction. Sometimes it throws me off my path, and that's exciting too.

GROSS: Is there an example of a character transformation or a plot twist that came to you as a result of watching a surprising interpretation of lines that you'd written?

RHIMES: There was a scene - and I can't remember exactly what the scene is - but I remember watching something in the editing room of "Scandal" and running upstairs to the writers' room and saying, you guys, Cyrus is gay.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RHIMES: Cyrus is gay, and that is the secret that he's been carry around all this time and the reason why he's so resentful about feeling like he can't be president. And everyone being like, what? And me sort of explaining from how he had played this scene, why this was his secret and how I could see it and this whole nine yards. And literally, like, that completely changed the trajectory of his character.

GROSS: So do you think that the actor was playing it knowing in his mind that the character was gay, or is that something that you projected onto the performance?

RHIMES: He said that he was playing a repression. I think he felt he was playing a Republican repression, but he said he was playing a repression and sort of a loveless life or something like that, he said. It was some version of that that to me in my writer's brain translated into a whole life. You know, I morphed it into a whole story that worked for both of us.

GROSS: Do you accept improvisation on the set or is that out?

RHIMES: No there's - (laughter) there's no improvisation because as I said, the words exist as the words. We don't say words that are not written on the page. And we always say all the words that are written on the page. That's sort of our agreement. And I don't mean it as, like, we have this formal contract, it's just sort of the way it's always been. On "Scandal," especially, the actors treat the words as if it's a play. They feel like it's their job to figure out the meaning under the words and to just say the words. The words are not a suggestion.

GROSS: How old were you when you started writing, and what were your earliest attempts to tell stories?

RHIMES: I probably started storytelling when I was about 3. I would dictate stories into a tape recorder and try to convince my mother to type them up. I also spent a lot of time in our kitchen pantry. We had a little kitchen pantry, and it was filled with canned goods. And I have really vivid memories of my mother in the kitchen, the television on playing the Watergate Hearings and me inside the pantry playing my own little version of what now I understand was my own little version of the Watergate Hearings inside the pantry with the cans. The smaller cans being, you know, the less important members of the Congress or whatever and the bigger cans being the more important, more dangerous people. Some of them were kings and queens. Sometimes there were, you know, different worlds, but they were all sort of their own little drama playing out. And I sat for days and days and days - probably a year or so I spent time in that pantry. I loved it.

GROSS: So you're telling me that cans of peas were probably the prototype for characters on "Scandal" (laughter).

RHIMES: Probably.

GROSS: Shonda Rhimes, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RHIMES: It's been wonderful to talk to you too.

DAVIES: Shonda Rhimes is creator of the TV series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" and executive producer of "How To Get Away With Murder." They make up ABC's Thursday night lineup. She has a new memoir called "Year Of Yes." Coming up, Ken Tucker considers the evolving sound of country music. This is FRESH AIR.

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