In high school, Shonda worked as a hospital candy striper, then went to Dartmouth, where she majored in English literature. After earning an MFA at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, she supported herself as the research director of the documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. In 1996 she sold her first script (for a movie that was never made). But in 1998, she was hired to write the Dorothy Dandridge script, and she was on her way.
When I met Shonda at "Seattle Grace Hospital," I was entering the world she'd dreamed up three years earlier while she was living in her pj's with the daughter she'd adopted as a single mother.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Shonda Rhimes
This interview appeared in the December 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: I have to tell you, before I flew here, so many people said, "Tell Shonda I said hi. Give her a shout-out." I'm like, "Shonda doesn't know you."
Shonda: That's what's surreal about this whole Grey's Anatomy experience—people feel as if they do know me. They think maybe I have some love answers for them—which I don't.
Oprah: There are other hit shows, but it's rare to see so much focus on the writer.
Shonda: I didn't expect this. When the press began asking me for interviews, I freaked out. My instinct is to hide. Luckily, the set is a bubble—when we're here, things can feel the way they used to.
Oprah: Is there a lot of pressure to keep up the ratings?
Shonda: It's a huge amount of pressure. The night before we aired this season's premiere, I couldn't sleep. All week I drove everybody crazy with my doom-and-gloom attitude. I knew there was a chance no one would watch, and I just had to breathe my way through it.
Oprah: How did you hear that you were number one?
Shonda: Usually, that call comes at 6:30 the next morning. At 8 A.M., I'm lying in bed in pajamas, with my daughter [Harper, 4] running in and out of the room, and I'm thinking, "It must be really bad." Then it hit me: "Nobody knows my new phone number." I'd just moved. So I called and heard the news.
Oprah: Where did you get the idea for Grey's Anatomy?
Shonda: I wrote it on a whim....
[Sandra Oh enters the room]
Oprah: Hello, Miss Oh.
Sandra: I have ten minutes before I start taping, so I thought I'd drop in. We're about to start filming in the OR.
Oprah: Do you watch yourself on Thursday nights?
Sandra: I catch 20 minutes here or there, but I find it hard to watch. I want the show to be everything we shoot. After an episode is edited, there are whole chunks you guys won't get to see. I'm like, "Oooh, that was such a good scene." But I like watching the other actors.
Oprah: I loved seeing Diahann Carroll on the show [Carroll made a guest appearance as the mother of Preston Burke, a cardiothoracic surgeon played by Isaiah Washington].
Shonda: She was unbelievably fantastic. I never thought we'd get Diahann, so when she said yes, I couldn't believe it. She called up and said [imitating Carroll's voice]: "Now, do you want Diahann Carroll—or do you want something else?" I was like, "I want Diahann Carroll." For the first time, viewers got to see that Preston was a mama's boy.
Oprah: That was a big surprise.
Shonda: That's how my brothers are. They're such powerful men, but the second our mother shows up...
Oprah: Sandra, how on earth did you shoot that scene when you had the nervous breakdown?
Shonda: Sandra came to me and said, "I think I can pull off a scene in which I can't stop crying." I wasn't sure how we'd work that in, but I started thinking, "This is the perfect way to handle the fact that Cristina Yang never deals with her feelings." There had to be a point where we see someone who's deeply in control just come apart. We thought that could be funny.
Oprah: It was hysterical.
Sandra: They're calling for me on the set.
Oprah: Pleasure to meet you.
Shonda: She's honestly one of the smartest women I know.
Oprah: I can tell she's intelligent. All the show's actors and actresses seem really smart.
Shonda: Isaiah Washington learns all his surgeries before he performs them on TV. Scarily enough, I think if he stopped at an accident on the street, he'd know exactly what to do. He has pulled shifts at hospitals where he follows the surgeons around for 48 hours.
Oprah: Earlier you began telling me how you got the idea for the series.
Shonda: I was obsessed with the surgery channels. A few years ago, I did a pilot for ABC. It was about journalists covering a war. I really loved it, but then we went to war in Iraq, and the pilot suddenly felt like poor taste because the characters were having too good a time. Real soldiers were dying. It would have been weird to air it. Later ABC wanted another pilot—and I'd had so much fun with the first one. Writing for television is completely different from movie scriptwriting. A movie is all about the director's vision, but television is a writer's medium. When a show airs, it's exactly as I imagined it.
So anyway, back to my obsession with surgery: My sisters and I would call each other up and talk about operations we'd seen on the Discovery Channel. There's something fascinating about the medical world—you see things you'd never imagine, like the fact that doctors talk about their boyfriends or their day while they're cutting somebody open. So when ABC asked me to write another pilot, the OR seemed like the natural setting.
Oprah: How did you differentiate Grey's Anatomy from ER?
Shonda: ER is high-speed medicine. The camera flies around, adrenaline is rushing. My show is more personal. The idea for the series began when a doctor told me it was incredibly hard to shave her legs in the hospital shower. At first that seemed like a silly detail. But then I thought about the fact that it was the only time and place this woman might have to shave her legs. That's how hard the work is.
Oprah: How did each character evolve in your mind?
Shonda: That's a tough one. I wanted to create a world in which you felt as if you were watching very real women. Most of the women I saw on TV didn't seem like people I actually knew. They felt like ideas of what women are. They never got to be nasty or competitive or hungry or angry. They were often just the loving wife or the nice friend. But who gets to be the bitch? Who gets to be the three-dimensional woman?
Oprah: Which character did you start with?
Shonda: I began with Meredith. Cristina was second, simply because she's the kind of woman I know really well, and I like her. There's something interesting about a person who is that driven, a little bit emotionally disconnected but still a caring, sweet, and smart individual you could be friends with.
Oprah: Why did you begin calling Patrick Dempsey's character McDreamy?
Shonda: When we were shooting the pilot, Patrick was seriously the most adorable man we'd ever seen on camera. We'd watch the monitor and think, "Look at his dreamy eyes!" So we started calling him Patrick McDreamy, and it stuck. It's like the time I heard one of our assistants using "va-jay-jay" in place of "vagina." It was the greatest phrase I'd ever heard.
Oprah: That's cute.
Shonda: The network said we were using the word "vagina" too much. I kept saying, "It's a medical show! We can't say "vagina," but we can say "penis" a million times in an episode?" In one of our first shows, we used the word "penis" about 32 times—but when we said "vagina" twice, the broadcast-standards people blinked. We fought that and won—but "va-jay-jay" is our favorite alternate term.
Oprah: When you created McDreamy, who did you imagine him to be?
Shonda: In some ways, he's a man who doesn't exist. In the first eight episodes, he seems like a perfect guy who's into Meredith—and the audience falls in love with him. But then it is revealed that he has a huge flaw: He has a wife. Isn't that the way it often happens in life? You get hooked before you discover the truth?
Oprah: Yes. You took a risk—people could have turned against him forever.
Shonda: Right. But we made the first 13 episodes in a void, because we hadn't aired anything yet. I thought, "If I'm going to write a series, I'm putting in everything I can think of." Why not have McDreamy's wife show up in the ninth episode and see what happens?
Oprah: I know you're not going to tell me, but do you have a preference for the man Meredith should end up with—McDreamy or Finn [the young, single veterinarian played by Chris O'Donnell]?
Shonda: I definitely have a preference. Your head tells you Finn, and your heart says McDreamy.
Oprah: Then she should definitely be with McDreamy—though he was wrong for cheating.
Shonda: They're all wrong. That's the point. No one gets to be the saint. [Meredith chose McDreamy as O went to press.]
Oprah: Where were you when the idea for Meredith popped into your head?
Shonda: In my pajamas at home, which is where I spent a lot of time writing. My daughter was still fairly small, so she was hanging out in a basket on my office floor. I kept asking myself, "What kind of woman should the heroine be?" I thought she should be someone who had made some big mistakes. As it turns out, Meredith also has another problem: She is trying to live up to her mother's renowned career in surgery. Meredith is the daughter of a mother who basically never spent any time with her—the daughter of a mother who now has Alzheimer's and doesn't even remember her.
Oprah: I just love writers! It's amazing how an idea that began in your head is now a character on TV every week. Did you have any sense of what it would take to build a great cast?
Shonda: The script was written with no character descriptions, no clue as to what anyone should look like—except for [resident doctor] Miranda Bailey. I pictured her as a tiny blonde with curls. I thought it would be unexpected to have this sweet-looking person open her mouth and say tough things. But then Chandra Wilson [an African-American actress] auditioned, and she opened her mouth and said those same things. I thought, "That's exactly who Miranda is."
Oprah: So you really had no idea about which characters should be black, white, Asian?
Shonda: No. We read every color actor for every single part. My goal was simply to cast the best actors. I was lucky because the network said, "Go for it." If they had hesitated, I don't know if I would have wanted to do the show. But it was difficult to write the pilot because it's easier to imagine people in terms of color.
Oprah: True. It's amazing that the hospital is run by black people.
Shonda: That wasn't planned, either. And you know what? No one has ever said anything about the fact that the head of the hospital is black. I would have been horrified if someone had suggested it was a problem.
Oprah: This is a new day! I was so moved by the episode where Bonnie and Tom, a black man and a white woman, are stuck together on a metal pole after a train wreck.
Shonda: That's the perfect example of two great actors who just happen to be different races being cast in those parts.
Oprah: I've heard that Miranda Bailey is based on your mother. Is she?
Shonda: A little bit. She's very no-nonsense. Dr. Bailey says stuff like "These people are nasty—all they think about is sex while we're trying to save lives here." My mother is definitely that kind of realist.
Oprah: And I've read that Meredith is more like you than any other character.
Shonda: I'm like both Meredith and Cristina. There's a side to Meredith that keeps everything together at work. I do that. And like Cristina, I sometimes open my mouth and say things I just shouldn't say. I do that less now. I'm learning.
Oprah: Do you already know how the series will end?
Shonda: I do.
Oprah: I'm sure you're not going to give away the ending—and I don't want you to....
Shonda: I know what each of the characters' last moments are.
Oprah: Can you just tell me if anybody dies? Never mind. Don't tell me.
Shonda: I want to tell you, but I can't.
Oprah: Another thing you should never do is one of those behind-the-scenes shows. Don't let your audience see how you really do things. I want to believe there's a human being on the operating table, not a rubber dummy.
Shonda: That's exactly why I don't spend much time on the stages during filming. I want to remain a fan.
Oprah: Is it true that you're involved in choosing the show's score?
Shonda: Yes. It's the highlight of my job. I get a rush when I find exactly the right music for a scene. We do current stuff, older stuff, even stuff we've never heard before.
Oprah: Did you set out to elevate the country's consciousness in terms of racial diversity?
Shonda: I just wanted a world that looked like the one I know.
Oprah: I love the show—and I haven't followed a series since Mary Tyler Moore went off the air. I've missed entire decades of television. I once called up my best friend, Gayle, and said, "My producers want me to interview the actors from some show called Friends—ever heard of it?" Now I walk around thinking I sound like Cristina. I am Oprah Winfrey—and I think I sound like Cristina. You did that!
Shonda: I love it.
Oprah: I've heard that you're waiting on your own McDreamy.
Oprah: If he came along, which part of your singleness would you miss the most?
Shonda: The solitude. I actually like being alone. I spend most evenings reading and taking long baths.
Oprah: I love you. Bathing is my hobby.
Shonda: The bathtub is the most important thing in my new house. It took me weeks to pick that bathtub.
Oprah: Mine came from Italy. I spent months looking for the perfect tub, and I couldn't find the right shape and color. So I had one carved out of marble. When people come to my house, I go, "Would you like to see my tub?" But about your ideal man. Would he be a combination of McDreamy and Dr. Burke?
Shonda: Yes. The two are a mix of intelligence, patience, and vulnerability. They're also men who have their own interests. I've always wanted to have a relationship with someone who has his own thing—and I can't be that thing.
Oprah: You're the first woman I've ever heard say that. Many women want to be the man's main thing.
Shonda: I can't be. I'm busy. The perfect husband would live next door. He'd come over for dinner and hang out, and we'd have this great life. And then he'd go back home. Because he's not there every day, I'd appreciate him more.
Oprah: Women think they want roses and nonstop attention. But that gets old.
Shonda: All that fanfare makes me nervous and a little exhausted.
Oprah: Speaking of exhaustion, how do you balance motherhood with work?
Shonda: It's difficult. Harper has a playroom above stage one, where she rides her tricycle. But I want her to feel as if she has her own world away from here, so I don't like to bring her too much.
Oprah: So back when you were 32 and had no McDreamy in sight, you just decided to adopt a baby?
Shonda: I'd rented a farmhouse in Vermont, and I took a navel-gazing trip to think about my life. The day after I arrived, 9/11 hit. So I was sitting in the middle of nowhere, watching the whole terrible thing unfold on CNN. When I finally turned off the television, I thought, "Well, if the world's going to end, what are all the things I've ever wanted to do?" I went home and hired an adoption attorney.
Oprah: What else was on your must-do list?
Shonda: Writing the kinds of things I really wanted to write. Being true to myself and my interests. Spending more time with my family and close girlfriends. Starting the long list of books I'd been meaning to read. Working out.
Oprah: I've always said that 9/11 was a wake-up call to the country. It woke you up.
Shonda: Absolutely. Up until then, I'd spent a lot of time asking myself, "What's wrong with my life?" I was feeling so unhappy. September 11 woke me up to the realization that there was nothing wrong with my life when I considered what really could be wrong. Nine months and two days after 9/11, my daughter was born. I named her after Harper Lee. Now I can't remember what I did with my time before she got here.
Oprah: I bet you can't imagine your life without her.
Shonda: Exactly. I used to have endless time.
Oprah: I've heard that you have a "no-asshole policy" when choosing your staff.
Shonda: That's right. I don't want to hire anybody I can't stand being around. I basically live here. My daughter comes here to play. I don't want to deal with actors, writers, or production people who make me crazy.
Oprah: What's your asshole-spotting technique?
Shonda: Assholes are people who (a) talk about themselves constantly and (b) walk into an audition room and start making demands.
Oprah: Exactly. I read that when you were 4, you were already telling stories and having your mother record them. When I was 4, I began my broadcast career by speaking in church. Did you grow up wanting to be a TV writer?
Shonda: I always thought I'd be a novelist, a Toni Morrison. Now I'm so not ashamed of the fact that I think pop culture is interesting. It's what's happening in the world as it exists at this moment for people. Writing for TV comes naturally for me.
Oprah: How do you stay connected to the culture when you're so insulated on this set?
Shonda: I've had the same three best friends for the past 20 years. We grew up together, and we still get together for weekends. When you meet people in this business, they're usually not really your friends. So I stick with my best friends and my sisters. Yes, they love the show, but they're not too interested or impressed with all the attention that comes with it. Our conversations are about what's going on with their husbands or kids. They keep the world real for me.
Oprah: Now that you have a multimillion-dollar deal with ABC, do you feel you've made it?
Shonda: Part of me thinks, "I worked really hard for this, and I deserve it." Another part of me thinks, "Made it over that hurdle—what's the next one?" In a weird way, Grey's Anatomy feels like an experiment. Now it's time to go out there and apply what I've learned in a bigger way—to do a couple of other shows and see what happens.
Oprah: Are you happy?
Shonda: I am. I'm enjoying this series in a way that I never thought I would. When I write something and it airs, I feel an immediate sense of satisfaction.
Oprah: What's your dream for yourself?
Shonda:: If I can continue doing this work and loving it, and still find time to be a mother, I'm living my dream.