For Variety’s Show Woman of the Year cover story on Rhimes earlier this month, she described the origins of the show. In May 2018, when Rhimes read Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine story “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People” — a viral journalistic feat that detailed the scamming enterprises of a charming young Russian woman, who had grifted societally connected New Yorkers — she responded to it immediately. “She’s got an eidetic memory,” Rhimes says, describing Delvey. “She speaks all these languages.
“There wasn’t much different about her than any other boy genius who takes over Manhattan — except for the fact that she was a woman.”
Rhimes’ longtime producing partner Betsy Beers was on vacation in Mexico when Shondaland entered into a bidding war for Pressler’s story. “The joke at our company is every time I take a couple of days off, an amazing piece of IP pops up,” Beers says. But she knew that all the elements for a great Shonda Rhimes show were within the Anna Delvey story, she says: “The characters, the setting, the world — the world of journalism.”
The article was Rhimes’ first major acquisition for her Netflix talent deal, which had begun in August 2017. “Inventing Anna” began production in fall 2019 in New York City, and then had to finish a full year later because of the pandemic. It’s the first show Rhimes has created since “Scandal” premiered in 2012.
On “Inventing Anna,” “Veep’s” Anna Chlumsky plays Vivian, a reporter character based loosely on Pressler, who “collects other people’s tales of who Anna is,” Rhimes says. “Vivian is the person who journeys us through the whole thing.” And Julia Garner, the Emmy-winner from “Ozark,” plays Anna, the object of everyone else’s obsessions and projections. The real Anna was on trial in spring 2019, and Rhimes remembers the difficulty of writing the story as it was evolving. “It was this very crazy experience,” she says. “We literally are pausing and waiting for the verdict so that we can write the end of the show.”
Rhimes deliberately avoided meeting the real Delvey. “I purposely did not meet her because A, she was in prison — pandemic at the time,” Rhimes says. “But B, I didn’t meet her because I didn’t want to be influenced. Anna, as anybody can tell you, has a wildly charismatic personality, and I didn’t want to meet her and fall madly in love with her, and then be completely on her side.
“And I didn’t want to meet her and dislike her intensely and then be against her,” Rhimes continues. “I wanted to stick with the eyes of the reporter.”
The Netflix way is to have all of a show’s scripts written ahead of filming. But for the nine episodes of “Inventing Anna,” Rhimes resisted that process because of her belief in “the power of performance.”
“It allows for no jazz, you know what I mean? No improvisation, no nothing,” Rhimes says. “It’s efficient, but it’s a hard way of looking at things. And so for me, I really needed the space to be able to let the actors play — and then discover stuff from what they were doing.”
After all, it’s the stories about Anna that Vivian collects that allowed Rhimes to “make sure that we’re building a three-dimensional person” — so some spontaneity was the key to that vibrancy for “Inventing Anna.”
“Everybody found in Anna what they needed to find in Anna,” Rhimes says. “And somehow, she left everybody changed that she encountered. And that’s a powerful person!”
The show’s writers are: Rhimes, Matt Byrne, Jess Brownell, Abby Ajayi and Nick Nardini. Its directors are David Frankel, Tom Verica, Daisy Von Scherler Mayer, Ellen Kuras and Nzingha Stewart. Its executive producers are Rhimes, Beers, Verica and Frankel.
In addition to Chlumsky and Garner, the cast of “Inventing Anna” is Arian Moayed, Katie Lowes, Alexis Floyd, Anders Holm, Anna Deavere Smith, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney and Laverne Cox.