Shonda Rhimes on Creating Hit TV at Netflix, ‘Inventing Anna’ and Whether Regé-Jean Page Will Ever Return to ‘Bridgerton’

Photographs by The Tyler Twins

Shonda Rhimes has launched TV superstars before — such as the entire cast of “Grey’s Anatomy,” led by Ellen Pompeo. But even she was caught off guard by the uproar earlier this year when Netflix and her company Shondaland announced that Regé-Jean Page, everyone’s favorite duke, was leaving “Bridgerton” behind, and wouldn’t be appearing in the show’s second season.

“What I loved was we were going to create this powerful, exciting, amazing romance,” Rhimes says of the relationship between Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Page) and Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). “And then for once in television, they were going to get to have their happily ever after versus — well, you know! In network television, you have to come up with 15 years of why a couple has to be apart.”

Shonda Rhimes Variety Cover

Upon learning of Page’s departure, the internet erupted in mourning. “I don’t think I expected everybody to have such a reaction to it,” Rhimes says. “My assumption of what people knew of romance novels was … I overestimated a great deal.”

But she gets it. “People’s attachment to couples is real — I mean, I know that better than anybody,” Rhimes says. “And I think that means success. But I do understand their despair.”

Then again, maybe Rhimes, 51, shouldn’t have been surprised at all. “Bridgerton,” her long-awaited series debut for Netflix, exploded onto the streamer on Christmas Day 2020, and became a worldwide phenomenon — a cozy, carnal holiday binge. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, revealed this fall that the Regency-period romance had topped Netflix’s charts as its most-watched original series of all time (before “Squid Game” came along), in both households and in time spent viewing.

Netflix head of global TV Bela Bajaria tells Variety that the streamer’s deal with Shondaland is successful based on what it calls the “‘Bridgerton’-verse” alone. “With ‘Bridgerton,’ 82 million member households around the world watched it in the first 28 days,” Bajaria says. “It didn’t have to be the biggest — but it’s amazing that it was.”

Rhimes has made a home for herself at Netflix, having succeeded there where some of her high-powered peers have flailed. With a newly renewed four-year deal, in which she’ll make $150 million with a bonus that could be worth an additional $200 million, she is the highest-paid showrunner on television, and she’s one of the most influential creators ever to work in the medium. “Inventing Anna,” her limited series about the grifter Anna Delvey, and the first show she herself has written for the streamer, will premiere in February, Variety can reveal exclusively. And “Bridgerton” will return for Season 2 in 2022. These are among the many reasons Rhimes has been selected as Variety’s Show Woman of the Year.

When asked what she sees as her next frontier, Rhimes casually mentions that she’s learning to play the cello. The cello?

“It’s a whole long Yo-Yo Ma story,” Rhimes says with a smile, “and I’m not going to tell it.” The point is, she says, she’s trying something different.

“I’m building the company,” she says, sounding instructive and clear, like one of her fictional creations — perhaps Olivia Pope from “Scandal” or Cristina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy.” “Netflix has been a really happy place for me. Creatively, I feel very fulfilled in a way that I haven’t felt fulfilled in a long time.”

• • •

In August 2017, when the announcement was imminent that Rhimes was leaving ABC for a $100 million deal at Netflix, she left town. Rhimes knew “that it was going to be a thing,” and she had no desire to experience the aftershocks. By bringing Rhimes to the streamer, Netflix was signaling — no, hollering — to Hollywood that the company was no longer a mere licenser: It intended to produce its own content, and distribute it throughout the world.

And who better to kick off this new arms race for talent? Rhimes had created “Grey’s Anatomy,” which premiered on ABC in 2005, and has been licensed to more than 200 territories internationally and translated into more than 60 languages. That show alone — which began its 18th season this fall — has been a multibillion-dollar global business for ABC Studios, all having sprung from Rhimes’ imagination. “Grey’s Anatomy” has also been a tremendously popular title on Netflix: Sarandos has said the medical drama has drawn more viewing hours than any other licensed show on the streamer. Rhimes is prolific too. As of 2014, and for several seasons after, ABC’s Thursday lineup, the most valuable night of the week to advertisers, was branded as #TGIT (“Thank God It’s Thursday”), and consisted of Shondaland shows such as “Grey’s,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Rhimes is a revolutionary figure in television. By depicting on her shows the world as it actually is — casting women and people of color to play doctors; representing women’s sexuality as assertive, not slutty; showing LGBTQ characters as three-dimensional human beings — she transformed TV during her time at ABC.

“It sounds arrogant to say it, but to me it makes me sad to have to say it,” she says. “We changed the faces that you see on television.”

Rhimes’ inclusive impulses weren’t merely reflected on-screen. More than a decade before the #MeToo resurgence drew attention to the stark inequities at every level of the entertainment business, Shondaland productions gave behind-the-scenes opportunities to those from underrepresented groups — especially women directors and directors of color.

Rhimes has always been a visionary. “I’m never going to be satisfied with anything,” she says. “Because frankly, if I was satisfied with something, I should probably retire.” And her farsighted concept for popular entertainment — coupled with how the industry should produce that entertainment — is an ethos the rest of Hollywood is still catching up to today.

Yet despite Rhimes’ singular qualities, her transition to Netflix wasn’t seamless. She was undoubtedly making headway: Shondaland was developing projects like Julia Quinn’s “Bridgerton” novels, and in June 2018, it won a bidding war for Jessica Pressler’s viral New York Magazine story about Anna Delvey (real name: Anna Sorokin) — a 27-year-old fabulist who’d scammed elite New Yorkers and landed in prison for financial crimes.

In an interview, Rhimes’ longtime producing partner, Betsy Beers, speaks of the “stress” of that period. “We’re both perfectionists, so there’s that,” she says. “But when it’s a new deal and when there are a lot of eyeballs on your new deal, I think there is an added pressure to produce. It takes a while, and you just hope that going out of the gate, you do something which is worth the wait.”

Shonda Rhonda Variety Cover Story

Beers pauses, and then says with a laugh: “So it was wonderful that ‘Bridgerton’ was the first one out of the gate.”

For Beers, who has certainly experienced success on a grand scale with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” Netflix’s global reach made the “Bridgerton” debut feel different. “I’ve never had a show launch internationally at the same minute in my life,” she says.

And the triumph of “Bridgerton” made renewing Rhimes’ deal this year “a very natural, organic thing,” according to Netflix’s Bajaria.

“It pierced culture globally — there was just so much conversation around it,” Bajaria says. “We make deals with writers in an exclusive relationship to build that relationship and trust, and hope that they get to do amazing work here.”

And, she adds, “I was never worried about her productivity.”

Netflix’s new deal with Shondaland, announced in July, has even expanded the relationship to include movies, gaming and virtual reality content. Rhimes has no solid plans for the digital projects yet, but she’s very interested in those worlds, and wanted to make sure “that space was carved out.”

She continues to have soaring ambitions for Shondaland, not only as a content company but as a media company — with its growing podcast business, the Shondaland website and even consumer products, such as her partnership with Dove. “Everybody at Netflix understands that storytelling is at the center of everything that we do,” Rhimes says, “but that there are other ways to tell stories.”

With “Bridgerton,” production on the second season is ongoing in the U.K., and Netflix has already renewed it through Season 4. Rhimes tells Variety that she expects it to go long past that: “There are eight Bridgerton siblings, and as far as I’m concerned, there are eight ‘Bridgerton’ seasons. And maybe more.”

From Rhimes’ end, the renegotiations at Netflix went smoothly. “Usually negotiations are long and protracted and painful and back and forth,” she says. “And I always say it feels like somebody wants to kick you before they give you the pony.” But that wasn’t the case here: “It felt very much like everybody was on the same page.”

When she was at ABC, Rhimes excelled at making shows for the network’s target age group for advertisers: women in the 18-to-49 demographic. Now, she can just think broadly. “For Netflix, the definition of a Netflix show is a show that people want to watch,” Rhimes says. “Period.”

• • •

Rhimes talked with Variety over the course of two Zoom interviews in late September and early October. Since then, Netflix has been engulfed in controversy over its decision to air Dave Chappelle’s comedy special “The Closer,” which features a transphobic rant, and faced trenchant criticism over Sarandos’ defense of the program. When reached later about Netflix’s response, Rhimes declined to comment.

At the time of our interviews, Rhimes exhibits an easy, light aspect — one that seemingly wasn’t there during the days when every episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” was an event, and every utterance from the cast caused a detonation. “I remember the frenzy,” Rhimes says. “You’d go out in public with them and you’d think, ‘Oh, my God, our skin is going to be pulled off!’ It was just crazy.”

And it was stressful, especially for a self-described introvert like Rhimes. Then, she was sometimes shy or defensive while doing press. Now, “I’m having this conversation with you just freely and comfortably — and not with any Xanax or panic or any of that stuff.” After it’s suggested that she seems different now from how she was then, she agrees. “I take that as a really big compliment,” she says. “I know what it was like before the book, trust me.”

The “book” is 2015’s “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.” The memoir chronicles how in 2013, Rhimes forced herself to say yes to every opportunity that scared her — a decision that “changed me in so many ways,” she says.

Since then, she’s found peace. “A lot of it was shedding other people’s judgments, and shedding my own judgments of myself — and just being me,” Rhimes says. “Figuring out how to be happy.”

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Rhimes, the youngest of six siblings, recounts in the book that during her childhood in suburban Illinois, she would close herself in the pantry and use canned goods to illustrate the stories she was making up in her head.

She wasn’t drawn to television or movies then. “I wanted to be a novelist,” she says — specifically, she wanted to be Toni Morrison. Growing up in the 1980s, Rhimes watched Eddie Murphy become “the king of comedy,” and saw Whoopi Goldberg “ruling Broadway.” Local hero Oprah Winfrey was in nearby Chicago, starting her ascent to cultural domination. “There was a moment where I suddenly looked around and felt like this could be a career,” Rhimes says.

She attended Dartmouth College, where she “did a lot of theater,” but she still intended to write novels after graduating. Her plans soon changed, though. “I read an article that said it was harder to go to USC film school than it was to go to Harvard Law School, and my parents were academics,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well, you can’t say that’s a bad thing.’ So I applied to USC film school and got in and went.”

These days, Rhimes has been working out of her house in the New York area. She’s been locked down during the pandemic, with two of her three children too young at the time to be vaccinated (her oldest daughter is in college).

From there, Rhimes has been finishing post-production on “Inventing Anna,” all of which has been done remotely because of COVID. Beers says the work “has been absolutely delightful,” despite being virtual.

“Inventing Anna” was shooting in New York City — the playground for Anna Delvey’s trickery — in fall 2019, and along with hundreds of productions, it shut down in March 2020. Months later, when the entertainment industry figured out safety protocols, the show finished its final two episodes (of nine). Its cast is a mixture of actors new to the Rhimes multiverse — Julia Garner (“Ozark”) plays Anna, Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”) plays Vivian, a fictionalized version of journalist Pressler — and those who comprise what could be thought of as her traveling theater troupe: Katie Lowes (“Scandal”), Anna Deavere Smith (“For the People”), and Jeff Perry and Kate Burton, both of whom have been on “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Lowes is deeply involved in the Shondaland community, and not only as an actor: She hosts the company’s podcast, “Katie’s Crib,” about her (mis)adventures in parenting. While shooting the “Scandal” pilot in 2011, Lowes quickly became close with Rhimes and Beers, she says, and would regale them with “babysitting horror stories” about her day job working for a family “who didn’t believe in diapers.” As they awaited news about “Scandal” being picked up, the producers cast Lowes in a guest-starring part on “Grey’s” so she could quit babysitting.

“I felt like I was part of a family from the pilot, and then it just really grew from there,” Lowes says.

As for why the story of Anna Delvey so captivated Rhimes, she has many reasons. “She’s got an eidetic memory,” Rhimes says. “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.”

Delvey — a young Russian by way of Germany, whose parents were working-class people — came to New York and pretended to be an heiress. As Delvey duped those in her New York circle, she’d sometimes take their money; she bounced checks, forged documents and ran out on hotel bills. “Had she been a man, I’m not sure it would have caused such a ruckus,” Rhimes says. “If she had been a hot chick, I’m not sure she would have caused such a ruckus. But because she was an ordinary-looking woman, who was smart and brilliant and went for what she wanted, and felt no remorse about it, people were outraged or shocked or stunned or fascinated.

“I don’t think she did anything different than what any guy on Wall Street’s done,” Rhimes continues. “None of them have done any time, and she’s been in jail for quite a while. Not to say she didn’t do anything wrong! I’m just saying: Gender did play a part.”

Chlumsky’s Vivian is the point-of-view character, as she investigates Anna through a reportorial lens. “Everybody has their idea of who Anna is, and everybody had their own experience of being with Anna,” Rhimes says.

“Scandal” was famous for its wild twists — ABC even branded the whiplash experience of viewing the show as “OMG TV.” Lowes, who plays Rachel, from whom Anna stole $65,000, says the table reads for “Inventing Anna” were very much like “Scandal’s,” and had that “Shondaland special sauce.” ”You’re flipping the pages very quickly, and you can’t ingest it fast enough,” Lowes recalls. “It’s getting really rowdy, like” — she raises her voice to a shout — “‘Oh!’ and ‘No way!’

“It’s got that same pace and rhythm that we love in a Shondaland show.”

• • •

Rhimes is also currently focused — like, turn-off-the-internet focused — on writing “Queen Charlotte,” a prequel to “Bridgerton” based on one of the show’s breakout characters. Queen Charlotte, a real-life royal who was married to King George III, doesn’t appear in the Quinn novels, and Rhimes and the show’s creator, Chris Van Dusen, introduced her into the “Bridgerton” universe (she’s played by Golda Rosheuvel).

As for how she got the spinoff idea … well, it’s funny, Rhimes says: “I’ll be blunt: It was when Ted picked up the phone and called me and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing a show about Queen Charlotte? And will you write it?’”

Sarandos didn’t have to twist her arm, though. “I’m very obsessed with Queen Charlotte, and I always call her the Beyoncé of the show,” Rhimes says. “I’m constantly saying out loud, ‘God, I love her wigs’ — somehow hoping that somebody will send me one of her wigs so that I can walk around wearing it.”

In “Bridgerton,” Queen Charlotte is Black, and that certainly may have been true — many historians think she had African ancestry. But even if it weren’t, the show’s approach to casting perfectly reflects Rhimes’ worldview: Every role is available to an actor of color. “‘Bridgerton’ is very much a Shonda Rhimes Shondaland show for Netflix,” Rhimes says.

When “Scandal” premiered in 2012, starring Kerry Washington as D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, just a handful of Black women had been the lead on a Big Four network television series since 1971 (when “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll, went off the air). Bajaria, for one, loves Rhimes’ fearless, insistent vision when it comes to conceiving and casting characters. “She creates these multidimensional, complicated, memorable female characters,” she says, “often women of color who’ve never been represented in that way before.”

It’s not only women, as Page’s overnight rocket to the A-list demonstrates. Simon Basset is an archetypal Rhimes creation: a Black duke in Regency England. “But why couldn’t that have been?” Bajaria asks.

Eight seasons of “Bridgerton” — “and maybe more” — and Page will never appear as the duke again. Really? “I don’t think so!” Rhimes says. “And here’s why. He’s an enormous star now. As I like to say, the idea that we would write Regé to stand around in the background doesn’t make any sense at all to me. What would he do? is what I like to say.”

Rhimes is laughing now, imagining it. But then she adds that when “everybody lost their minds” because of his announced departure, of course they invited Page back.

“Rightfully, he said, ‘I signed up to do this one lovely story, this closed-ended storyline. I’m good!’” Rhimes says. “And I don’t blame him for that. I think that he was really smart to leave the perfection as the perfection.”

Styling: Dana Asher; Makeup: Armond Hambrick; Hair: Verlyn Antoine; Look 1 (cover): Top and skirt: Carolina Herrera; Look 2: Dress: 11 Honoré