By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Shonda Rhimes, one of the most successful producers and screenwriters in television history, was honored Monday at “Booked for the Evening,” the Westport Library’s largest annual fundraiser.
Rhimes is best known as the creator of such television hits as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” and streaming sensations “Bridgerton” and “Inventing Anna.” But she also is an author, having published a 2015 memoir, “Years of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.”
She was interviewed at the gathering by Radhika Jones, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, and paid tribute by a trio of actors from some of her productions, including Westport residents Scott Foley, who played Jake Ballard in “Scandal,” his wife Marika Dominczyk, who appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Tony Goldwyn of New Canaan, who both acted in and directed episodes of “Scandal.”
On why she moved to Westport
Another celebrity of the evening, however, was Westport itself.
When Rhimes was asked how she has been able to handle her growing fame and challenging schedule, she replied, “You move to Westport.”
“Most people here are interested in their families and their lives … Somehow here none of that [fame] matters, and that’s delightful to me.”
Early interest in telling stories
The youngest of six children, Rhimes grew up in a family of achievers, and felt a responsibility to live up to what her parents had sacrificed for their children, she said.
She regularly wrote stories and maintained journals, but did not consider writing as a career at first.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Rhimes said she was about to embark on a path to medical school, which she knew her parents would appreciate, when she sold her first script and her career path changed for good.
She pretended to be in the medical field, Rhimes joked, when she created and produced “Grey’s Anatomy,” which debuted in 2005 and is now the longest-running medical drama in television history
Taking risks with new perspectives
During the course of their interview, Jones pointed out that Rhimes worked in ways that other producers had not in the past. “You have been committed to taking risks on camera,” Jones told Rhimes. By not using big stars or household names to perform in her shows, “You made [new] people into household names.”
With the perspective of being a woman in business, Rhimes focuses on depicting a new type of woman on the screen. Instead of the wives and mothers most female actors had portrayed in the past, her female characters are known as strong, smart and resilient, she said.
“Those kinds of women didn’t exist on TV before. People kept telling me to make them kinder, make them sweeter … I didn’t know any women like that,” she said.
Rhimes is an introvert who was shocked when “seemingly overnight I became, well, famous,” she said, especially because show runners usually remain behind the scenes. It was difficult for her at first to summon the strength for an interview or speech, she added.
COVID posed another stress, but eventually the isolation and boredom many were feeling worked to Rhimes’s advantage, when “Bridgerton,” a romantic drama set in 1800s British high society, debuted on Netflix during the pandemic.
“‘Bridgerton’ hit at just the right moment — just when people had seen everything on TV. The audience needed it right at that time,” she said of the program, which has been renewed for a third season.
Time with family is priority
Rhimes stressed that family life remains an important cornerstone of her life. She described how she carves out time both for her writing and with her children each day. When they arrive home from school, “I stop what I’m doing and hang out with them.”
When Rhimes told the audience that she has an excellent nanny, and that it is a myth that women can be everything to everybody, it was greeted by applause.
“People with big jobs have a lot of help … I think it’s hurtful to put it out there that people can do it all — no,” she said.
“My happy place is wherever my family is … where my kids are. There’s a special feeling that comes from sitting down to write and getting immersed, but if my family isn’t nearby, it doesn’t matter.”
Blockbuster “Booked” for library
This year’s “Booked for the Evening” fundraiser was the most successful since the library started the series in 1999, raising more money than any other year, according to Jeremy Price, president of the library’s board of trustees. There were 125 sponsors of the event who donated $1,000 or more, he said, and it was the best attended “Booked for the Evening” ever.
Gretchen Webster is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westport Journal. Learn more about us here.