It was probably inevitable that Shonda Rhimes would create Grey’s Anatomy, ABC’s runaway hit about the romantic entanglements and complicated lives of surgeons and their overworked interns at a Seattle hospital. For two years during high school, she worked as a candy striper.
"I loved that job. I’m perfectly comfortable in hospitals," Rhimes told the New York Times.
She also admits to having a passion for shows about medical procedures: the pressure, the blood, the scalpels, Rhimes finds it all intriguing.
"I love to watch all those surgeries on the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel. I’m a surgical junkie," she said.
Apparently Rhimes is not the only one.
Her show’s mixture of medicine, drama and sex has proved such a winning formula that more than 25 million viewers tuned in last week to watch its season premiere. Since its debut in 2005, it's been one of TV's top-rated series, and the network signed Rhimes to a two-year, $10 million deal.
"It’s an amazing vote of confidence, and I was thrilled that the guys at ABC think that we can anchor a night," Rhimes said.
Her accomplishment is particularly noteworthy in a field that is still dominated by white males, said Ron Simon, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.
"She’s the only black woman show runner on a dramatic show at this point on the major networks. It’s a tremendous achievement for a woman, African-American or otherwise," he said.
At her office in the residential Los Feliz neighborhood, where lawns are perfectly manicured and homes are tastefully understated, Rhimes, 36, sat in front of a computer tweaking a script for a future episode.
Posters of some of the films Rhimes had written before coming to television hung on the walls: Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Crossroads, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge -- the latter, a TV biopic, won Halle Berry both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Rhimes admits she was a bit surprised by the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy, which revolves around a surgical intern, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), and her on-again, off-again love affair with Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), the neurosurgeon nicknamed Dr. McDreamy.
"I knew that I really liked it, my friends liked it, my family liked it, but it never occurred to me that stuff I came up with at home in my pajamas people would respond to," she said. "It’s all still surreal to me.'
She says that writing for TV is more demanding than writing for movies.
"Before, I would write one or two movies a year, which means I’d work two months out of the year. Television is 24 hours, seven days a week, and I never thought I’d like something like this, but I love it. It’s such an adrenaline rush," Rhimes said.
Learning to collaborate with a team of writers was an adjustment. Krista Vernoff, a writer, recalled Rhimes’s first day on the set.
"There was, of course, Shonda who had never been in a writer’s room before and who lurked outside the door, brooding and disturbed like maybe we were all vampires who would eat her soul if she stepped foot inside," Vernoff said.
Rhimes acknowledged her initial trepidation.
"The concept of sitting in a room with a bunch of people and spilling out the ideas in my head seemed a little exhausting, and it seemed antithetical to the process by which I work, but now it doesn’t feel that way at all," she said. "I became incredibly grateful for my staff of writers really quickly."
People who work with Rhimes have noticed her changed demeanor.
"She’s always been very sure of what she believes and very clear about what she wants to say, but her confidence has grown, and I’m really watching her evolve into an incredible show runner and executive producer," said Betsy Beers, an executive producer on the show. "It’s been kind of astonishing."
What hasn’t changed is Rhimes’ commitment to having an ethnically diverse cast, which includes a black chief of surgery, a black chief resident and Asian and Hispanic interns as well as various white characters.
"We had everyone of every color read for every single part, and it was about casting the best actor in the room. I don’t think a lot of shows do that, but it just makes sense to me," she said.
That diversity, she said, makes writing a bit easier for her.
"If you have a show in which there’s only one character of color — which is what most shows do — then you have a weird obligation to make that person slightly saintly because they are representing all the people of color. But if you have all different races, people get to be good or bad, flawed, selfish, competitive," she explained.
Growing up the youngest of six children in Chicago, Rhimes preferred books to watching television. Her mother, a professor of education administration at DePaul University, and her father, an administrator at Ohio State University, encouraged her to read anything on the family’s bookshelf.
"I read everything from Nancy Drew and ‘Secret Garden’ to ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ when I was 10," Rhimes said.
She graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in English literature and creative writing and landed a job in advertising. After a year, she decided she hated it and enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California.
"I loved it immediately," she said. "I discovered that this is what I wanted to do."
In the mid-to-late 90’s, she sold her first screenplay, Human Seeking Same, about a couple who fall in love through the personal ads. The movie was never made, but the mid-six-figure check she received made it possible for her to write full time.
It wasn’t until Rhimes adopted a child, Harper, now 4, that she spent time at home and really watching television.
"I realized a lot of the really good character development is happening on TV," said Ms. Rhimes, who was huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "The language was great, the world was great, and you completely invested in those characters. I’m still not over its cancellation."
In 2002 she wrote a script for a television series that followed the lives of a group of war correspondents; it was not picked up.
"They drank a lot and had a lot of sex, and the war was always sort of secondary," said Rhimes, who adds she is looking into reviving the project. "So when we suddenly went to war, it seemed in poor taste to have a show about people having fun covering war."
Rhimes once watched three films a day in the theaters, but hasn’t been to the movies in three years. When she does have a spare moment from Grey’s Anatomy (which is rare) she prefers watching television shows like Lost, Project Runway and Weeds.
"I’m freakishly obsessed with the American version of The Office," she added.
She is fiercely protective of her show’s plot points, refusing to divulge any details about the new season. Will Meredith end up with McDreamy for good?
"I’ve always been a person who hated spoilers," she said, shrugging. "If you already know what’s happening on a show, why are you watching it?"