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The year in Shondaland: A look back with Shonda Rhimes, her leading ladies, and more

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JAMES WHITE for EW

After a stellar year that saw Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder air on one night — now fondly dubbed TGIT — Viola Davis snag an Emmy, and boss Shonda Rhimes become a household name, everyone wants to ride the roller coaster that is Shondaland. EW takes you behind the scenes with the cast and creative minds to get the inside dirt on what’s becoming the premier place to work:

Biggest highlight of 2015

BETSY BEERS (non-writing executive producer): The biggest highlight from the last year was probably the amazing experience of having all three shows on one night. Last season was the first time that it had happened. When I first thought about it, it was just the same as having three shows on TV. They’re all going to be on the same night, that’s great. But by far that was the most impactful and wonderful thing for me. I just was amazed and incredibly proud that we had our own night of television.

ELLEN POMPEO (Grey’s Anatomy star): Denzel Washington directing Episode 1209, without a question. [He’s] amazing. Let’s just say I’m a huge fan. It’s a total dream come true.

VIOLA DAVIS (How to Get Away With Murder star): It’s a cross between Cecily Tyson episode, “Mama’s Here Now,” and the removal of my wig. Those were the two moments that stood out for me last season. It’s the feeling of risk-taking, which you always want to be as an actor, a risk-taker. Just putting something different out there, different images, different moments that are still rooted in truth.

KERRY WASHINGTON (Scandal star): That huge picture that we all took for People, Essence and EW. That was really the most thrilling moment for me in the past year, for all of us to be in a room together in New York. It was really very cool that the entire family was there.

PETE NOWALK (executive producer on How to Get Away With Murder): It wasn’t just that day. It was two days of a lot of Shondaland togetherness. I had worked on all the shows. I didn’t work on Scandal that long, so I haven’t gotten to know those people that well. But it was cool just to see the sheer number of people that are on the shows, especially when I think about it from Shonda’s point of view. That’s a lot of characters to keep track of and know who they are in your gut, because that’s what you need to do. It felt like we were part of something historical and fun. It all felt very surreal, like a moment in time. Oh, this is never going to happen again. It felt memorable that way.

SHONDA RHIMES (executive producer/creator): For the first time, all three casts, every single person got together in New York. One of the things about it that was really lovely was that night we all got together for a little private dinner. It was really nice for us to all sit down together. We were all talking about how grateful we were. To me, that was pretty much one of the highlights of the entire thing. We felt like one big family.

Most difficult part of 2015

RHIMES: Probably the most difficult part of 2015 was creating and crafting the episodes in which Patrick [Dempsey] died, and then the episode that came after that.

POMPEO: Certainly the last year was very, very difficult. Losing Patrick was huge.

WASHINGTON: I’ve had to shoot some scenes this year by myself and with Tony [Goldwyn] that have been pretty devastating.

BEERS: The biggest challenge last year was there never seemed to be enough time to do what we needed to do. Because of the shooting schedule and also because of the way the airdate schedule lines up, one of the most challenging things is getting the episodes finished and on the air. It always gets tight toward the end of the season, but last year was definitely challenging on all fronts because time, all of a sudden, seemed very short.

DAVIS: Probably just the TV schedule, man, just keeping up with fast-paced it is. The long hours, and still feeling like you can be alert enough on the stage to make choices and to bring energy to the character. That’s been the most difficult. Any actor will tell you that. The TV schedule is just brutal.

NOWALK: The hardest thing was coming back after our Murder Night and figuring out the next six episodes. Those episodes really killed me, because we were changing the structure of the show that I had gotten used to with the flash-forwards and flashbacks, and we knew exactly what we were leading to. Instead it felt like we were inventing a new show. Then Marcia Gay Harden was there and I needed to write something worthy of her. It was a huge relief when people kept watching and stayed interested without the bells and whistles that we had created in the first half of the season.

Best compliment of 2015 

BEERS: The best compliment we got was the number of live Twitter followers who stayed around for each show. That’s not technically a compliment, but it was the most complimentary thing. I’ve had conversations with people who say, “You know, I sit through Grey’s, and then I love Scandal, and then I had to watch How to Get Away With Murder,” — so they actually committed to three hours of TV in real time. That’s the biggest compliment I could ever think of with people’s busy schedules.

POMPEO: Honestly the biggest compliments are the fans complimenting my acting. That’s really the biggest compliment to me, is when the fans tweet me when they’re watching the show and they are moved by the performance.

DAVIS: I always feel like when people say that I’m changing the game for black actresses, that’s the best compliment.

WASHINGTON: To me, whenever the actors get compliments from our crew members, that always means a lot to me, because they’re a lot of people who are “critics,” who may not be part of the process in the way that crew members are — they see a lot of work and have seen a lot of work in their career from the inside in the trenches. When I get a compliment from them, it means a great deal to me whenever that happens.

NOWALK: Shonda gave me a compliment recently that kept me going. She said she was enjoying the show even more this year in the second season.

RHIMES: I had a really lovely response to the book, which has been a really new and interesting thing. That has been nice.

Biggest criticism faced in 2015

RHIMES: Since I don’t actually ever read anything that’s written, I couldn’t tell you.

NOWALK: You know what was a criticism that didn’t hurt my feelings, it more confused me and worried me, was when we had diagnosed Oliver [Conrad Ricamora] with HIV at the end of last season. Yes, there were a lot of people who gave us compliments, but there was a lot of criticism with how we handled that. That more stuck with me and made me want to make sure we weren’t going to do whatever people thought was poorly written. It stuck with me because I felt like it was just a short moment at the end of the finale where Oliver said he’s positive, and people found that troublesome, and that doing a story line like this would be troublesome and we wouldn’t represent him fairly. That’s a criticism I took to heart and was like, “Let’s make sure that we write this story line in a way that’s real to Oliver.”

DAVIS: The worst compliment is when people just dismiss Annalise because they don’t feel like she’s likable and makes the right choices. That’s the worst for me. I can’t stand that, when people say that — although I get it, I don’t like it. I don’t feel like people would say that to a man. It has nothing to do with what we do as actors, being likable.

WASHINGTON: A lot of people really don’t like that Olivia stopped getting her nails done after she was kidnapped. There have been a lot of complaints about her lack of manicure on the show.

BEERS: People still say to me, “I don’t understand why everyone has to talk so fast. What do they all have to talk so fast? Why is everything moving so, so quickly?” I’m like, “It’s got to move quickly, because there’s a lot of stuff to do!”

Anything you’d change about 2015

RHIMES: No, I don’t think so. I feel like that’s absolutely pointless. Why am I spending time thinking about something that I can’t possibly do anything about?

NOWALK: Yeah, you’d always write certain story lines different. One character I always felt was misunderstood — and I think it was more in the way that we introduced her — was Rebecca [Katie Findlay]. I think I wouldn’t have introduced her with such a chip on her shoulder. That’s something I would redo. But you never know, maybe that’s what worked about it for certain people. Basically, I take anything I wished was different and just apply it to the next episode and just try to do it there. That’s all you can do. 

What surprised you most about 2015:

RHIMES: How much fun it still is. For me especially, season 12 [of Grey’s Anatomy] has been an absolute blast. Season 12! How much fun we’ve been having is really lovely. And season 5 [of Scandal], we’ve just been having a lot of run at work, and that is so gratifying to me.

NEXT: The impact of Shondaland, looking ahead to 2016, and more

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How life has changed since joining Shondaland

POMPEO: It only became Shondaland a few short years ago. I started with Shonda when we were just a show. I didn’t join Shondaland, I was sort of a part of its inception — safe to say without sounding too arrogant. Grey’s was part of the beginning of Shondaland. We were just one show then. So my history is a lot bigger than just these past five years.

DAVIS: More people are exposed to me and my work, that’s No. 1. No. 2, I feel more courageous. I do. Part of that is getting older, though, too, but part of it is because you kind of have to be courageous to play Annalise — especially someone like me, who is really shy and self-effacing. This is not a character who is like that. All that has been hard.

WASHINGTON: Oh my God, it’s a complete 180. There are very few things about my life that look the way they did before I joined Shondaland.

NOWALK: My life changed completely because I had never been a TV writer until I was on Private Practice the very first season. I never thought I would have my own show. I never thought I would work with people for so long. A lot of the writers in Shondaland, we’ve all known each other for 10 years. I’ve known Shonda and Betsy for 10 years. It’s a place where you can be yourself. I’ve been allowed to embrace my voice more as a writer. And be told to have more confidence in having to stick up for what I think is good, where before I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that. I’ve become more secure in Shondaland.

Biggest change to Shondaland since you joined it

NOWALK: It’s just so much bigger. It feels like a thing that has a mind of its own. We never referred to it, going to work at Grey’s Anatomy, as Shondaland. It was smaller. It didn’t feel like the thing that the rest of the world knew about. The fact that it’s become a brand and that Shonda is now a household name, that’s all really different and it makes it really exciting because it feels like people care about the stories we tell, and it makes us have to live up to those standards, where before it felt more insular to me.

BEERS: The biggest change to Shondaland is that we’re a company, that we’ve really developed into an amazing company, and that it started with Grey’s Anatomy, and that we have three shows on the air, that we have a large and healthy development slate, we have an amazing group of people who are working with us here, all of whom contribute gigantic amounts to the products.

What being part of Shondaland means to you

DAVIS: Being part of a community. Being part of a family. That’s what it feels like. I say family because I want to get that sense of belonging. That’s what I feel like. I feel like I belong there. I feel like it’s a place that gets me. And I haven’t always felt like that in my career, but I get that from Pete Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, Bill D’Elia. They just get me and embrace me exactly as I am. That’s the best part. That’s what it means to me.

WASHINGTON: It’s just a huge blessing. We did this huge dinner that night that we did the photo with all the casts from the three shows. I think Ellen Pompeo started it, she got up and gave a toast. Other people followed suit. It felt like the best rehearsal dinner for a wedding that I’d ever been to. It felt like a family, a place of love. It feels like being part of the most wonderful, loving family.

BEERS: It means that I get to go to one of my favorite places in the world every morning and I get to work with people that I have gigantic amounts of respect for, and from whom I learn a lot about every day, and I include the cast and the crew and the amazing people who work with us on every single front, that I’m never lonely and that I never cease to be challenged and I never actually need to miss out on a chance to grow.

RHIMES: I’ve been here my whole life. It’s a wonderful feeling of creativity and belonging, which is nice.

POMPEO: There’s definitely a strong, familial atmosphere to all of the shows. We all feel like part of the big family. The most inspiring thing about this show in particular is, because we’re in such a different place than the other shows, we are really, really striving — and I think succeeding brilliantly — at keeping the quality really good. I think the numbers are supporting that, and the fans are supporting that. It’s more of collaboration now than it ever has been. That’s crucial to our continuing, and it’s great. Shonda’s evolution as a leader has made it much easier to be here. It’s a much more collaborative place. We’re all working toward a common goal. She’s so busy now. She has so many other things to do that she’s willing to accept the help. Everybody pitches in to do what we can to tell these stories in the best way that we can.

Looking ahead to 2016 

RHIMES: I’m excited about what’s going on with [midseason drama] The Catch. I’m excited about all the stuff we’re developing. I’m excited about what’s going to be happening after the midseason finales. I know the back halves of the seasons are pretty darn interesting.

BEERS: I’m very excited about our development slate. I’m very excited about the shows that we’ve sold and are working on. I’m thrilled that we’re getting to develop in the comedy space, but I also love the dramas that we sold. I’m very excited about The Catch, which we’re having a great time working on. There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s a fun year creatively.

WASHINGTON: I’m really excited. Our writers are taking huge risks this season, which is a lot to say for our writers because they always take risks. I’m excited to see how that comes together.

POMPEO: I’m super excited for the fans to see [episode 1209, directed by Denzel Washington]. It’s for sure the [best] thing I’ve ever done on the show. We’ve never had anybody of his caliber come and direct our show ever. His charisma, he changes the energy in the room completely. Everybody is just at the top of their game.

NOWALK: I’m learning so much more about the characters, and I’m learning more about how we can take chances with the show, that it doesn’t always necessarily have to be extremely plot driven. Basically what I want to do from this point onward is to really dive into the characters and have scenes that are slower, and scenes where the characters can just talk to each other and just hangout. In the beginning, I wanted to make sure that people were hooked on something. Now I feel like we can maybe take more risks and just allow the stories to breath and to tell people more about who these characters are.

The pressure to top yourself

RHIMES: No, because I’m telling a story. I’m not really interested in tricks or topping myself. It’s not really about that. Literally, I’m just following character. The characters are doing what the characters are doing. I’ve always felt that way. I think it’s always interesting that people are like, “Why did that happen?!” “Because we’re following character!” It’s not about topping ourselves.

BEERS: One of the things that Shonda’s been genius at, and I think that Pete Nowalk does incredibly well too, is every single season has got to feel different from the last season. I don’t feel the pressure at least to be duplicitous. I feel it’s incredibly important that every season of each show has its own personality and tone and reflects a different stage in the characters’ growth. When you start to compare seasons, that way madness lies. It’s less about a comparison with the last season and more about trying to push forward into the future. It’s looking ahead and trying not to look behind, otherwise I’d think you’d go crazy.

WASHINGTON: The pressure I feel is through me. The scripts come in at such a high level, that that’s the pressure. How do we bring this to life without screwing it up, because this is already so good? That’s my challenge. It’s about trying to be true and trying to be honest in telling the story.

NOWALK: I felt a ton of pressure going into season 2 to show people that this wasn’t just a one-season show. Watching other people who have done this job and created TV shows before, I just hoped it was more than one season. So I felt like I had to prove to people that these characters are worth watching and that their lives can go on a journey that’s still interesting. I’m still in that. Every episode is proving that.

POMPEO: I’m very competitive with myself. Also, it’s not just about me. It’s about the fans. We’re so lucky to have the fans still so engaged in the show. We owe it to them to give it 200 percent every time. This place is a much different place. [Executive producer] Debbie Allen has been a huge, huge influence in the change in tone here. It’s a much more collaborative place and a happy place. Everybody really wants this show to be really good. We all feel the pressure. Listen, we’re not here season 12 because we’re phoning it in. We can’t phone it in at all. I’ve definitely had my moments where I’ve phoned in plenty. I’m not afraid to admit that. But there’s no phoning it in in season 12. You just can’t. I have to care more now than I ever did.

One Shondaland secret we don’t know 

POMPEO: These fans are pretty crazy. They know an awful lot. I listen to music constantly on the set while I’m filming. Mostly hip-hop. My fans probably know that. We dance to “Hotline Bling” many hours, many days. Drake all the time. Drake’s a favorite over here. We’re big on Drake over here.

DAVIS: In Shonda’s office, you can get a really, really great glass of pinot grigio. There’s always a good bottle of wine to be had, just to calm the nerves a little bit for some of these salacious sex scenes, long schedules and risk-taking scenes that go on. That’s the biggest thing. We like to loosen up that way.

WASHINGTON: Everyone already knows that we bang on the furniture. We have a really fun Halloween party every year. People really go all out. Myself and the women I work with, we all came as the cast of Star Wars. I was Darth Vader, and my daughter, Isabelle — simply because she was the shortest —  was R2-D2. We had a Princess Leia. Three of us have dogs, and our dogs were all Ewoks. It was extraordinary. We all really go all out at Halloween on Scandal.

NOWALK: Our first episode back from our mid-winter finale is this idea that Viola had, this Annalise story line that’s very different for our show, and very character-revealing and super interesting for her backstory. The story is told in a different way. She literally called me down to the set once and pitched me the scenes one by one. It reveals a lot about Annalise’s backstory. It reveals a lot about a major event that happened to her in her past.

BEERS: My Shondaland office is not only historic — original resident: Columbia pictures founder Harry Cohn — but has also been used as a set in episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. You haven’t seen me act at Shondaland, but you have heard me — I have provided urgent-sounding voices on all three TGIT shows. If people can’t find me, it’s ’cause I am hiding in Pete Nowalk’s office.

RHIMES: We have a movie theater in our basement — we’ve basically taken over this entire building with all of our shows. Every Thursday night, we pipe in the East Coast feed of the shows, I buy pizzas for everybody and we do, against the rules, bring down a bunch of bottles of wine from my office. Any of the actors or crew members come to the theater and you can live-tweet the shows there with everybody else so you’re not doing it by yourself. The party’s always waiting.

Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder will return Thursday, Feb. 11 on ABC.