'The internal sexism within womanhood is very predominant in Hollywood,' Viola Davis tells EW
Kerry Washington. Ellen Pompeo. Viola Davis. Shonda Rhimes. You can’t get enough of their hit ABC shows. Now hear their thoughts about promiscuous heroines, female bosses, and McDreamy. Below, you’ll find an expanded version of the conversation that appeared in our Shondaland cover story. See more from our Shondaland shoot here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first impression of Shonda?
ELLEN POMPEO: I probably had it the easiest, because she wasn’t “Shonda Rhimes” when I met her. There was another show that the network wanted me to do, to play a spy, and I really wanted that show. I said, “I hate medical shows! They make me think I’m gonna die all the time!” And they said, “Please just go meet Shonda.” So we had lunch at Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills, and after I met her it was like, I want to do this show. I just liked her. We were the same age. This may sound weird, but she’s a black woman, and I always really feel comfortable around black people. [Davis and Washington laugh.] I married a black man! And I trusted her. She had a vision for the show.
Is it different working for a black woman in Hollywood?
[Davis and Washington nod their heads vigorously.]
KERRY WASHINGTON: Yes. In every way. For me, being able to work with somebody who I don’t have to translate my experience to all the time — that’s important, because I’m not having to walk someone down the path of racial understanding to tell a story about a woman of color. Also, I was talking to an actress who’s pregnant and really worried about telling her bosses, and I said, “Yeah, when I told my boss I was pregnant, she literally jumped up and down in my trailer.” I don’t know if there’s a male showrunner who would do that.
VIOLA DAVIS: Sometimes it’s not so different working with a woman than a man in this business. The internal sexism within womanhood is very predominant in Hollywood, because we all want to be successful. There’s a plug to it: You all have to be skinny! You all have to be pretty! You all have to be likable, because that’s the formula that works. On an executive level. On a power level. And it’s not always the same working with black people, because of the internalized racism. The colorism.
WASHINGTON: You have to be light-skinned. You have to talk in “good English.”
SHONDA RHIMES: Or not talk in “good English.”
DAVIS: Or you have to come from Detroit or Atlanta to be black. If you have John Denver on your iPod and you come from Central Falls, Rhode Island, then: Eh, you trickle-down black woman. [Rhimes claps her hands, amused.] My show is created by Pete Nowalk, but he’s a by-product of Shonda, so he’s been given permission to just write a woman and not be stopped by color or sex.
Shonda, I heard that before Grey’s Anatomy premiered, someone at the network told you that you couldn’t put a promiscuous woman on TV.
RHIMES: Yes. We’d been picked up, but we hadn’t started filming, and I got called into a room with a bunch of people who said, “You can’t put a woman on television who had sex with a guy the night before she started work.” Because they said no woman does that, and the kind of woman who does is really trashy. There were all these old men in the room, and I had no idea how to respond. The moment I knew that [producer] Betsy Beers and I were going to be friends for the rest of our lives, she opened her mouth and said, “I f—ed a guy the night before my first day of work.” [Everyone in the room cracks up.] She told the raunchiest story, and none of the men could get away fast enough. And no one ever brought it up again. My first season of Grey’s, I didn’t believe that anybody could fire me, so I behaved like somebody who couldn’t be fired. I was fortunate because I was raised by parents who didn’t allow the idea that somebody was going to make me feel like
I wasn’t able to do something.
WASHINGTON: When I was a little girl, I told my mother that I wanted to walk to school by myself. I lived two blocks from my school, but it was the early ’80s — the height of the crack epidemic in the Bronx, streets covered with crack vials — and my mother said, “Okay.” And then she proceeded to hide behind parked cars and watch me walk to school. I thought I walked myself to school, and meanwhile, she’s like … [Washington pantomimes peeking out from behind a parked car.]
RHIMES: My parents created a world in which the only barrier to your success is your own imagination. So that when I encountered something that felt like racism — like my high school guidance counselor saying to me, “Honey, I don’t think you were made for Ivy League schools” — I called my mom at work and said, “Mom, this lady says I’m not made for Ivy League schools.” And my mother said, “Hold on, I’ll be there in five minutes.” My mom drove up to the school, walked into the guidance counselor’s office, came out, and said, “Everything’s fine now.” My parents were Gladiators. [Rhimes graduated from Dartmouth College in 1991.]
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I love that on Scandal, you swap the traditional gender roles. Fitz is the one who always needs to be saved, and Olivia’s often the one who saves him. Have you consciously worked to change the way we view leading ladies?
RHIMES: Well, I don’t think it’s just me. People always say, “Why did you decide that Olivia Pope was like this?” And I’m always like, “She wasn’t like that until Kerry was playing her.”
POMPEO: Shonda’s got this sixth sense and then starts writing that character toward what that person is.
RHIMES: There’s always something in the character where the actor comes to me and says, “How did you know that about me?”
WASHINGTON: I feel that way about Olivia, but I’m not going to tell you what it is — it’s too personal. On another show, I did a five-episode arc and I used to feel like my phone was bugged, like they were swimming in my dreams.
POMPEO: DK? [Washington nods her head yes. She won’t reveal who “DK” is, but David E. Kelley cast Washington in a
five-episode arc on Boston Legal.] Everyone says that about DK, that they thought their trailers were bugged!
WASHINGTON: It’s like, how did you know my fear? Or, how did you know my desire for something?
RHIMES: It’s because we spend all our time staring at you.
Can you give an example?
RHIMES: No they can’t. I’m too protective.
WASHINGTON: The problem is that there’s such a careful alchemy to what we do.
RHIMES: It’s like when people say to me, “Why do you use this pattern of dialogue? And it’s like, I’ve never once thought about a pattern of dialogue! If I thought about it, I couldn’t write it!
POMPEO: Oh? The writers told us that if you say something three times, it sticks with the audience.
RHIMES: Are you serious? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! [Laughs]
POMPEO: Oh really? Because certain seasons, the actors feel like the dialogue is too repetitive, and it’s extremely hard to remember when it’s that repetitive. And the writers have said, “Well, studies show that if you say something three times, people hear it, because the first time you say it, they’re on their phone, and the second time you say it, they’re folding their laundry, and the third time they’re paying attention.”
RHIMES: Well, maybe it’s true.
There is a very specific rhythm to the dialogue you write.
WASHINGTON: I met Shonda right after doing a David Mamet play, [Race], that was directed by him, and it was like, Oh! In the way that Mamet writes in the rhythm of menspeak, Shonda writes in the rhythm of womenspeak. So many women are able to hear themselves and jump into the rhythm of Shondaland.
NEXT: Let’s talk about the backlash to McDreamy’s death …
Grey’s has also captured female friendship very well. Meredith and Cristina — that’s the heart of the show. It must be enraging that Cristina’s whole message to Meredith was “[McDreamy] is not the sun, you are,” and yet people still act like losing McDreamy is the real tragedy of the show.
[Rhimes nods. Pompeo applauds. There is a lot of mmm-hmming in the room.]
RHIMES: When Cristina left, I was like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Meredith’s alone. How’s she going to survive? Sandra [Oh] and I got together and had this really amazing conversation where I told her I think that my best friend for the past 10 years has been a fictional character. It’s weird! I miss Cristina, almost viscerally. But when I figured out what I was going to do, I thought, Oh, Meredith and I are going to be fine.
Derek was interesting. But he was not the sun. When Cristina said that, Meredith realized that she had been taking a backseat to allow this man to get what he wanted. In an effort not to become her mother, she had tried too hard to become something less. What I loved about season 11 was her saying, That’s not who I am. It was so interesting for me to discover that audiences, especially women, are so conditioned to believe that there’s a singular fairy tale that nobody stops to think that that might not be the definition of happiness. Meredith knew that already. We got to the point in the season when Meredith said, “I can live without you, but I don’t want to,” which for any woman is a very powerful statement. It means: You complement me, but you don’t complete me.
I thought it was interesting that Cristina got the happiest ending of any character that I can imagine. She got a room full of 3-D printers! She got her own hospital! She got the freaking chocolate factory! And yet audiences were like, But she didn’t get a baby? Or a wedding? I was like, Did you guys learn anything? She unapologetically had an abortion because she did not want any of those things! And I found it really insulting to who Cristina was that Derek was considered more important.
POMPEO: Also, let’s keep it really real for a second and say this is really difficult for my ego. It’s okay! We all have one! It’s like, Annalise Keating carries the show, Olivia Pope carries the show, but somehow, Meredith Grey needs someone. Why can’t I just be the lead of the show the way Annalise and Olivia can? Why can’t I be on that poster by myself?
RHIMES: As well you can.
WASHINGTON: Season 2, I had Tony Goldwyn with me on the poster. And then he went away. He might come back! [Laughs]
POMPEO: All of a sudden, Patrick [Dempsey] leaves, and it’s like, Oh my God, Meredith’s gonna get killed with Alzheimer’s! The show couldn’t possibly go on without the man!
RHIMES: If you look at what we’ve been doing over the past 245 episodes, for 180 of them this woman [she points to Pompeo] has been in 90 percent of every minute. Patrick has not. He has not been a major character. Cristina and Meredith — that was the Olivia/Fitz romance.
You got an overwhelming amount of feedback on Twitter about McDreamy’s death, not all of it good …
WASHINGTON: Some people get on the [Shondaland] roller coaster because they expect the fairy-tale ending. It’s like, “I’ll go up and down if there’s a big splash of confetti at the end and everybody’s happy.” And Shonda says, “Everyone’s going to be happy. It just may not be the way society has defined it up until now.” The dream is that love lives on for eternity, right? And their love is going to live on for eternity … because he’s dead.
RHIMES: The crap that women have been fed since the beginning of time hasn’t been working. We’ve been watching very homogenous television written by very homogenous people in very homogenous ways.
DAVIS: It’s the fairy tale about everything: relationships, how women operate, how black women operate. When I came in to play Annalise, I thought I had to look a certain way. Why? Because people who are sexual and kind of a mess, they look a certain way, right? We know that’s not true! But there was a part of me that felt like, no one’s gonna swallow me unless I feed them that pill. I’ve been stuck in the tin of goodness for so long that playing a character who’s not always good, it’s like, I can’t marry the idea of a 50-year-old dark-skinned black woman with not being nice!
WASHINGTON: I had a friend who was writing a show for another showrunner, and it was about a woman in a certain field, so he went to this showrunner and said, “What if it was about a black woman?” And the showrunner was like, “America’s not ready for that.” That’s where the conversation ended.
RHIMES: I’m sure the conversation has ended there a lot of the time.
Shonda, you were just saying that television shows are made by a homogenous group. They’re also reviewed by a homogenous group. I want to ask you about Alessandra Stanley’s piece on How to Get Away With Murder in The New York Times, where she said that your biography should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman and that Viola was “less classically beautiful” than some other, lighter-skinned black actresses. Did anything positive come out of the backlash to that piece?
[Collective groans around the room]
RHIMES: There were articles written in response that made me feel like, “Oh my God, there are some thinking people out there!” Because if that had gone uncommented upon…
POMPEO: If any good comes out of ignorance, then I’ll take the ignorance. [Davis lets out a big sigh.]
Do you feel that way, Viola?
DAVIS: I understand what Ellen is talking about, but I’ve been on the other side of ignorance. [Pompeo’s eyes well up with
tears. She leaves the room.] Colorism and racism in this country are so powerful that the Jim Crow laws are gone, but what’s left is a mindset. As an actress, I have been a great victim of that. There were a lot of things that I am that people did not allow me to be until I got the role of Annalise.
What were you not able to be?
DAVIS: I was not able to be sexualized. Ever. In my entire career. And I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me be sexualized on television or in film. Ever. It’s made me more resolved in the decisions I’ve made in creating a character. For instance, I’m so tired of hearing people say, “No, we can’t have Annalise say that, because that’s not something she would say.” What if it is something she would say? What corridor can we go down for an entire season if she said that, if she did that? What values can we add that can be revolutionary?
RHIMES: That’s what’s happening for her character this season!
NEXT: Rhimes reveals the details of her upcoming memoir, Year of Yes
Shonda, you’ve said that your favorite moments are when characters surprise themselves with what comes out of their mouths, like Meredith telling Derek, “You don’t get to call me a whore,” or when Papa Pope tells Olivia she needs to be “twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” Have you ever written a scene that revealed something about who you are that surprised you?
[Pompeo comes back into the room. Washington pats her back, asks if she’s okay. Pompeo nods her head yes.]
RHIMES: All writing is discovering something about who you are.
WASHINGTON: Everybody in this room is willing to courageously dig deep and figure out what the truth is about a moment.
RHIMES: And reveal themselves.
POMPEO: Under the Shondaland umbrella, people get a lot more raw than they really want to get. I’ve seen actors’ faces just drop. Like, “This is painful and I don’t want to go here and I don’t want to do that.” And you have to make a decision — if you want the scene to be good, you have to go there. It’s a great exercise in leaving your ego at the door.
DAVIS: If you don’t do that, you’re not an actor. It’s that simple. Back in the day, one of the things [Russian actor-teacher Konstantin] Stanislavsky, the Actors Studio, always said was, “Study life.” As actors, we study other actors — we don’t study life! [Washington laughs.] It’s the same thing with writers. Arthur Miller was so pivotal in dramatic literature because he rewrote what it meant to be a hero. What he said was, I’m gonna take a common man who’s a nobody and you’re gonna watch him drive his life into the ground. I’m going to write for that person who’s sitting in the audience, alone in their putridness, to feel less alone.
RHIMES: “Alone in their putridness.” I love that.
Shonda, you just wrote a book called Year of Yes, which is due in November, about spending a whole year saying yes to all the things that scare you. How did taking those risks affect your writing?
RHIMES: What’s interesting is that I’m always willing to try new things in my writing, but that was the only place I was doing it. As a workaholic, I hit this moment where I realized that my characters were leading these giant lives, traveling
all over the world, having these fantastic existences, and I was not. One of my closest friends was a fictional character! That was not okay. … [So] I told myself I was going to say yes to everything. The first thing that happened was that the president of Dartmouth asked me to give a commencement speech. The second thing that happened was they asked me to do an hour of the Jimmy Kimmel show, which was the worst thing in the world. And I did that but I did not die, which was huge. My panic was really huge. I had so much social anxiety. I was a person who, when I did a television interview, I did not remember it, because I would be in such a panic.
You recently said you want someone to set you up. Was dating part of the Year of Yes?
RHIMES: Dating is part of the Year of Yes. One part was discovering that I did not want to get married. I was seriously dating somebody and I was like, I don’t want to do this. I guess I had been secretly feeling that way and writing it for Cristina. We’re all so conditioned to want it, I felt like there must be something wrong with me. But the minute I said it out loud to my family, it was fantastic. Now if somebody says, “Are you looking for that?” I say, “Nope, looking for a boyfriend, not a husband.” And there’s a freedom to that. There’s no pressure if you’re not looking for it. It’s like the baby thing: If you don’t want to have a baby, don’t have a baby!
There’s a great moment on Scandal when Cyrus says, “Being a mother isn’t a job.” With three kids of your own, do you agree with that?
RHIMES: I feel very strongly about that statement. When I put it in, we had a big talk about it in the writers’ room. They were like, “Shonda!” and I was like, “It’s true!” You cannot quit being a mother. Calling it a job belittles it. It goes part and parcel with the whole idea of motherhood as sacrifice. Some site tweeted, “Getting no sleep when you have a newborn is a badge of honor!” And I was like, No it’s not! It sucks! And we should be able to say it sucks. The greeting cards that are like, Mother, you sacrificed so much for me — the glorification of mothers who are doormats for our children? Where is the greeting card that’s like, Mother, thank you for teaching me how to be a CEO? Mother, thank you for teaching me how to make money. Mother, thank you for teaching me how to kick ass and take names. Those are the greeting cards that I want my child to get when she is a mother. So when people are like, “Oh, it’s the most important job you’ll ever have”? No. The most important job I’ll ever have is my job.