Shonda Rhimes speaks about seizing opportunities

Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of acclaimed television series Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, spoke at Bovard Auditorium on Monday to discuss her creative career, inspiration and new self-help book Year of Yes. The Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange hosted Rhimes, who graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts with a master of fine arts.

Sasha Frere-Jones, staff writer for the L.A. Times, interviewed Rhimes. He began by asking Rhimes to explain the inspiration for her book, which explores overcoming inhibitions. Rhimes said that when her sister told her that she never said yes to anything, she initially felt insulted.

“People think, ‘Oh, you must have this really thrilling life,’ [but] I literally went to work and came back,” Rhimes said. “The bigger my characters had gotten, the smaller I had gotten.”

That moment became the beginning of the novel. Rhimes experienced another breakthrough when she was sent to Washington D.C. to sit with President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama after she was appointed to the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“Nobody asked me because of course nobody thought I would say no,” Rhimes said. “But when I got home, I realized that if they would have asked me, I absolutely would have … I would have missed what would have been an incredible experience.”

For Rhimes, that moment was a “wake-up call.” For the next year, she pledged to say yes to more new experiences.

Rhimes also spoke about how growing up as a book lover fostered a passion for the arts. In particular, she recalls her parents telling her to get some fresh air.

“Whenever my parents would be like, ‘go outside’ — and, this is my rebellion — I would take a book and tuck it down the back of my pants and go outside and find a tree and read,” Rhimes said. “I was just wild.”

Rhimes also believed her introverted nature influenced her writing. Specifically, she dwelled on her childhood play in a pantry, which she saw as a place of imagination.

“It was like Game of Thrones in that pantry,” Rhimes said. “Part of loving writing is that I get to live in my imagination … Writing, for me, is like living in the pantry.”

In the characters she creates now, Rhimes said she sometimes draws from her personal life. In particular, Rhimes said that she created Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy to “test drive” experiences that she wanted to have.

“What I figured out was that I was allowing a character to say and do all the stuff that I was afraid to say and do,” Rhimes said.

Ultimately, Rhimes concluded that saying yes to more opportunities and experiences began to transform her life.

“You start to feel invincible,” Rhimes said. “You start to feel powerful. You start to feel a lot more in control of your life.”

Frere-Jones also asked Rhimes audience-submitted questions. In response to a question about who inspired her, Rhimes explained that her parents, teachers and strong figures in her early life were all role models.

“Whether or not they were perfect is not the point,” Rhimes said. “You don’t have to know the person. You just have to be inspired by them. You just have to look at them and say, ‘That piece of them is something I want to emulate.’”

Amira Perryman, a senior majoring in international relations, said she found it profound that Rhimes said that it was OK to be unhappy.

“She’s supposed to be having this great Hollywood lifestyle but she’s still unhappy,” Perryman said. “And then just first breaking past that initial barrier she had for herself to then have the year of yes and the life of yes, was the most profound and interesting thing to me.”