Donald Trump, Emmys, Shonda Rhimes’ acting and even Mr. Potato Head were some of the vast topics canvassed at ABC’s TGIT panel, aka the Shondaland session, this afternoon at TCA. After some of the blasé panels that the press corps had to sit through last week, TGIT came as tall glass of cold water here at the Beverly Hilton. As the press needled Rhimes about next season’s story lines and showered her with compliments, she turned a cold shoulder to praise and didn’t suffer any fools.
One reporter asked Rhimes how she felt about churning out TV shows that not only broke down barriers for African-Americans but also earned Emmys — specifically with Viola Davis nominated for best actress in How To Get Away With Murder this year. Rhimes responded that it was all about the work for her; “we don’t focus on the awards or the accolades.” The reporter asked about “the legacy” Rhimes was creating. “I don’t spend time thinking about legacy,” she replied. “We’re still doing this.” Using the word “legacy” for Rhimes implied something that great that was over. “I stay in the present — that’s useful,” she said.
“But when Scandal came on the air, it had been 40 years since a black woman started in a TV show. Now we have Empire, it seems like it’s all because of your success,” needled the reporter.
“You’re trying to make me say something,” retorted Rhimes. “It’s lovely things you’re saying, but I’m not answering it.”
Davis, who came very close to winning a best actress Oscar in 2013 for The Help only to lose to Meryl Streep, gave her poignant take on awards: “My friend was talking about Peter O’Toole and how he was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and never won. Someone said, ‘That’s a travesty.’ Whatever roles he was given were so great on the page that they were worthy of awards attention. It speaks to the quality of the narrative. People who give awards are woken up. I’m always been the third girl from the left. You might have the talent of Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, but you have the role of the spear carrier. When that happens, no one can see you shine. Shonda and Peter (Nowalk) are modest: But they let us shine.”
Conversation turned to ABC’s marketing and scheduling of the TGIT brand. Does Rhimes feel nervous?
“I don’t worry about things that I don’t have any control over, and I don’t have anything to do with scheduling or marketing,” said Rhimes, swatting the question away. “My job at ABC is to make shows and tell stories, and that’s what I spend my time doing.”
An innocent foreign reporter asked, “If there was a biopic made about you, who would play you?”
Said Rhimes firmly, “There will never be a biopic made about me.”
While there’s no biopic, Rhimes did play herself on an episode The Mindy Project last season.
“I made a ridiculous promise to myself to say yes to things that scared me, and then Mindy [Kaling] called up, so I had to say yes. It turned out to be fun. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. They were really nice to me and made me look good. … I don’t know a thing about acting. I can’t walk and talk at the same time, and you can see that I’m not walking and talking at the same time.”
Scandal star Kerry Washington was asked about how Olivia Pope is a role model. Washington said she understands that people love her character as an entrepreneur, but “it often when people tell me this, I say, ‘She’s having an affair with the President of the United States.'” However, Washington says she savors the part because “in Shondaland, the characters are complicated. There are no good guys or bad guys … there are three-dimensional human beings.”
Washington shared with the crowd a story about a fan letter she received where “the woman couldn’t get off her couch after Olivia stole the election. That’s when Olivia became a bad guy on the show. This fan was devastated. But it forced her in her therapy sessions to make room for people in her life who were complicated and allowing people in her life who aren’t perfect.”
Davis explained that the challenge in regards to developing character as an actor “is becoming like Mr. Potato head.” Fans always nitpick over their favorite characters’ wavering emotions. “What happens is that you want people to like you. But that’s when you start compromising your soul as an artist.”
Referring to how Rhimes translates this to plot, Washington explained, “That’s why you (as the audience) gasp when someone takes off a wig (Annalise Keating), is weak before the President of the United States or McDreamy dies in a car accident.”
Forget about complex people — how would Pope wrangle a loose cannon like Donald Trump? That stumped the Shonda-panel for a bit.
“Do you think he should ask to do something about the hair,” Rhimes asked Washington, who responded, “There’s a really good hair department on the show.”
Ellen Pompeo of Grey’s Anatomy had the last word: “You could send him over to Meredith, and I’ll cut his vocal cords out!”