12/22/2014 by Lesley Goldberg
Plus the 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Scandal' and 'How to Get Away With Murder' stars share their thoughts about working for Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers
After starting his career as an assistant in Hollywood — he wrote a book about the experience — Nowalk, an avid Grey's Anatomy fan, first attempted to write movies before trying his hand at TV with a pilot script. After Shondaland partner Beers read it and handed it to Rhimes, Nowalk wound up with a job as a staff writer on Grey's spinoff Private Practice.
"Betsy Beers and Shonda Rhimes literally were Santa Claus for me," Nowalk told THR in September ahead of Murder's debut. His work on Private — his first time in a writers room — eventually led to writing opportunities on Grey's Anatomy and Scandal before he sold Murder to ABC with Shondaland producing.
Beers, meanwhile, called Nowalk "one of the most instinctively gifted showrunners I have ever encountered," and credits Murder's success to his clear vision and killer instincts. "When I met him, he had never been on a TV show before. From the moment we hit the ground on the Murder pilot — literally from pitch-point on — the guy has been incredibly intelligent about how he absorbs feedback. He knows how he feels about things, he is very articulate about it and he has a really clear vision."
Beers, who also identified Scandal inspiration Judy Smith as a potential storytelling vehicle for Rhimes, says she looks for depth and three-dimensionality when she reads scripts for potential Shondaland vehicles.
"When you're staffing a show, one of the things you want is somebody who wants to write in the style of the show, but also who has an angle or a specificity that you can tell will be a contribution to whatever the process is as they move forward," she says. "The great thing about Pete was, from the first spec script I read of his nine years ago, he was already able to create a complete world with three-dimensional characters that were actually really riveting and super entertaining."
Beers brought Nowalk in for a meeting based on his pilot samples, which she described as "page-turners about vulnerable, flawed characters who were really funny and had no fear of being self-deprecating."
"They were very complete worlds," she says. "One of the things you hope for when you do this job is that you'll have an opportunity to continue to work with some of these terrific minds and find a way to, first of all, create an environment in which they can create shows, but also help shepherd new ideas and help them consolidate and formulate their voices so that they can go off to run a show. I don't think we've done our job if people don't end up leaving without the tools to be able to do that."
Beers pointed to Shondaland regular Jenna Bans, who started on Private Practice and landed her own show — ABC's Shondaland-produced Hawaii medical drama Off the Map — before segueing to Grey's and Scandal and landing her own development deal with ABC Studios. That has already resulted in a drama sale — a political thriller set up at ABC.
"The goal for Shondaland is to continue to make very good shows that we're proud of when they're ready," Beers says of the company, which this season has three sales. "I'm not interested in overexpanding rapidly for expansion's sake. I hope we continue to attract talent both from inside the family and outside the family because a lot of our development comes from outside the family. I hope we're able to continue to build a slate both in comedy and drama that feels true to the brand but also respects the individual voice of the person who is creating that television program."
One of Shondaland's three sales this season is a comedy executive produced by Scandal star Scott Foley. Last season, Scandal Emmy winner and Grey's co-EP Dan Bucatinsky adapted his book for ABC with Shondaland producing. Additionally, many of the TGIT stars have also taken an interest in both directing and producing. Grey's leads Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey both have development deals with ABC Studios. Chandra Wilson and Kevin McKidd each direct two episodes of Grey's per season, with the latter having shadowed on Scandal in the past.
"Across the board, there's opportunity to grow yourself as an artist," Wilson says. "We have our script supervisor that directs and also acts on the show. One of our grips is a director on the show now. Two of our editors, three of our writers — there's such opportunity for movement if you can really appreciate where you are and soak that in. The writers constantly move from position to position every season; I don't know if other universes work that way, but ours certainly does and I really appreciate that."
McKidd hopes his behind-the-scenes work on Grey's -- which included directing the season 11 premiere — leads to a similar role on Scandal once the logistics on both shows can be worked out. (Grey's films at Prospect Studios, while Scandal — and Murder — are neighbors at Sunset Gower.)
"I shadowed at Scandal last season and actually read for Fitz because [Scandal star] Tony Goldwyn was off directing a pilot at the time [WE tv's The Divide] during season two and couldn't be at a table read," McKidd says with a smile. "I got to read the part of Fitz and it was awesome; I had such a good time doing that. Maybe one day when there's no logistical problem, I can direct there. The trust they've given me, on so many levels, I feel really blessed to have become part of this family."
Tom Verica, Scandal's producing director, went the other route and landed a recurring role on Murder after bit parts — and directing gigs — on Grey's and Private.
"Shonda has the final say in everything but really encourages people to pipe up and bring your ideas," Verica says. "I'd like to think that's why I've been here this long. I think I did some good episodes on Grey's that led to Private. Scandal was a different beast — I did one episode in the first seven [the key Olivia-Fitz origin story "The Trail"] and was given a gift with that script and ran with it, and Shonda and Betsy asked me to be around full time for season two."
Not to be outdone, Scandal star Goldwyn — who has directed both Grey's and Private — has helmed two episodes of his own show, including the season four midseason finale.
Paul Adelstein, who starred on Private and recurs on Scandal, directed two episodes of his ABC series and brought the lessons he learned in Shondaland with him to his new Bravo scripted series, Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce.
"If you're interested in film and TV and spend enough time on-set asking questions — and the people at Private were really great about encouraging that — that carried over," he says. "[GGTD creator-showrunner] Marti Noxon ran Private originally, and when we were doing the pilot of Guide, I'd sold a pilot last year and she asked if I'd be interested in writing on [Guide] if we go to series. That came to be, and it was an amazing experience. I couldn't have done it without Shondaland. It's like Bill Parcells in the NFL: You can draw a tree of Shondaland — Marti through Shondaland. Marti is cut from the same cloth."
As for the future of Shondaland, the company is actively trying to break into the comedy space. While the banner has yet to land a half-hour pilot order after a few years of developing, Beers — who started her career as an improv sketch comedian and jokes that "America is better for it" that she stopped — is optimistic that Shondaland will eventually find one that sticks.
"I have a huge place in my heart for comedy, and Shonda started with movie comedies," says Beers, who enjoys 30 Rock, Episodes and classics including Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers and Seinfeld. "We both feel like we're desperate to have a comedy that lives on television because we both love TV comedy so much."
With the struggle to launch — and return — new comedies to the schedule the past few seasons, Beers says it's all about finding a relatable world with a good voice that's timely.
"What you end up getting entranced by is the characters in a short period of time dealing with big issues neurotically," Beers says of what makes comedy work. "And there are not that many external obstacles in the world anymore to people getting together. One of the challenges is how do you make neuroses fresh? Where do you find your conflict?"
Ultimately, Beers encourages up-and-coming writers not to write what they're being told to write. "Write what you really care about. Write what you want to say because that is the experience that always rates as genuine on the page," she says. "Your structure and format may not be perfect, and you may not have picked the perfect franchise, but if I pick up a script and the characters are real, whole, complicated and come from a place of somebody who really is feeling it, that's what people remember. They don't remember that maybe that person shouldn't have been in a police show. They'll remember that character. So always remember: TV starts from character, and the thing that you have to bring to character is your own voice and your own originality and your specificity."
Other Shondaland veterans agree.
Zoanne Clack started as an assistant working on the Grey's Anatomy pilot and rose through the ranks to producer, co-EP, story editor, exec story editor and now serves as a writer and EP.
"Shonda was kind enough to read me when she was staffing season one, so the way I got my foot in the door, I said, 'Hey, I have some scripts if you have any chance and want to read them.' It was a nice moment at the beginning of an incredible journey for me," says Clack. "That's probably a very different story than most people would have because most aren't on the pilot. I came in before Shondaland started. It was staffing season. I'm a physician, and they needed somebody like me for Grey's Anatomy. It was Shonda and Jim Parriott, who was [now co-head writer] Stacy McKee's boss initially, and they both gave me a chance because it was my second writing job after Presidio Med, which was a year before that."
McKee, who oversees the writers room with co-head writer Bill Harper, says the Shondaland staff has become like a family.
"That's what's so unique about Shondaland: There's an incredible amount of loyalty —we all know and love each other. That's the reason so many people love it and want to stay and be a part of it for such a long time," she tells THR. "I can't imagine the past decade of my life without Shonda and Shondaland involved in that. It has shaped my world, the way it's shaped a lot of our fans' worlds. It's a unique experience and the kind of thing you don't find in Hollywood very often."
For his part, Harper boarded Grey's during season four after one of the exec producers who was familiar with his work thought the newbie writer would be a good fit for the medical drama.
"The stars aligned and there was an opening that fit my level, which was very entry level. I was a staff writer when I was hired. My script was passed around when they were looking at people, and Shonda read it and met with the other execs and I had the job," he recalls. "It was my very first job."
The trio all have the same advice for Shondaland hopefuls.
"Write, write, write and read, read, read. Keep writing and don't stop," Harper said, with McKee encouraging young writers to be "fearless" and Clack, who contributes a lot of the medical stories, recommending the old adage of writing what you know. "Be an expert on what you're writing. Be the expert in that world, know that world backward and forward," she suggests.
Of course, moving through the ranks at Shondaland is not limited to behind-the-scenes work. Rhimes — like other multihyphenates including Joss Whedon, Ryan Murphy and Mike Schur — has become famous for using the same company of actors and creating a de facto repertory company.
"It's not an easy club to get in," says Foley, who debuted in Shondaland with a recurring role on Grey's Anatomy before joining Scandal. "Shonda has this very famous 'No Assholes' policy and it's a huge thing. Shonda has a way of writing characters and creating shows that you should respect, and if you don't, you have to respect the fact that people do. To be a part of that collective is a great feeling."
Adds Beers of working on grooming people both in front of and behind the camera: "It's a cool thing to be able to continue to work with people you care about and actually have that opportunity. The beneficial part is it always makes my job easier."
Check out what some other TGIT stars had to say about the benefits of working in Shondaland below.
Billy Brown, How to Get Away With Murder
I'm always learning and watching and it's cool to be working with a group where the kinks are already ironed out. The machinery is flowing and whether you want to equate it to a Formula One car or any other analogy, the confidence is there and that is infused in each of our parts that we play, whether it's cast or crew. It comes down from the top, which is nice.
Kate Burton, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal
It's the camaraderie and sense of partnership that you're helping her creations come to life.
Jessica Capshaw, Grey's Anatomy
The most important thing for me has been having proximity to a boss that cares when you have thoughts or concerns or questions and addresses them in a mindful and kind and generous way and who helps you when you're having trouble. She encourages you when you're experiencing a success or you've had a great or bad moment. Shonda is current with us. She's an email or a phone call away. That is something that I don't know that many people get to have when they're working on network television.
Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
The most beneficial part of it is that I feel like I'm given a role that has taken me out of my comfort zone, but I'm with a family of people that are supporting that, who are allowing me to fly and giving me the net.
Guillermo Diaz, Scandal
To be able to say these words that Shonda and the writers come up with. I've never been on a job where I've been so fulfilled as an actor. Usually on a TV show or a movie, there's always a couple of scenes or a line that doesn't ring true. But this writing is almost like Shakespeare.
Alfred Enoch, How to Get Away With Murder
Getting to work on a fun and exciting show with good people who are friendly and very talented. There's a good atmosphere on set and everyone feels comfortable with the people around them.
Katie Findlay, How to Get Away With Murder
I feel like I'm coming into an environment where everyone already knows that they want good, friendly people and an environment that other people want to work in for as long as they possibly can. It's really palpable.
Jerrika Hinton, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal
I got into Shondaland by doing Scandal. Having one episode — one scene — on Scandal led to three years on Grey's.
Katie Lowes, Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal
She keeps an ensemble of actors like a theater company. To have somebody as powerful as Shonda keep a Rolodex of her actors that are good people that she enjoys working with — the fact she uses us over and over again — is a testament to how unbelievably awesome and loyal she is.
Camilla Luddington, Grey's Anatomy
I've never met a fandom like the Grey's Anatomy fandom. For me, having experienced that — they educate me on cool stuff, like what 'shipping was — this was monumental for me. That's been the most fun: interacting with the fans.
Kelly McCreary, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal
The depth and complexity of the characters that we get to play. A lot of the stuff I went out for during pilot season was girlfriends and sidekicks. This character that I get to play is funny, vulnerable, strong, brilliant, a mess, mean and kind. And that's right there on the page for me.
Matt McGorry, How to Get Away With Murder
There's a lot of creative freedom given and the role that I'm playing on Murder is a bit of the comedic relief, so in doing that, there's inherent creative freedom that I have. They kind of let me do whatever I want in some ways, which is sort of unheard of. It's not what I expected coming in to network television after coming from the world of Netflix [on Orange Is the New Black].
Joe Morton, Scandal
One, I have a job; two, it's a great job; three, it's a great character; four, it's a great show.
George Newbern, Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice
On Scandal, it was just supposed to be one episode and it turned into a three-and-a-half-year thing. The most beneficial part has been to feel like I'm part of a show that I don't have to cringe. It's well-written and people love it and it feels good as an actor to do something that gets fully realized.
Jeff Perry, Scandal, Grey's Anatomy
I grew up working in the theater and I never imagined a chapter in my life where I'm working with one of the greatest dramatists of her generation. Shonda writes with such lifelike contradiction and dichotomy in the characters. She writes amazing ensemble work where she captures whole communities — a hospital, Washington, D.C. I never thought I'd be part of a repertory company with this kind of writing, directing and these kind of actors who love to try and throw down, love coming to work and love the stories they get to tell. I'm in actor heaven.
Caterina Scorsone, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice
It's incredible that she's so loyal to the people that she loves. As a female actor, it's a dream and a privilege to be able to play the kind of characters that Shonda writes. We all notice that women are severely underrepresented in television and that is not the case in Shondaland. When we are represented fairly, as in Shondaland, here we get to play all of the colors that women experience: We're funny, smart, vulnerable, strong and it's all there. I'm thrilled to be back.
Karla Souza, How to Get Away With Murder
This is my first job in the U.S., and I caught the really big wave. It feels like a family and like you're really protected. The stories behind every character are so taken-care-of that you can really let go and enjoy it and do your part and it will all be great.
Kerry Washington, Scandal
The relationships and being part of this family and working with people I respect and admire and knowing I'm making friends for life.
Charlie Weber, How to Get Away With Murder
The warm welcome that you're immediately family. For us to be the new show but embraced the way we have, has been amazing.
Liza Weil, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy
I'm always given something entirely different to do, which is a huge testament to Shonda. She has a stable of people that she uses over and over again and she never limits you as an actor. You stay in her brain and she will give you something that's entirely different from the last thing that you played.
Bellamy Young, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal
I was in the Private Practice backdoor pilot of Grey's Anatomy. When we finished the first seven episodes of Scandal and watched them at Christmastime at Shonda's house, I asked [casting director] Linda Lowy — and the part had gone from nothing to something amazing — how she saw this in me. I auditioned with nothing. I'd been auditioning for her for a long time and she put me in Private. I auditioned for Grey's a couple times before, too. She only brought five of us that day to do two lines for Mellie. I'm lucky I made that list.
TGIT returns Jan. 29 on ABC.