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.