As Shonda Rhimes’ partner in crime, Betsy Beers is well-served by her improv roots
It is the day after Viola Davis won the lead actress drama Emmy for her role as a brilliant law professor on “How to Get Away With Murder,” and executive producer Betsy Beers is sitting in her wood-paneled office at Shondaland headquarters inside Sunset Gower Studios. It was originally built for Columbia Pictures honcho Harry Cohn.
“He was a big fan of despots,” Beers quips, “so he built this room in the shape of Mussolini’s office.” She points out a secret door in the bathroom where you can see old wooden steps Cohn once covertly used to usher out showgirls.
“I like to think that ol’ Harry is rolling over in his grave because a lady with a white shag rug is sitting in his office,” she says — not to mention the “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” lunchboxes on display.
Shonda Rhimes may be the face and voice of a television empire, but inside Shondaland, there is another woman sharing the white shag throne. Beers is Rhimes’ partner in crime, serving as executive producer on all of the company’s series. Their production company is responsible for three of broadcast TV’s most popular shows — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” on ABC; a fourth, “The Catch,” is scheduled for midseason.
In an industry where fewer than a quarter of television shows are run by female executive producers, Beers and Rhimes are gleefully tipping the balance. Alison Eakle, Shondaland’s senior development executive, calls her workplace “a Shondaland bubble where I am surrounded by women department heads, women writers — and Betsy and Shonda, of course.”
Beers is steering the ever-expanding empire into the future with nine series currently in development, including something very new in a company known for plot-twisted, emotionally intense drama: a comedy slate.
Her own background is in comedy: After growing up on the margins of showbiz (her father was a New York theatrical agent) and trying her luck as a serious actress in New York theater, Beers created her own improv company. She eventually moved to L.A., where she traded her hopes of being cast as “a wacky next-door neighbor on a sitcom” for a job writing story reports for the studios.
One of the movies she recommended — Keenen Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation parody “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” — got made, offering her a first taste of working in production. Beers went on to produce such movies as “200 Cigarettes” and “Casanova” — the latter while also working on the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” After commuting between the movie set in Venice, Italy, and the TV set in Los Angeles, she says, “I got my wits about me,” and she threw in her lot with Rhimes.
“When we started, neither one of us had worked in television,” says Rhimes. “We were very tightly wound around each other just to do that job of working on one show.” They quickly forged a close friendship, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a respect for each other’s limits.
“We always say that only one of us gets to be crazy at a time,” Rhimes says. “Only one of us gets to be ready to quit at a time.”
With no TV experience between them, it was a little like the blind leading the blind into prime time. “We didn’t know what you aren’t supposed to do … we were just trying to figure out the best way to tell the stories so it ended up working out,” Beers says, shaking her mass of blond wavy hair. “It was great not knowing.”
One of the results of “not knowing” was colorblind casting — that is, opening up every role to actors of every ethnicity. “We found out later it was very unusual,” Beers says. “But [casting director] Linda Lowy thought it was great because hey … the entire world of actors is open to us.” That decision gave birth to the justly celebrated diversity of Shondaland, where doctors, lawyers and politicians come in every racial, sexual and gender stripe.
Beers and Rhimes believe there is nothing radical about the array of talent they put on camera and behind it. The fact that Davis is the first African American woman to win a lead actress Emmy for drama in the awards’ 67-year run suggests otherwise. Yet Beers says that in Shondaland, the central requirement is just that characters be “complicated and fascinating and dark and twisty and funny.”
“How to Get Away With Murder” creator Peter Nowalk recalls Beers pushing him to create a different kind of heroine in Annalise Keating, the role that won Davis her Emmy. “There is an instinct of expecting likable things from your main character,” Nowalk says. “Betsy encouraged me to not make her perfect.”
Nowalk thinks Annalise was, in some subconscious way, inspired by Beers. Not the part about coaching her students to cover up murders, but “in terms of her protective maternal nature,” he says. “Annalise is protective of her students. That is exactly how I feel about Betsy — she is out to protect my voice, my vision of the show.”
Last season, Nowalk says he would regularly lie down on Beers’ couch in a panic. “I didn’t know if it would all fall apart at every second.... But Betsy can instantly pick up on what the story is supposed to be and where it went wrong.”
Call her the Shondaland whisperer: Beers enables Rhimes to focus on the creative elements, with Rhimes knowing that Beers is keeping their many shows running smoothly. Not an easy task with multiple writers rooms and production offices and sets spread around town (Beers can reel off the drive time between sets to the minute), as well as all those development projects in different stages of readiness.
Beers says she approaches new Shondaland series ideas from the perspective of “What is bothering people?” She gives as an example a sense a few years ago that “culturally and societally, nobody trusted authority anymore … so a lot of our development revolved around the idea of taking the law into your own hands.” That loosely led, she says, to the political series “Scandal” and the legal roguishness of “Murder.” (It doesn’t hurt that she’s married to criminal defense attorney Bruce Cormicle; he consults on both shows.)
Among the series they’re developing are a drama about millennial nuns by writer Alison Schapker, a romantic comedy from “Scandal” star Scott Foley and actor Greg Grunberg, and a divorce comedy with “Trophy Wife” creators Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins. Comedy is a new focus for Shondaland, but Rhimes and Beers hope to take their loyal fans with them into fresh territory.
“Thinking about who doesn’t get represented is important to us in comedy as well,” says Shondaland exec Eakle. “We are still always gravitating toward the untraditional families — the ones you make — and the weird workplace situations.”
If Shondaland were the setting for a workplace comedy, Beers would be the character in perpetual motion yet completely present and attentive when she’s in front of you. This day alone holds a newspaper interview, meetings with writers, phone calls trying to close deals, check-ins in with Nowalk and Rhimes, and the recording of her “Shondaland: Revealed” podcast, in which she plays a quick game of “Six Degrees of Shondaland” with “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jason George.
Beers thinks her improv background comes in handy at Shondaland. “In a world where shows have to keep going while the priorities change, I have to stay flexible,” she says, ignoring a ringing phone. “We take the suggestions people give us and build the best reality we can for them. “
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