Shonda Rhimes is one of the most prolific producers, writers and showrunners in Hollywood, someone who makes shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How do you get away with murder? and Bridgerton under its credits. But recently she dabbled in her first limited series, Netflix’s invent Annanow nominated for three Emmys, including Best Limited Series.
The show is based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article about Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, a fake German heiress who cheated on several Manhattanites into giving her hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, goods and services.
“Jessica Pressler’s article was so interesting to me and so vivid, and I remember reading it and immediately reading it a second time and thinking it builds such a vibrant world that I got excited about the possibilities of doing this kind of thing.” things to do. character study of this person,” says Rhimes THR.
Here, the showrunner talks about the challenges of telling such a story, why two-time Emmy winner Julia Garner (who has earned two Emmy nominations this year, for invent Anna and Ozark) was the perfect actress to play the title character and why she never wanted to meet the real Anna Delvey.
How did the project start?
I had a lot of respect for [Pressler] and write for her. I wanted to try and get that across because I think people try to do a lot of things when they get a project. There’s a lot of hype and a lot of promise, and I felt it made the most sense for me to be honest with her about what I thought worked, what I loved about it, how we would work together, and what I thought the trial would be. Working with Jessica turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve had the pleasure of doing in terms of a project and working with the creator of the original material.
You chose the rights to the article shortly after it was published in May 2018. How long did the preparation take and when did you start production?
(laughs.) I laugh because it was an interesting project. We started in 2019 and because of the pandemic we finished it in 2021. It was a long project. In fact, it took so long that I remember getting to a point where I was like, “I’m not even sure what it’s about is more relevant” because we’re in such a different place in society because of this pandemic. . We started it before Anna even went to trial, so we were writing during the trial and trying to figure out how the show was going to end and waiting for the trial to be over and all sorts of things. In that sense it was a very interesting project.
What helped you choose Julia Garner for the role of Anna?
She is incredibly talented. We had met and talked to a lot of people and, you know, Julia is a very versatile, smart actress. She approaches things very intellectually. And it felt like an interesting match.
Besides COVID, what were some challenges in adapting such a complicated story?
A lot of it was in how to tell it. You know, we had the most unreliable narrator in the world in Anna; we tried, but we would never get the truth from Anna. Granted, the woman is on trial, so it’s not like she’s going to give us her truth. But we just knew you had an unreliable narrator, so the challenge was to figure out how we were going to tell the story and we came up with the idea of really telling it through the people who had stories to tell about Anna, because the the reality is that there is no Anna. Anna doesn’t really exist, she’s an invention. And that was interesting to me, to hear everyone’s thoughts about who she was and what she’d been doing in their lives.
Did you guys talk to every character represented on the show, or was there someone you couldn’t really reach?
We couldn’t talk to Rachel [Williams, whom Delvey scammed out of $62,000]. We had to rely on other people’s stories and invent something and in doing so [case]We did hear a bunch from Anna about that. But in reality, that was important to me, because I didn’t want that character to be mistreated or portrayed in a way that felt gross. I wanted to make all of these women feel like the three-dimensional women that they were, so we worked really hard on that.
So you spoke to Anna directly?
I always say I purposely didn’t have access to Anna. Jessica had access to Anna – Jessica was really our on-site interviewer. She went to jail and we recorded an interview with Anna where she answered all our questions. But I purposely didn’t want to meet Anna, because I knew two things from hearing everyone’s stories: either people fell in love with her and lost all objectivity, or they hated her guts and just couldn’t take it. And I felt like I didn’t want to be stuck in a position where I had these feelings for this person that would color how I was going to tell the story. I didn’t want to think like, “Oh, this poor girl,” or I didn’t really think she was this monster.
From everything I’ve seen of her, she seems very charming.
She’s lovely. You know, we asked her, “When were you happiest?” And she’s in jail, in a prison suit, filmed, and she says, “Right now.” She says it with such prowess that you might want to think for a moment that she might be right. I think what I find interesting about her is that a lot of the lies she told… We lived in an Instagram society where everything was [about] what does it look like on Instagram, what does it look like on paper? And she embodies that in such a big way, and I feel for her because I wonder who she’ll be in 10 years, who she’ll be in 20 years. She still has a lot to grow up.
Where do you find the balance between holding on to what happened and taking some creative freedom to move the story forward? As you said, you are dealing with an unreliable narrator.
There’s so much about the show that feels like it’s coming straight out of Anna’s mouth, where we had to take some liberties, but we tried really hard to strike a balance between sticking to the facts that really mattered, and the stories that really mattered, and then just trying to build up the moments, express a moment that may have happened in life but didn’t happen the way we unfolded it. You know, we wanted to make sure we created these moments and told them in a way that was vivid and visual and worked for the story. That’s why we said “inspired by,” so we didn’t feel married to sticking to the facts. One of the ways that was most obvious was our creation of the reporter who was inspired by Jessica Pressler to create a way into this world because we needed someone you could sympathize with and really care about.
After all, the show isn’t a biopic.
Right. We didn’t tell a biopic, because that’s an important distinction to make. And there were so many elements of that show that were facts… I’m not even sure I could tell anyone because they came from some sort of secret notes somewhere. But there were also things that we invented because it had to be invented to really make the story sing and be what it should be. I had an incredible team, my writing staff was just incredible, and [it was this] great, great staff of writers who really took the work in hand. They were dedicated and wonderful.
How did working on this differ from your previous shows?
Doing a limited run is always a huge difference. It was just a very different kind of show. It was more of a character study than anything else I’ve done, and it was a very different experience. Fortunately, I worked with many of the same people. I worked with Lyn Paolo on costumes; she did costumes for Scandal. I worked with Tom Verica, one of my favorite directors I’ve always worked with. He was a producing director on Scandalso we had a lot of people that we knew, but you know, a limited series is just a completely different animal.
Have you had any trepidation about recording this story?
I think at this point in my career I’m just interested in jumping in and having fun and enjoying the ride of whatever happens. I was able to let go of that fear of failure. Failure is just another way to learn something, so I’ve really learned to let that go and really try to enjoy the work. That was part and parcel of coming to Netflix in the first place: I just wanted the chance to enjoy the work. I had lots of fun.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.