Shonda Rhimes wears many hats: prolific TV producer (see: Bridgerton, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Station 19), author (Year of Yes) and founder of pioneering storytelling company and lifestyle brand, Shondaland. So it took just the right project to lure her back to TV writing.
“I was running on a treadmill when I read the article in New York Magazine about Anna Delvey, and I remember literally jumping off of the treadmill and calling my office,” she recalls. “I really felt like I hadn’t felt that excitement of a story that I wanted to tell and knew exactly how I wanted to tell it in a really long time.”
The result is Netflix’s new limited series Inventing Anna. Inspired by the New York Magazine article “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People” by Jessica Pressler, the nine-episode limited series follows a journalist as she investigates the case of Anna Delvey, the Instagram-legendary German heiress who stole the hearts of New York’s social scene – and their money.
Ahead of Inventing Anna’s Feb. 11 debut on Netflix, Rhimes discussed what drew her to the story, how her perception of Anna changed over time, and what the series says about society at large.
Why do you think it’s a story that captivated you and so many people so immediately?
There is something about this idea of somebody that age, a young woman building her way through the brawl that we can all relate to. She is a villain’s villain, if you know what I mean. You can’t help but admire her, she’s fascinating. And also you can’t help but be taken by her. I was fascinated by the fact that people were so eager to believe what she had to say without questioning it and how you make your way in the world. If you think about the fact that most of us reinvent ourselves when we go to college or you reinvent yourself when you go to high school or out in the business world, that’s what Anna was doing, only she just did it better than almost anybody else I’ve ever seen.
What kind of research did you do for the series?
All we had to work from, when we started, was this article. And luckily, I had Jessica Pressler, the journalist, onboard to talk to, and she’s a treasure trove of information. I had an amazing video interview of Anna from prison that Jessica gave me. But we also had the wonderful advantage of getting to talk to a lot of the real people involved in the story. That allowed us to really get a true picture and to get our questions answered. And by the way, this was a show that we were writing as it was unfolding. I remember we sat in the writer’s room together, all of the writers while one of our writers was in New York at the trial, staring at our phone for text updates as he was telling us what was unfolding so that we could finish the show.
Did your perception of Anna change over the course of production?
I started off feeling that Anna was going to be somebody that I had some disdain for. And what ended up happening is the more research I did, the more I read about her, the more I read her writings, the more I got to know Anna through the eyes of the other people, the more I could stand in her shoes a little bit and understand her as a person and try to build empathy for her. I mean there is no character that I have ever written that I don’t have empathy for, but I also grew to admire her a lot in a way that I just didn’t expect.
What does this series say about society’s obsession with image? Do you think Anna was treated differently because she was a woman?
We have created a world in which scrolling through Instagram images is the way you’re supposed to take other people in and understand who’s good and who’s bad and who’s powerful and who’s great. And yet, when somebody managed to do it in real life, people got really mad. They don’t get mad when a New York real estate mogul takes New York or takes America or comes up with those ideas. They get angry when a 20-something-year-old girl who is not New York’s idea of a perfect supermodel does it. She’s a very regular girl who had the confidence to stand firm and say this is why I am, this is who I want, and people bought it because she had that confidence. In a weird way, she’s being punished for being a very confident woman. It says a lot about us as a society that that’s what galls people more than anything, the fact that she cared about what she looked like, the fact that she felt strongly about what she was doing, the fact that she felt she was smarter than a lot of the men in the room.
What kinds of conversations do you hope the show inspires?
I hope the discussion is about what we end up valuing as being important. The fact that we value the image over the actual event or we value how we look or what the picture is over what the actual happenings were, or we value the outer life more than we do the inner life. I hope we start to talk about that because that’s what makes an Anna — is we’ve told her that image is everything, the cover of the magazine is far more important than the person on the cover of the magazine. I hope we start a discussion about the fact that having a real relationship and being connected to other people is much more important than faking it.
Inventing Anna premieres Feb. 11 on Netflix.