a long talk

A Shonda Story

Rhimes made Bridgerton a TV phenomenon but hadn’t written its world. Queen Charlotte is all hers.

Photo: Adama Jalloh
Photo: Adama Jalloh

Spoiler alert: This story contains major character and plot details.

Of the television creators whose work possesses the authorial stamp and social heft needed to sustain an academic conference, as well as the fan devotion required to make them household names, Shonda Rhimes is in a tier with only Norman Lear. The Chicago screenwriter’s first megahit, the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, premiered in 2005, while her most obsessed-over follow-ups, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, redefined appointment viewing for the Obama era. Each took audiences on a savvy, soapy ride through the work and sex lives of a refreshingly multiracial cast of horny careerists while hauling in millions of dollars and eyeballs for ABC. (A lineup so strong the network gave Rhimes her own night: TGIT, or Thank God It’s Thursday.) But after a public falling-out with her longtime creative home, Rhimes left network TV for Netflix in 2017.

The diamond of that deal so far has been an adaptation of the Julia Quinn period romance Bridgerton, now heading into its third season, a pandemic hit for Rhimes’s Shondaland production imprint but one she had never actually written for. That changes with its new six-episode prequel, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, in which Rhimes uses the prickly, slightly unhinged monarch’s origin story to elaborate on one of the series’ haziest questions: Why are there so many Black aristocrats in Regency-era England? The show (and a new companion book co-written with Quinn) features all the Rhimes hallmarks: attractive young protagonists whose open disdain for one another belies the even more obvious sexual electricity; an interracial romance set against a backdrop of professional and political intrigue; quippy repartee; women learning how powerful they are, and the forces that complicate and constrain that power; and steamy bedroom interludes. But the romantic fantasy of Queen Charlotte traverses somber new ground, balancing a sweeping view of history with a more intimate exploration of grief, regret, and painful decisions. (Bridgerton mainstays Lady Agatha Danbury and Lady Violet Bridgerton get thorough backstories here as well.) Rhimes sees the series as being of a piece with Shondaland’s bigger mission in TV: “I’m really not interested in doing something we’ve done before.”

I was watching The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement yesterday and noticed some parallels with Queen Charlotte’s story — a young woman coming into her own and facing new royal responsibilities, a romance with someone she clashes with initially.
You know what? That didn’t even occur to me. There are maybe parallels with Julie Andrews, who played the queen of Genovia. I was fascinated by how constrained she was by her job and her stature.

Why did you want to write this part of the Bridgerton saga yourself?
It started with a request from Ted Sarandos’s late mother-in-law, Jacqueline Avant. There’s such a beautiful, complex story to be told about a young Black queen’s rise to power. Golda Rosheuvel is so amazing as the Bridgerton-era Charlotte that I started to think I would love to know her journey, especially since we know how it turns out.

How much of your creative decision-making is a response to what you know fans want?
I think I’m pretty famous for being a person who says I don’t pay attention to fans. I don’t mean that in a bad way; I mean, the only way I know how to tell a story is to sort of be its keeper, and I therefore can’t take in all the outside influences from people’s reactions to the story. It doesn’t help me in figuring out a way to be creative in my job.

There’s hearsay and rumor that the real Queen Charlotte had Black ancestry. Did that inspire the casting in the initial seasons?
I don’t believe it’s hearsay and rumor. I know there are a lot of people who believe it’s absolutely fact that she’s from Black Portuguese royalty, and there are some who just can’t accept that. The idea that that would make her their first Black royal was very interesting to me. When we were putting Bridgerton together, we weren’t doing color-blind casting but wanted to build a reason for why Queen Charlotte was there.

Were there historical consultants on set or in the writer’s room?
We don’t have a room. It was just me toiling away with another writer, Nick Nardini, over Zoom and email. Every script went through the historian Polly Putnam’s hands, and there’s always a historian on set to help the actors understand the social rules of this world — what to do with your hands, how you use your gloves. But we strayed in the costumes for Bridgerton because we wanted to create a different look, especially with all the wigs. We did that purposely.

I’d imagine out of necessity, too.
Yes. It didn’t feel right sticking them with the hair of people they’re not. I strayed because we are in an entirely different era, and I wanted the world to feel grounded in both wardrobe and hair. Bridgerton showcases a world that has a heightened style, especially for hair. I wanted to see Black women in their full glory — celebrating their hair is an important part.

Do real-world debates over so-called critical race theory, book bans, and how U.S. history gets taught in schools figure into how you construct this fictional world?
There’s no good way to say this, so I’m just going to say it: I do not concern myself with the interests and thoughts of racists when I am incorporating ideas into my storytelling. It’s not worth anybody’s time.

Not even as pushback?
I think my very existence is pushback. Every show I’ve ever made is pushback because it was made by a Black woman and all the characters everybody seems to love are written through the voice of a Black woman.

How do you decide what to include or omit from real history?
I never set out to do a biopic, The True Life of Queen Charlotte. Nobody knows what the real Charlotte’s conversations were like with George or what their love life was like or how she felt showing up there. So I was excited to fill in all the blanks of a character we’d already created.

The basis for this European aristocracy that Bridgerton places Black people at the top of was a violent colonial empire that Black people were actually at the bottom of. How do you decide how much of that specific history to engage with?
Part of what made me interested in this subject is I found an old book that really laid out the roles that people of African descent played in that era. It also talked about their systematic erasure. There were so many successful Black composers; lots of rich African people sent their children to England for boarding school. Those things existed, and I was amazed to find they did. What I wanted to explore was, What happens if you unerase that erased history?

What’s happening in Queen Charlotte and what happened with Meghan Markle’s introduction to the British royal family seem like an inescapable parallel that people are going to draw.
Meghan Markle did not enter into it. My brain mostly thinks in terms of American politics, unfortunately, so I was really thinking about what would happen if this girl, Charlotte, came to America and was married off and how that was handled.

What romantic fulfillment do you think audiences get out of watching Black people occupy that era’s European ruling class?
Honestly, I have never thought about it that way. I don’t necessarily think about what audiences enjoy. I’m interested in seeing worlds where I’m involved — a show that’s about more than “girl meets guy; guy gets girl.”

Do you see portrayals like this as representing social progress?
I’m not looking at anything as an act of progress in terms of the stories we’re telling or who I’m putting at the forefront. It is so basic, in the sense that I’m telling stories I want to watch. I don’t have the arrogance to think, Oh, it’s all me and my thoughts. But the stories we’re putting out are clearly striking a chord. I want to see stories about women in power, about women of color in power. I’m not necessarily thinking about how they are received.

The older Queen Charlotte is pretty ruthless, especially with her 15 children. Some describe her as unlikable.
I’m amused that people think Charlotte is unlikable because I always thought she was terribly likable, even in Bridgerton. But I think women have just as much right to be unlikable and unsympathetic as men, and that’s not a thing a lot of people seem to think is okay. Charlotte was who she was. She’s fully formed, in a lot of ways, by grief and pain.

In this show, I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just cruelty — this is a world where people didn’t really care for their children because they didn’t necessarily know them; they were raised by somebody else. It’s heartbreaking to discover that young Agatha hasn’t had a chance to know her four kids. All that most of these women had was getting married: If you don’t get married, you don’t get any money, you might not have a place to live, and you always have to depend on another relative. So for them, the workplace is the marriage market. It felt vital to show how small their worlds were. Charlotte didn’t marry her love. She’s thrown into a situation, and the question is, How do you survive that? It’s not a romantic comedy. We all know how George turns out. We’re not telling a story where they lived happily ever after.

How involved were you with casting India Ria Amarteifio and Arsema Thomas?
Casting, plus writing and editing, is my wheelhouse. Arsema was just incredible when she came in. This was her first job out of school. I couldn’t believe it. It’s always about finding an actor who has real range, not somebody who’s interested in being liked. She was all about the work and approaches everything very intellectually — she asked me more questions than anybody, and I loved it because she was really trying to come to terms with the reality of Black England back then.

India had that kind of sparkle that makes you want to watch her all the time. But more important, she really seemed to understand from the very beginning, even in the audition rooms, the work of taking a character that’s so well known and so specific down the road and moving backward to figure out how that person would start out. I wasn’t trying to humanize Charlotte as much as I was trying to tell the story of what was most important to her and what she felt needed to be accomplished. In Bridgerton, we’re seeing her front-facing self. We never see her with kids. In Queen Charlotte, we’re in the back of the house.

A big part of Lady Danbury’s role is bringing Charlotte back down to earth by articulating the long-term implications and future uncertainty around this so-called Great Experiment in integration.
That’s part of the essence of their friendship. What does Charlotte know coming into this? She lived in a province in Germany where her family was royalty. She’s never even had to deal with this racism. She’s very naïve, and Agatha has been around the block. Her initial excitement that the queen can be an agent of change, her upset at discovering that Charlotte hasn’t consummated her marriage, isn’t because, like, Oh gee, you got to … It’s because the entire future of people of color in London is dependent on her actually being queen. She needs her bloodline to continue.

Was the affair between Lady Danbury and Violet’s father always part of their backstory?
I didn’t even know I was going to do it until I got to episode five of Queen Charlotte and was actually writing it. I felt like Agatha had to have a moment of joy. She was married off to a man who I assume is very nice but who is old and old-fashioned enough not to realize that her pleasure comes into account. Most men were like that if you didn’t marry for love.

Are you mostly figuring out story lines from episode to episode, as opposed to having a grand plan from the beginning?
I have not written an outline in 18 years because every time I did, I would stray from it so much. I discover a lot in the writing. I want to see where these characters go, and I’m not going to force them into some plot point.

You were a candy striper as a teenager and then created Grey’s Anatomy. Did those experiences inform your approach to this era in medicine and the sometimes brutal treatment of King George by his personal physician, who in the show subjects the king to a pretty intense regime of physical and psychological torture?
We did a lot of research, even going into learning who the doctors were and the kind of treatments they were giving George, how badly they were treating the person who’s supposed to be ruling the country just to make him sane — that stuff was really interesting, and a lot of it was very real. I’ve always been fascinated by how medicine has progressed. There’s never been a specific diagnosis for what King George had. Those doctors literally didn’t know what anything was; they thought it was “humors,” whatever that is, and a lot of other things. And for Corey Mylchreest to portray that was very difficult, I think. We don’t know quite what’s wrong with him, but we know what a lot of his symptoms were.

My way of having Charlotte be a part of that world was her understanding that she’s powerful enough to put a stop to these things and realizing that she and George are going to be living with this for the rest of their lives. She doesn’t have a solution. She’s got to figure out a way to keep him king because it was a real political concern, which is almost life and death at that period.

There’s a running debate in cultural criticism about whether popular media has gotten sexless over time. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think your shows have managed to be an exception?
I must have missed that, but I think the reason — and this is what I’ve heard — why actors have been saying they don’t want to do these scenes is because they don’t have any control. And where else should you have the most control than over your own body and how it’s seen?

I say to actors all the time, “If you want to do your scene in a snowsuit, then we’ll figure out how you can do your sex scene in a snowsuit. No one’s making you do anything. None of these story lines are dependent on you being willing to take your clothes off for the camera.”

In the later timeline, Queen Charlotte features an unusually direct engagement with sexuality and desire among older women, at least for TV.
I find it appalling that women of a certain age are never the center of these stories. I love when Lady Danbury says, “Lady Whistledown never writes of our hearts. We are untold stories,” because that’s very true. Their love lives are not of interest. Watching Violet and Danbury discuss who they are and what they’ve missed in terms of romance and sexuality was really powerful.

Something I always found irritating — and I don’t mean irritating, but irritating — is that Bridgerton is focused on this younger set, but that’s because everyone’s job is getting these young people married.

There’s a Hollywood parallel here.
I don’t think I was trying to make that commentary, though obviously that is there because it’s a thing that bothers me — not just about Hollywood but about the way we look at women in the world. Most of the stories told about women are about a man’s fantasy of what a woman is. But the idea that they’re only interesting if they’re a hot 25-year-old is sort of disgusting because it suggests that the rest of women don’t participate in the world in that way. I like telling stories about that.

You signed an overall deal with Netflix when Netflix was seen to be doing really well, but lately there has been lots of news about its financial struggles. Have you felt that squeeze as a showrunner?
No. I hate to say this because I certainly can’t speak to anybody else’s experience, so I don’t want to seem to be suggesting this is the experience for all people at Netflix. But we’ve seen no difference. They’ve just always been really supportive of the stories we tell.

What are the logistical differences between working in network TV versus streaming?
They’re completely different engines. ABC was a very powerful, very storied institution. There’s a ton of bureaucracy. The process was you get answered “no” initially and then you have to find your way. Even getting Scandal to start what was live-tweeting, they were like, “Why would anybody do that? No.” And then they came around to a “yes,” but we just did it on our own until they saw it. We accomplished a lot in terms of exploring a woman’s right to choose, stuff I thought was just storytelling but turned out to be a real sort of quiet battle on my part to make happen on TV.

Netflix was a baby in this business. They start with “yes” and then figure out how to make something happen. And the attitude of a place that says “yes” has a lot to do with your enthusiasm for doing the projects.

Is there a big budgetary difference?
One of the reasons I was so obsessed with Netflix in the beginning was somebody told me The Crown had a $12 million budget for one episode. I just couldn’t get over it. That is so much money. Think about what you could do with a much bigger playground.

As the boss at Shondaland, how do you avoid becoming the kind of gatekeeper that you would have been frustrated to run up against when you were coming up?
I’m really not interested in doing something we’ve done before. I think that’s a lot of what gatekeeping is — you prefer the kind of shows you’ve already made. I also make it a point to have much younger people than me on my staff, who have very different viewpoints. I like to be argued with.

What would it take for you to buy a network or platform yourself? I know BET is looking for buyers.
A whole lot more money than I’ve ever been willing to spend on anything. Also, I am a storyteller at heart. One of the reasons I moved from ABC to Netflix was because I had so much other stuff to do. I was responsible for 70 episodes of TV a year. It was a lot. I can’t say I didn’t I love every minute of it, but I was really burning out and almost not enjoying storytelling anymore. Getting to make shows that I love, that’s good enough for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More on ‘Queen Charlotte’

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Part of Rhimes’s ABC deal included all-inclusive but nontransferable Disneyland passes. When she asked a high-ranking executive for an extra pass for her sister, who would be accompanying Rhimes’s kids along with their nanny during a trip that Rhimes could not join, the executive reportedly replied, “Don’t you have enough?” Rhimes wrote the story and screenplay for this 2004 sequel to Disney’s 2001 hit The Princess Diaries, starring Anne Hathaway. In both Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte, Andrews voices Lady Whistledown, the mysterious author of a gossipy social pamphlet about Regency England’s aristocracy. The first episode of Queen Charlotte is dedicated to Jackie Avant, the philanthropist and wife of Hall of Fame music executive Clarence “The Black Godfather” Avant. She was murdered during a home invasion in 2021 at age 81. From the Washington Post: “Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom argues that Charlotte was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family: Alfonso III and his concubine, Ouruana, a black Moor.” The Black TV actor married Prince Harry in 2018, prompting such a negative response from his relatives and the British tabloids that the couple eventually renounced their place in the royal family and moved to California. For most of his life, King George III suffered from a crippling but unspecified mix of mental and physical illnesses that largely isolated him from public life.
A Shonda Story