A role in a show produced by Shonda Rhimes can be a ticket to stardom. Rhimes has been responsible for huge hits like Scandal, Station 19, How to Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM), and the long-running Grey’s Anatomy.
The actors who appear on these shows instantly become the source of internet speculation and tabloid gossip, and they quickly become contenders for the A-list.
A few seasons on a hit show can be enough to propel an aspiring thespian to big-budget studio fare and large paychecks, so it’s not surprising that many Shondaland stars try to parlay their stints into bigger and better things.
For a handful of actors, this works. Shondaland alumni find themselves on stage accepting awards, backing high-profile charity causes, and appearing in hits on the big screen. Even actors working on stage or in the indie scene raise their profiles and their paygrade after a stint with the Rhimes factory.
However, this doesn’t work for everyone. With every newly anointed movie star comes an actor who tries and fails to move into the stratosphere. The world of Shondaland is littered with the stars of past and present, those who have ascended, and those who have fallen back to earth.
So let’s take a look at the 10 Shondaland Stars Who Became A-Listers (And 9 Who Flopped).
Olivia Pope, the character at the center of Scandal, is a high-level Washington fixer navigating conspiracies and intrigue, but her greatest achievement might be bringing actress Kerry Washington’s talent to the attention of global audiences.
While Washington seemed to come out of nowhere to anchor a hit series, she had been appearing in movies and on TV since the 1990s. She first came to attention with dramatic dance film Save the Last Dance. She worked consistently, including a requisite Law & Order appearance, with her profile rising with each project.
There was the lesbian-impregnation satire She Hate Me, which came out in the same year as awards favorite Ray. She had side roles in Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the Fantastic Four series, and she impressed with dramatic roles in The Last King of Scotland and racially-tinged dramas like Miracle at St. Anna, Lakeview Terrace, and Night Catches Us.
However, it was Scandal that gave Washington a role that put her at the center of the narrative.
Olivia Pope was an intelligent, highly-skilled character with agency, the kind of role that is all too scarce for women, especially those of color, on the big screen.
Since Scandal, Washington has taken on all kinds of roles. She’s worked with Tyler Perry (Peeples), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), Pixar (Cars 3) and anchored a serious, relevant, based-on-fact HBO movie (Confirmation).
Washington is also famous for her charity work and social activism, especially her efforts to help domestic abuse survivors.
Poor T.R. Knight. Many of the original Grey’s Anatomy actors have had ups and downs navigating the A-list, but Knight’s career has been particularly unlucky.
Unlike some of his costars, Knight’s pre-Shondaland career wasn’t marked by a slew of supporting roles. In fact, it’s impressive how quickly Knight rose to fame. Knight was on Grey’s Anatomy three years later after debuting in Garmento and paying dues on a Law & Order show and CSI.
His time on Grey’s Anatomy was tense. Knight hadn’t yet come out of the closet and felt uncomfortable on set. An on-set scuffle between Dempsey and Washington, during which Washington uttered a slur in relation to Knight, deepened set tensions.
Like costar Katherine Heigl, with whom Knight formed a deep friendship, Knight was vocally unhappy on Grey’s Anatomy and asked producers to write him off the show. This resulted in one of the most infamous of the show’s many high-profile onscreen deaths.
Knight never made it to the A-list. His first post-Shondaland role was on a different Law & Order show. His most successful movie outing was 42, and he appeared on The Good Wife, 11.22.63 and acclaimed mini-series When We Rise.
He returned to Shondaland by appearing in The Catch, but the show was the rare Shondaland dud. He currently appears on the show Genius which might bode well for the future, but for now Knight’s career is a cautionary tale of how not to leave a TV show.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s career has taken turns that have baffled even him on the way to iconic villain status.
Morgan has the distinction of being a deceased love interest that drove the plots of two hit shows of the 2000s. On Weeds, he was the husband shown only in flashbacks whose passing sparked his onscreen wife’s criminal career.
His role as Katherine Heigl’s love interest on Grey’s Anatomy was more substantial, and his demise was a big part of Heigl’s character’s arc, but Morgan publicly admitted that his early departure from the show baffled him.
High profile movies like The Watchmen and The Losers collapsed under their buzz, while respectable turns in Texas Killing Fields and They Came Together didn’t lead to household name status. Morgan looked like a leading man and seemed to be everywhere, but he was always just shy of the A-list.
His performance in Desierto earned acclaim and even a little Oscar buzz, displaying a slick charm and adeptness at playing sociopaths. With the announcement that he would be playing Negan on The Walking Dead, all of the pieces came together.
He was an instant hit, the oddly charming dangerous highpoint of an arc that was marked by lower ratings and audience disapproval. However, Morgan has come out for the better, becoming the first cast member to earn an Emmy nomination.
With his time on the show likely ending, he is primed to take a place among high-profile actors who can bring charisma to any role.
Isaiah Washington is one of the original cast members of Grey’s Anatomy who actually came to the show with a great deal of experience already under his belt.
Washington had been popping up on TV and in movies since the 1990s. He was a recurring face on gritty dramas and a favorite of Spike Lee, appearing in Crooklyn, Clockers, and Get on the Bus. Despite attaining character actor status, he is most known for hip hop/martial arts action flicks Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die.
With Grey’s Anatomy, it seemed like someone had found a way to put Washington’s skills to use. Then there was the infamous on-set scuffle between Washington and Patrick Dempsey, during which Washington used a homophobic slur in relation to T.R. Knight.
It was an ugly and highly-publicized moment that Washington couldn’t seem to move beyond. His attempts to rebuff allegations of homophobia were poorly phrased and made him seem worse.
He attended sensitivity training and was publicly apologetic, but every comment just seemed to create another problem.
Despite initial plans for Washington to return to Grey’s Anatomy, his contract wasn’t renewed, and he left the show after two years. He has appeared in moies and on TV since then. He gave a critically acclaimed performance in Blue Caprice and has been a regular on The 100 since 2014.
In that year, he also returned to Seattle Memorial for one episode.
As acerbic, determined Dr. Addison Forbes Montgomery, Kate Walsh rocketed into Grey’s Anatomy and instantly delighted fans.
Walsh’s tenure on the show was so successful that her character was chosen to launch a spin-off. That show, Private Practice, was successful in its own right, lasting for six seasons.
While this achievement was bittersweet for Walsh—t here were rumors of resentment from other members of the Grey’s cast members who expected to get their own show— it was a testament to Walsh’s charisma that her character was spun off amid so many characters to choose from.
Since then, Walsh has very much lived the A-list life with high profile romances and the launch of her own fragrance company.
She pops up in limited roles on television shows like Fargo. Her selective appearances in movies like the acclaimed The Perks of Being a Wall and the upcoming comedy Ideal Home have cultivated her reputation as an actress who can afford to be choosy with her projects.
Of course, sporadically appearing in movies and having a hit TV show that ended a few years ago doesn’t keep someone at the A-list. After a few stumbles trying to launch projects, Walsh snagged a role on Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why.
Given that show’s ability to court controversy and generate press, Walsh’s turn as Olivia Baker has kept her relevant.
Several aspects of Dan Bucatinsky’s tenure in Shondaland are odd. Aside from work in front of and behind the scenes of Grey’s Anatomy, the actor had a recurring role as James Novak on Scandal.
Despite never having a regular role on any Shondaland show, he made an impression on Scandal and was actually the first, and only one of two actors, to win an Emmy for the show in the category of Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (the other win, for Joe Morton, would come a year later in the same category).
He also had the first major character passing on the show. Whereas other actors have very publicly asked to leave the show, Bucatinsky was very vocal about his desire to stay on, telling the Hollywood Reporter “I don’t think he deserved to [pass away]” in reference to his character.
He also expressed a desire to return in flashbacks.
James Novak remains as Bucatinsky’s most famous role, even as he’s appeared in a number of big projects including Oscar nominee The Post, 24: Legacy, and Will & Grace.
While Bucatinsky has had a long, varied career as a producer and an actor, his time onscreen has mostly yielded bit parts and one-episode appearances.
Amy Brenneman has been alternating between genres and mediums for two decades, buffeting supporting roles in movies with deeply felt turns on TV, but her time in Shondaland cemented her status as a performer that audiences trust to deliver the goods.
Her first big role in NYPD Blue led to roles in movies like Heat, Fear, and Daylight, often playing the long-suffering love interest that actresses were often relegated to in that era.
She bounced between edgy indie movies like Your Friends and Neighbors and TV appearances, including a stint on Frasier.
By the end of the ’90s, she was anchoring her own respected series, Judging Amy, while balancing an indie film career. However, it was her entry into Shondaland as Dr. Violet Turner on Private Practice (as well as an appearance on Grey’s Anatomy) that introduced her to a wider audience.
When Private Practice ended, Brenneman started on her next show, The Leftovers. While the show struggled in the ratings, it was rapturously received by critics, and her performance was widely admired.
She played the brooding, conflicted Laurie Garvey with the complexity that her early love interest roles didn’t usually allow.
With that, she had acclaimed performances on three successful, long-running programs, showing that she was at home with popular mainstream fare and serious drama. She currently has two films and a new pilot in the works.
Not all Shondaland stars get lucky. While the supporting cast members of hit shows like Scandal and Private Practice have inched onto the A-list, moving up is significantly harder when the show isn’t a hit.
That was the case for Rose Rollins, who played on Valerie Anderson on The Catch. The show centered on private detectives working out of Los Angeles, and its risky mix of light comedy and suspense that largely ditched the intense intrigue of Scandal and workplace drama of Grey’s Anatomy didn’t always work.
It was greeted with tepid responses from critics and audiences and cancelled after two seasons.
Prior to The Catch, Rollins was most famous for The L Word. While she has appeared in other series like Bosch and Chase, The L Word and The Catch remain her longest running projects.
Her movie career is similarly limited. She had a role in the science fiction comedy Pixels before entering Shondaland, but the film was panned by critics and didn’t do much for her career. She has yet to find a project that connects with audiences or gives her time to shine.
Her IMDb page lists an untitled FBI/Fox TV movie, and she’s showed talent onscreen that might one day lead to bigger things, but her time in Shondaland hasn’t created the break it has for others.
Like a many other actors who were boosted by their time in Shondaland, Benjamin Bratt was a mainstay of TV and film whose time in the write/producer’s stable boosted him to higher-profile projects.
Bratt was famous for his time on gritty TV dramas like Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street. He also had supporting roles in studio movies like Demolition Man and Clear and Present Danger.
By the 2000s, he was appearing in light comedies like The Next Best Thing and Miss Congeniality as well as challenging indies like The Woodsman and Thumbsucker.
His natural charisma made him a good fit for any genre, but roles rarely put him front and center. He appeared in the award-winning Traffic, but in a small role.
He did have a main role in the widely reviled Catwoman. He was often cast according to his Latino heritage, but passion projects like Piñero went unnoticed while bigger projects like Love in the Time of Cholera lacked the quality of his smaller projects.
His latter season addition to Private Practice found a place for his versatility, making him a welcome addition to the cast and positioning him for bigger things. His recurring role on Modern Family at the same time also generated a lot of goodwill.
Since Private Practice, he’s appeared in the MCU and propped up the Pixar hit Coco, which showed off his musical chops as well. He has since appeared in more musical projects like Star and The Homecoming: A Musical.
Sarah Utterback played nurse Olivia Hopper on Grey’s Anatomy. While she wasn’t a regular character, she managed to make an impression and even get in on workplace love triangles.
Known as the “Syph nurse” for the unfortunate consequences of some colleague romances, Utterback portrayed the character with humor and wit.
So it’s a shame that her career hasn’t developed the way fans might’ve hoped. Her character was fired from the hospital in 2009, and Utterback left the show.
Since then, she appeared in few projects. She had a role on TV series Reception and some other minor credits, but her career was most active while she appeared on Grey’s Anatomy.
In addition to playing Olivia, she guest starred on Media, Cold Case, and Ghost Whisperer, and was the voice of Lindsay Lohan on Family Guy.
Her highest profile role since leaving Grey’s Anatomy has been returning to Grey’s Anatomy in 2018. Her character’s return was a complication for former love interest Alex and gave the nurse a chance to cause some trouble in his relationship with Jo.
As a theatrically trained actress who has appeared on stage, Utterback certainly has a lot of talent, but her career outside of Shondaland is desperately lacking.
She has no movie credits aside from shorts, and her biggest role remains her recurring appearance on Grey’s Anatomy.
Portia de Rossi is one of those Hollywood talents who insists that she’s retired even as she seems to work often.
The Australian actress rose to fame on Ally McBeal and became comedy royalty with Arrested Development. In an industry that often relegates women in comedies to love interests and voices of reason, Rossi’s turn as Lindsay Bluth Fünke was as demented, self-absorbed, and madcap as the rest of the cast.
With the much-bemoaned ending of Arrested Development, Rossi went on to TV shows like Nip/Tuck and Better Off Ted. She had a recurring role on Scandal in season 4 and became a main character for season 5.
Her time on Scandal injected new life into the show, but Rossi wasn’t keen to stay on.
Her brutal onscreen demise on Scandal shocked fans, but it was actually a behind the scenes favor from Shonda Rhimes to Rossi. The actress had decided to retire from acting and asked to be written off the show.
However, Arrested Development got in the way. Rossi had appeared in the show once it was picked up by Netflix, and she was expected to appear in the highly anticipated fifth season.
Despite her initial objections, Rossi still ended up in season 5, though she insists that those episodes will be her last appearance in Arrested Development or anything else, meaning that Rossi will exit at the top floor.
Sarah Drew worked her way from the bottom of Shondaland to a regular role, but her career has hit disappointing snags as well as some great moments.
Drew came to Shondaland after guesting on a who’s who of 2000s era TV. She appeared on Cold Case, Law & Order: SVU, Medium, Castle, Glee, and Supernatural, and she entered Shondaland with a guest spot as well.
Not all of her work has been so brief, however. She was a regular on Everwood, and her appearance on Mad Men was heartbreaking in just four episodes. She played the wife of closeted art director Sal Romano, and the scene where she realizes that her husband will never love her the way she loves him earned raves.
However, her most enduring role might be on cult animated classic Daria, where she voiced Stacy Rowe, among others.
A two-episode arc on Private Practice led to her being cast in the Shondaland show Inside the Box; however, that show never made it past the pilot. She joined Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. April Kepner in season 6 and became part of the main cast by season 7.
In 2018, producers announced that season 14 would be her last, at least as a regular. This coincided with unfortunate news. Drew had snagged a co-lead role in the reboot of Cagney & Lacey, but the pilot’s status looks uncertain.
While Drew will hopefully bounce back, for now her post-Shondaland career is in limbo.
As Dr. Meredith Grey, Ellen Pompeo is the namesake of Grey’s Anatomy and the long-standing face of the franchise, although things didn’t always seem like they’d turn out that way.
Pompeo started out with bit roles on television. She had a guest spot on Friends and two non-consecutive appearances Law & Order before getting a part in indie Moonlight Mile, which led to roles in Catch Me If You Can and Old School. Shortly after, Grey’s came calling.
While Pompeo wasn’t originally interested in the show and only appeared in it after another gig fell through, it would ultimately become her defining role. Launching the show with an esteemed cast that included Patrick Dempsey and Sandra Oh, Pompeo’s clout on the show wasn’t always guaranteed.
In interviews, the actress has opened up about how the network tried to leverage other stars, especially Dempsey, to low-ball Pompeo’s salary. With Dempsey’s departure in 2015, Pompeo recognized her role in the show’s success.
Pompeo has become TV’s highest paid actress, eclipsing even the stars of Game of Thrones, earning $20 million a year for her role on Grey’s.
As the titular name and face of a show that has launched two spin-offs, Pompeo is at the center of the show, with Rhimes saying that “The show will go on as long as Ellen wants to do it.”
Shondaland shows that make it past the pilot stage and onto the air are usually met with a high level of anticipation, and the leads of these shows are often treated like stars-to-be.
Unfortunately, when a show doesn’t work out, those future bright stars seem to fizzle out before they’ve had a chance to shine.
Torrance Coombs is an example of this. Cast as one of the leads of Still Star-Crossed, a show that explored the aftermath of the events of Romeo and Juliet, anticipation was high.
Coombs was doing the rounds in the media, as one of the faces of a show that had won admiration for its diverse cast and daring premise.
That premise turned out to be a little too daring. It was a big departure from the strengths and usual tropes of the Shondaland stable. The show was cancelled after one season.
Prior to his introduction to Shondaland, Coombs had multi-episode runs on jPod, Endgame, Heartland, Reign, and, most famously, The Tudors. Years of work on these shows, as well as guest spots on a slew of others, seemed to have paid off when his casting in Still Star-Crossed was announced.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Coombs’ most high-profile role to date ended up a dud.
Since then, he had a recurring role on The Originals and the lead in a Hallmark movie, but stardom still eludes him.
Patrick Dempsey is one of a handful of original Grey’s Anatomy stars, like Katherine Heigl and Sandra Oh, whose careers were significantly bolstered by the show.
Before Ellen Pompeo’s ascension to TV’s highest paid actress, Dempsey was often seen as the face of the show, even if Pompeo’s character was the name. His nickname, McDreamy, seemed to say it all. He was a leading man waiting in the wings.
His earlier attempt at becoming a leading man hadn’t worked out as planned. As the determined cop in Scream 3, he was positioned to make an impact, but the movie was more of a flop for the franchise than a career-builder.
He played the typical handsome romantic love interest in Sweet Home Alabama, and he was working on TV projects that failed to launch.
His appearance on Grey’s Anatomy truly vaulted him up. A couple years after the show’s debut, his career was red hot.
He literally embodied the archetype of the modern day handsome prince in Enchanted, and romantic comedies like Made of Honor put him front and center, or in the case of Valentine’s Day, heavily publicized his presence.
His role in the Transformers franchise completed his ascension to the A-list, while his addition to the Bridget Jones franchise showed that he was a substantial draw for romcom audiences.
Things on Grey’s weren’t going as well, though. Rumors of infidelity and on-set affairs may have contributed to his departure from the show, and his unceremonious exit disappointed fans.
Despite these controversies, Dempsey still appears to be in demand, appearing at the center of mini-series The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.
Acting careers flop for a lot of reasons, but Columbus Short is an example of how personal demons can do worse than simply tanking one’s career.
Before appearing on Scandal, Short had actually popped up in a lot of surprising places. He debuted as a dancer in You Got Served, a movie that set the bar for the dance film genre, and was even a voice in the Grand Theft Auto video game series.
His role in the Stomp the Yard movies brought him more fame, and he shined in Cadillac Records and Death at a Funeral.
A role on Scandal was just the sort of gig that could take Columbus to the next level, and for a time it did. After three years, Short was fired from the show as disturbing allegations of domestic violence surfaced when his now ex-wife successfully filed a restraining order against him.
Short publicly admitted to substance abuse problems, which he blamed for his firing from Scandal, but he was also arrested for assault and served time in jail for violating the terms of his probation.
He was later arrested for domestic abuse after hitting his current wife during an argument.
As that offense violated his probation terms, he was sentenced to a year in prison, serving 34 days before being released in March 2018.
While Short appears to have projects awaiting release, his behavior has severely damaged his career, and it is uncertain how audiences and the industry will receive him.
Sandra Oh is a well-respected actor who worked consistently in the Canadian movie industry and on the independent circuit for years before joining the cast of Grey’s Anatomy.
Oh appeared on critics’ radars with apocalypse drama Last Night and historical drama The Red Violin. After a high-profile turn in Sideways, which was directed by her husband at the time Alexander Payne, she landed the role of Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.
She turned out to be both a fan-favorite character and highly-respected actor according to other cast members, and her time on Grey’s is often considered to be the golden age of the show.
After ten years, she left the show. It was a difficult decision for Oh, and she seemed to disappear for a time. Internet pundits were ready to declare Oh a has-been.
She started to make waves again with Catfight, a movie with the premise in the title, but it’s 2018’s Killing Eve that has shown the strength of Oh’s career.
As the titular character, Oh has earned rave reviews for the highly acclaimed show with international bent. The success shows that Oh can carry her own series, appeal to global audiences, and handle multiple genres with skill.
Oh continues to balance movie and television roles with voice acting and passion projects, as Hollywood awaits her next move.
Katherine Heigl is a textbook example of how not to run a career.
Heigl went from relative obscurity to stardom as Dr. Izzie Stevens on Grey’s Anatomy. Not long after, she was the co-lead in Knocked Up, which was a huge hit and put her on the A-list. However, this is where Heigl’s reputation for biting the hand that feeds started.
Heigl was openly critical of the writing on Grey’s Anatomy and also criticized Knocked Up, saying its portrayal of women were one-dimensional.
At the same time, she appeared in movies like 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, and Life As We Know It that reinforced the same stereotypes that she had criticized. Like her co-star and friend T.R. Knight, Heigl made it clear that she wanted off Grey’s Anatomy, and in 2010 she was written off.
What was once a brilliant movie career quickly dried out. Her films were poorly received by critics, and audiences seemed to lose interest.
She was part of the ensemble for New Year’s Eve, and in 2012 she released One for the Money, another romcom that was bemoaned for its formulaic plot and stale tropes.
That was the end of her A-list career. She gained a reputation for being difficult and rude on set, and audiences stayed away.
By 2017, she was taking B-movie roles like Unforgettable. While Heigl continues to work on TV shows like Doubt and Suits, her time as a star who could sell projects to studios and open movies has gone.
Some actors need a lot of hype and connections to become famous, while other actors need a team of publicists and stylists. Viola Davis needed just one scene.
Davis has been a respected character actress for decades, but her appearance in the stage-to-screen adaption Doubt significantly raised her profile. With little more than ten minutes of screen time, Davis scored an Oscar nomination and then appeared in several high-profile projects like The Help.
Her casting as the lead in HTGAWM marked a new stage in Davis’ career. She became the first African-American actress to win the Emmy for best actress in a drama. A couple years later, she won an Oscar for Fences, a role that had also garnered her a Tony.
Davis’ career and accolades have made history and placed her in the realm of Hollywood trailblazers. Her wins have been firsts for an African-American actress and have highlighted the historical lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Beyond the social significance of her success, Davis’ accolades are a testament to her talent.
In 2016, two years after launching HTGAWM, Davis brought gravitas to the commercial success and critical bomb Suicide Squad and won her Oscar for Fences.
Her HTGAWM character Annalise Keating’s crossover onto Scandal was a further sign that her presence makes waves. While Davis had a successful career before HTGAWM, her role in Shondaland has led to greater things.
Can you think of any other Shondaland stars who rose to A-list status? Are there any others who flopped? Sound off in the comments!
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