INTERVIEW: GH: Night Shift head writer Sri Rao chats diversity in daytime, working with Kelly Ripa, his Netflix series and more

Posted Tuesday, March 01, 2022 5:17:21 AM

His new Netflix drama The Fame Game is exploding in popularity, and it's easy to see why: Sri Rao is a huge soap fan, and he says his work on General Hospital: Nightshift is a strong influence on his current writing. But, as he tells Soap Central, the daytime soaps need to work on diversity.

Sri Rao is the current King of Netflix. The former General Hospital: Nightshift head writer struck a multi-series deal with the streaming network last October, and his first project -- a glitzy global drama called The Fame Game -- just dropped on Friday.

The eight-part series follows a superstar actress who suddenly vanishes without a trace, and through super soapy twists and turns, the perfectly crafted façade of her life is stripped away, revealing hidden truths and painful lies in her supposedly glamorous life.

Soap Central caught up with Rao on the evening of the series' red carpet premiere in Bombay, where he joined in via Facetime from New York. In addition to chatting about The Fame Game and why he thinks daytime fans will love it, the writer opened up about his time working on GH: Night Shift, why he is and will always be a huge fan of soap operas, and what it was like teaming up with Kelly Ripa (ex-Hayley Santos, All My Children) for an ABC comedy series. He also discusses which current daytime stars he'd love to write for now, how he got his start in the soap genre, and why he thinks daytime is way behind the curve when it comes to inclusivity.

Soap Central: This is such an exciting time for you, with your first Netflix series finally being introduced to global audiences. Does it feel a bit surreal?

Sri Rao: Yeah, it's a really exciting moment. The red carpet premiere was tonight in Bombay, so I got up early in the morning to watch the live stream and to see the cast, and everyone was FaceTiming me from the red carpet; it was really exciting and overwhelming. I'm really proud of The Fame Game, and I can't wait for people to watch it.

Soap Central: I know you're very focused on telling stories for South Asian characters, but in addition to that, what sparked your interest in telling this particular story about a superstar who goes missing?

Rao: Well, I love soaps! As the GH viewers out there know, I was the head writer of General Hospital: Nightshift, and that sort of storytelling -- great relationships and suspense and intrigue and romance and family -- is what I do best, and what I love to watch, also. So, this idea came to me for The Fame Game, and it's been a passion project of mine for the last three years. Because of COVID, our production got shut down, so it took a longer time than usual, but to answer your question, the story of The Fame Game is very similar to stories from my General Hospital roots in that it's about this woman who is an international superstar actress who lives this very glamorous life, she's also a wife and a mom, and all of a sudden, one day, she goes missing. She disappears without a trace, and then we tell this story where we reveal that her perfect life that people think is glamorous and pristine, slowly, we come to realize the truth in that she had a lot of secrets and lies in her family and in her relationships in her life. So, it's a really juicy, fun show.

Soap Central: I really love the fact that you are a very successful person who isn't shy about mentioning your start with soap operas. It's always refreshing when people are proud of those soap roots!

Rao: Absolutely! I grew up watching General Hospital and I was so honored to get the opportunity to be the head writer for Nightshift, and I had such a great experience writing that season, telling stories about Robin [Kimberly McCullough] and Jason [Steve Burton], and Robert [Tristan Rogers], who I brought back at that time, and reconnecting him with some legacy characters like Anna [Finola Hughes]. We did a reunion special with a whole bunch of legacy characters in Robert's old penthouse. It was really special to me to be able to play with those characters and with those stories that I adore so much, and to take them into a new light. And that's what I've tried to continue to do ever since, in terms of giving audiences really fun, entertaining stories that are about relationships and love and family, but also with an element of suspense and intrigue. I think that that's what GH has always done well for decades, and that's what I'm hoping to do with The Fame Game.

Soap Central: You said that you were a longtime viewer of General Hospital, but how did you become involved in writing the show's spinoff? It was one of your earliest credits.

Rao: Yes, it is one of the first things that I did in my career, and I really have to give the credit for that to an executive at ABC named Sara Saedi, who is a not with ABC any longer, but she was the executive in charge of General Hospital under Brian Frons back in the day. She reached out to me because she felt it was important to bring new voices to soaps and to bring younger voices to soaps -- well, I was a younger voice at the time! She felt it was important to bring new voices, younger voices, and diverse voices to the table, and she gave me a shot, which I was so grateful for. And I just wish there were more opportunities like that in soaps.

Soap Central: Your work was incredibly popular with critics, actors, and fans. Did you recognize at the time how well your work landed with the soap community and that many fans actually wished for you to helm the daytime version of GH?

Rao: I did! And I am so thankful to those GH fans that expressed their appreciation for my writing and who reached out to me and who were vocal about it. And still to this day, I still see occasional posts from people who remember my work on Nightshift and appreciate it. It means so much to me because I have such a fondness and respect for those characters and those storylines, the ones that I was writing on Nightshift. The fact that there was such a legacy for those characters and for those relationships from GH, I wanted to do justice to them, and I wanted to give them more juicy stories to work with and more interesting storylines to play out, and I am so glad that the fans appreciated it, because I was very much writing it as a fan myself. And then, yeah, I did hear those comments afterwards wishing that I had an opportunity to write on GH, and I also did really wish that that could have happened, and I tried for many, many years, but unfortunately, I never had that chance.

Soap Central: As they say, everything happens for a reason, and even just that year of writing for Nightshift, you gained a very loyal fan base that I'm sure will follow you and check out The Fame Game.

Rao: If they do, they will not be disappointed! I would love for them to try it out because it has all of the hallmarks of the soaps that we know and love, in terms of romance and family and emotions and suspense and drama, great cliffhangers and secrets that you won't see coming. I feel very confident that they won't be disappointed. And the show is available in multiple languages. That's one of the great things about Netflix -- their shows release around the world in all different languages. I think it's 190 countries that it'll be [streaming in]. So, it's available in English and Hindi and Spanish and Portuguese. It's really a global soap.

Soap Central: I know you were very excited that Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit came on as your leading lady. Was she integral to getting this series made?

Rao: Oh, yes! So, Madhuri Dixit is literally the most famous actress in the world, even though some of your readers might not know who she is. She is an icon in Indian cinema. She is like Julia Roberts and Madonna and Meryl Streep all rolled into one. She has hundreds of millions of fans all over the world and has been legendary for the last 40 years. Even people like Priyanka Chopra, who your readers might be familiar with, Priyanka refers to Madhuri as her idol, so that's how much of an icon she is. And she has never done a series before, so I wrote this role specifically for her, I wrote this show specifically for her, and it was a dream come true to get a chance to make it with her. And I am excited because this series, The Fame Game, will be, in many ways, her introduction to the world, to audiences who don't know yet who she is. And she is a quintessential grande dame type of actress, the kind that we soap lovers absolutely love; she fits that to a T, in terms of being beautiful and elegant and also an incredible actress. I think people are really going to love her.

Soap Central: I feel like it might be difficult to top that now, but are there any US soap stars that you would absolutely love to write for in the future?

Rao: Oh, of course! I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the ladies of GH, whether that's Finola Hughes, who I did have the opportunity to write a little bit for when I did Nightshift, but she is someone who I have always adored. Kristina Wagner [Felicia Jones] is someone I've also always admired from afar, as well as Genie Francis [Laura Webber]. I think that GH has some amazing actresses that I would love to write for someday.

Soap Central: I feel like you are one of very few writers who have gone from the soap world to the Netflix universe, so I'd love to get your take on whether or not you think soaps are hampered by being on broadcast television and if you could see them being successful on a streaming service like Netflix?

Rao: I don't know if the current daytime soaps that we love have a place on Netflix; that's sort of beyond my purview to be able to speak to, but I think that what Netflix in particular has done is Netflix has made soaps popular again, in so many ways. Some of the best soaps on TV now are on Netflix. Inventing Anna is a perfect example, and Bridgerton is a global phenomenon. But also shows like Firefly Lane and Sweet Magnolias and Virgin River are all doing incredibly well on Netflix. So, that's why I feel so comfortable at Netflix. I'm so thankful that they've given me a home and given my production company a deal. I feel like my type of storytelling is really appreciated at Netflix, and I can really find an audience for my type of storytelling through Netflix.

Soap Central: I saw on IMDb that you worked on something called Untitled Kelly Ripa Comedy, so I'd love to hear about that and if it's something that you two did together?

Rao: Yes, we did! I collaborated with Kelly on an idea that she had for a sitcom that was loosely inspired by her own life, and it was about her relationship with her son, who at the time was a teenager. It was sort of like a modern-day retelling of Family Ties in that Kelly is such a cool mom and is so modern, and her son, at least at the time, was much more conservative and buttoned up. They had a really fun dynamic that we used as inspiration for a sitcom that we pitched together to ABC and sold. It unfortunately didn't go beyond the pilot, but it was really wonderful for me to work with Kelly on that project and get to know her. She is so lovely and delightful, and she is as friendly and as funny and energetic in person as she appears to be on-screen.

Soap Central: How did you two come into each other's orbits?

Rao: We were introduced by our mutual agents at CAA, and we're both based in New York. There aren't a lot of us in New York who are in this industry -- most folks are in L.A. -- so, those of us who are in New York gravitate towards each other.

Soap Central: Kelly is currently producing a primetime spinoff of her old soap opera, All My Children. It's in the development stages, and we are all on the edge of our seats and hoping it will happen! If you could offer any advice about writing a primetime soap spinoff, what would you say?

Rao: I think that my biggest piece of advice is to realize that the structure of a primetime soap is different than daytime soaps, and it needs to be approached like a primetime series in that each one-hour episode needs to have its own beginning, middle, and end. With daytime soaps, it's always ongoing, and the stories usually take place over the course of five episodes -- over the course of a week, you'll have a beginning, a middle, and an end to stories. But in the case of primetime soaps, each episode, each hour, needs to have that type of a structure. But I am sure they are in good hands with whoever the head writer is that they are working with. I'm sure that they're cracking that!

Soap Central: Is there anything you can tease at this time about your next Netflix drama, The Henna Artist?

Rao: It's too early, but what I can say is that our production company, yes, we are focused on telling stories by and about South Asian Americans, but the other part of our mission is that all of our shows are soaps. They might come in different packages, and they might be in different forms, but ultimately, soapy dramas are my bread and butter, and so, I'm going to hopefully be telling them for a long time to come on Netflix. We have four shows in development at Netflix right now and more that will hopefully be on the way, and I just want all the soap fans out there to know that I've got you covered! I love soaps just as much as you do, and I want to keep making them for a long time for you guys to enjoy.

Soap Central: I can't believe how energetic you are right now, considering you've got four shows in development and you're so busy with the premiere of The Fame Game! I'm very impressed, I must say!

Rao: Well, it's that soap opera training! They say that writers who have worked on soaps and actors who have worked on soaps and crews who have worked on soaps can do anything after that because they're the hardest-working people in television.

Soap Central: That is so true, and you are an example of that, for sure! Is there anything else that you'd like to add before I have to let you go?

Rao: This is not on the topic of The Fame Game, which I hope people will watch and enjoy, but on the topic of diversity in daytime soaps. I really wish that there was more of a place for people like me in daytime. After Nightshift, I tried for a decade to be considered as head writer of GH, and I never got an opportunity. I felt like they were always going back to the same five writers over and over and over again, and I just feel like in order for daytime soaps to survive and evolve, there needs to be new voices at the table who are given a shot. I feel like I proved myself with Nightshift but then was never given an opportunity beyond that. Our industry in primetime and in films is really evolving and is changing, particularly in the last couple of years in terms of diversity and bringing new voices to the table, and I feel like daytime has a lot of ground to make up for in that regard.

Soap Central: I can tell you really are a fan, because you join SO many people with that opinion. It's been an issue for years, and it's hard to understand why the networks are so hesitant about that type of change.

Rao: I think it's important to call people out on it. I will say again, Sara Saedi, who was an exec at ABC, she made it happen -- that's how I got that job at Nightshift, because she took a chance on me. But then after that, when she left the network, there has not been anyone that gave me a shot. And it doesn't seem like they're giving anyone else new a shot, either, and I think they really need to be called out for that.

Check out a teaser trailer for The Fame Game below, and catch the full series on Netflix.

What do you think about our interview with Sri Rao? Have you tuned in to The Fame Game yet? If so, what are your thoughts? How do you feel about Rao's love of soap operas? Do you agree with his call for more diversity in the genre? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.

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