From first-time feature director Janicza Bravo, the quirky dramedy Lemon follows Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman, who also co-wrote the script with Bravo), a 40-year-old man who is stuck in his life, with a career that’s going nowhere, a girlfriend who’s leaving him and an overbearing family who’s not helping matters. And instead of succeeding in the big dreams that he had for himself, he’s just watching his life quickly unravel.
At the film’s press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actress Shiri Appleby (who plays Isaac’s well-meaning but self-involved sister, Ruthie) to talk about the appeal of Lemon and why she wanted to get involved, the fun of playing this character, singing about matzo balls, and why she was so impressed with Janicza Bravo. She also talked about the challenge of getting hired as a new director, especially when you’ve only directed your own TV series, what fans can expect from Season 3 of UnREAL, slated to return in 2018, and just how dark things will continue to get for her character.
Collider: What was the appeal of Lemon?
SHIRI APPLEBY: The reason I wanted to sign on and do it was to work with (co-writer/director) Janicza [Bravo], and the script was so great. It was an opportunity to do something else. I feel like she’s a real visionary.
When you read this script, did you know how quirky in tone this would ultimately turn out to be?
APPLEBY: I had no idea! It has that slice of life feel that I’m obsessed with. I love those movies. You get to really know people and get to know the characters. But, I didn’t know what she was going for. When I saw the movie, I was like, “I can’t believe I’m affiliated with this!” It’s so much cooler than normal. It’s just so creative. And the fact that it goes from one world to the next world to the next world, it’s like three different chapters of his life. The tone is just so specific that I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s like a wild roller coaster because you feel really bad for him, you’re a little confused by what’s happening and who these people are, it’s so funny, and then it’s shockingly painful, at the same time. You feel really sorry for him, but he’s pathetic, in a way that you want him to be.
All of these characters are so interesting that it feels like, if you were to follow any of them home, they’d have such a full life and so much going on.
APPLEBY: I totally agree! There were more stories to be telling. They were all really specific. I thought Janicza and (co-writer) Brett [Gelman] did a really good job of writing really specific characters. When we were making the movie, I was like, “There should be a movie just about the family.” But then, you watch the finished feature and you’re like, “There could be a whole movie just about the theater. And then, there could be a whole other movie about his relationship with Nia Long’s character.”
Was this character fully on the page?
APPLEBY: What was written and what Janicza said was that she wanted Ruthie to be the light of the family and to really be this shining character that brings the happiness and light to the family. When I was reading it, she felt like the rock and the peacemaker between the two brothers. I really felt like she became the defender of Isaac against Martin’s character. You can imagine that Martin’s character, as a little boy, was just a real pain in the ass. So, it was on the page, but when you actually see the characters and the cast that was assembled, the family came to life in a way that surpassed what was on the page. You definitely say what’s on the page, with Janicza and Brett’s words, but I felt like we all really got to know each other, so the relationships could feel a lot more personal. It felt like a real family to me. I knew what I was signing up for and what the part was, but it came to life in a way that I never could have imagined.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d be singing so seriously about matzo balls in a movie?
APPLEBY: I had no idea the song existed! I was like, “Did you just make this for the movie?” And Janicza was like, “No, it’s real!” Everyone was so serious about it and so committed. The fact that Brett was sitting there, just so depressed and in complete anguish, in comparison to me, like Cher, flipping my hair, I was like, “Who are these people?!” And then, I’m in the bathroom, hysterically crying over not getting along with my husband. That’s a real emotion, and you could feel the real emotions in Brett’s character. I loved how the movie just kept moving, all over the place.
What was it like to do so much of your performance while you’re on the phone?
APPLEBY: She’s really a character that’s so self-involved, which is funny because she’s the rock for somebody else. She’s a self-involved character, making sure everything is perfect, but that’s to make a presentation. It also speaks to Isaac’s point of view, that he can’t really get his family to focus in on him and give him any attention. It’s so sad. Can you imagine what it was like for him, growing up? No wonder why he’s an isolated lemon, so to speak.
Was this a relatively quick shoot?
APPLEBY: Can you believe they made the whole movie in 18 days? Janicza really knew exactly the movie she was making. There were scenes with a lot of people, like the whole family, but she shot it really efficiently. She knew the tone. She was really easy to work with. I felt like she had a really great command of the set and kept things really easygoing. It was really a great experience.
As a director yourself now, is that something you’re paying more attention to?
APPLEBY: A ton of attention to. How does somebody create an environment that feels creative, but shoots things efficiently, so that actors and crew don’t feel burned out? Once she got what she needed, she was smart. She knew how to move forward and keep the day going. She’s said that everything felt like damage control and trying to hold things together, but from my end of things, it felt like a top rated production. It went really smoothly. Everyone knew what they were doing. She had a fantastic D.P. Brett is just incredibly creative and really collaborative. He wanted the movie to be successful, so he knew how to connect with me. In terms of watching other directors, it’s more like I go on set now and I’m prepared, as an actor, and ready to give them everything, but at the same time, you observe how everybody else does it because there’s always something to learn.
Do you know when you’ll try to direct again?
APPLEBY: I’m definitely trying. It’s all I’m thinking about. Hopefully, I’ll direct two episodes of UnREAL for the coming fourth season. It’s gonna be an eight episode order, this year. And I’ve pitched for two movies. I’ve literally pitched to every studio and network, trying to get directing work. It’s really hard.
When it comes to movies, do you want to do something smaller?
APPLEBY: I feel like, where’s the opportunity? Where is the movie that I can really connect to? What story can I tell the best? What story will I service better than anybody else? So, it’s finding that material, and then getting that opportunity. It’s hard to get material. I haven’t made a movie before. I have two episodes of television that I think have come in really great, but it’s really hard to get directing work.
Which is crazy because you always hear about how hard it is to find female directors.
APPLEBY: We’re right here! I’m an actress who’s directing on the television show that I star in, so it’s almost like I haven’t worked, which is insane. They’re like, “There’s nobody.” And I’m like, “I’m right here!” They’re like, “But, so-and-so doesn’t want to hire you until somebody else does.” So, now I’m really going out and trying to find somebody that will take a chance on me. I did get offered one job for a new show that’s coming out on Netflix, but it conflicted with the shooting schedule for UnREAL. If you keep at it enough, somebody will say yes, or I’ll just make something myself. Then, you don’t have to wait for anybody to give you the green light.
For fans of UnREAL, who have been waiting a long time for Season 3, what would you say hold them over until the premiere in 2018?
APPLEBY: The new season is actually really great! The thesis of the season is, can a successful business woman find love? Can a woman in power attract a man? It’s usually such a repellent. They always tell you, as a woman, to put yourself down to not emasculate a guy, and so we have a lot of fun with that conversation. The show gets really dark. The big secret at the end of last season was that Rachel said that she was raped, so she really explores that and gets to the root of her family situation. We really unpack it and really take a look at it, to the point where she finds a lot of resolve by the end of the season.
Do you worry about how dark you can keep going with her?
APPLEBY: I feel like I’ve laid my guts out for this character. I’ve gone so dark. After the second season, the day I got home, I laid in bed to just heal myself. It’s really painful to play somebody who’s tortured and tormented, all the time. She’s in such pain. I asked Stacy Rukeyser, the showrunner for the fourth season, “Can we please find her in a better spot?” Because it’s excruciating. And she was like, “You know, the show is really about the fight for Rachel’s soul.” I think it’s what this world does to her. So, we’ll be back at it.
Now, you have to go do a full-on comedy!
APPLEBY: Oh, I love you! Keep writing that. I’m trying. I really love it, and I have a really good time with it. It’s just about getting people to see you in different ways.
Lemon is in theaters, On-Demand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes on August 18th.