From co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the provocative and often deliciously evil Lifetime series UnREAL gives a fictitious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program. Set against the backdrop of the hit show Everlasting, this time with football star Darius Hill (B.J. Britt) as the first African American bachelor, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is back on set and using her renowned ability to manipulate the contestants to get the vital outrageous footage that the program’s executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), demands.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Shiri Appleby talked about making her television directorial debut with the episode entitled “Casualty,” how long she’s been wanting to direct, her hope to turn it into a career, and why she enjoyed it so much. She also talked about learning just how deeply viewers were connecting with the show, where things are headed next, and how they can possibly come back from where they leave things at the end of this season when the show returns for Season 3. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on Season 3!
SHIRI APPLEBY: It’s been lovely. I feel so relieved, quite honestly. Instead of having to follow the ratings every week, that we’ve been picked up is such a relief.
When and how did you realize that this was a show that people were not only talking about, but that it was also connecting with viewers?
APPLEBY: I felt like around half-way through last season was when I started to get the sense that it was working. That was when people started talking to me about it. The first few episodes, it was really about trying to sell people on the idea, which wasn’t necessarily challenging, but we had to explain something to them that was completely foreign, hoping they would go along with it. By the end of the first season, people had really found it. But I really think that being on Hulu this year, in our hiatus, has really, really helped the show because more people have been able to find it.
When you signed on for this show, did you know how deeply you’d be exploring real issues, and the conversations you’d be starting, as a result?
APPLEBY: No. To be honest with you, it was really just a leap of faith. I talked to Marti Noxon on the phone and I had questions for her, but it’s a really hard thing to ask a showrunner, “What’s this series going to be about?” Quite honestly, a lot of the time, they don’t know. My fear was that it was going to end up being a show that was about who’s getting kicked off, every week. So, the fact that the show has turned into this, is not at all what I could have imagined.
How long had you been looking to direct an episode of the show? Was it something you’d been thinking about for awhile?
APPLEBY: I’ve been wanting to direct for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t really have the confidence to even say it out loud until I did this web series, Dating Rules From My Future Self. I worked with the director, Liz Allen, and she really mentored me. It was my first time producing and she really gave me complete access to the process, from start to finish. I spent two months in editing, every day. I prepped the entire thing. I just really did everything. After that, they asked me to come back and do a second season of Dating Rules, and Liz was the one that said, “Tell them you’ll come back, if you can direct.” It was really that, that got me started. And then, I went to the studios and a lot of the studios told me that the easiest way to get an episode of television to direct is to get a show on the air and make it a hit. It’s a really challenging thing to get an episode of television to direct because there’s so many people that want to do it. So, while I was waiting to get a television show, I shadowed on Girls, Franklin & Bash and 90210. I really wanted to be prepared, so that when I did have a moment where I got my opportunity to have an episode to direct, nobody was going to have the option of saying no. When we did the original pilot for this show, over three years ago, I told everyone at Lifetime and A&E that I wanted to direct. So, by the time the show got picked up for the second season, they had already been aware of what I wanted to do.
It seems like it could be extra exciting to direct an episode of your own show because you know everybody, you know the story you’re telling and you know the characters, but it also seems like it could be extra nerve-racking because you don’t want to let all of those people down and have to face them again the next week?
APPLEBY: I felt that exactly! I got the opportunity, and then there was that moment of, “Oh, shit, do I actually know what I’m doing?” I don’t want to disappoint them. The show is going so well, and I don’t want to have that dud episode. I don’t want to be responsible for that. But on day three of shooting the episode, I looked over and saw my name on the slate, and they called, “Action!,” and I had that moment of, “I’ve made it three days and no producers have shown up on set, and I’m not getting upset phone calls from the studio or network.” In fact, people from the network were writing emails saying, “We’ve seen your dailies and we’re so proud of you.” It was a really huge sigh of relief.
Were there things that you found particularly challenging with this episode, or was it the overall experience of directing that was a challenge?
APPLEBY: The overall experience of directing is challenging, in and of itself. This episode is post our heroine basically being beaten up, and she’s a character that prides herself on not really showing her emotions and keeping things in check. Her behavior becomes a bit erratic, in my episode. In a way, that was challenging because the director in me had to keep everything together and focused, and the actress was needed to be emotionally all over the place. But to be honest with you, I felt like I did the best job I would have done for anybody. Because I was directing, I knew the material so well, as the actress, and I knew what needed to be accomplished, as a director, that I felt like my performance was as strong as it’s ever been.
That scene between Rachel and Jeremy, and then the aftermath with Chet was pretty difficult to watch. Were you glad that some of the other people on set might know just what Rachel has been having to put up with from Jeremy?
APPLEBY: There was a lot of conversation about, “Did he hit her? Was it an accident?” We went back and forth, a million times. I felt like the character needed to do something pretty bold, and the story needed something pretty bold. It was a challenging story.
Is this another thing that Rachel is going to pretend that she’s fine with, or will we see this affect her more deeply than that?
APPLEBY: I think we see her affected more deeply, for sure. In the next few episodes, we really start to see a decay in the character. At the same time, she’s incredibly protective of the environment because that’s all she has. It’s an incredibly challenging predicament to put this character in. Is she going to become one of those women that she says she can’t stand? Does she not say anything, or does she stand up?
It was surprising to see Chet step in and give her a helping hand. How sincere were his actions?
APPLEBY: I think he was sincerely wanting to help her out, absolutely. I think that Chet is starting to take on this father figure role. This show is really his only family, too. A lot of the people – Quinn, Chet, Jay, Jeremy – really have nothing else besides this show. I think he’s really stepping up and taking some sort of sense of responsibility. Seeing Rachel broken and beaten down like that obviously affects him.
At the beginning of this season, it seemed like Quinn and Rachel were finally getting what they wanted, at least professionally. Having all of that fall apart, do you think it made Rachel more determined than ever, or do you thin it made her more disillusioned than she was?
APPLEBY: I think having the show taken away from her has really numbed her to all of the things that are going on. She’s not having as strong of a reaction to the contestants. She’s not as invested anymore. I think that starts to build up. Once she’s been hit by Jeremy and all of these other things start to happen, you’ll really see how it’s affecting her. It’s been interesting. She’s not as invested.
The partnership between Rachel and Coleman has been interesting because she’s gotten a glimpse of what else could be.
APPLEBY: I think what she sees in Coleman is an opportunity. I don’t think she’s in love with him. If he’s telling her that he loves her, I don’t think she really buys it. I think it’s really that Coleman is maybe the next person who could help her get out of where she is. He can obviously stand up to Quinn and he could be her way out. She’s a very calculated character.
You do often wonder what is actually genuine with the emotions and actions of these characters, and you wonder if they even know.
APPLEBY: I don’t think that they do, quite honestly. I think she’s incredibly thought out, and a lot of the stuff that she’s doing is for manipulation’s sake.
With all of the things that have been thrown at the characters this season, are you surprised that is hasn’t all brought Rachel and Quinn closer together, instead of pitting them against each other?
APPLEBY: All the stuff that’s gone on, Rachel is just really resentful of Quinn, now that Quinn has taken the show away from her. She didn’t stand up to her end of the bargain. You would think the fact that it’s happening to both of them would draw them closer, but it really didn’t. They’re going at each other because they really don’t know which way is up anymore.
When I spoke to Constance Zimmer, at the beginning of Season 2, she said that Quinn genuinely wants Rachel to succeed. Do you see it the same way?
APPLEBY: That’s funny. Constance and I talk about it, all the time, and she will say that and I’m like, “Yeah, right! She does the worst stuff to her!” Internally, I think it’s probably true, but I don’t think any one of these characters really knows what it means to be happy or have family. It’s a complicated thing.
Do you think that Rachel would prefer to be Quinn’s equal, or has she realized that that might not ever happen?
APPLEBY: I think she’d love to find a way to be Quinn’s equal, or even Quinn’s superior, quite honestly, but she just hasn’t quite figured out how to do that yet. Coleman is her best option, which is why she’s buddied up to him so quickly.
We saw Quinn and Rachel get matching tattoos that say, “Money. Dick. Power.” If Rachel were being honest with herself, what do you think her real priorities would actually be?
APPLEBY: Money and power, and dick really stands for connection, so I do think it’s those things. She’s really after power, and she’s really after getting money so that she can have more power. And she has a need to connect.
When you read each of these scripts, do you think, “Oh, my god, how am I going to pull this off,” or do you think, “I can’t believe how lucky of an actor I am to get this material to play”?
APPLEBY: It’s both. You definitely feel lucky. When you sign up for a TV show, you have no clue what it’s actually gonna be, so the fact that this is what we’ve landed on is best case scenario for anybody. A lot of times, it’s not, “How can I pull this off?,” it’s “Can the show pull this off?” I think about story first and wonder, “Is this too much? Are we going to be able to come back from this? Are we going to be able to rebound?” That’s what I think about.
Now that you’ve had the experience of directing an episode of the show, are you ready to jump in and do it again?
APPLEBY: I’m definitely going to direct in Season 3. I’d like to do two episodes. And I’m looking to direct other television right now. I really, really enjoyed it. I found it completely fulfilling, and I want to do as much of it as I can, so that I can only get better. I really see it as potentially having another career.
Is the goal to eventually direct a movie?
APPLEBY: Oh, I’d love to! It’s really about, where is there good writing and where can I get the best opportunity. I’d love to direct a pilot. I’d love to direct a feature. What’s great about my episode this year is that it’s the hometown dates, so it’s a completely different look. I didn’t really have to visually match anything. I was creating my own world, in the same way that you do when you’re shooting a pilot, so that was really exciting. So, I really, really want to direct more. I just loved it. I felt like I was shooting from all sides. I got to be as creative as I possibly could. Being the person that’s in charge and solving all of those problems was just an incredible rush for me.
When you do something like that, it seems like you’d learn really fast whether it’s for you or not?
APPLEBY: You absolutely do, that’s right, and I really found it was for me. It’s in my nature. Having worked on set for so many years, and my whole life being spent on set, it just made me feel like this is where I belong and this is what I should be doing. It was awesome.
Without giving anything away, by the time we get to the end of Season 2, what feelings do you think we’ll have, going into Season 3?
APPLEBY: Oh, my goodness! You end the season being like, “How do you come back from that?!” Honestly, it ends in such a crazy ass way that you’ll wonder how we’re going to possibly come back from it. That’s what I’m even thinking. How do we come back? That’s crazy!
UnREAL airs on Monday nights on Lifetime.