From co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the provocative Lifetime drama series UnREAL gives a fictitious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program. Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is the young producer whose sole job is to manipulate her relationships with and among the contestants of Everlasting to get the outrageous footage that all good reality TV demands. With her own life a bit of a disaster, and executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) always pushing her to the edge, Rachel will be tested to the limits.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Shiri Appleby talked about what drew her to this surprisingly dark, highly addictive new series, how freeing it is to explore a character that’s so messy, the research she did for the role, why people seem to be drawn to watching other people’s misery, how she views her character, the journey this season, and how she feels about the bold marketing campaign for the show. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did this show come about for you?
SHIRI APPLEBY: I was definitely looking for a show. I love doing a television show. It just always feels like it’s a little while before you find something that feels unique and that feels like a character that you really want to play for awhile. I was sent this script, along with Sarah Shapiro’s short, Sequin Raze. I actually watched her short first, and was completely blown away with it. I was like, “If the show is anything like this short, I’m totally in.” And I went in and auditioned for her and Marti Noxon was there, and it went really well. I felt like what was so special about the short was that you weren’t watching these people act. They just played it as real, natural and grounded as possible. They showed interest on their side, so I talked to them and they said that Lifetime was really committed to making the show as dark, edgy, conflicted and edgy as the short. When I heard that, there was no reason not to go for it.
Marti Noxon is known for not only great female characters, but also ones that feel real and messy and true-to-life. What’s it been like to get to explore this character and play someone so messy?
APPLEBY: It was definitely freeing, and it was really exciting. There were really no limits on how far I could take things, so I could really explore her struggle with being really good at this dark, ugly thing. That was something I really enjoyed. I wanted to enjoy the scenes where I’m taking down the contestants, or I’m watching the footage. You see Rachel’s attraction to this world, and I wanted to feel why she’s the best at it. And then, at the same time, you see that really crush her. I thought that was pretty awesome.
Have you ever personally watched these types of shows, in the past, or did you watch any for research?
APPLEBY: For research, I actually talked to reality show producers. I talked to one woman who was an on-field producer very similar to Rachel. I talked to her about how she’d use her sexuality and the lengths that she would go to, and I could see the high that she was getting when she was talking to me about it. That was really interesting. I asked other producers if they felt guilty about what they were doing to the contestants, and they never really felt that or even considered it. That was interesting, too. A lot of producers feel that these people put themselves in this position, and they’re just doing their job. I’ve watched reality shows, in the past. I’m not much of a television watcher. By the time I get in bed to watch TV, I’m so tired that I pass out. But, I’ve definitely watched these kinds of things. I was interested to see how people fall in love, especially when I was looking for it myself. I found it really interesting.
Why do you think it is that other people’s misery and public meltdowns make for such compelling TV for the viewing audience? Are people just unable to look away from the trainwreck that’s happening?
APPLEBY: I think there’s that, and also that watching other people do badly makes you feel better about yourself. Watching somebody else fail definitely makes you feel better with what you’ve accomplished and where your standing is in life.
What do you want people to know about this show, going into it?
APPLEBY: It’s like The Newsroom, in a way. It’s behind-the-scenes, in the sense that The Newsroom was behind-the-scenes of a news show, but this is behind-the-scenes of a reality show. I feel like this show is really grounded, but at the same time, it’s not an exposé. We’re not trying to take down reality. We’re just lifting the curtain. You see the lengths that people are going to, to manipulate these contestants to get footage for a television show. Once you start to see how the editing process works, you can start to see how these things are made. And even more than just the reality show, it’s more a fascinating picture on who the people are that make these shows. What are their internal conflicts? What are their drives? For me, it’s more of a character study. That, for me, is what was so fascinating when I received this script. There’s so much material there. Just the internal struggle that these people feel was really fascinating to me.
How do you view Rachel?
APPLEBY: I feel like she’s a person who’s really trying to do a good thing, but she doesn’t necessarily know how to. She’s definitely a person that’s without a support system who was raised in a messed up world. She’s a highly intelligent person, but she’s at this crossroads in her life. She could go in one direction and follow Quinn, and rise through the ranks of the television landscape really quickly, but that world takes her down. She could do it and be successful, but she would probably end up alone and without a family of her own. Or she could leave all that and go marry a very safe guy, and move to the middle of the country and not challenge herself too much, not that that’s what the middle of the country is like. She’s really conflicted about who she is and what she wants for her life. The only thing that she really knows how to to is produce reality television. She’s just really stuck, quite honestly.
Do you think she really ever could be her best and healthiest self while she’s still in this environment that seems to keep her in the messed up state that she’s in?
APPLEBY: It’s hard because the environment is not giving her a lot of options. There are some episodes where you see that she’s actually doing good and is really proud of herself because she’s helping other people.
What is Rachel’s journey, this season? Will we see her grow a lot, or is the fact that she’s trying to get herself and her life together going to be the on-going arc of this show?
APPLEBY: I feel like it’s definitely the arc of this show. This season, we definitely see her grow, but she also feels. There are ups and downs. It’s a really up-and-down journey. As far as I know, the arc of the series is watching Rachel survive this world and make her life better for herself.
There’s such an interesting dynamic between Rachel and Quinn. Quinn gives her the second chance that she so desperately needs, but also continues to manipulate her into the behavior that got her to the point where she needed this second chance. How do you view that relationship?
APPLEBY: I definitely feel like there is a friend relationship there, a sister relationship, and a twisted, unhealthy mother-daughter relationship. Rachel is constantly trying to get Quinn’s approval, and get her to love her, and do things that will make her appreciate her and respect her, but at the same time, Quinn controls her. I don’t know that Rachel would have come back to the show unless Quinn had basically told her that, under law, she had to come back to the show. It’s definitely a conflicted relationship. Quinn, being who she is, is using Rachel to her benefit. She’s manipulating her in the way that Rachel manipulates the contestants.
Did the banter that you and Constance Zimmer have, on screen, come really naturally for you?
APPLEBY: Yeah, we definitely get along. Constance and I have a lot of mutual respect and admiration for each other and, because of that, it was a very safe relationship to play with. We could go ugly, get dark and insult each other, but at the same time, hug each other.
Being back at work means that Rachel has to deal with her ex-boyfriend (Josh Kelly) and his new fiancée (Siobhan Williams). What can we expect from that, throughout the season?
APPLEBY: Rachel’s love life is a big portion of this show. She’s just as fascinated with this princess fantasy as some of the contestants on the show are. As the season goes on and the more isolated she becomes from the outside world, the more she falls into it herself. A big part of the season is watching Rachel decide, “Who do I want to be, and what man will provide that world for me?”
There’s clearly something between Rachel and the Bachelor, Adam (Freddie Stroma). Will we continue to see that develop?
APPLEBY: They both need each other. Adam obviously needs her to survive this world, but Rachel needs him to do what she needs. And they both are there for reasons of reclaiming themselves, and proving to themselves that they’re better than what the world thinks they are. There’s a lot of similarity between the two of them, and he’s hot. Shooting a show, you leave your family and friends behind and you hang out with these 200 people for these crazy hours, shooting through the night. It makes sense to me, why people fall in love.
If Rachel were really being honest about it, what do you think she thinks about this whole idea of a guy who has all these girls vying for his attention?
APPLEBY: I think she probably thinks it’s all so ridiculous. She’s pretty beat up and cynical, at this point. At the same time, I think she’s really curious about how people fall in love, so maybe there are certain moments that she buys. But in this story, she’s more interested in watching people tell their truth.
Would you say that Rachel’s relationship with her mother is the most unhealthy relationship she has, in her life?
APPLEBY: Absolutely! The relationship with her mother is the most unhealthy. That relationship is mimicked with the relationship she has with Quinn. She plays a lot of it out with Quinn. Quinn is manipulating her in a very similar way as her mother, and she’s working out the complex she has with her mother in the relationship with Quinn.
This show has made some bold marketing choices. What was it like to see yourself so exposed in Times Square? Are you comfortable enough in your own skin, at this point, that you can just have a laugh about it?
APPLEBY: I don’t even feel like it’s that racy. I just think it’s interesting that it’s coming at a time when Constance and I are both mothers. After years of struggling with how I looked, I’m pretty comfortable and proud of my body now. It was a little bit shocking, the first time I heard what the idea was, but it’s an ad campaign.
UnREAL airs on Monday nights on Lifetime.