Spoilers ahead for Monday night's episode of UnREAL.
On Lifetime's UnREAL, Shiri Appleby’s character at once observes and calculates, manipulates and repents. She plays Rachel, a reality-TV producer who pushes contestants’ buttons to get a reaction. She’s great at her job but hasn’t completely drunk the Kool-Aid of her Bachelor-like show, Everlasting. In Monday’s episode, Rachel tries to be sympathetic to a contestant, Anna, whose dad died, but ultimately cuts together footage that makes Anna look crazy. It’s to Appleby’s credit that viewers can see the genius, broken, manipulative, and desperate parts of her very human character and still be completely transfixed. We chatted with Appleby about her new show, playing a non-romantic lead, and the best female showrunners she's worked with.
Your character is constantly on her toes and running around. As a producer on Dating Rules From My Future Self, did you feel like you were just constantly running around, too?
It’s kind of in my nature, to be honest with you. Even if I’m not being a producer on the show, I’m running around. I’m pretty participatory. But, yeah, when I was on Dating Rules especially, when I was producing, I was just involved in every aspect of it: making sure that the set for the next scene was ready, or, you know, discussing wardrobe or the scripts. Whatever has to be done, you’re constantly on the move.
In this week's episode more so than the first, we see how the producers use psychology and manipulation to get people to break down. Which of the strategies that your character used most surprised you, or most interested you, or even most confused you because it maybe seemed counterintuitive?
In the second episode, what’s so surprising is just how much she’s lying to Anna’s character. Like she’s straight-up lying to her and withholding the information about her father. That was, I thought, pretty low. It was a pretty low move on all of the producers’ behalf to lie to somebody about their father’s death to continue to make a television show.
But it was also kind of lame that the ex-boyfriend character called your character out on it. Why do you think he specifically was calling her out?
Because of the breakdown from last season and knowing her so well — he really knows how bad this world is for Rachel’s psyche. And this kind of behavior is what led her to break down last year. So he is just seeing her go through the motions again, and he’s like, “Why would you come back here? Why would you behave like this?” I think he’s also more of a moralistic person. He’s obviously not completely clear of any of it, because he’s videoing it and he’s witness to it. But he’s not actually going through the motions of lying and manipulating these people. And watching Rachel do this to the contestants definitely makes him look at her with different eyes.
One of the dynamics that I really like is the relationship between your character and the character who is constantly undermining your character, Shia. What do you think about that dynamic? Have you ever had someone like that in your work life where either you were really jealous of their constant success or you were like, “Oh, they’re constantly trying to undermine me”?
I’m an actress. Yeah, I definitely had a working relationship where I was constantly being undermined, and I was kind of young at the time, so I really didn’t understand how to play the game. And now I’ve been doing it for long enough, and I feel like there’s so many roles and there’s enough to go around. I’m not really one of those people that’s gonna [do something] to somebody else for a part, but that kind of stuff definitely exists, especially in show business.
One of the themes of this episode is how much you’re willing to sell your soul. When you first came to Hollywood, was it something that you thought about a lot or discussed a lot, or is it something that just kind of happens, you think?
Well, I started working when I was a really little kid. But when I started, you know, taking it more seriously as an adult, I thought about it in terms of, like, nudity. When I was in my 20s, there were certain things that I just absolutely wouldn’t do. Having done [acting] my whole life, I was pretty confident that there was always another job around the corner. I wasn’t gonna put myself in positions that made me feel uncomfortable for money or for a job. I feel really proud of myself that I felt that way. Now, as an adult, as I have more control over my career and I have more control over my life, I can make different choices because I don’t feel like anybody would be taking advantage of me.
There’s the interesting moment in the pilot where you think that Constance Zimmer’s character, Quinn, is being kind, but it ends up being that Quinn is blackmailing Rachel. What kind of moments of humanity did you cling onto when you were reading the script and getting into this character in this very ugly world?
I think it’s really a girl who's doing whatever she can to survive. You know, she’s really at a crossroads in her life where she can’t really go home. She doesn’t have family or close friends or a deep relationship. I felt like she was really at that moment where she was like, “Who am I gonna be?” I’ve been in that moment, where you’re just really trying to grasp for some sort of space in this world that can define you. And what will you go through to cling onto that?
For a show that’s a lot about romance, UnREAL is not very romantic. I was wondering if that’s part of what drew you to the pilot or the first episodes?
Absolutely. And I definitely was intrigued by a character that’s not consumed with a guy. It’s more about her struggle and her work as opposed to, you know, pining over some guy and being desperate for some man’s approval. That was definitely something that was super fascinating to me because most of the roles I’ve played have had to do with being in a relationship.
In that regard, she doesn’t have any of the romance but it is a romance show, so being in the position of looking at the romance from the outside, did it make you think about a lot of the parts that you have to play when you’re dating someone?
They say the first months of a relationship, everyone’s playing a version of themselves, like they’re playing a character of themselves. And I’ve always thought that was so true. At the three-month mark, you start to see who the people really are that you’ve been hanging out with and getting to know. You know, 'cause everyone’s just on their best behavior. And it takes months, if not like a full year, to really drop that mask and see who the person really is.
So in that way, the show’s kind of interesting because the producers are just constantly trying to get people to drop their masks.
I mean, the producers are constantly just pushing buttons on the contestants and the suitor basically to just crack [them] in any way so we can see behind the mask, see behind in a way that we would never even normally get to know somebody.
Constance Zimmer’s character is a strong female showrunner, but you’ve worked with some pretty amazing female showrunners. Can you talk a little about the specific awesome qualities of Liz Tigelaar or Lena Dunham?
Liz Tigelaar and Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner were incredible, all three of them. They really shared, I thought, the best qualities I saw in showrunners, which is they were completely open to having conversations but there were still a lot of boundaries. You know, [with] Liz Tigelaar, we had this fantastic rule. It was a 24-hour rule. So any question that you had pertaining to a scene up to 24 hours before it was shot was completely free. You could ask anything, talk about anything, line changes, you know, you name it. But at the same time she was like, “I’m running a real show and we have our days to make. So if you have a question to ask, if it’s asked after 24 hours, I or any of the writers can’t really address it because it’s not enough time for us to process it and make changes and get approval.” And it really created such strong boundaries, but in such a respectable way. I really admired that. And then Jenni and Lena’s set was the No. 1 most creative environment I’ve ever been in, completely free. There was so much communication. Obviously we were shooting things that were dark and a little bit different and exposing for different reasons, and I felt so safe and protected on that set.
You've produced on Dating Rules, but did you learn anything about being a producer from this show?
In terms of what the characters have to do, I guess there’s more manipulating going on than I really thought. But as you start to switch sides, you see — it’s so funny because before I even started producing, my opinion of the actors’ importance on the set and how I would imagine the producers and everyone talking about them was so different than the actual truth. And I saw my role as an actor completely differently, and I've really behaved as an actor differently since then. There’s definitely manipulating that goes on on a producer’s end, just to get an actor to show up to set on time and know their lines and deliver them.
So, to shift to your past roles really fast, I was a big fan of Swimfan when I was in high school. I wonder if at the time it was fine that Jesse’s character and your character end up together in the end, but now I’m like, Oh no, she got completely screwed over by this guy, she should just dump him and go away.
Oh yeah. She probably should have just dumped him. But she was kinda into him, and it was also the end of high school. It seems so, like, cliché, doesn’t it? You like, don’t want to get rid of your high-school boyfriend before you’re going off to college and into the real world.
Did you have an AIM screename? Do you remember it?
I just got rid of AOL last year. Is that terrible? [Laughs.] I literally got rid of it last year because I got hacked to death. I mean, someone got in there and just kept hacking it and sending emails out, so I literally just had to close it down. I was holding on. I didn’t want to let go of my AOL account.
Any teasers for what’s to come on UnREAL?
In the next few episodes, we start to see how Rachel learned to be such a good manipulator, like what happened in her personal life. We leave the environment for a little bit and we get to know that side of things. And as the show goes on and Rachel’s stuck on set, you see her fall deeper and deeper into the world again.