The following contains spoilers through the seventh episode of the first season of UnREAL.
The manipulation, lying, and pressure behind the scenes of Everlasting — the Bachelor facsimile that serves as the setting for Lifetime’s UnREAL — culminated in its darkest moment yet when one of its contestants, 37-year-old single mother Mary, commits suicide. Last night’s episode “Savior” dealt with the fallout of her death, which placed the entire production on lockdown and raised a number of questions: Why did she do it? Must the show go on? What will happen to Mary’s daughter, Lily Belle? Vulture spoke with Ashley Scott, the actress who plays Mary, about the difficulties of portraying a character who suffered from bipolar disorder, why we watch reality television, and how Mary’s character could return.
Last week’s episode “Fly” was really hard to watch. Have you seen it yet?
Breeda Wool, who plays Faith, came over to my house and we watched together. It was devastating to shoot, and it is equally devastating to see. Mary’s character has such a heart, and I have had someone in my life who was bipolar, so I can really connect with her experience. When people have mental illness or bipolar disorder or depression, they feel that there’s something wrong with their brain and that they can’t really be fixed. When her ex-husband says to her, “It’s you, you do this, you’re just going to make it worse for Lily Belle,” I think deep down inside she was so afraid of her mind. She really felt like there was no hope, and that Lilly Belle would’ve been better off without her. That’s just such a sad, sad place to be.
There was a perfect storm: Shia had switched her medication and the show had brought in her abusive ex-husband. Plus, she was on a reality show, which is obviously destabilizing.
It’s always a combination of things. We’re mirrors; we attract what we’re putting out there. She probably met her ex when she was in an unstable place. He probably saw her as a victim and treated her as such. It was probably a really yucky marriage. My view of her of when she came into the show was that she was in a strong, healthy place. She was trying something new and outside of the box. She was sober and taking her medication, taking care of her child, and taking a leap of faith. Then, unfortunately, Shia took the medication away, and that probably helped her make the decision to go, “Ah, maybe I’ll loosen up and have a few drinks.”
What do you think motivated her to come onto the show in the first place?
In my character study, I put her in a healthy space: She’s 37 years old, she has a child, she just got out of something that took such bravery. Here she was, in a clear-as-a-bell space. They presented the idea and she thought, Hell, that might be fun, that’s a little exciting and different. Why not? She’s a smart girl. I don’t know if she went into it going, I’m going to fall in love! I mean, even in her first scene she’s like, I’m the oldest one here. What am I? She was aware that she was a character in their story line, you know?
Did you know that your character was going to be going through such a dramatic arc when you auditioned?
Not when I auditioned. After the first table-read, [showrunners] Marti [Noxon], Sarah [Gertrude Shapiro], and I had a meeting, and they presented their idea for Mary. I was really taken aback. I was very thankful they trusted me with the story line; it made me feel good as an actress that they would give it to me. But it affected me in a way that I’ve never felt before while shooting something. I don’t know what that says about my acting ability, but it was a very dark place to go. And somewhat cleansing, in a way. I cried for, like, three weeks.
Speaking of Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, what was it like working with female showrunners and a predominantly female cast?
The misconception is that you get a bunch of women together and it’s going to be drama, and it’s just the opposite. I’ve worked with a bunch of men, and you talk about drama. But really! Competitive nature, it’s just strange. UnREAL was such an empowering space to work. It was wonderful to know that we had Marti and Sarah on our teams and they fought to really keep it real. They really fought to hold true to their vision and the truth of what they interpreted the reality experience to be.
Do you watch shows like The Bachelor?
I do not. I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed to to research this character, because she’s a contestant. If she had been a producer it wouldn’t been different. I wanted Mary’s experience to just be eye-opening, very real, organic. So I didn’t go back and watch any of that. I know it’s very popular.
Extremely! I’m curious what you think about them, even if you haven’t watched them.
My theory about reality television — and this is my positive spin on it — is that when I grew up, you could really run around [to] all of the neighbors, the doors were open, you could go in and see. My mom would go and have coffee with neighbors, the women would talk and gossip. It was a community. I feel like these days we don’t really have that, you don’t have that same sense of the kids just running free until the streetlights come on. Human beings need that connection. So we’ve kind of become voyeurs and can watch people on television and go, Oh, I’m not as bad as them. Or, I can connect with these people. There’s a reason people are so invested. I think it’s actually a sweet thing. We want that connection.
Did you talk to any reality-show contestants as part of your research?
I was lucky to have a great conversation with someone that I knew through another friend. We had coffee and she expressed what her experience was like. It was very similar. I had already read the pilot at that point. She wasn’t telling me something I hadn’t already figured out from the context. But it was pretty brutal. They feed them alcohol, they take away all phones and reading material. There’s no TV, and they fuel the fire, I believe, for good TV.
And then we all watch.
And then they go, Bye! See ya later! Good luck to you! This is their real lives. They have children, some of them. It’s brutal. There maybe needs to be some guidelines set up. Hopefully Mary’s story line will help bring awareness that this is an actual story, people do actually kill themselves. But I think that if you’re focusing and picking on the poor, you should be held responsible in some way. At least be held responsible to change your actions. If people don’t want to watch that, then it shouldn’t be on television.
The show actively deals with mental health throughout the episodes, especially though your character. How did you prepare?
Like I said, I had someone very close to my family who experienced it. She had bipolar disorder her whole life. I’ve had lengthy conversations with her children and the people that were in her life, watching her spiral throughout the years. She was unmedicated, and there were these extreme ups and downs. Then there’s a disassociation period, where you just have no feeling, which I was trying to portray when she says good-bye to Lily Belle. It’s kind of like your brain shutting down for protection.
What was it like shooting the last scene with Shiri Appleby (Rachel)?
A lot of what was shot wasn’t even aired because it was a lot of confusion. She was confused and disassociated and very numb and scared and angry. It was very emotional, Shiri and I were both in tears. Both of us are mothers, and that was a real powerful place. Suicide when you have a child in this world, it’s a pretty heavy thing on many levels. You must feel pretty freaking powerless.
In the last episode, Rachel writes a fake letter to Lily Belle as a way to let your sister keep custody of your daughter. I was wondering if you think Mary would have wanted that to happen.
Yes. That’s the beauty of the episode. I was really happy to see that’s where the show was headed. Obviously you want your child to go with the other parent, but not if the other parent is unhealthy. That was part of that female energy, knowing … I think she did the right thing at the end of it all.
I’m super-bummed that you won’t be able to come back for the next season.
Are you kidding? I can be a ghost. We can be very creative with this. They walk by and go to a cold space and they hear Mary! Like in Desperate Housewives, remember the woman died in the beginning and she narrated everything? That’s what I should be. I’m thinking long-term. Until the end of time.