UnREAL’s Meagan Tandy on Playing Chantal and Whether the Show Pulled Off Its Black Lives Matter Arc

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The second season of UnREAL has been a wild ride, to put it mildly. In trying to raise the stakes of the first season, the show has been critiqued for becoming exactly what was trying to subvert — the sort of vapid, exploitative entertainment Lifetime has been known for. The performances, however, continue to be strong, including that of Meagan Tandy, who plays Southern debutante Chantal, one of the final two contestants. Chantal is in over her head in the cutthroat, manipulative world of Everlasting as she tries to win Darius’s love. But Tandy has found a way to bring a bit of humor and vulnerability to the role so that Chantal is more than just a sob story. She spoke with us about finding inspiration from her background in pageants, the kind of characters she wants to play in her career, and whether UnREAL pulled off its Black Lives Matter arc.

I have a lot of questions for you, especially after Monday night’s episode. That was a turn I was not expecting for Chantal.
I know, right? That poor girl. 

Why do you think Chantal has fallen for Darius even though it’s pretty evident everyone else, including Darius, is playing a game? She really seems to just be there for love.
I feel that Chantal is unfortunately someone who probably hasn’t moved on from her previous situation. This girl is clearly still in mourning, still just so attached to love that she really believes she found it in Darius. I think she needs to go through therapy of some sort because he hasn’t really done anything to validate those feelings. She’s obviously not understanding that this is a game. She’s just there genuinely thinking this is for love. And she hasn’t let go of the situation with her fiancé. 

In the most recent episode we see Chantal try to finally play the game and get naked in the hot tub with Darius. How do you feel about the evolution of her character and seeing her be sexual in the way she thinks Darius wants?
For TV purposes, it’s obviously great. But when they gave us the script there were a couple of us who were like, “Wait a minute, she’s supposed to be a Southern debutante and she really stuck to her ground. It’s really beneath her to do something like that.” Madison being able to manipulate her to do that shows how weak [Chantal] is. She tries to come off very strong, but here comes Madison with some manipulative language and suddenly she’s taking her clothes off. Me, personally, I was disappointed. I was like “No, girl! Stand your ground! Don’t do it!” 

One of my favorite moments with Chantal is in episode seven on the fake gondola/Italy date when she opens her locket and her financé’s ashes fly into Darius’s mouth. What I like about that moment — and your performance as a whole — is you’re able to find some humor in the character so that she doesn’t come across as wholly pathetic. Is that a conscious decision of yours as an actor?
Yes, it was! That actually makes me feel so good that you said that. I remember when I was filming it I started putting a funnier, more comedic tone to her. It was a decision I started doing after episode three. I thought it would make her more interesting. I didn’t want her to just seem like a sob story with a dead fiancé. It was a decision I made and I remember talking to [showrunner] Sarah Gertrude Shapiro about it during the gondola scene, and she really liked it. So I kept it for the entire season.

I definitely agree. It would be very easy for her to get lost in that kind of world since everyone else gets to be cutthroat and underhanded. Chantal would need a different kind of energy to stand out. And making her funny brings something different to the show.
I was also doing it because I felt in the real world a Southern debutante — especially with Darius dissing her and not reciprocating any of her feelings — she would have just left the show by now. I tried to talk to someone about that before: What’s making a Southern debutante stay for something like this? You know what, I’m going to make this girl a little funny, and it stuck. 

I read that you are a former Miss California USA. Chantal obviously comes from the world of pageants. What did you personally bring to her characterization from knowing that world that wasn’t in the script?
Along with giving her a comical spin I also was the one that put a pageant spin on it. I tried to talk to Carol [Barbee] the showrunner about it, and she was completely fine with it. I did take some things from girls who I had seen who were beauty queens and was able to channel them through being Chantal.

Any particular traits you saw in the world of beauty pageants that you brought to your performance?
Some of the girls have a very princess mentality. They just feel that each and every day there has to be a red carpet rolled out for them. I channeled that in the previous episode [when Chantal won the date with Darius and the other two contestants were tasked with building the set].

Right now Chantal is in the final two with Tiffany. And Darius brought up how if he cuts Chantal, his black female audience will be livid. Which I was like, Darius, you should have thought of that before.

How do you think the show has handled these race dynamics — including touching on police brutality and black body politics — which have been very important to this season?
I do think that unfortunately the timing of them getting pulled over by the police is just so terrible with what’s currently going on. I commend them for trying to show the audience something different and trying to expose a lot of different things. At least they took the risk with it. 

I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, which is that a lot of improvising happens on the show.
They give us our dialogue but it doesn’t have to be word perfect. Just as long as the thought is there and the original context they want is there, it’s fine. 

Do you have any favorite moments you improvised or scenes that were heavily improvised that ended up on air?
I can honestly tell you none of my improvising made it on TV. Some of the girls [on the show] we were talking about that, a lot of our improvisation didn’t make it because we were told it was “too funny." The show is supposed to be a dark comedy and some of the things we were throwing in was lightening it up too much. But one of my favorite scenes to improvise in was the gondola scene. It was so much fun to film that scene. 

That’s interesting they didn’t want any light humor. I actually think the show needed some balance, especially with how many outlandish things happened this season.
I think the first season was dark, but this one is much darker. 

You started out doing pageants and now you’re an actress. I’m curious what you think is the hardest part of being an actress in Hollywood and moving into this world professionally?
With the pageant world, I only did it for two years of my life. For the acting world, it hasn’t been that hard of a transition since I have a really strong team behind me. But as far as characters I can personally relate to, that can be a little difficult. Because not every role is written for you, if you know what I mean. I’m having to change them up a little bit so they fit me a little more [and] so I can give a proper delivery of them. And that can be frustrating. And sometimes they’ll cast the male first which determines what the female character will look like and what her ethnicity will be, height, age, etc. That actually happened to me on a project a few years ago, where I was told I was the best actress they had seen but I didn’t go forward because they had already cast the male in the project, and because he was younger than me there is no way we can give this role to Meagan Tandy, she’s too old. 

It happens a lot. With every actress. That’s just how it is. I would love if they would cast the woman first and base the dude on the lady. 

What kind of roles are you interested in doing as your career progresses?
As silly as it sounds I want to do some sort of superhero type of role. That’s always been something I’m interested in. Getting a bit personal here, I have a mentor program called Girl Talk which is a spinoff from another called Who’s Your Hero. We talk often about how there aren’t really any diverse representatives of color for these superhero roles, and I would love to be able to show some teenagers and kids that a black woman can be a bad-ass superhero. That way they can see a different version of it. Aside from that, I would love to do something with Viola Davis or Meryl Streep. I feel it would be the best acting class ever, and it definitely would take my acting chops to the next level. 

I could see you as maybe a fun anti-hero like Huntress/Helena Bertinelli, who is now black in the comics. Or even like a take on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl — I think you the right energy for her, if I were fan-casting.
I’ll take it! I have the energy for all of it. 

What other films and shows can people look forward to seeing you in next?
Right now, it’s just Survivor’s Remorse, which started airing this past Sunday. I’m out there grinding so hard. Just stay tuned. 

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what happens in the UnREAL finale.
Who do you think is going to win? 

I don’t think I want anyone to go home with Darius. I have my theories. But everyone has been kind of a mess. Tiffany is messing around with Chet. And I think the only way Chantal would win is if things fall apart with Tiffany, but I would hope she’d be strong enough to not go for Darius if that happened. I don’t know why anyone would really want to be with him at this point.
I was teasing B.J.[Britt, the actor who plays Darius] about that. 

I think everyone on the show just needs a really good therapist.
[Laughs.] Definitely. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.