UnREAL Star Brandon Jay McLaren on Dr. Simon’s Big ‘Conundrum’

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In its third season, UnREAL returns to the essential pleasures that captured audiences in the first place: a blend of arch, soap-opera dynamics and winking self-awareness filtered through a modern feminist lens. The show-within-a-show Everlasting is a maelstrom of warring appetites and hellish mistakes, with spiraling Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and abrasive showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) dealing with personal and professional tragedies. Meanwhile, the surprisingly calm center of this storm is the newly hired resident psychiatrist, Dr. Simon, played by actor Brandon Jay McLaren.

I spoke with McLaren, who was in Greece on hiatus from filming the CBS crime drama Ransom (which returns April 7), about the on-set dynamics of UnREAL, working with powerhouse actors like Zimmer and Appleby, and how Dr. Simon’s “hubris” will lead him down a dark path this season.

Before Monday’s episode, I looked at Dr. Simon as a moral center for the show. What do you think of his dilemma as a psychiatrist? He obviously has to keep an eye on Rachel, which is why Quinn hired him, yet he’s not supposed to help make sure she’s healthier.
That’s the conundrum that he finds himself in. If it’s not to make her healthy, then what is his job? As the show moves forward, he gets confused about what he’s supposed to do. Help Rachel, but don’t help her too much, because helping her too much would result in her realizing everything is awful. It puts him in a precarious situation. It’s interesting because in episode five, Quinn starts to feel he’s getting a little too close and influential to Rachel. Obviously, Quinn sees that as a threat.

And Quinn straight-up tells him that Dr. Simon needs to just focus on the contestants. How is it shooting scenes with Constance Zimmer?
It can be a little daunting because Constance is such a powerhouse, but it’s also really exciting. Any time as an actor you get to work with someone like Constance, it’s very challenging and such an opportunity to learn. Working with Constance or Shiri, I often find myself just watching them and forgetting I also have to act! [Laughs.] Sometimes you get carried away watching them work and you’re like, Ah this is good! And then it’s like, Oh shoot, I have to say something.

I think one of the most important things for an actor is to be an active listener, and that’s something you’re really good at, especially in the scenes where Rachel breaks down.
Thank you. It’s always great to work with another actor you like when the work you’re doing has a deep, personal edge to it. So, that helped a lot. Also, [the producers] let me know very early on that Dr. Simon was going to be the eyes and ears of the audience coming into this world cold, not really knowing what to expect and having to learn quickly how to survive here. He chooses very early on to ally with Rachel, so that translates into him having to prove to her that he really is there for her best interests.

It must be tricky to play a character like Dr. Simon. Every other character does a bunch of crazy things, so you’re always like the straight man in the situation.
Absolutely.

How do you find the balance between making Dr. Simon a moral center, but also a human being in his own right? You don’t want him to be a walking DSM-V handbook.
I think it’s a credit to how well the show is written. I don’t think I, as an actor, had to keep that at the forefront of my mind because the writers did a very good job of writing him as a human. As the show progresses, you see his behavior start to change.

In Monday’s episode, we started to see that change happen. He’s now seen a lot more of Rachel than he was expecting, since she gets the bright idea to bring her father on set and ween him off lithium. Good luck with that! I know that’s not going to go well.
Even when you say that out loud, it’s just so obviously a poor idea! [Laughs.] That’s a good thing about the Rachel character — she does intense things and then just eventually sucks you in.

That’s something that Dr. Simon talked about with Jeremy, Rachel’s ex, played by Josh Kelly. He tells Dr. Simon that he’s been sucked into the Rachel vortex. Do you think that’s true?
Well, what’s interesting about the character is that he has hubris. He’s a professional who feels a bit intellectually superior to someone like Rachel. That may make him more susceptible to being pulled in, because he’s very confident that that could never happen under any circumstance — and then, all of sudden, you find him doing things a month ago he thought he’d never do. It all happens very fast. So, the Rachel vortex is apparently a real thing. [Laughs.]

Do you think he’ll keep in mind Rachel’s mental health, or is that also lost as he compromises his morality?
You know, I do believe he always has Rachel’s mental health at the forefront of his mind. Rachel’s such a tricky character. She’s so manipulative. He has a real hard time getting a good gauge on her. I think that confusion makes him act out in erratic ways, where he’s grasping at straws trying to figure out ways to help her. With Dr. Simon and Rachel, it’s a day-to-day process. One day, they’re best friends. Then the next day, she’s never wants to see him again.

That seems to be Rachel’s MO. She’s knows chaos is terrible for her, but also weirdly thrives off of it.
Exactly.

What has been your favorite scene to shoot?
There’s a scene in the finale that’s my favorite. I remember at the table read, it was a scene that surprised me when I read it. It was like, Wow, I didn’t see that coming. Which is strange as an actor because you always have an idea where your character and story line are heading. Shooting it was super rewarding. My mom showed up on set that day. She loves the show. When I got cast, she was freaking out. All those things culminated into my favorite scene. I’m sure, once you watch the finale, you’ll know what scene it is.

It also sounds like the behind-the-scenes story of UnREAL could be a show within itself. You’re obviously new to the show, but what were the on-set dynamics like?
I didn’t really work with [actors who play] the bachelors and [Everlasting star] Serena. I never really get into that world because most of my stuff is with Shiri. There’s an entire part of that season I was not privy to at all.

What’s interesting is people get kicked off of the show Everlasting, the UnREAL cast gets much smaller. It’s such a different feel from the first episode to the finale. You show up to work and there are 20 trailers lined up. By the finale, there’s like four. It starts as this very big large production, but by the finale, it becomes this very small, quiet production. I’ve never experienced that with another show.

Ultimately, I think Dr. Simon is an interesting portrait of the mental-health-care community gone awry. He’s caring for a patient, but crossing lines in order to do what he thinks is best. What do you want audiences to take away about your character and his arc by the end of the season?
I hope the takeaway for audiences is that there’s always nuance to every conversation. Dr. Simon, while he may have done some things that are questionable, are they wrong, full stop? One could argue that they aren’t because they come from a place of caring and actually wanting to help. I think that’s what UnREAL does a really great job of — none of these characters are just bad or good. They’re just nuanced, flawed characters who make mistakes, who have wins and losses. And that makes up a full, round human being.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

UnREAL Star Brandon Jay McLaren on Dr. Simon’s ‘Conundrum’