Tonight is the highly anticipated premiere of Lifetime’s new series UnREAL (aka my new favorite show), and we have an interview with star Shiri Appleby to help you get ready! Read our full conversation below, and tune in tonight at 10/9c on Lifetime in the US and at 10pm ET/7pm PT in a three network event on Lifetime, Showcase, and Slice!
I went into this show expecting a fun summer series, not a darker, complicated story with complex characters and compelling story. What were you expecting from this project when you first signed on?
Before I actually read the script, I was given a copy of [Executive Producer] Sarah Shapiro’s short, Sequin Raze. I was able to see what the show would be like and really understood that she was creating a world that was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I really got to feel the character’s moralistic struggle. Then when I read the script, I was able to really connect to it in a different way. Visually, it was clear to me what kind of story they were going to be telling, but as the scripts were coming in and we were shooting them, it was really exciting. There was a lot of rich, deep material to work with and the story evolves so quick. They packed so many things into each episode and each script, and I was pleasantly surprised. We had a really good time and thankfully we are on a network that was really supportive of the writers pushing the story as dark and as far as they possibly could.
When we first meet your character, Rachel, she’s returning to work after a breakdown, going back to a toxic environment and working with people who enable her worst qualities.
That’s really Rachel’s story throughout the first season, watching her struggle like that. When the series starts out, I feel like she’s coming back to the show thinking that it’s temporary, and she’s really got her guard up. By the end of the first episode, she realizes that Quinn (Constance Zimmer) is not going to let her off the hook that easily. It’s a constant fight for her to keep her values intact, her morals intact, and to walk around with some sort of self-respect. It’s really challenging for her because she’s very good at what she does, she likes competing and she likes winning, but unfortunately the thing that creates all of that success for her is the same thing that internally really beats her down. It’s just a constant battle, and the big question is how do you reconcile and live in a world that’s constantly pushing up against what you believe to be true, and if she gets out, what could she really do with her life.
Rachel does have a conscience, unlike some of the other people who work on “Everlasting” that we meet, but when certain things play out in her favor, it’s almost like she takes pleasure in creating those horrible moments.
She’s really good at it and I think she likes it, and that again freaks her out and scares her that she likes it.
In some scenes, it almost looks like Rachel gets a rush from it.
Absolutely. That was something that I really played and honestly enjoyed playing. There’s something fun about being bad.
How much will the first season get into why Rachel is the way that she is, and why she’s taken this path?
(SPOILER ALERT) In Episode 3, you meet her family, and as the season goes on, you get to learn a little bit more about it, but also she’s the kind of character that’s not really sure who she wants to be, what she wants her life to be like. She hasn’t had a ton of guidance. She’s constantly sort of trying out being different people and playing different roles. She’s the kind of character that doesn’t really have a lot of people to talk to instead of listening to her complain.
It struck me that Rachel doesn’t really have any friends. There are some allies, and one alliance I found intriguing was Adam, the suitor on “Everlasting”. The more I saw the two of them interact, I got a sense that they’re both trapped in this world and that’s how they can relate to each other. What can you tease about that dynamic?
It is a relationship that continues to play out, mostly because they both need something from each other. She needs him to do what she needs to produce the show, and he needs her to guide him through this experience. Through that, they sort of build a friendship and an alliance that plays out in the story.
The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is a wildly unhealthy alliance, and it’s hard to tell if Quinn has Rachel’s best interests at heart and is trying to help her grow, or if her motives are purely selfish because she knows Rachel makes their show great.
I think it’s a little bit of both. There’s definitely a mother/daughter relationship there where Rachel’s trying to please Quinn and Quinn is controlling Rachel. But at the same time, they’re all the other person has. Rachel also looks to Quinn like “Do I want my life to be what her life is?” I think Rachel knows that she can have Quinn’s life, which is running a show and having a future like that, but she also sees that Quinn is alone and unhappy. There’s some excitement in it, and some fear in it.
It’s also a great tale of how workplace romances don’t always work out. Initially, that’s such a large part of Rachel’s story, returning to a place where she has to work with the ex that triggered her breakdown.
Exactly. She’s facing Jeremy again, having to deal with that shame, and dealing with these people that have seen her at her lowest. How do you walk around with your head held high? That’s definitely a challenge.
There were some moments where Rachel’s actions had me cringing, but at the same time I was cheering for her. I really want her to come out on top or at least have a moment where she can really shine. As you were reading the scripts, were there any moments or scenes that surprised you, that you couldn’t believe that Rachel “went there”?
Yes. There were episodes where Constance would read the script and she was like, “Shiri, you have to say something, they can’t take it this far.” I read scripts, and as an actor I’ll be like I’ll do what they ask me to, and thankfully I have someone like her on my side that is more protective of the characters, which is really wonderful. But the writers really went for it.
For the most part, I don’t watch reality TV, and sometimes I get frustrated with family and friends who take it at face value when I know there are people behind the scenes pulling some strings. Although this is a hyper-real version of this world, do you think that reality TV fans may start to see their favorite shows in a different light?
I think so. It definitely shows a side of things that people haven’t been exposed to. It’s hard to watch a reality show the same way again. If anything, you can see it from a point of view that you can see the editing. I don’t necessarily think you’re going to watch a show thinking that every character that you like is being manipulated, but it’s hard to not watch it with a little bit of criticism.
Any final thoughts?
I’m so excited about this show. I’m really proud of it and I hope people give it a chance.
Photo Courtesy of Lifetime