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UnREAL: behind the scenes with Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby

Image for UnREAL: behind the scenes with Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby

When asked his feelings about his 1959 novel Psycho spawning an ongoing cottage industry of films, TV shows and spin-off novels, author Robert Bloch mused, "I don't believe Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley ever expected to spawn Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein." With that in mind, one can only imagine how Philo T. Farnsworth, the creator of television, would feel about the current state of his invention when it comes to reality TV. Odds are we'd still be watching radio.

Shows in America like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, in which groups of women or men come together to beat each other out to win the heart of the man/woman of their dreams (no matter how awful their behavior to do so) is pretty much the nadir of the medium. However, what has arisen from that is UnREAL, which, ironically, puts the reality back into the genre through its scripted drama.

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Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL gives a fictitious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program, Everlasting. Having already tackled matters of gender politics, the series, starring Shiri Appleby (she of Roswell) and Constance Zimmer (the late Rosalind Price of Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as producers Rachel Goldberg and Quinn King, will stir up the drama in season two when Everlasting casts its first-ever African American suitor.

In the following Empire exclusive, Appleby (who makes her debut as director this year) and Zimmer discuss the show, which has been the recipient of the Peabody, AFI and Critic's Choice (for Zimmer) awards and has just been picked up for a third season on the eve of its second season debut.

How grueling is this show production wise?

Constance Zimmer: It's a lot and not just playing the characters alone, because Quinn is exhausting just by herself. I think the way that we actually shoot the show, we're constantly in chaos. We're constantly surrounded by real crew and fake crew, and it's just kind of how the show works. If it's not kind of crazy, then it doesn't feel right. Calmness means that something is wrong.

What is it about UnREAL that draws you in even if you find yourself in a perpetual state of snark regarding reality TV?

Zimmer: When you watch the reality shows, you're probably sitting there and saying, "Look at that...doesn't that feel so fake? Isn't that so forced? But who is that girl? I wonder what she's really like." That's kind of what our show is doing.

Shiri Appleby: It's a look behind the curtain, which is kind of a fascinating thing if you have seen shows like that. It's about how they're made. I had done one season of Project Greenlight, the season that Shia LaBeouf was starring on. We had a very, very, very tiny interaction with reality television. I knew it was frightening and daunting. It felt very large to have all those cameras focused on you.

Zimmer: We're kind of letting you peer behind the scenes of shows like that, where you realize that these puppet masters are pulling the strings. It's the darker, cynical version. For people, whether or not you've watched reality shows, it's still an incredibly entertaining show, because these people are really messed up.

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Is that what attracted you to the material?

Zimmer: For me it was a couple of things, because the pilot had already been shot and the show had already been picked up. They were going back and shooting a new pilot based on the realization that it wasn't exactly the tone that they originally had set out to make. Then they sent me the short, Sequin Raves, which was Sarah Gertrude Shapiro's short that the show was based on. When I saw that short, I right away said, "Oh my gosh. If they're going to do this in a television show, that's definitely something I want to be a part of." It was so twisted and so messed up, and I just thought, if I can pull it off, it's going to be incredible. I sat and I met with [executive producers] Marti Noxon, Bob Sertner and Sarah Shapiro, and we talked; we had, like, a two-hour meeting. That was it, I was convinced in the room because of their vision, because of their commitment, because of what they were saying Lifetime really wanted to do with this show. For me, I said, "Listen, Quinn can be like that character we've all seen before, but I want to make sure that she's going to be something more than that. Are we going to get to see her vulnerabilities? Are we going to get to see her insecurities, and all that?" They said, "Yes, everybody is going to be flawed and three-dimensional."

Appleby: When I saw the short that Sarah made, I could understand the tone that she was trying to accomplish; it was something different than what was out there and a much darker tone than I had expected. I watched the short and read the script. I thought it had the potential to be something really good. I came and auditioned, went through the usual channels and we made an original pilot, I think in 2013 ... Maybe even 2012, I can't even remember. They picked it up. Then we kind of started over from scratch. We brought in Constance, we had a new director. They really just revamped it. We were lucky that this is what we landed on.

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Was the tone of that pilot different or the approach different?

Appleby: That was really the big conversation that we had making that pilot and for most of season one: what is the tone? And having to just constantly say, "This is real life. This is The Newsroom. This is a serious drama. To these people, their situation is life and death. Everything is very real." That's something you absolutely had to hold on to. If you play up the comedy with these scripts, the show just doesn't land as well.

Zimmer: I never saw the first pilot; they just never even let me see it. They had said that they went a little off of what the short was, and now they really wanted to get back to that. So they had already done it, they already made it and realized their mistakes. At that point I was figuring, "Okay, now they must really know what they want." At that point you just have to kind of dive in and pray that everybody is saying the right things, and they're going to follow through. They did, I feel super lucky and grateful that we all committed so hard to every part of this show. It's working so far, knock on wood.

Appleby: To be honest, in the beginning I just wasn't sure what to expect. It was also, like, "What is this show going to be? Is every week going to turn into the story of how the next girl gets kicked off? Are we going to be making that show?" I honestly didn't know that the show was going to have me making as many political statements and touching on so many nerves as it did. Granted, she's opening the show wearing a t-shirt that says, "This is what a feminist looks like." When you sign on for a pilot, there's no way to know what stories the writers are going to be telling. The whole thing was quite a surprise to me, but the truth is that in this day and age there's so much television, so much entertainment, that if something isn't good and stands up in some way, it's going to go away pretty quickly. So there's that sense of, if it doesn't work it'll go away and at least I tried. If it works, it could be incredible to be a show that helps rebrand the network. What an incredible position to be in. It was kind of like, "Why not just go for it?"

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In terms of Rachel and Quinn, what are your views of the characters? Who are they?

Appleby: Rachel is a complicated creature. She's really a survivor, more so this season than we really even saw her last year. She's a survivor who is just trying at all costs to gain control of her life and figure out what the best way to do that is. She's got some pretty heavy forces working against her, so she has to be an incredibly strong character. In season one, she thinks that she is just in here to pay off some debt and then she's going to get on with it and go be a writer and do something else. Then she realizes quickly when she gets in there that Quinn's not going to let her go. That's really the set up for the first season. Season two, she's in. She's running the show. She's putting the first black suitor on television. That's her idea. By the end it's really been a fight for power between Quinn and Rachel all season. Like I said, this girl is not going anywhere. She definitely has quite an evolution between the first to second season. The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is incredibly evolved as well. They're becoming more of equals, although it seems like they might be having a fight for power.

Zimmer: It's been such a fascinating ride and character to play, because I find something new about her every time, every episode, every scene we shoot. She's definitely complicated, unfiltered, insecure (believe it or not), and she's constantly searching for, I think, that thing that's missing. But I don't really think she knows what that is, and I also don't think that she'll ever figure it out. That means you have a woman who is constantly in search of... what? We all have our goals, we all know, like, okay, this is what I would like to get to, this is where I'm headed, this is what I see for myself in the future. The problem with her is all the things that she has set up for herself, or seen for herself in the future, have disappointed her. And have failed her. She's constantly remaking those goals, and then if she gets to that goal and it disappoints her, you know she's going to start all over again. Which is a fun thing to play, because in the midst of those searches she doesn't really care what people think about her. She doesn't care how she gets the job done. She doesn't care if she loses herself in God knows what. It's all projection, and she's constantly projecting herself into other people, and what would I do, and what should they do? Rachel is the only thing that I think keeps her grounded, weirdly enough, because I think that that is really her prime focus. The only thing that really matters to her is making sure that Rachel doesn't go through the pain that Quinn has gone through.

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But would you say that over the course of the show she's actually caused Rachel pain by her demands, by her attitude and that sort of thing? Is that designed to make Rachel stronger?

Zimmer: Absolutely, but I definitely do not play Quinn in a way where she thinks that anything she's doing is hurting her. Otherwise I wouldn't do it, right? On set, all of us are constantly fighting to prove that our characters are not wrong, and that our characters are decent people. Where everybody's always, like, "But Constance, Quinn did this and this and this," and I was, like, "Yeah, I know, but she was doing it for the better self that Rachel could be." "No she's not." "Yes she is." It's very funny and I love it, because we kind of all have to believe that our characters are not doing anything wrong. I think it's how we can get away with it. It keeps things grounded and doesn't turn them into caricatures of bad people.

Shiri, Rachel was pretty compassionate in the first season, and from what I've seen of season two it seems that some of that compassion has been stripped away from her in order for her to gain control of her life. Is that a fair assessment?

Appleby: It's totally fair. This season she's been promoted to showrunner. She's not having those personal interactions with the contestants anymore. She's really got her sights set very high. Now that she's moving away from them and engaging with them less, she feels less guilt about taking them down. She has essentially learned how to become Quinn.

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Are there aspects of your characters that you particularly connect with?

Appleby: I think figuring out how to gain control of your life and trying to figure out what makes you happy ... Those are just big questions that we hopefully ask ourselves at some point in life. I can understand the journey she's on with that. You know, trying to gain control ... Wanting to work hard. I definitely relate to that. The reasons why Rachel and I work hard is different, but I understand the need to do so.

Zimmer: It's funny, because for me I connect more with her weak side. I connect more with her vulnerabilities and her insecurities, and because of those it's what comes out as this super strong, somewhat confident woman. She's confident because of what she does. She's confident because she's worked her ass off and gotten to where she is, and has proven herself worthy. For me, those are the things that I see and that I kind of appreciate, but I'm all about playing the vulnerabilities under her, and then letting the other stuff come off the page as it is. I found a new color for Quinn just yesterday. We shot this scene, and I had no idea what was going to happen, or what was going to come out of me, or what the reaction of Quinn was going to be. It was really unsettling, but I can't even tell you the scene because it gives away something important. I can't wait for people to see the episode, though, because we really do kind of hit a new low. The reaction that Quinn has, and again, this is like actor speak, it might sound super cheesy, but I can't rehearse as Quinn, I really can't rehearse in character at full range, I guess. I really don't do Quinn until I don't have a choice, until they say action, and it's being put on film. Sometimes the reactions are so just visceral and so raw that they take me by surprise. And I'm the person playing it.

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The show makes strong statements about female empowerment, but when you have someone like Rachel having such a turnaround in terms of who she is to obtain that power, does that become a negative statement about empowerment as well?

Appleby: Later on in the season, we do feel her guilt and see how she processes things. I don't think that she is void of it. She operates through life in a day-to-day way, where she's not letting it take her down quite as much, but there are moments of it throughout the season where you see, "Wait a second. This was a real thing for this girl."

Constance, in trying to remain a powerful figure, is there a price Quinn pays?

Zimmer: I'm not quite sure, because I think for Quinn in particular the price that she might be paying is loneliness. But I don't necessarily think that that is true for all women that are empowered, because it's different for everyone. For Quinn, though, I think the loneliness is her price, but I still believe that she'd much rather be powerful. If that's the price, she's happy to pay it. Other people in real life, I don't think that they're necessarily lonely. Actually, they probably feel pretty great. The reason they're empowered is because they have it all, because they have the family, and they have the kids, and they have the career, and they have the respect, et cetera. Respect empowers you and I think that's what makes anybody feel good, whether you're a woman or a man.

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Beyond this being a look behind the curtain, why do you feel the show is connecting with people the way it is?

Appleby: You know, women are really in traditional male roles on this show. I think that's really fascinating, watching women be three-dimensional. It's incredible, I think, and there's a real friendship at the heart of the show as well. It's ugly. It's nasty, but that's exciting. Plus, you know, there's tons of sex. Girls in bikinis, and shiny glittery things. It plays into our fantasy of looking for love. I think it just hits on a lot of levels.

Zimmer: I think everybody loves watching those kinds of characters, just these crazy, complicated, flawed characters, and yet they're all running a television show. And somehow it's working.

UnREAL airs on Lifetime in both the US and the UK.