"UnReal" Star Shiri Appleby On What She's Learned About Being an Ambitious Woman
Jul 27, 2015
By Megan Angelo
Lifetime's drama "UnReal," which follows the conniving producers behind a "Bachelor"-inspired show, has impeccable timing. It premiered during a season of "The Bachelorette" that had a bit less action than usual — when we all switch over to "UnReal" at 10 p.m., we feel like we're actually getting to watch the "most controversial season ever" that Chris Harrison is always promising. The other thing driving the show to success is its its crazy-committed performances, most notably that of Shiri Appleby, who plays the underpaid, undershowered producing whiz Rachel. With two episodes to go, Appleby — who starred in Roswell, ER and Life Unexpected and played Adam's Hannah rebound on "Girls" — talked with us about diving into the dark underworld of reality romance. Spoilers ahead.
How did you research the role of Rachel, who's responsible for massaging the contestants into doing and saying things the show wants for ratings?
I had dinner with a reality field producer like the character I play and basically asked her three hours of questions — how do you manipulate the contestants? What do you wear? Then I got together with an executive producer whose job was closer to Quinn's [eds note: Constance Zimmer plays Quinn, Rachel's boss]. I wanted to know, do they feel guilty about what they're doing?
Do they? What did you learn from your research and being on the show about how people get their jobs done in this field?
What shocked me the most is that there's really no bottom. They're willing to do anything to get whatever footage they're looking for. They'll lie. They'll cheat. And they don't have too much regard for the [contestants] — they're just props to them. They can't imagine that these people are human beings with feelings and families and friends they have to go home to.
"UnReal" creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked on "The Bachelor" for some time. How much of Rachel is based on her history there?
Sarah and I didn't really talk about her experience too much, because it was about me finding out who this character is and then going through the experience myself.
Are you a "Bachelor" fan? How has playing Rachel changed the way you watch reality TV?
I watched "The Bachelor" in my twenties and really enjoyed it, but I don't watch it anymore. It doesn't hold my interest in the same way. You can tell that these contestants know what they're signing up for now, and they're manipulating things, too, trying to find the thing that's going to buy them their 15 minutes of fame. I love "Project Runway." I like the Kardashians. Working on "UnReal" hasn't ruined reality TV for me, but I'm more cynical about it. I'm watching it more like a producer, trying to see what I can catch. I'll think, "Oh, they didn't do this naturally. This was a pitch."
Unlike most characters on TV, Rachel has worn the same casual clothes all season and has a permanent low-makeup, messy-bun look going. As an actress, has that been liberating, or is it getting old?
I loved it, to be honest with you. It was really freeing. Sarah and I wanted Rachel to look like a normal PA. For wardrobe, dressing me like a normal person was a challenge. So it was just easier to have the same two t-shirts, same pair of jeans, and same jacket. But the crew really put their foot down at the end — they were like, "Shiri, you have to tell wardrobe to change your clothes. It's gross." So the last two episodes, I finally wear different clothes.
Speaking of the crew, whenever I watch "UnReal," I love picturing the real crew behind the fake crew on-camera — it must be such a meta shooting experience.
The first month, it was super confusing. I'd be asking people, "Where does the boom go? Where's the frameline?" And they'd have no idea what I was talking about, because they were extras dressed to look like crew. There were almost 400 people on this set who looked identical — no one knew who was who.
Rachel is constantly stressed — every moment of her workday has high stakes. Did she take it out of you more than other characters you've played?
I've had shows where I'm crying every day, and those took more of a toll. Rachel's situations were so unique and interesting, so I had a lot of fun with her. By the end of any drama you're feeling tired and beaten down as a human being anyway — I'm always like, "Why didn't I do a sitcom?"
The last thing you did that we couldn't stop talking about was playing Natalia on Girls, and that had some emotionally fraught stuff too — especially a tough sex scene with Adam that inspired weeks of debate.
That scene was one of the most fun days I've ever had at work. It was the first time anybody was letting me do something dirty and raw, not perfect and sweet. I felt like I was breaking out of a box I had been in. I was so grateful to Lena [Dunham] and Jenni [Konner] for that opportunity. Lena was directing and their crew is so respectful, I felt really safe and protected.
I feel like the moment UnReal went from fun-dark to dark-dark was when the contestant Mary killed herself after a fight with her ex-husband, whom Rachel invited to set, and having gone days without her meds, which another producer had meddled it. Did that storyline shock you guys as much as it shocked us?
We found out about it a few weeks before we shot it, and none of us could believe it. It was intense. We had done these things like not telling Anna her father died or helping Faith come out of the closet, but nothing quite so hard-hitting. It was so upsetting, too, that more than one of the producers were responsible for Mary's death. Shooting it was just dark. Thankfully, the show only lingered on it for two episodes, then we just kind of turned the page. The other tough thing is that we lose somebody almost every episode, so we're constantly saying goodbye to each other.
Are you guys a close cast, or did you keep your distance to make the manipulating more method?
It was a total team sport, this show. We were all up in Vancouver, and we had little to no contact with the producers and writers back in Los Angeles. It was almost like a theater troupe. There was a lot of love and support.
My favorite scenes are the tense exchanges between you and Constance. Sometimes you interrupt each other — there's an unscripted feel to them. What's the process behind those like?
Once we get what's written on the page, we like to play around and make it feel more real. The show is about not being perfect, so it's OK to be messy. Constance and I get along really well, so that makes it easier. Because there's such a comfort level, it's OK to cut the other person off. If you don't get along with the other actor, you're too nervous about stepping on their toes.
In last week's episode, Quinn tells Rachel, "You used to be a shark. You used to be dead-eyed." Rachel replies that she's sick of being a "manipulative bitch." The conversation made me think about how we view ambitious women, and how we as women feel like we have to act to be ambitious. How have you dealt with those issues in your career?
I think about this all the time. I'm an ambitious woman, but I've had some men call me too driven or too ambitious. I've had them tell me to "calm down." When you're trying to find yourself, it does sort of squash you. Now that I'm happily married and my partner [chef and entrepreneur Jon Shook] is successful, I always try to think, "How would he handle this? Would a guy feel guilty for asking for this?" No. A guy doesn't feel like he's out of line for asking for what he wants. It's crazy that we filter ourselves that way. So now the way I go about my business is to be sweet and feminine, but when it comes to negotiating, be a man. I hope to raise my daughter in a way that she can communicate what she feels without having to put herself in a man's head.
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Photo Credit: David Livingston via Getty Images