In a piercing and bitingly funny behind-the-scenes look at how reality TV shows are made, the new Lifetime drama seriesoffers a fictional world that offers a satirical look at shows like the BACHELOR. In the UNREAL world, its fictional TV show is called “Everlasting” and it follows a group of female contestants as they are selected by a wealthy heir to a hotel fortune. It plays out like the ultimate “princess” fantasy and each one is waiting for their prince. Yet, in the case of UNREAL, the prince is perhaps not as princely as he should be and the women vying to be his winning princess have been chosen, not for their compatibility or simply for their beauty, but because they come from various backgrounds that the show’s producers have determined will make for “good TV” — or, notably, lots of drama. UNREAL offers a fun twist on the classic formula and fictionalizes the tale of a reality television show and does so with sharp humor and with very funny characters, who as the show likes to proudly proclaim: “Bad people make good TV.”
In an exclusive interview, startalks about her character Mary and all the fun she had working on UNREAL.
How did you first find out about UNREAL and what attracted you to the role of Mary?
ASHLEY: (Laughs) Well, she was 37 and has a 4-year old daughter, which I did at the time, so I was immediately drawn to Mary and the direction they were taking her. I was given the script about two years ago, and for various reasons she was a great fit for me. So I went in and read and booked it — thank gosh! Then we started the journey. They took her down a beautiful road. It was a lovely story to tell. She is the voice for a lot of women, women that I get.
Who is Mary other than just a mother? Why is she on “Everlasting”?
ASHLEY: I think she found herself — after being divorced and not having been the prettiest of relationships — and she’s starting her life anew. Personally, she may not have made some healthy choices in her life and is really taking a leap of faith. She’s doing something completely different than she had ever done. I think a lot of women in their 30’s kind of take those leaps and step out of their comfort-zones because they are confident. Women in their 30’s are just so confident. It’s a different playing field. So she truly thought that this might be a fun, risky chance. She’s a smart woman with a daughter, who she loves very much, and she thought she would take a chance — a leap of faith.
Does Mary really trust Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer)? Her instincts in her 30’s might be to not trust these kinds of people.
ASHLEY: They say in the first episode that they had some difficulty getting her to sign the deal. But they are also incredibly manipulative, and I hate to say it, but even with smart ones, you can still get fooled sometimes. But I think she went in with her eyes open and understanding that they might be sharks, but she was willing to take the risk — which says a lot about where she was too in her life: “You need to take risks sometimes. It’s okay.” That’s how you learn a lot about yourself.
How much fun was it working with Shiri and Constance in the roles of Rachel and Quinn?
ASHLEY: It was great! Those two girls, personally, are lovely; and professionally, just so in tune. Both have worked for so many years, and it’s nice to work with other women that bring so much to the table. And their characters were just fantastic. There were so many great colors. Both of them had a conscience, believe it or not, and it’s really neat to see them explore that conscience through the process of the show — particularly with Mary, my storyline. They tested themselves. And you know what? At the end of it all, they are badass ladies. They are strong women.
As we looked at the character of Mary, what does she see in Adam (Freddie Stroma)? Does she actually see him as marriage material or does she see this as more of a lark?
ASHLEY: What I realized while we were shooting, that I didn’t expect because I’m not really a reality television fan and I’ve never really gotten into those dating shows, so I kind of went in blindly and I kind of went in the way that Mary might have: thinking with her head and not with her heart — when we were shooting the scene — and they set it up really lovely when we met Adam for the first time, now mind you, we knew Freddie — but all the girls, we were filming in kind of one take. So you would get out of the limo for the first time — and they kept our lines kind of loose for the introduction — and I felt as a woman the excitement in the limo. That excitement between the other girls, the excitement of the competition, the excitement of who is going to do the better introduction, and it was very exciting. So I kind of understand where these girls become captivated by the excitement of it all, the game of it all. It was more the empowerment between the girls than it was about the guy that was standing out there. So I think for Mary, he’s very attractive, successful, and charming. So I think she was a little swept away with that, which happens to the best of us.
Was Freddie anything like Adam? He is very charismatic in person, I’m sure.
ASHLEY: Freddie is actually a fantastic guy. There were some similarities, like you need a successful, good looking, English, proper gentleman. But, after that, no. The character Adam was pretty crazy — he got around using his sexuality a bit to his advantage, which is something Freddie would never do.
It’s funny but in those situations people tend to forget that there is a camera recording them every single moment, which exposes them to a worldwide audience.
ASHLEY: That’s exactly right. It’s frightening, especially where there is a show with a family and there are children involved. That was another thing that I was so proud to have played with Mary, she had a daughter. But that happens in real life, these people bring their children on reality television and expose them forever.
What is Mary’s strategy to win? It seems like she gets competitive with the other girls really fast.
ASHLEY: It sounds like it from the clips, but she doesn’t actually. She is just there having a great time. She is really a strong woman and she is health and she holds her head up high; then there is a little bit of a turn mid-season, which is just incredible to watch. In the beginning, she is going in with her head held high and playing the game successfully.
I could never quite tell if the contestants were siding with each other and aligned with each other in order to help each other out, or if they were all out for themselves on “Everlasting.” Did you get a sense of camaraderie or was it all cut-throat?
ASHLEY: It’s funny. I actually felt so much camaraderie with the women, naturally, besides the chosen few — which I think they probably highlight more on these shows. But, just generally, I think women are just good to each other. I just think we naturally band together and support one another in life. It’s just our nature. I’ve found that a lot. I also found that just within the actresses on set. We really supported one another and were kind to one another. You always hear that if you get a bunch of women together, it’s a nightmare; but it was the opposite experience for me. It’s usually when there are a bunch of men that there is drama. (Laughs) I really mean that. So it couldn’t have been a more loving set. Women were taking care of each other. Some of us had children and we all supported each other being at work. It was fantastic.
Of all the “Everlasting” contestants, who should we be rooting for, besides Mary?
ASHLEY: (Laughs) Only Mary. That’s it! Team Mary. But you know what? I love Faith — Breeda Wool’s character. Breeda Wool is a fabulous young actress. She’s just going to blow everyone’s mind. She’s delightful to watch. Really captivating. Meryl Streep-ish. I really just think she’s wonderful. I loved her character. She really just touched my heart and will touch the hearts of so many people who watch. So, if I had to pick, I like Faith. If not Mary, I vote Faith.
Looking at Mary, what was one thing you really admired about her?
ASHLEY: I admire her choice, her strength. She left an abusive relationship with a 4-year old little girl. It takes an awful lot of strength to walk away from a marriage or relationship where there is physical and psychological abuse. I admire that strength in her. I admired also that she, prior to going on the show, recognized some issues that she was dealing with personally that maybe kept her in that trap and maybe led her to not having the self-love to be around people that cheer for her, and she was addressing those issues psychologically and really putting her best foot forward. I just really think that’s admirable. I thought she was a wonderfully strong, healthy woman when I read her, in the beginning. I just think that is awesome. There are so many women in this world that are afraid and are beaten down psychologically by abusive relationships, and I am very happy to play a character that addresses that.
Sounds like that might be the key ingredient to attracting someone like Adam, in the sense that strength can really be attractive for when looking for a mate.
ASHLEY: Well, like attracts like. If you’re in a place where you are weak and you are stuck in your yucky patterns and you are not being the best person you can be, then you’re going to attract someone who is interested in that. The only time we find true love is when we truly love ourselves, and we are expecting that in others. Then you attract a whole person. (Laughs) It sounds a lot easier than it is.
If you were offer Mary some life advice, what would you tell her?
ASHLEY: My advice to Mary would be: to continue to love herself and to care for herself, and to put herself first.
What did you learn working on UNREAL?
ASHLEY: Oh gosh, it was great! Personally, it had been awhile since I was part of something I was so proud of, that I was so excited about. It made me feel really good to be back on set with fantastic actors. It boosted my confidence in who I am. It was really lovely. I appreciate Marti [Noxon] and Sarah [Shapiro] for giving me the opportunity to get back out there and work. It feels good to work. It was fantastic. It was really an exciting experience for me. You go through so many peaks and valleys in this business that it is just really nice to get back in and do what you do and know that you do well. It was an amazing opportunity.
Who surprised you the most working on the show? Either as a character or as an actor?
ASHLEY: You know what? Everybody brought the noise. It’s a rarity. Years ago, I was on JERICHO and I was surrounded by fantastic actors who constantly surprised me. And I had that same exact experience on this show. Everybody brought their A-game. Everybody really bought the best out in their characters, and then a little more. I think that has a lot to do with our casting. Barbara Fiorentino assembled an incredible cast. It’s hard to get it right. It really is. It is difficult to have actors kind of take it beyond, and we’ve got the magic. We really do. Everybody was surprising. Freddie [Stroma] was completely surprising. He would bring colors out in this kind of unlikable character that was likable. I hate to sound so happy and joyous about it all, but everybody really did a fantastic job. Johanna Braddy, she played an amazing character that deals with all sorts of mental issues and an eating disorder that she addresses. (Laughs) We kind of cover it all. It’s really exciting.
It was surprising to watch the first episode and then, as the show continues, it just embraces that darker side of reality television and its consequences. It was surprising that the show was willing to go that dark.
ASHLEY: As an actor, we read so many scripts. So when I got this pilot, I thought: “Damn, this is really good!” And you battle the “Lifetime has typically been television for women” perception, but this really raises the bar for their viewers or what people think their viewers are. I think women are so complex and are wanting truth. We are wanting all aspects of our lives to be covered — and UNREAL does that. So it’s a really happy marriage between the network and the show. I think Lifetime is a really good place for it and I think people are going to be so surprised. And we’re exposing the yucky side of a culture that we have been obsessed with.
It also really illustrates the the dark side of voyeurism.
ASHLEY: (Laughs) Exactly! But I think now is the time. I think our society is putting the light on the darkness and that’s the only way we grow as a humankind.
What are some of the things viewers and fans can look forward to as the first season unfolds on UNREAL?
ASHLEY: Gosh, I just hope they enjoy the ride. I hope they appreciate that we appreciate that they are an intelligence force. I am sure they already know that there is a lot of funky stuff that goes on behind the scenes in this business, in general, and I think it will be a cool peek to step inside and see really how the entertainment business all works. What is so cool about the balance on UNREAL is you see the dark underbelly, but you also see these women make some pretty amazing choices at the end of the series. It makes you feel good to be a human being and it makes you feel proud of these women. They actually do some amazing things — the right thing.
That’s encouraging to hear. Right now, it kind of looks like they are spiraling out a bit.
ASHLEY: (Laughs) Well, that’s life. It’s a wild ride. We’re taking you on a wild, wild ride. Buckle your seatbelts and tune in every Monday night — and enjoy it!
To find out just if Ashley’s character Mary does in fact snare the heart of the “Everlasting” prince and where her journey leads, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of UNREAL on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. on Lifetime.