Lifetime’s new drama series UNREAL is a curious mixture of drama, comedy and biting satire. Premised on the behind-the-scenes story of a young producer on a fictional television show, who is trying to piece her life back together after a breakdown stemming from a crisis of conscience about her job, UNREAL takes viewers into the world of televised dating shows and how “unreal” they are.
Shiri Appleby stars as Rachel, who has an amazing knack for knowing instinctively how to best manipulate people into the perfect camera-ready moment and sound-bite. It is a valuable skill and Rachel is torn between her desire to do her job, one that she is great at, and her conscience, which feels guilty for exploiting people’s weaknesses just for the sake of a television show. What is most clever about UNREAL is seeing that conflict play-out on Shiri’s face. She perfectly conveys the angel and devil playing tug-of-war for Rachel’s soul and yet makes it all seem like devilish fun in the process.
UNREAL is not just an expose-style show. It entices you into the fake world of the “reality” television. Rachel’s job is on the show “Everlasting,” where young women vie for the attention and honor of being the wife of a young prince. Some of the contestants are in it for fame and fortune, and yet some naively believe this is a unique opportunity to find love with a handsome prince. Co-starring Freedie Stroma as Adam, the prince who is seeking a lady love for his kingdom — mostly to appease his family and to rehabilitate his tarnished bad-boy reputation — UNREAL also offers the fun twist of whether Rachel and Adam’s behind-the-scenes flirtation hints at something more brewing off-camera, or if Rachel and Adam are merely playing a game with each other, to get what each wants out of the other — in Rachel’s case, she wants to reign him in for the sake of the show, and in Adam’s case, maybe he needs something more real than what is being offered on “Everlasting.” In addition, to spice things up and add to the tension, Rachel’s ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Josh Kelly) also works on “Everlasting,” with his new fiancé.
Finally, there is Rachel’s boss Quinn, piercingly and powerfully played by Constance Zimmer. At first it is not obvious that Quinn and Rachel are perfectly aligned as they both secretly get a thrill off the manipulation of others to create the show. So they get each other and need each other. Their symbiotic relationship is what makes the show successful and it might be just the one life-line they both need to keep sane in the process.
In an exclusive interview, star Shiri Appleby talked about the complex and layered world of UNREAL and the myriad of relationships that her character Rachel navigates.
Your new series UNREAL looks like it could be a big hit for Lifetime. Are you excited to have it finally debut?
SHIRI: I’m really excited. I am really proud of the show. I can’t wait for it to air for people to see it.
One of the biggest questions that viewers are going to have right away is: who is Rachel Goldberg? It is hard to get a finger on who she is. So how would you describe her?
SHIRI: She’s a pretty conflicted character. I think she is a person who is trying to do the right thing, but she is just really conflicted because the thing is that she is really good at just happens to be producing reality television and that is the thing that makes her hate herself. She grew up with an upper class family and her mother is a psychiatrist and she is always being diagnosed by her mother. So she has learned how to manipulate out of necessity.
When we first meet Rachel, she is a little fragile. Are we going to see her kind of find herself again and get her strength back, or is she always going to be the fragile, kind of on-the-edge kind of person?
SHIRI: I think the entire season we sort of see her go up and down. There’s moments when you see her become really proud of herself and help some of the characters, and there’s moments where she is taken down by the entire machine. It’s a really hard, big machine to fight against. She’s got people like Quinn (played by Constance Zimmer) who are really after her and using her for their own gain. I kind of don’t see Rachel as that fragile. I feel like she is a strong character inside and she knows that she is going to get out. But the question is: how is she going to get out, and if she does, what is she going to do with her life?
So that will be the ultimate manipulation: how does she reclaim her life and make it her own again?
How would you describe Rachel’s position? Her position seems a bit nebulous, as far as working on the reality show “Everlasting.”
SHIRI: She’s an on-set field producer, whose job it is to manipulate the contestants to get the footage necessary to make the show. But she’s kind of one of those people who is a really hard worker. She probably graduated high school and college with incredibly great grades with very little effort; and she is one of those people who will do whatever it takes to win. So she might have a job that could be described on a resume, but I think she does whatever she needs to do.
We also know from the first scene that she kind of had a breakdown on camera on “Everlasting” before what we see on screen. What was kind of the tipping-point that pushed her over the edge?
SHIRI: I think she knew that she was going to have to go to some girl — that she had been producing for the past season — and tell her that she was going to be picked, the “trust me, I’ve got your back, I’m never going to hurt you, look me in the eyes, believe me” and then she basically walks the girl up to the flames and pushing her in, knowing that the guy is not going to pick her. I think that moment of: “Who am I? Why am I taking this woman down? Why am I taking myself down?” I think it just becomes too much for her.
So Rachel has a bit of a crisis of conscience then.
SHIRI: Big time.
Why does Quinn want Rachel back? Rachel is kind of explosive, ready to blow up again at any time.
SHIRI: (Laughs) ‘Cause she’s the best at what she does.
So Quinn just wants the best of the best, regardless of the threat that could pose?
SHIRI: She’s like, “It doesn’t matter. Rachel’s the best. She creates the best show.” And I think Quinn’s a television executive who just wants a hit show on her hands. That’s her main objective.
I’m curious about that relationship as sometimes it seems like Rachel and Quinn are friends and they just get each other. How would you describe their relationship?
SHIRI: Yeah, I think there are times when they are friends and there are times when they are enemies. It’s also like a mother-daughter relationship, where they love each other and hate each other. Rachel is constantly trying to please her and yet get away from her and be her own person; and Quinn is really trying to control her and get her to do what she needs. So it’s definitely a conflicted, confused relationship and the lines are incredibly blurred.
Do you think there is some genuine affection there or are they just kind of playing each other a little bit?
SHIRI: I kind of feel like there is genuine affection, but maybe it is because Constance and I love each other so much.
So that’s bleeding through to the characters then.
SHIRI: (Laughs) Somehow, yeah.
Maybe that is what we’re seeing: you and Constance are having so much fun playing these characters.
SHIRI: We really had a good time. It was really rich roles and we both really went for it and supported each other in it. Also I think at the end of the day, Quinn sees a version of her younger self in Rachel; and Rachel sees a version of her life and what it could be. So there is some jealousy on both ends and there is also some fear on both ends.
They definitely have a complicated relationship.
SHIRI: (Laughs) They definitely need some therapy together.
The other person who comes into Rachel’s orbit right away is, of course, Adam and we are never quite sure what is going on between Rachel and Adam. How would you describe that?
SHIRI: I would say that at the beginning why they are sort of into each other is because they both kind of need each other. When you get isolated in this world — like being on-set is a very isolate world — they are not being exposed to anything: no television, no newspapers, no outside contact. Plus, he’s incredibly attractive. Then there’s something incredibly attractive about the fact that she can get him to do what she wants and watching him do it. And there’s that “princess fantasy” of wanting to fall in love with a gorgeous man that can provide the world for you and take you away from everything — and she’s really looking for an escape and it becomes attractive to her as the hours get longer and she becomes more and more fatigued. She buys into it. And I think it is probably the same for him. They can relate to each other as neither one of them really want to be there. They are sort of doing it just to escape their own personal lives.
So Rachel and Adam kind of see each other as each other’s saviors, in a weird, twisted way.
SHIRI: That’s exactly right.
Then what about poor Jeremy? It was not initially clear, but why did Jeremy and Rachel’s relationship fall apart? Was it simply because Rachel cracked-up or did he just leave her?
SHIRI: Jeremy represents everything Rachel wanted before she cracked. She wanted to leave it all behind — to have a small life in the middle of the country, not chasing a lot, and kind of settling. So he kind of seems like that safe version for her. And that’s where she becomes really conflicted. I think she is like Quinn, in that she thinks: “I could have this big life. I could run a TV show. I could probably run a studio or a network.” But that makes her feel like a failure. So then she thinks: “I could run away with Jeremy, this great guy who I know will be loyal to me and loves me, and it might not be as fulfilling as I want, but I’d be safe, just not challenged.” So that’s what I think he represents to her.
These are very complicated characters. I’m never quite sure if I’m supposed to laugh at them or pat them on the head.
SHIRI: (Laughs) It’s a little bit of both. I feel like they are not sure about it too, which is good. Also I don’t feel like its too heavy. I mean, there are times when there is heavy drama, especially as the season goes on, but I definitely feel like they have a sense of humor about themselves.
What do you, as an actress, admire about your character Rachel? What did you like about her?
SHIRI: She is such a rich character. The world is something I had never really played or explored or seen before. I had watched Sarah Shapiro’s short “Sequin Raze” and was just completely riveted and thought if they made the show even half of what the short is, it was definitely something I felt I needed to do. After GIRLS, I had been looking to do something that really challenged me and pushed me and force me to do things that I’ve never done before. And Rachel is a character who is not really doing great things. She is not really treating herself or other people well, and that internal conflict was something I was really attracted to.
What would you say you learned from playing Rachel?
SHIRI: (Laughs) I learned how to manipulate people, and I can figure out when I’m being manipulated. I had never been that conscious of it before as I’m a pretty honest person and I never realized that people could go through life sort of doing that. I had seen producers do it, but I never imagined myself like that, and by the the end of it, I was like, “I can totally figure this out.”
I was a little scared watching you do the manipulations as the character of Rachel. Were you scared at times playing that?
SHIRI: That was awesome! It was so much fun. I was like really starting to gravitate toward the dark stuff. It’s such a rich place to play. There are really so few roles in that world that I just had a great time. Granted you can see how it’s going to play out, but you can kind of push in any direction and get the response you want.
In the first episode, where Rachel is manipulating Arielle Kebbel’s character Courtney and watching that play out, I remember thinking, “This is terrifying.”
SHIRI: (Laughs) Thank you! That is exactly the response we want.
What was it like working in that scene with Arielle? It still looked like there was an undercurrent of fun to it.
SHIRI: There was a ton of fun to it, mostly because Arielle and I have worked together previously. We did a season of LIFE UNEXPECTED together. So we’re good friends. So it felt incredibly safe and we kind of went for it. We really pushed it. Arielle stayed in character the whole time we were shooting the pilot, and I thought, “If she’s going to go there, I’m going to push it as far as I can.”
For you, what did you enjoy the most about working on the first season of UNREAL?
SHIRI: I’d have to say the people. We had a great time. It was a cast with no drama. It was funny because it was a cast of like twenty women and it was just such an incredibly supportive group. We were up in Vancouver, away from our families and our lives, and they were just a really nice group of people. And I think the work is something that really stands for itself. It’s not anything else I’ve seen on television with everything that is being made these days and I think that is a really bold statement. It’s not something easy to say and believe. So I just feel really proud that we’ve made something that is unique and has its own voice and own tone, which we worked really hard to hone and find. I’m really proud of the result and I feel like that the scenario of the show means we have a lot of story to tell. Like it’s got a lot of life to it and we’re just getting started.
The other conflicting thing is I’m not sure we should be rooting for your character. So who should we be rooting for?
SHIRI: (Laughs) You should be rooting for the contestants to get out alive! I don’t think these characters know if they should have people rooting for them or not, and that’s really the struggle that we watch throughout the season.
How did it feel for you to kind of play the hero and the villain in the story?
SHIRI: Pretty great. You don’t want to play someone who is completely likable and you don’t want to play someone who is completely unlikable ’cause that is kind of flat. To have that wide range is really something that is a rich area. You can really emphasize with Rachel even though she’s doing these negative things. You can see how it’s torturing her. Then you can see how sometimes she’s enjoying it — there’s something kind of fun and naughty about that. But at the same time, when you really see her help other people, especially after episode 5, you see her have this personal victory in this kind of messed up world. I think that’s when you root for her. That’s when I was proud for her. It’s a character that you’re definitely going on a wild journey with.
If you were to showcase one of the contestants that you would have liked to have seen make it — not saying they did — which would like to recommend rooting for on “Everlasting”?
SHIRI: I think it would be interesting to watch a character like Faith (Breeda Wool) make it towards the end, just because she is a person who doesn’t belong in this world. She’s kind of the antithesis. She’s usually the butt-of-the-joke on the show. So I think it would be awesome to watch her make it through to the end.
To find out how successfully Rachel navigates her job and whether she can escape with her soul intact and whether there is something real brewing between Rachel and Adam, if it is all fantasy in the crazy world of making “Everlasting,” be sure to tune in of the premiere of UNREAL on Monday, June 1st at 10:00 pm on Lifetime. (Also be on the look out for our exclusive interviews with creator/executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and co-star Breeda Wool for more information about what crazy stuff goes down in UNREAL’s first season.)