At SXSW earlier this year, our Editor David had the opportunity to interview the cast and crew of Lifetime network’s new TV series UnREAL.
Lifetime’s highly-anticipated scripted series UnREAL (#UnREALTV), starring Shiri Appleby (Girls) and Constance Zimmer (House of Cards, Entourage), will premiere Monday, June 1, at 10pm ET/PT. This provocative drama, that gives a fictitious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program, had its world premiere at SXSW on Monday 16th March 2015 in the Vimeo theater in the Austin Convention Center. UnREAL was created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. It was inspired by Shapiro’s 2013 SXSW award-winning independent short film Sequin Raze.
To start off can you all go round the table and say who you are and how you’re involved with this show?
Shiri Appleby: Hi I’m Shiri Appleby and I play Rachel Goldberg on the show.
Sarah Shapiro: Hi I’m Sarah Shapiro and I’m the co creator of the show with Marti Noxon.
Freddie Stroma: I’m Freddie Stroma and I play Adam on the show.
Marti Noxon: I’m Marti Noxon. I’m co creator along with Sarah.
Constance Zimmer: I’m Constance Zimmer and I play Quinn on the show.
I know the show really wasn’t designed for a male audience but I have to say I thought it was brilliant.
Constance: No it’s designed for a male audience. The women are secondary. See.
Well I’ll pass the questions onto you. Do you want to give a brief overview of what the show is about for our audience?
Sarah: You are behind the scenes on a reality competition dating show but it’s really about the people who make the show so it’s an exploration of the psychology of reality TV but through the lens of two pretty specific characters who are producers on the show.
Do you feel in making this that reality TV has gone too far?
Sarah: Yes way too far. I mean the way we ask that question is really for our characters in terms of their health and well being and morality. Has it gone too far for them in their lives? And I think we ask that of the people behind the scenes on our show and the contestants on the show. Sort of like how is everyone doing? And nobody’s okay. So yes we feel its gone way too far.
Constance: Yeah I mean they drop people off in the middle of the world with no clothes and nothing and they film them.
Sarah: And people get married at first sight.
Constance: Yeah. So yes reality television has gone too far.
Marti: I thought naked dating, that show would never work. Then I realised it was on like season 5.
Have you seen Naked and Afraid yet?
Constance: No that’s what I’m saying, that’s crazy.
Marti: Did you say Naked and Afraid?
They take a man and a woman and just drop them off in the middle of nowhere with nothing.
Constance: Nothing. No clothes. Nothing. In the middle of nowhere.
Freddie: While they’re doing that they’ve probably got a cameraman with water and snacks.
Constance: That’s what I said. If the crew is all naked then it’s fair. Otherwise it’s not.
Sarah: I mean I think for us too it’s beyond a matter of taste. It’s obviously gone too far taste wise. But I think we asked ourselves the question like has it gone too far for the human race?
What reality shows do you feel have gone too far?
Constance: I’m gonna say Naked Dating, Naked and Afraid. Just anything where you’re naked.
Marti: If you’re naked it’s not okay.
Constance: That Sex island show. Or Sex Box.
During the q & a at SXSW 2015, feminism was mentioned, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that?
Sarah: Yeah we could elaborate on that for a long time. I could talk about it forever. I think what’s happening with feminism is that people are simplifying it a lot. Like Aziz Ansari did a great thing where he was like if you believe Beyoncé and Jay-Z should make the same amount of money then you’re a feminist. It’s the basic principle of equality. But I think for us on this show it’s actually what the princess fantasy does to men and women which is the idea like there’s one person, you’re a pretty pretty princess and one guy is gonna come and save you and all your problems will be solved. And for men that have to fulfil that role it’s awful for everyone and where it leaves our characters is what we’re most interested in. Also for Quinn and Rachel as career women. I mean Quinn has pretty much chosen her career over family. Rachel’s at that cross section where she’s deciding. Like is she gonna become Quinn or go marry a cameraman and start a family? Um and they’re doing that while they’re watching all these beautiful girls fall in love with a handsome prince. And it’s sort of like did they make the better choice or are those girls making the better choice? So I think we’re just exploring a lot of how women exist post feminist feminist in this era now. Like how do you navigate that now?
That’s pretty heavy.
Sarah: It’s also a really fun show. There was like so many dresses.
Constance: There’s a lot of diamonds.
Sarah: And Freddie’s really hot.
There’s a lot of pressure on him. The odd man out.
Sarah: He can handle it.
Freddie: Josh takes some of it.
Sarah: Yeah Josh takes a little bit.
There’s one question I’ve been meaning to ask you. In the pilot you have a couple of genuine moments or nice guy moments. Were they real or do you think he was putting them on?
Freddie: I don’t know.
Sarah: Oh like with Faith?
Marti: That’s a good question.
Freddie: I don’t know. I mean throughout the show he’ll have moments of being a nice guy and then not being. I think the moments when he does are genuine. Like the moments with Faith and some other characters later down the line. I think he has moments where he genuinely does care. I don’t think he’s particularly malicious or anything. I think he’s a spoilt brat. I think he can be genuinely kind.
Who would you want him to pick?
Freddie: Who would I want him to pick?
Sarah: Ooh that’s interesting.
Constance: That’s a good question
Freddie: Josh Kelley. I roomied with Josh who plays Jeremy.
Shiri: You can only think of him as Josh.
Freddie: I can only think of him as Josh now. We roomied in Vancouver. We got really close. We went on a lot of bro dates, bromance. And we lived above a cinema so we went to movies a lot together.
Marti: Did you hold hands?
Freddie: May have held hands a couple of times.
Constance: I think Adam would’ve picked Quinn.
Sarah: I do too.
Constance: He would never have survived.
So let’s talk about your character. You’ve played a, excuse my French , ball buster in a few shows now.
Constance: I like ball buster actually. Well I don’t know. Am I?
Constance: Well thank you.
Well on Entourage at least you were.
Constance: Well yes.
You put the fear of god into a lot of people on that show. And it looks like you’re ten times worse on this one.
Constance: I wanna describe it as not necessarily worse. But I’d describe it as maybe more determined. She’s got a lot that she has to be in control of in a world that is a little bit out of her control so trying to control a situation to create good television and how do you that?
You have to be concise, you’ve gotta be aware of everything that’s going on and keep your balls in a row. So if you’ve gotta bust a couple alright it’s all good.
Do you find it easy playing that sort of role?
Constance: Not necessarily easy. I really like it. I like these characters that are women that aren’t trying to be men. They’re just women that are confident that, even though they’re all incredible insecure underneath.
Constance: Exactly so’s everyone.
I think that’s what a lot of people miss in shows. I think some of the best male characters on shows are the strong characters but inside they’re broken in some way. Like everyone.
Constance: And if you can take that brokenness or insecurity and turn it into a personality that can actually get shit done I feel like it doesn’t need to be characterised as something good or bad. And being nice or being mean we’re all just trying to do our job. I mean she’s an exaggerated television character so we can take a little but more license with that but in the real world you wanna bring back feminism and stuff like that. We’re all just as good as the next person whether we’re male or female so I hope people just see someone doing her job.
Onto your character as well. Your character probably is a feminist.
Shiri: I think she’s struggling with her feminism a little bit. Because I think she is a feminist but what she does is destroying these women. She wouldn’t be treating these women the way she does.
Sarah: I think the reason she’s not like wearing it on her chest is she’s not totally sure about it. She’s clinging to it. But I think for Rachel we’ve always talked about she’s wearing her college shirt that she probably got in college and it’s kind of crazy that she’s still carrying it around. But she’s still trying to hang onto her idealism but the way she’s living her life has nothing to do with her morals.
Marti: I almost felt as if she’s putting on the shirt in self hatred.
Marti: At the point we see her. That’s just self hatred. It’s a way of looking at herself everyday and being like this is where I failed, I’m a fucking failure. Instead of being like I can hold onto both at the same time. I always pictured it beyond that. She knows she’s a bad feminist. But she’s not a terrible person.
I think with your character there’s room for growth throughout the series.
Shiri: For sure I think there’s a lot more room for growth. When we get to meet her parents you see how she learned to manipulate people so well because her mother is….
Sarah: I don’t know if we can say..
Shiri: So you just see how she learns to manipulate.
Marti: Her mother is very problematic.
Shiri: Yeah, challenging. Her mother has taught her to be really smart and dance around people to get what she needs. And as the season goes on you watch her really struggle with this thing she’s really good at which is manipulating people and she gets better and get better at it. And it kills her more and more. You also see her struggle with the princess fantasy we’ve talked about. You know being in the environment she gets caught up in it a little bit and she has to sort of, she comes to a point in the season where she has to decide…I don’t wanna give too much away but which road do I wanna go down? Which woman do I wanna be? Which version of my life do I wanna explore. And I think that’s really her whole journey through the season.
Sarah: I think there’s a feeling too that somebody needs to save Rachel. Hopefully it would be herself but it’s sort of like she’s looking for anyone.
Shiri: She can’t.
Sarah: She can’t save herself. So somebody’s gotta save her.
It’s the type of thing everyone needs a little help with.
Sarah: Right. Yeah.
It’s his job as the Prince Charming.
Sarah: Yeah. But he’s so good at it.
Shiri: She doesn’t really trust a lot of people which I think is a big problem for her.
Sarah: For anyone.
Shiri: Yeah. Or even herself quite honestly. She’s complicated, there’s a lot more story there.
Constance: All the characters are complicated. I think it’s a really good description of everyone on the show. Everyone gets their chance to show that we’re all a little bit messed up in our own little ways and our own places and how we get around that.
Marti: One of my favourite things and it kind of goes back to the question of what the shows about in a more thematic way, it’s this strong female heroine type. Everybody’s saying there’s strong women in this show but I think for too long we’ve been restricted to strong female characters that didn’t have a lot of flaws. And fortunately in the last few years of television, much more so than in movies we’ve been able to explore women who are all kinds of things not just so strong. For so long there was a struggle to see that on tv and now we’re getting to a place where we can see women who can be a feminist who also works on an anti women show but still trying to hold on to all these different parts of ourselves. And that was what was so great about getting the opportunity to do this show based on your short which already showed that. No one character is just one thing. And too often on television that’s all you’re allowed to write so it’s been pretty amazing.
And that’s the great thing about this show it doesn’t dumb anything down. It shows that this person can be x, y and z not just one thing which no one is. The best television has characters that start off one way but by the end of the episode you don’t really hate them as much anymore even though their character is labelled the bitch. You mentioned the short. How did the idea for the short come about?
Sarah: I think it was like a great place to put like so much I’d struggled with not even specifically with events but ideas I’m really passionate about and care about. And I think one of the things Marti and I talked about the first time we ever met was in the short where it’s basically a producer and a contestant and learning to have compassion for both of those people was like a growth for me as a person to have as much compassion for the skinny blonde girl as the snarky other person or whatever. I think just having a lot of compassion for like, well no ones a villain in their own story. Everybody is doing the best they can. Everybody thinks they’re basically doing a good job or trying to be who they’re supposed to be and those things are bumping up against each other. So the idea from the short really came from trying to explore that and finding a good scene to that. And the short was one scene, it was a 20 minute scene.
If anyone wanted to watch the scene is there anyway they could do it?
Sarah: Yeah it’s online. Google it. It’s Sequin Raze. I think it’s in the AFI videos.
Shiri: But it’s incredible. I have to say when I got sent the script you’re sort of like, well at least for me before I read the script I watched the short and it’s a really a tone and a world that I’d never seen before and it was played and directed so naturally that when you read the material I was able to go in and audition in a way that I probably would’ve imagined the character or the show. It was really different and really fresh and what attracted me to the show.
Marti: And that was a key thing when Sarah sold the show to Lifetime you know they paired us. Or they asked me if I would come in on it and help develop the whole season and all of that kind of stuff. First I was like I’m not convinced I’m a Lifetime writer and then they showed me the short and one of the first things I asked was is it going to be the tone of that? And they promised. It took us 2 years but we got it right.
Shiri: My husband showed me the same thing when I showed him the short and I was like what are you thinking? He goes if they’re going to make that then that’s something you should be a part of but if it’s not going to be because it’s a kind of risk. Like the network is rebranding itself and trying something new but he was like that could be cool. That could be something that’s not been seen before. That could make a noise and stand out, and now with so much television everywhere you wanna be a part of something that’s going to standout or otherwise you’ll get lost in the shuffle.
Marti: And then me and Sarah met and we were of like minds of what the show could be. I mean there was the tone of the short but outside of that there was this whole world we had to build and a story and a plot.
Sarah: Plot, plot, plot.
Marti: A plot for a whole season. But we were having so much fun that it felt naturally like a show. That’s the other thing, if you can see something really smart and think that’s incredible but you can’t make a tv show out of it. Like can you do another season? And with this one I can see it going, I can see story engine for a long time.
If the show went on for a couple seasons would you could back with a different cast?
Sarah: Yeah we’ve talked about that and it’s kind of built in that the internal cast of the show within the show could continue but our basic cast is our cast. Quinn, Rachel, Jay and all the producers behind the scenes, Chet, they’re our cast but they might be making a different show. Like Freddie we’d obviously lose which is really heartbreaking. And that’s what I thought was one of the bonuses of doing this show is that each season it could be completely different based on what the reality show is that we’re doing. And so what you get to do is you get to follow the characters who make the show and see how every situation makes them change and evolve and it’s like this season there a lot women. Next season there’s a lot of men or maybe it’s a couples. It’s kind of a world we can just explore however much we want.
Marti: I think we decided that everlasting is a brand that could be everlasting. This edition. Everlasting. That edition.
Sarah: And I think what Constance is kind of talking to is it becomes like a canvas of what our characters are dealing with and they can project their issues on whoever they’re producing and manipulating. And so for us it’s really about our characters, the people who make that show and the show within the show services what they’re working through.
Shiri: But I have to say as an actor, and I’m sure you feel the same way Constance, it’s really exciting because when you work on a show for a really long time it can become routine. Like you know what this actor is going to bring to this scene and it just feels a certain way. But if every season you have all these new actors come on it’s new energy the show can’t help but feel fresh. Do you know what I mean? And it’s challenging. I think that’s what’s really exciting about it, it’s not gonna feel stale.
Marti: Even crews, the surrounding people, that’s a cast and characters that could change a lot even in season 2.
Shiri: You could have all new people.
Marti: You could have a whole new camera crew or just because we’ve worked on so many sets that could be a whole episode.
Sarah: And I have to say me coming out with my independent short and wanting to sell it as a show, Lifetime wasn’t where I thought I was gonna sell it but their enthusiasm for it has been so extreme and constant. They’ve just been so in support of the show and go where we all agreed to go and helped us do that as well. So I think it’s kind of surprising to find out that that’s our home but it really has been a great place for the show to be.
I’m not going to mention the networks but some bigger networks like to tinker with the shows and ignore what the writers and the staff want to do. At least Lifetime is giving you the opportunity to do what you want to do.
Sarah: I didn’t I have an agent. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t live in LA and Nina and I just connected immediately and she really wanted me to make the show. So I called the only two people I knew which was my cousin who was a screenwriter in the 80s, like my distant cousin, and one other person I knew from AFI. And they were like if they really wanna make it that’s kind of the most important thing.
Shiri: And I have to say, I’m sure you guys feel the same way, as an actor any show you fight and pray that the network will clam onto your show and make it their baby otherwise you don’t get the press, you don’t get the attention and you can really fall away. And I think with the fact that they’re seeing their network rebranded with their shows we’re all of their attention and all their energy and I think that’s the greatest thing you can hope for.
Marti: And then if you fail, you fail on your own merits.
Shiri: You can’t blame the network.
Constance: When your network is totally backing you and giving you all of that support you’re like no that’s my ass and I can’t blame it on anyone else.
Sarah: And I think everyone’s got really personally attached to it that’s the thing. I think because it’s like a behind the scenes thing, people see themselves in characters. So many people that are involved in this show are so personally attached to it so it’s nice.
It comes across that way. Even though it’s a big cast it’s personal at times.
Shiri: We has such a good time together. It was just like a real group of actors, there was no ego, there is a real team energy. And I feel super grateful that it was Constance and Craig, I mean that they were such pros that there wasn’t any egos amongst any of us. It kind of filtered all the way down. We are just there to have a good time and make a good show and not create drama.
Constance: Right. And I think everybody had a character to represent. Whether they were there for 2 days or whether they were there for all 10 shows. And I think that everybody was super committed to their character that it made for such a team effort of the common good of getting across of what we all wanted to get across. And I think you feel that. Everybody is so committed to what their goal is on the show. I’ve never worked with such a large cast of people, all being focused on what they needed to accomplish.
I have to ask as well, your breakdown scene, you looked like you had a lot of fun doing that.
Shiri: The one from the beach? That was the hardest thing I’ve ever shot in my life.
Sarah: We talked about it so much.
Shiri: I can’t even tell you, I still have anxiety about that scene. Thank you for saying that. There was so much conversation about that scene because it’s like a really crazy moment.
Sarah: And like how do you play that? Well like you did it.
Constance: Like how do you say Satan’s asshole and make it believable? You did it! You did it!
Marti: I mean why you did such a beautiful job and I mean that is because you still feel, I felt for you character even though you’re doing this crazy pants thing there’s a vulnerability in it. That’s the thing with character and with the whole cast. If you cast the right person you’ll find layers in them. So even if you’re the anti hero people will still like you. They still have compassion because there’s still something in there worth saving. And then you also get to act out all the things we wish we could do. And that scene she’s just doing what a lot of us wish we could do. You know like “fuck this job”!
Sarah: And I have to say our cast is fucking amazing!
Shiri: It’s kind of scary, the idea of a second season. I hope it’s just another group of cool people.
Sarah: But also not cool. Yeah cool’s great but talented as fuck.
Shiri: I wanted them to be talented but they were also crazy cool. Like good to be around. And I’d go have a scene with Johanna, now I have a scene with Rita. This is gonna be a fun afternoon. We’re gonna act and take it seriously and they’re going to be easy to hang out with.
Sarah: And for a role like Freddie’s it would’ve been so easy for that character to be a cartoon character, like he is literally Prince Charming. But Freddie brought so much to, so many layers and colours that I don’t think we had even anticipated.
Marti: I love that you said yesterday you’d watched that documentary. That was the research you did. And is it true your character didn’t even watch the show?
Freddie: Well people asked did you watch it? And I was like he didn’t watch it, I don’t want to know so I’ll just do the character.
Marti: Well the work you did was about that entitled, spoiled but also there’s a vulnerability to those people because they feel so ashamed. And I feel you really capture that so beautifully and it’s not just that guy. Because some of these contestants seem like they’re not that intelligent so we want to have an intelligent guy that’s stuck in a bad situation so you didn’t feel he was just a patsy and again it was so great to have you guys get what we were going for and then some.
Sarah: And then some. Everybody brought so much more to it than we even could’ve hoped. I think with Freddie’s role sometimes there’s not a lot to play. You’ve got these huge people around you right and it’s like you’re having to do these weird performative things and to still be able to bring colour to that we’re very lucky.
In the show you hint that some of the characters have a bit of a past. Will we get to see into the past?
Sarah: Like flashbacks? No there’s all new stuff. We don’t even need to flashback because it stays crazy as fuck. You also get a tiny bit of Rachel’s backstory.
Marti: But that’s not a flashback.
At least it keeps it more realistic.
Constance: But you do come to find more about our characters.
Sarah: And why what happened happened. It just gets so wild. Just wait.
Any good stories from set? Since it sounds like you guys had so much fun.
Freddie: We did have a good prank. We had a guy called Tom Brittany, who come in and guest starred for an episode. Don’t worry there isn’t any plot spoilers here. Me and Josh went out and played frisbee with him. And this guy cannot throw a frisbee to save his life. Every time he threw it it’d go 180 degrees backwards. So he tells that to our director so she gets in on this little gag. So we’re on set she says so for this next scene I just want you to be relaxing and throwing this frisbee round. His face just drops. So they produce a frisbee. No one tells me, I wasn’t in on this, I thought this was real. Props comes out with a frisbee and she starts making us rehearse in front of the whole crew, the whole cast. Tom starts throwing it and throws it behind him. She’s getting really serious at him and he’s like can we throw a ball or something? And finally she breaks and it was so mean.
Sarah: Another good story is we didn’t initially have a dog on the show. He kind of just showed up. And now there’s a dog in love making scenes and all kinds of scenes.
Constance: Yeah, Craig Bierko who plays Chet has a dog named Boo that follows him wherever he goes. Before we even knew it, the first scene we were shooting, all of a sudden Boo was in the shot. And everyone was like go with it, go with it, go because everything was so fast paced and after that first episode everyone was like can we have a dog?
Shiri: Wait did he get paid for his dog?
Sarah: No. I remember Peter was like let’s keep it in and then we were like are we allowed to have a dog in the house? And everyone was like I don’t know.
Marti: The best thing though is that if we need any real drama people care most about the dog. So we can put Boo in peril.
Constance: Boo’s going to become a big star.
Shiri: Boo is gonna have his moment.
Sarah: But Boo really is everywhere.
Constance: He’s everywhere Chet goes.
Marti: And Chet goes to weird places.
Sarah: We’re not going to elaborate on that.
Freddie: Episode 4 he’s there, his little beady eyes.
I’ll have to keep a lookout.
Shiri: Oh you won’t miss it.
Bit of a complicated question. Well not complicated, uncomfortable. It’s based on a reality show. If you could be in any reality show which would you be in and why?
Shiri: Project Runway.
That doesn’t count. Weren’t you already on that?
Shiri: Was I? No I wish.
Constance: No she’s just obsessed with it.
Shiri: I’m obsessed with it. I was on Project Greenlight which is a different project. Project Greenlight was actually pretty cool. I think they’re doing it again. But Project Runway is where you make the clothes. I would be on Project Runway.
Sarah: I always say I wouldn’t let a dog I liked be on a reality show.
Constance: But what about a person you liked?
Sarah: Maybe a person I didn’t like I’d send on The Amazing Race. I’d go on The Amazing Race and I’d be a nightmare. I think I’d probably get a lot of airtime.
Shiri: Something I always wanted to be on was the original season of Road Rules. Do you remember where they would have to travel in the Winnebago and they’d get clues and have to do things to get their next one. It was amazing and I thought I would pay for that experience. I would pay for that vacation.
Freddie: I wouldn’t do one but Top Shot I’ve been watching.
Sarah: What’s that?
Freddie: It’s like a bunch of the best marksmen. I wouldn’t get in because I’m not a marksman. But they have sniper rifles, they throw like tomahawks. They do pistols and bows and arrows. And they vote each other off.
Freddie: Manly things.
Constance: Do you have one?
Marti: I would like to be on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. No I’m serious. That’s a dream of mine and then I’d like start a fragrance line.
Release a cookbook and stuff.
Marti: Yeah called Marti. It’d smell like red bull and cigarettes.
Constance: Nice. And it’s gotta be a hot pink bottle that just says Marti.
Marti: Smells like staph infection.
Sarah: Marti has a lot of shows and is very busy. Sometimes her body falls apart a little bit.
Constance: I don’t know. I would say Amazing Race because you get to travel the world.
Marti: But you don’t get to stay and enjoy it.
Constance: No but the only thing I like that they do on that show is when they go to different places around the world they do something that is culturally connected to that country so you get to meet the locals, do what they do or whatever. The stress of it all, no. But if I was gonna pick one I would probably pick that.
Shiri: They don’t on any of these shows anymore. They don’t test them for stds.
Sarah: They don’t?
Shiri: No not anymore. The doctor that does all the actors she told me that they cut it out because it became too expensive. So what they do is they sit them down and explain to them that there’s a chance they could gain stds by doing x y and z. And they just make them fill out a form. So someone could have gonorrhoea but they don’t have to say it.
Constance: So that’s a good enough reason not to do them.
Shiri: I’m just saying by season 2…interesting stuff.
Constance: The gonorrhoea breakdown. Girls gone gonorrhoea. We’ve really jumped off the deep end here.
Sarah: He’s thinking jackpot!
See I was thinking I’m going to come into this very sober, well behaved, not use any swear words. Not talk about stds. It’s St. Patricks day and I’m sober- it’s terrible.
Sarah: I know, I’m wearing green!
Marti: After this though right you can..
Oh yeah I will.
Constance: He’s like I need a drink after this interview.
So before I go, does anyone wanna sum up the show quickly?
Sarah: It’s fucking epic!
Shiri: It’s a show about money, power, sex.
Shiri: Big houses.
Sarah: And the dog. And diamonds. There’s so many diamonds. There you go.