Taking aim at modern television fantasy shows, Lifetime’s new drama series UNREAL depicts life behind-the-scenes of a fictional reality TV show called “Everlasting.” As seen through the eyes of Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), UNREAL follows Rachel as she attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of being a reality TV show producer and find a way to keep her soul intact in the process. Rachel’s simultaneous gift and curse is she is great at producing reality television. She knows instinctively just what to say and do to get the contestants to trust her and deliver the sound-bite or reaction shot that she needs to make great reality TV. But the price to Rachel’s soul is high. It eats away at her conscience that she is using and exploiting these women just for the sake of a television show. So UNREAL showcases the internal tug-of-war that Rachel struggles with, while being seduced back into the world that she finds addictive in the process.
In an exclusive interview, creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro talked about the inspiration for creating UNREAL and the tricky choices that Rachel is faced as the first season unfolds.
Maybe you can talk about the genesis and inspiration of how UNREAL came together. What can you share about that?
SARAH: It’s based on a short film that I made that went to SXSW “Sequin Raze,” that I sold to Lifetime. When I made the short, I was really excited about doing it as a television show because it has a show-within-a-show structure. So I felt like it would make a great episodic arc. It’s a story that I’m really fascinating by. I was inspired by events in my early life in a variety of day-jobs and hitting that point where you feel like can believe the price of your soul is a paycheck. You get out of college and you have so many ideals and know exactly who you are, and then a few years out, you find out that none of that really applies once you have to pay the rent. Also, it had thematically a lot of stuff that I enjoy and which I am hugely passionate about in my life, which is: women destroying other women, body-image, princess-fantasy and all that kind of stuff — but told in a pop-sensibility, fun, super-entertaining type of way. That’s kind of where it started.
Why Lifetime? How did it get over there?
SARAH: It was actually just that I knew somebody, who new somebody. It was my first pitch in my life. Nina Lederman, who bought it, was so passionate about it and so dedicated to making it happen that I sort of make the decision based on her. It was obviously was not the place I thought I would go. I thought it would be on HBO, Showtime or Netflix, or something like that. But I hardly knew anybody in town when I sold it and I didn’t have an agent. So the few people I could get ahold of to talk to, said, “Passion is the most important thing and if they are really dedicated to it, I would go for it.” The other part of it was my biggest concern with selling it was maintaining the tone of the short, which is gritty and dark — and the good thing about having the short was that it ensured that we were on the same page with what we wanted to make. Obviously, there are the horror stories about people who sell something, and you are told that they are going to make it exactly like your idea, and then it changes. But the great thing with Lifetime has been that Nina has been unwavering in keeping us true to that tone and making sure that we’re allowed to push the show pretty dark. So it was a leap of faith on both of our parts. I think Nina took a big leap on me because I was untested and I took a leap on her because she said, “We’re going to make it true to the short.”
It does seem like a good match. I was surprised when I watched UNREAL and realized how dark it was and my initial thought was: “This is really intriguing.”
SARAH: The fun part of it is that it brings in audience. There is something entertaining, fun and salacious about it, and yet it is still really dark — it ended up at a great place. There’s a ton of support for it at the network. They are really excited about it, and that has been a great experience.
How did you go about casting? Shiri Appleby seems like an unusual choice for the lead role, but she has done a phenomenal job.
SARAH: It was interesting. Coming from having done the short, I was dead-set on casting the lead that I had in the short, Ashley Williams, but she ended up booking a Broadway show. So we were seeing people for the role and it was just like person after person after person, like a casting nightmare. Nothing was quite right and I thought that nobody could ever replace Ashley ’cause Ashley and I had worked on the role together. So I was pretty worried and I was pretty upset. Then Shiri walked in and it was just like a done deal. The thing that was interesting about Shiri was she brought something else to the role that I don’t think I had found before, which was a vulnerability and a little bit of a “girl next door” aspect to the character. The character as originally conceived in the short was pretty gnarly — kind of haggard, mean, evil and snarky — and Ashley did such a good job of going there. Shiri has this sort of disarming quality of being sweet and likable, but doing horrible things, yet having that kind of open accessibility.
It was surprising to see Shiri in this type of role. I have never seen her this dark before. But, at the same time, you just want to fall in love with her character Rachel and yet wondering why she is doing these type of terrible things.
SARAH: Marti [Noxon] and I actually talked a lot about how this character for us wouldn’t make sense and we wouldn’t be okay with it unless you felt like she was a really good person at her core. Like her main character conflict wouldn’t actually work if she was just evil. You have to feel like this is a really good person in a bad situation. I think that Shiri’s heart just kind of shines through that way. It drove our casting director nuts because after we saw Shiri, we were like, “Can we stop?” and she’s like, “No, we have thirty other people on the book” and we were like, “We’re done. It’s her.”
Then how did you go about pairing Shiri with Constance Zimmer? Their chemistry on the show is also fascinating. I would have never have expected that combination.
SARAH: When I pitched the show, Constance was my first choice for that role. I’m a huge fan of hers in general. It was actually just based on one scene in ENTOURAGE in particularly, where her character had just slept with Ari and he told her that he was not going to leave his wife, and he gets in her face and says, “What? Are you mad, now?” And she just stops him and says, “No, Ari, I’m sad.” It was like this person who is incredibly tough being able to do vulnerability without the drama. Again, we felt like that character it would be too much of a caricature if she doesn’t have some depth and some humanity. Then, in terms of Shiri’s character’s arc, we really felt that she was at a crossroads in deciding who she was going to be as an adult and it was important for us in creating the characters that you could see Rachel becoming Quinn — and Constance and Shiri’s characters have enough in common that you can sort of see that Rachel is on that path to becoming Quinn and she has to decide if she is going to go there. So Constance was my first choice for that character and once we found Shiri, it made even more sense.
Then how do you figure putting somebody like Craig Bierko in the mix of that? I love Craig. He’s hilarious. He always seems like such a straight guy with a hint of comedy, and yet he is kind of playing the jackass in this role. So it seemed like an interesting choice.
SARAH: That role too can go cartoony really quick. What we loved about Craig was his theater background. He’s really grounded and he feels pretty premium cable. So his lines are ridiculous, but he’s got a gravitas to him that just works, and we also just love his chemistry with Constance.
It is an interesting mix that seems to work. It is like one of those magical combinations. I loved it when I saw all the characters and who was playing them.
SARAH: Thank you so much. We feel the same way. Constance and Craig’s characters’ sex scenes are just crazy. But they made it feel so real to us. We loved them.
The other thing the show explores is the possibility of a mental illness. It is never quite said that Shiri’s character Rachel does have a diagnosable mental illness, but it makes you wonder who Rachel really is — just who is that character and what makes her do what she does? That too is interesting.
SARAH: That question is a big one and it will continue to be a big one throughout the season.
What do you think is driving Rachel? Is it just the circumstances that have been placed in front of her, or is there something underlying what she is going through?
SARAH: I think she doesn’t have a mother — well, she has a mother, but she doesn’t actually have a mother that takes care of her and she doesn’t really have a place to be. So I think it gives her a place to be and I think having somebody to tell you what you’re doing all day, every day is so much easier than having to make your own destiny — and I also think that critical moment on the way to adulthood is really rich part of the character journey, as well. When you finally stand up and create your own destiny. It’s really easy to be the victim of other people and why that is so easy. So Rachel is in a job she hates, but where else would she go? That’s what we talked about in the writer’s room a lot, about how she doesn’t have anywhere else to be. She doesn’t have a home, she doesn’t have relationships, she doesn’t really have a family, and at least here she knows she is good at something. I think it is that need to belong. We also talked about “work family” a lot. As a young adult, if you’re working all the time, those people really are your family — a defacto family. We also talked about the fact that for us the primary relationship in the show is actually Rachel and Quinn. They are each other’s primary partner. They are the person that they check in with the most, that knows the most about each other, and they are closer to each other than anyone else on the show. So it is just facing the fact that if you’re working all the time, your work people are your partners and the family in your life.
Both Rachel and Quinn seem a little self-sabotaging and they kind of enable that in each other in a weird way. It’s like they need each other to validate what they are going through and what they are choosing to do.
SARAH: Yeah, we talked about that too. Like why Quinn is so hell-bent on keeping Rachel there. I think it is the fact that Quinn can’t stand to do it without her. I think she needs Rachel as much as Rachel needs her.
Interesting relationship, that’s for sure. The other curious thing is how Rachel approaches relationships with men. She has two potential romantic relationships, one is a past one and one is perhaps a future one — or perhaps she is just dabbling. Is Rachel kind of unconsciously pursing these men she can’t have and knows are wrong for her because it’s kind of fun?
SARAH: I don’t think it’s fun. I think it is f*cked up and sad. (Laughs) I’m not saying she can’t have love, but so she’s just stuck in these situations that are just impossible. Again, it’s pretty immature and narcissistic. Like with Jeremy, she could have a guy that stands by her all the time and she could be safe and she could have a great life. But then there’s like the fantasy of life with somebody else. But none of it is very authentic because she’s not willing to be vulnerable and she’s not willing to show up and be real. So I think it’s f*cked and sad. I think it’s horrible the way she deals with men.
The other character who stands out is Adam, portrayed by Freddie Stroma. We’re not quite sure if he’s thinking he is going to find love and what happens if he does find love in this “Everlasting” story?
SARAH: I think he has so many parallels to Rachel with where he is at and his sort of development in terms of the fact he has never been in control of his own life. He is sort of subject and reacting to everything. He is reacting to his father, Rachel is reacting to Quinn, they both have no ownership over their lives. They both haven’t made a choice to be authentic or to show up for anyone. They are both sort of bouncing around and not making decisions about what they want to do and who they want to be with. So I think this season is going to challenge both of them in a really severe way to show up and be human, and maybe grow up a little bit.
Are we supposed to be rooting for Adam and Rachel as a romantic couple? I couldn’t quite tell.
SARAH: (Laughs) Oh my god, we can’t quite tell you that! You just have to watch and seeing if people figure it out. It could be a great combination. It could be a horrible combination. It could be a total lie. Who can you trust? Rachel is super manipulative. That’s the primary thing between those two is that they have met their match. Like Adam is really charming and manipulative, and she is really charming and manipulative — and what do those people do with each other?
When that shower scene with Adam and Rachel happened, it was a bit shocking. It felt like that was a bit crazy of a situation. He is taking a shower in front of her, which we get, but then she pushes him out of the way so she can get in there. And it’s like, are these people really that brazen and comfortable to pull that off?
SARAH: One of the things we had talked about is that it is not sexy at all. Like Adam is thinking “I have so little respect for you, I am going to just drop trouser in front of you because I don’t even think of you as a girl. I only think of you as a person who works for me.” That whole scene was about power. He is saying “fetch me my tea” and gets naked in front of her. He’s just treating her like a servant; and what she does is is two things (a) she really needs a shower and this is the only place she’s going to get it, and (b) the other thing is she is like “F-you — you are going to take your pants off, I’m going to take my pants off.” So that scene is not a sexy scene. This was them showing each other up.
These characters are going toe-to-toe in such a way that it is not really angry, but they are definitely challenging each other just to see what each other is made of — and it is fascinating.
SARAH: (Laughs) And that dynamic goes on for the rest of the season. Not only just ripping their clothes off and showing each other their naked bodies, but just challenging each other. Saying, “No, you can’t treat me like that” and, “No, I won’t be played.”
Just to get a sense of where the story is going, is the first season going to have a bookended story or is it going to be continuing beyond the first season?
SARAH: The show-within-a-show is called “Everlasting” and one of its seasons is contained in one season of UNREAL. So its season will be wrapped up in this first season. Adam will either propose to and marry one of the girls, or will not — we don’t know what’s going to happen. But it will have a conclusion.
To see how dark, twisty it gets along with the surprisingly empowering moments, 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 stars Shiri Appleby and Breeda Wool for more information about what crazy stuff goes down in UNREAL’s first season.)