Lifetime’s drama series UNREAL has turned the spotlight on the behind-the-scenes manipulations used in reality television shows to position the contestants in such a way that it makes good television. But what is deemed attention-getting and worthy of watching is sometimes pushing the envelope and crossing the line with the people who have put their trust and lives on the line. As seen in the past few episodes, one of the contestants Mary (Ashley Scott) was pushed so far that she ended up taking her own life. It was a reality-check for the remaining contestants on the fictional show “Everlasting” and taking a stand for her own dignity and perhaps her own psychological preservation was Maya (Natasha Wilson). Unwilling to participate in the charade for one more day, Maya quit the show to escape the horror and extreme psychological warfare inflicted on the “Everlasting” contestants. She had come to realize that it was not just a show about finding love, but rather a voyeuristic world of exploitation for viewer’s sport.
In an exclusive interview, star Natasha Wilson talked about what drew her to such the pivotal role of Maya and just how much of what is depicted on UNREAL mirrors the real world of reality television.
As seen in last week’s episode, Maya made her big exit from “Everlasting.” Is that great escape going to be permanent?
NATASHA: (Laughs) It is for the first season. I have no idea what is happening in the second season of UNREAL. I have no idea what they are doing creatively and if they are going to incorporate recurring characters, or if they are moving on and following Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and the producers onto their next adventure. That is something that we haven’t even found out about yet.
Would Maya be game for another reality show or do you think her days as a reality show contestant are over?
NATASHA: I think she has learned a really hard lesson and she is just going to go and meet someone the old fashioned way — put a dress on and go out with the girls and meet people through friends. I think it is a much safer way to go to meeting her future beau that she wishes for. I think she’s going to just become a workaholic because she’s now so jaded.
Maya wouldn’t want to create her own reality show to rival “Everlasting”? She did seem to learn a lot from her experience.
NATASHA: (Laughs) She could just to bash them. She might do a reality show based about the production of a reality show.
Maya always struck me as the one that was kind of paying more attention than everyone else. She was very calculating in ways. So she could have been taking notes.
NATASHA: Yeah, she was kind of always overhearing things and not so mixed up in the game plans and all the girls’ gossip. So I think her natural inclination is to know what is going on. It might be a control thing — even though she is the one who had the least control on the show in terms of Episode 3. But I do think that after that she was on point with: what’s going on and what are these people really doing here? I think she is the one who has her feet in reality more than rest of the others.
What do you think ultimately compelled her — besides the death of Mary — to quit “Everlasting”?
NATASHA: I think overall that Mary going through what she went through is enough to traumatize anyone. It’s like setting a building on fire and all you want is to run out of there. That was a huge red flag to run and that it was an emergency. But nobody else really recognized it. The rest of the girls were just sitting around, giggling in the pool house while the house is on fire thinking it would be safe there and that it was not going to touch them. So I think Maya is the only one that truly sees the flames. She knows this whole thing is up in smoke. It just baffled her that nobody else agreed. Well, Rachel did, but she’s stuck there. That’s her job and what can she do — she basically dug her own grave and had to deal with it. But Maya had the opportunity to not only leave the situation, but also to save the others; and she did try to save the others and to bring the reality to light. But nobody sees it. And at that point, you can only help those that are on the same wave length. So she had to abandon the group. That was difficult for her to do. But, at the end of the day, nobody else saw things the same way that she did and they may have been in the game for the wrong reasons — they wanted to win and they were going to stay no matter what. The whole show could burn to the ground and they were going to still try to hang in there and try to win Adam’s (Freddie Stroma) heart. They want to win, not necessarily because they want his love, but because the girls are so competitive and invested in the idea. And at that point, why would Maya want to stay with them?
Why do you think Maya came to the show? Was she actually looking for love or was she only in it for the game?
NATASHA: I think Maya was truly in it to fall in love. Her backstory was that she was left at the alter in her previous relationship and hadn’t really been wanting to go out into the dating scene anymore. She was really scared of falling in love and being abandoned again and losing the man of her dreams again. So this was her last ditch effort to kind of shake herself up and be stronger — and everything would be as it should be and she’d meet the man of her dreams. Then she could look back and think, “Oh gosh, this was all meant to be. It’s perfect.” She really had that hope.
So she wants the fairytale and she thought maybe this was the way to get there.
NATASHA: It was so naive because she was so down and out from her own loss of love and feeling abandoned by her previous fiancé. He literally left her at the alter. So I think it was one of those situations where you go and cut all your hair off or you dye your hair blonde — like you’re thinking, “I’ m going to throw myself into this, and you know what? What is meant to be is meant to be” — instead of holding on these ideas of what love is and how it is supposed to be and come about. She just thought, “To hell with it. If it takes going on a reality TV show, so be it. I’m letting go of all of my preconceived notions and I’m going to give it a whirl.” It was one of those things.
What did Maya see in Adam? What did she like about him?
NATASHA: At first, it was just that there is only one man. There’s only one man that they all get to meet. So it’s Adam, the TV show host or the camera guy. So there are limited options. That just makes you more likely to try to find something interesting about a person when there are limited options. So that’s one. But also, Adam was a very gentle-hearted person. The fact that he was fighting against his parents control showed that he wanted to be his own man. A lot of people in his situation would just ride on their parents’ coattails and not really ever grow up. So I think there was a lot of respect there for a gentleman who just wanted to create his own business and find a partner in the process. He was strong enough to venture out, but not strong enough to venture out in the right way. He was using this reality show as a way to do it. In that sense, he was weak and it was probably because he didn’t know how else to do it after having been in his parent’s care for such a long time financially and probably emotionally too. This was his first step out into manhood and he seems to fall in love with so many different girls. He doesn’t really know what love is — and he is getting it all mixed up with his business. The show paints Adam as a good guy and a bad guy. I think that’s true with every character. They all have a good heart and a deep-rooted sense of goodness, but then they are mixed up in all the promotion and they do not seem to know how to accomplish things, like to make money and figure out their own path. It definitely can tap into some darker aspects of their own character and that is why the show is so great — you see the good and bad in all the characters. And who would have thought that Quinn (Constance Zimmer) actually has a heart?! But everyone actually has a heart, they are just stuck between a rock and a hard place and they set themselves up like a domino-effect of mistakes and errors and misjudgments — and then they end up in this situation and they have to figure it out. They have to dig themselves out of their own hole and find where their true sense of morality really lies.
Do you see either Quinn or Rachel as the bigger villain in UNREAL?
NATASHA: I think they all have the ability to be the villain. The show does try to paint Quinn as the villain and Rachel at times as well — and she does come across as so manipulative. But Rachel herself is dealing with so much. She has no place to go. If she goes home, she’s being manipulated in her own household at her parent’s house. So she does isolate herself in the back of the light truck, probably because it is the only place she can really go without being judged. And with Quinn, she throws herself into work rather than cope with loss or grief or hopelessness in her own life. So everyone is kind of trying to find love — the contestants, the producers — everyone in the show is looking for hope and a soft place to call home in someone’s heart. So there are villain-esque characters, but everyone is really a good person and just trying to figure it out. Between Rachel and Quinn, I think both play off each other quite well as villains and as good people who care for one another. They are both seemingly lonely people trying to overcome obstacles and find companionship and relatability within one another.
What was one of your favorite Maya moments on the show?
NATASHA: We had a lot of fun while filming with just the cast in general. We had a lot of our own moments. But certainly during the filming of the show, I would say there were a lot of really important moments. I think the time when Maya connected with Rachel — she actually connected with Rachel on a few occasions, like in Episode 3 with the pool house scene with Rachel, Maya has that moment. We filmed that a few different ways, like one in which Maya falls into the arms of Rachel, and another where Maya acts stronger than she actually is, and another in which Maya completely loses it. They ultimately decided to go with the version where Maya is stronger and doesn’t need anyone and doesn’t allow Rachel in to take care of her. Then she has that small conversation on the grass field where she is trying to mute Rachel’s concern for her. Then in Episode 7 when Maya does finally leave, Rachel puts her hand up and says, “I understand why you feel you have to leave — I get it.” That’s another moment — almost like a mirror-image. I feel like Maya had a lot in common with Rachel, but Maya didn’t make the mistakes that Rachel made to get to the place that Rachel is in. Maybe Maya has more family support and doesn’t need to throw herself into work like Rachel does. But I do thing they had a connection of understanding what was really going on. Those moments with Rachel, I felt Maya really connected with her. Just for a millisecond, but it was still there.
Maya may not have found love on “Everlasting,” but it seems like she may have found herself in the process of this journey for her.
NATASHA: It is interesting. I think in each journey we go through we find ourselves a little bit closer to who we really are — our true essence — and in this case, Maya finally realized that she doesn’t need to be so desperate and that she doesn’t have to put up with things that cause herself self-damage and cross her boundaries. The other girls were letting all sorts of things kind of happen to them. You have to go through a certain number of steps within yourself to finally stop allowing people to cross your boundaries, or allowing yourself to cross into other people’s boundaries. It may not necessarily be comfortable, but you have to learn to do it anyway. So I think Maya now holds herself to a standard where she’s got herself in check. She removes herself from a “sinking ship.” Once she sees that ship is going to sink, she’s trying to get everyone to jump off into the “life boat,” but she ends up being the only one that understands that the ship is sinking. She has that insight. It is so obvious to the viewers and everyone’s like, “What the heck? Get out of there!” But I think when you’re really in it, just like any other situation, you are so absorbed in something and you are so dead-set on achieving something that you can really miss the opportunity to walk away when it’s a little bit too much and end up in a worse situation.
Maya obviously learned a lot about herself. What did you learn from working on UNREAL?
NATASHA: I did learn from it. As actors, we were from L.A. and from Vancouver and all over, with different ethnicities and backgrounds — even Freddie Stroma was British — so we all had different standards. In the beginning, we were all just sitting there nervous that there were going to be some true cat-fights on set because there were so many of us girls all there just trying to make a TV show. But what I learned is that actresses are fantastic to be around. There were so many creative personalities all interested in developing our characters and just being around each other. I also learned that I am a lot like Maya, like I don’t really drink. I can’t in real life as I’m allergic to alcohol. Well, I can have a glass of wine, but that is really about it. Alaso a lot of who Maya really was and the journey that she went on, I actually lived through it too — though I haven’t been in a negative sexual-exploitation situation. But in portraying that situation, I now understand how to avoid that. And for myself, I have learned about reality TV and that it is all fake. (Laughs) I had no idea. I had previously believed that the fights were real, that the dialogue was real, that the scenes were real. Call me naive, but I truly believed it. So what I learned working on UNREAL was not to go on a reality TV show like that — like my girlfriends were trying to nominate me to go on one. Also, to try to stick to a healthier diet — because if you are wearing dresses for four months, you kind of want to stay away from the craft services table. So those were kind of the things I learned. I also learned that I love flip-flops over high heels and I’ll take loose jeans over a dress any day. Stuff like that. I’m not one to keep up with appearances and the beauty stuff, I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl. Another thing, all of the cast is still very much in touch. We are all very close.
It looked pretty magical, just as a viewer watching UNREAL — like for the actors, you were actually having a great time working on it.
NATASHA: Absolutely! We had so much fun. It was such a blast. We found that our characters resembled parts of who we were. We actually thought that the show writers were monitoring our behavior because every episode they wrote was closer and closer to our human selves outside of the acting world. So we thought there were hidden cameras or mics because the way they were writing stuff was so close to our essence. It was if we were hanging out with people who were truly themselves and we all fell in love with each other because we were so raw and authentic with our characters and because we were all so closely cast for our characters. So it felt like we became best friends over the course of four months. It was like summer camp except for the fact we were living in this mega-mansion wearing bikinis with fake tans. It was a quick way to bond. Luckily, we all fell in love with each other.
Fortunately, Shiri Appleby is not as diabolically manipulative as her character Rachel.
NATASHA: (Laughs) True. And while it sounds like the actors and characters would be completely opposing that is the beauty of this show in that it is so intricately woven that all of the characters are kind of a bit of a mirror-image of one another in front of the camera and behind the camera that you can see the struggle and the mirror-effects of how for the characters and the actors it is all the same human problems. It is coping with day-to-day pressures and trying to find love and trying to stay in love and trying to be in the right place for the right reasons and with the right people. Those are day-to-day struggles that every human being goes through. And in our situation, we were just trying to film a TV show and be on a TV show.
What would be your advice to somebody who thinks they want to be on a reality television show?
NATASHA: I would say: “Review your contract thoroughly. It is worth hiring legal help to make sure you are protected, and if you could have any say over final edits, then do it.” That would be huge as you would typically waive that right. So I would say: “Stay away from it, in general. But if you must, to customize your contract.” Typically a show will say: “Take it or leave it,” or “Next.” And they will just move on to someone who is more naive and who will sign away their entire dignity. So on the whole, I would say: “Stay away from it. But if you have to do it for whatever compelling reason, then try to execute your contract with the best legal team possible with final say over your personal edits.” But that never happens. So I would just say: “Stay away.”
So what are you working on right now?
NATASHA: I’m working on a feature film called “Darc” and it’s an epic, pretty dangerously aggressive and violent Kung-Fu/martial arts movie. I play a daughter who gets kidnapped by a Japanese Yakuza clan and taken hostage in Tokyo and tried to be sold off in the sex trade in the underground world. My character’s father is an ex-special ops guy who tracks down a gentleman by the name of Darc, portrayed by Tony Schiena who stars and wrote the script. He’s a true martial arts guy. He’s trained in real life. So my character’s dad tracks him down and it turns out Darc’s mother was sold in the sex trade by the same Yakuza clan and he has a personal vendetta against them. He doesn’t want to get involved, but feels compelled after he hears that someone’s daughter has been kidnapped. (Laughs) Basically I am portraying a character who is isolated again, held hostage again, but in a completely different context. This time there is blood and gore and tears and desperation and loneliness and no pretty girls around to help keep my character’s head straight. So she kind of goes bonkers. It ends up with a pretty surprising ending. There’s a lot of stunt work. It’s completely opposite of dresses and high heels and extended eye lashes and stuff like that. It was nice showing up to set and being able to hang out without makeup and wear super boyish clothing. It was nice to be able to do something that had nothing to do with my appearance. And it was great working with Armand Assante as my character’s dad.
How does working on “Darc” compare to working on UNREAL?
NATASHA: It was great to do something so different than UNREAL. But at the same time, I pulled from the lessons I learned from UNREAL and playing Maya. It’s the same human struggle — a human being trying to pull herself out of something. I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to play such strong female characters. Maya initially appeared to be weaker after her assault, but in the end, she makes a strong choice to quit and call attention to the fact that the the show is ethically crossing some serious boundaries and something needs to be done. So she was raising an alarm, but in a very humble way and not in an aggressive way. It’s been a recurring theme. I think my character in “Darc” is also very strong. In fact, most of my auditions are for very strong female lead character who see things that other people may not necessarily see.
While Maya may be gone from “Everlasting,” it will fascinating to see if her voluntarily exit will be a wake-up call to the remaining girls, especially after Mary’s death. Will they choose to stay and still be at the mercy and exploitation of the show, or will they too find a way to extricate themselves safely from it’s clutches? To find out, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of UNREAL air Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. on Lifetime.