EXCLUSIVE: Why Constance Zimmer Is Finally Embracing Her Evil Side on 'UnREAL'

Constance Zimmer still can't believe her luck.

At some point over the course of her decades-long career, Zimmer began to carve out a niche in television and film playing driven, unapologetic, no-nonsense career women -- roles that would come to define her. Now, the Seattle, Washington, native has one more accomplishment to add to her impressive resume: her first Emmy nomination for her peerless work on Lifetime’s UnREAL.

As Quinn King, the brash TV producer of UnREAL’s fictitious dating show, Everlasting, Zimmer’s no-holds-barred portrayal of a woman without boundaries has struck a chord with critics and fans alike. Winning the Critics’ Choice TV Award earlier this year should have clued her in, but Zimmer, ever modest, chose to have a healthy skepticism when it came to the Emmys, for which she’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

“It’s never anticipated when they happen, especially the first. I still can’t imagine ever getting jaded, even if I have five nominations,” Zimmer said candidly during a phone interview with ET earlier this month. “It’s why it’s so hard to even put into words what it means. The fact that it’s been this character on this show is super exciting because it could have gone the other way.” 

Photo: Lifetime

Prior to UnREAL, Zimmer’s most notable roles were on shows like Boston Legal, House of Cards and Entourage. It was her memorable turn as sharp-tongued studio exec Dana Gordon on the HBO comedy that gave UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro the belief that Zimmer, whom she called “a full-blown, unmitigated genius,” was the only option for Quinn. 

“There was a really specific moment on Entourage where Dana and Ari are having this terrible fight -- they’ve just had sex and he says he’s going back to his wife. He starts laying into her and it looks like it’s going to be a screaming fight. Ari says, ‘What, you’re mad?’” Shapiro said. “And she says, ‘No Ari, I’m sad.’ It was so deadpan and vulnerable without melodrama. That was the moment where I was like, ‘She’s Quinn.’”

For Quinn to work on UnREAL, it was crucial that she “not be a cartoon, like the Evil Queen,” Shapiro said. Zimmer’s ability to play her with an edge, as well as show her vulnerability -- however rare -- breathed new life into the character and thus, the show.

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“I’m not surprised people are responding to her,” Shapiro said. “In some ways, the role was written for her. We saw every actress of that age in Hollywood who could possibly play this part and Constance just makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. She’s just born to play it.” 

The awards frenzy surrounding Zimmer could be viewed, in some ways, as validation for a career’s worth of achievements -- and thankfully, she’s not showing any signs of slowing down. It’s almost surreal to think that there was a moment in time in which Zimmer may not have made the leap of faith to join UnREAL

“My husband [director Russ Lamoureux] told me that after I turned 40, I would get the best roles of my career, and I laughed at him,” recalled Zimmer, now 45, in a moment of reflection. “Apparently he was right. This is showing us that we’re going beyond ageism, especially in television -- that some of the most incredibly well-written female roles right now are for women over 40.”

Photo: HBO

UnREAL crashed the TV party in the summer of 2015, but it was the ramped-up hijinks of the recently ended sophomore season that proved to be even more challenging for Zimmer -- not just physically, but mentally as well. 

“When I came home and finished shooting the season, I felt like I had been hit by a truck,” she confessed. “What I was allowed to do with Quinn this season was actually more fun for me, [exploring] the vulnerable side of her and realizing that a lot of her brashness comes from being hurt or putting a lot of her life in her career and not on herself.” 

Zimmer would agree that Quinn became far more unhinged this season (“Oh, yeah!”) without her usual confidante, the erratic but savant-like producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), by her side, and she’s found herself appreciating the chaos of her character’s life. “I’m enjoying so much more of the clever evilness of Quinn,” she said of Quinn’s line-crossing, “whereas the first season, I was terrified of it.”

“She was left out on her own in season two,” Zimmer said. “She didn’t have Chet. She didn’t have Rachel. She had this foreign object called Coleman, who was thrust into her world, so that left her with nobody to turn to, nobody to talk things out with, and I think it’s why she was even more evil.” 

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Because the world of UnREAL was already well-established, Zimmer was able to showcase different shades of the character previously unseen. In one heartbreaking scene toward the end of the season, Quinn comes to the painful realization that she won’t have a choice of whether or not she can start a family. To cope with the devastating news, she destroys the Everlasting production office. 

“When I read it in the script, I cried,” admitted Zimmer, who is mother to an 8-year-old daughter. “I have friends who have been in that position where it isn’t necessarily that they wanted kids, but they wanted to be the person to say no. Quinn is very controlling and it was the one thing she couldn’t control, and so it meant that she couldn’t put up her usual armor and say, ‘Fine, whatever.’ That was a hard day. That was such a hard moment for me to even do myself.”

Even harder was navigating the criticisms of the most recent run following near universal acclaim for UnREAL’s rookie run. Active on Twitter, Zimmer was well aware of the critiques some viewers had of the second season, which went darker and more subversive with storylines involving a police shooting, mental illness and race.

The response following the July 18 episode, “Ambush,” in which a police officer shoots one of the show’s prominent black characters, loomed large in Zimmer’s mind. “When we [filmed] it [months earlier], we were all worried about it. I don’t think we ever anticipated that another shooting would have happened again,” she said, referencing the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile just weeks before the episode aired. 

“What UnREAL does in such a crazy, bizarre way is we show things, we address things. We bring things up, but we’re not here to say we have the answers for them. You shine light on them, so that people talk about them and it becomes a larger conversation,” Zimmer said, admitting that she still thinks about the abrupt resolution to that arc. “I think that we all would have liked to have done more with that storyline, but as Quinn says, ‘It is a story but it’s not our story.’”

That’s not to say the show will take a step back with its salacious storytelling when the third season rolls around; it most likely won’t. One episode that caused a stir featured an Everlasting contestant relieving herself -- for lack of a better term -- after a producer secretly slipped a laxative into her meal in a plot for revenge, bringing some to question whether UnREAL had crossed the proverbial line. 

“‘You’ve gone too far. How vulgar. Nobody would ever do that to somebody on national television,’” Zimmer remembered reading. “Lo and behold, the next day, it actually happened on Bachelor in Paradise.” It was one of those rare instances of reality being stranger than fiction, and in the span of 24 hours, the larger-than-life shenanigans on the ABC reality show “vindicated” the insanity and zaniness that UnREAL leans into. 

While Zimmer is basking in the glow of her Emmy rise, and deservedly so, she made sure to heap praise on her partner in crime, Appleby, whose understated performance as Rachel she called “phenomenal.”  (Appleby failed to land an Emmy nomination for UnREAL.) “I know I’m definitely at my best when I’m with her,” Zimmer said of her scene partner, before making a bold Emmys promise: “But you know what, she will [be nominated] next year.”

For now, Zimmer is simply enjoying the ride and is genuinely overjoyed to be on a show unafraid to push limits and spark conversation. Being a newly minted Emmy nominee, on the other hand, will be an accomplishment she’ll cherish forever: “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”