Earlier this year, Shiri Appleby fulfilled a goal she’d laid out for network executives while filming the pilot for Lifetime’s UnREAL: to direct an episode of the hit series. “I told them all that I’ve already done the work and was really hoping for the opportunity,” says Appleby, who plays weary reality dating competition producer Rachel Goldberg on the Bachelor-inspired drama.
Stepping behind the camera, the actress helmed the season-two episode “Casualty,” making her prime-time directorial debut. But this wasn’t merely a vanity project to appease a network star. For Appleby, it’s a next step in her career that she’s been working toward ever since the CW series Life Unexpected was canceled in 2011.
Still most famous for playing Liz Parker on Roswell at the time, Appleby was ready to take more control over her career. “I started feeling like I was capable of doing more than just acting,” she tells ET about transitioning into her 30s, which meant fewer satisfying acting opportunities. “You don’t really have a choice -- in terms of being an actress -- about when you get to work. So, it was about creating as much opportunity as possible.” For Appleby, that meant producing the web series Dating Rules From My Future Self and shadowing on shows like Franklin and Bash, the CW’s 90210 and HBO’s Girls.
The HBO comedy proved to be the most pivotal opportunity for Appleby, who emailed executive producer Jenni Konner “endlessly about coming in to shadow.” After spending time on set, the show’s creator and star, Lena Dunham, eventually took notice, casting her in a recurring role as Adam Driver’s onscreen girlfriend, Natalia. “[Girls] gave me tremendous credibility and without that, I don’t know if I would have had this opportunity,” Appleby says of landing UnREAL and directing.
When her episode aired on July 11, the actress says she was happy with the end result. “When I got the script, I remember thinking, ‘Man, am I really going to be able to pull this off? I can't believe these people trusted me. I've conned them into giving me the opportunity, so now I actually have to deliver,’” Appleby recalls. “Watching it and seeing my name up on the screen, I just felt really proud of myself because it was watching a dream come true, watching a goal achieved.”
While the Lifetime series has a specific tone, of which Appleby says, “In terms of being an actor, you just want the best director for the job,” UnREAL has only had five female directors over two seasons. Just a few months after Appleby’s episode aired, Angela Bassett became American Horror Story’s first female director in the FX anthology series’ six seasons. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, women only accounted for 12 percent of broadcast TV directors in 2015-2016. It’s a trend that’s not unfamiliar to Appleby, who says that of the 64 episodes she shot of Roswell, only one had a female director.
“It’s incredibly important that we’re having a wide variety of people craft the stories we’re pushing out there,” she says. “Each storyteller is going to create a different theme and a different way of expressing themselves, and you never know how the audience is going to connect. But if we continue to push the exact same format and the exact same point of view, we're not really expanding our audience’s world experience. And I feel like that's a disservice to the people that are tuning in.”
With her first episode of UnREAL behind her, Appleby is already facing the next challenge: “getting another network and another show to give you an opportunity to see that you’re actually capable of directing.” While she’s yet to clear that hurdle, Appleby is busy expanding her directing credits. In addition to helming another episode of UnREAL next season, she’s working on a “Funny or Die” short and partnering with the Skimm for Lifetime’s upcoming election special.
While Appleby herself has largely been silent on the 2016 presidential election, she saw an opportunity to give people the support and information to make sure their voices were heard on Election Day by directing interstitials that are currently airing on Lifetime and will appear during the network’s prime-time event, The View Live Election Special. “For me, it's really important to inform other women and get people to participate,” she says of her role behind the camera.
“It's just allowing me to have a larger career,” Appleby says of the latest directing opportunities. “Moving forward, I hope to expand. I really love this industry and I really love being creative and storytelling.”