EXCLUSIVE: Shiri Appleby on 'UnREAL' Moving Past Season 2 and Taking a Risk on 'Lemon'

Photo: Getty Images

As Everlasting producer Rachel Goldberg, Shiri Appleby dives deep into the conflicted and manipulative world of making reality TV on Lifetime’s hit series UnREAL, which debuted to critical acclaim, earning two Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award in 2015.

While a highly entertaining series that offers a biting critique on dating competitions like ABC’s Bachelor franchise, on which co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as an associate producer, UnREAL suffered from a sophomore slump. Despite beating ABC to showcase TV’s first black suitor, it stumbled incoherently in its second season. Despite that, it was no True Detective season two fail, still earning a third andfourth season

Season three, which will debut in 2018, will see the series welcome its first female suitor, turning Everlasting in a Bachelorette-like experience. “I think it will be great to add another strong female to the mix, someone to really battle with Quinn [Constance Zimmer] and Rachel,” Appleby previously told ET, adding: “And then put them in an environment with all of these men and see how they react.”

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Meanwhile, Rachel continues to be a role that’s made a formidable star of Appleby, who was previously known for CW’s Roswell and her arc as Adam Driver’s onscreen girlfriend on Girls. Since UnReal’s debut, she has expanded her career behind the camera, making her directorial debut with a season two episode and landing an overall production deal with A+E Studios, the studio behind the Lifetime series. And she’s not done taking risks, as she proves with a rare comedy turn in Brett Gelman and Janicza Bravo’s quirky new comedy, Lemon, about a man in a free fall of mediocrity, with Appleby playing the protective yet self-absorbed Ruthie.

Ahead of the film’s debut in theaters and On Demand on Friday, Aug. 18, Appleby chats with ET about getting to do comedy, moving past UnREAL season two with new showrunner Stacy Rukeyser and starting production on season four. 

ET: How did you get involved with a project like Lemon?

Shiri Appleby: I was sent the script and I read it. I really thought there was a unique world on the page. I loved the role of Ruthie, a really strong woman, who is kind of this protector of Isaac, played by Brett Gelman. She really has a lot of heart but still is kind of a self-centered character. I watched Janizca's short before signing on [and] I was so impressed by the creativity and her way of telling these odd stories but allowing them to have a lot of heart and absurdity at the same time. So I jumped at the chance to work with her and Brett and see what they were going to create with this story.

One scene that really stood out to me is when Ruthie and the family start singing the matzo balls song in the kitchen. Is that song real or made up for the film?

I thought it was a made-up song, too. Janizca told me it was a real song and it existed, which was news to me. It was really fun. We all sat upstairs in a tiny room and learned the harmony and got on the same page to sing together. It was so fun when we were shooting it. It was one of the most fun days I had at work. It was really free and really liberating.

[Editor’s note: The song is very real. Listen to “A Million Matzoh Balls” by Dean Friedman.]

Even though it’s not at all the same movie, it reminded me of a Big Chill moment, where you get a singalong with the entire cast around the kitchen.

It was nice to be together and really start to feel like this family must have been like. 

Shiri Appleby in 'Lemon.'

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Considering that you’re a series lead and probably have limited time for anything else, what goes into the decision process of doing a project outside UnReal?

It's really about me wanting to work with people who inspire me -- which Janizca and Brett definitely do and the rest of the cast is a group I wanted to work with -- and wanting to find roles that show my diversity and my range. I really haven't been given a ton of comedy to do in my career so far, so I wanted to show I can play and be free and be loose. It's just about finding things that serve a purpose and show me in a different light. At this point, I've been working a really long time, and you try not to repeat yourself. It’s just trying to do things that are fresh and exciting. 

Well, it was certainly refreshing to see you do something so unlike Rachel, so it must have been nice to get passed along a script like this.

Exactly, yeah. I was really surprised and really flattered because I'm not really known for that kind of material and that kind of work. That was one of the things that made me think they're going to make a unique film if they would cast me in this role. I was right; when I saw the movie, I was so proud to be affiliated with it. I was so proud to support it and I really feel like Janizca is a visionary and has a huge future ahead of herself. 

Obviously, UnREAL season 3 was pushed back to 2018, which I must say is torture. But I wanted to ask about Stacy Rukeyser taking over as showrunner and what she brought to the show this coming season.

She really stabilized the show. She was really the backbone of the first season and didn't necessarily get the limelight of that. And then second [season] we had a different showrunner. So, she was really given the power and the strength in the third season, and she really created a solid environment. There was cohesive storytelling, and she was present. Those were the things the show was really needing. I think she did a really excellent job in the fact that we got a fourth season already. We go back into production in mid-October and we'll finish shooting most likely before the third season airs. It'll be interesting to see what they create for the fourth season and if they make any commentary on what happened on Bachelor in Paradise

MORE: 'UnREAL' Star Shiri Appleby Finds Her Voice Behind the Camera

It’s perfect UnREAL fodder. I’m sure it’ll be on everyone’s mind.

Me too. I feel like it’s ripe for the storytelling. 

What you said about the new season, it sounds like it really improves upon what we got with season two.

Yes, definitely. It's much stronger than it was in the second season. 

Was there any hesitation about where the show was going to go after season two? It was a fun season, but it had a mixed review in terms of critics and audience reaction.

Yes, absolutely, and rightful so. Yeah, we were like, "How are we going to rebound from this?" We got such praise and such support and love out of the first season and the second season didn't live up to the expectations. So you really want to come out of the gate to show that we learned from our mistakes. We sat around, especially with the studio, and really took notice of the things a lot of critics were saying. These comments are accurate, so [it was a matter of] how do we take that into consideration and how do we build out these contestants so we can feel for them and feel Rachel's invested in the story? How do we tell a story our audience is invested in?

The show is based on having a commentary on feminism. So how do we bring that commentary back? And I thought [Stacy] did a really good job -- the show's really about, in the third season, whether a successful woman can attract a man, and if you need to dumb yourself down to make yourself attractive -- so at least it was a conversation I was really interested in. I felt everybody was interested in it. And I'm curious to see how they continue the dialogue in the fourth season. 

Shiri Appleby directing Constance Zimmer on the set of 'UnREAL' season two. 

Photo: Lifetime

You directed another episode in season three. How was getting behind the camera this time around?

I didn't really have as many of the insecurities that I had the first time because I had done it and I proved to myself that I was capable of it. So, in my second time at that, I really wanted to take big swings. I had a nine-and-a-half-page scene with 25 actors and I was like, “I'm going to shoot this in one take.” So, I staged it and I did it. I really accomplished it. Again, it was like, “I want to get bolder. I really want my filmmaking to have a real strong point of view and create real challenges not only for myself but for the actors and the crew, which I know are ready and up for it.” It was really about that and at the same time, finding moments in the script that I could really settle in deep with the characters and show the characters in a different light. That's one of the things that is so wonderful about being a director: You know the show well as an actress but you also know what's missing and what you haven't been given the opportunity to do and what the other actors haven't been given the opportunity to do -- especially for Quinn's character. How do we show her vulnerable side? How do we build this moment out so we have empathy for this woman? Those were the things I really relished and felt excited about doing. It was about turning the dial to show these characters in a different way. 

Now, having made your directorial debut and helming a second episode, has the industry looked at you differently? Are you getting noticed as someone who can direct and produce or are you finding new opportunities to do more of that?

Yes. I also have an overall deal with A+E and I'm really taking it seriously and really trying to tell stories from the female point of view. When I'm going into meetings now with the studios and networks, trying to get television work, I think people are really seeing me as someone who has a vast amount of experience and that I have a voice and I know how to fill these roles. The door really has been opened. I did get offered a job to direct on a new Netflix show, but it conflicted with UnReal's shooting schedule for the new season. So in due time, I feel confident that these things will start to happen. It's really exciting to me, having been in this business my whole life and now feeling like I'm starting over in many ways. I feel more passionate and more excited about it than I really have ever been. 

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What’s it like knowing that you’ll film season four almost entirely before season three comes out, without any reaction to what the team has created?

It's odd. There are some great things to it. It's like a vast, creative experience -- like, you're not thinking about the commentary. The last commentary we’ve had was from season two, and I know we've really moved past it. But at the same time, you don't have the commentary of season three to take into account of how you shape season four. You're kind of going off of what's on the page and what you felt and what your impression has been of how the third season came together. It's kind of a leap, which is just what making television and putting yourself out there always is. 

Will the show continue beyond season four or is it too early to tell?

I have no idea. It would probably depend on how season three does.