In the world of UnREAL, Lifetime’s hit drama about the making of a dating reality competition, it’s hard to imagine any of it is based in reality. But co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro drew inspiration from her own experiences as a producer on ABC’s The Bachelor, and season two addressed real-life issues such as Black Lives Matter and police violence head on.
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman plays Jay, one of the producers on Everlasting (UnREAL’s show within the show inspired by The Bachelor) navigating the pressures and demands of backstabbing producers -- Quinn (Constance Zimmer), Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Chet (Craig Bierko) -- and the show’s first black suitor (Darius, played by B.J. Britt). Season two sees his character pushed to the edge as he tries to find the balance in making history while changing the narrative for people of color on reality TV.
Seemingly trapped in the world of Everlasting, Bowyer-Chapman explains to ET why Jay sticks around, how UnREAL tackled race this season and what the finale means for the fate of their reality series:
ET: Obviously race was at the forefront this season. How do you think the show did in handling it?
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: I don't think there's any right or wrong when it comes to handling such a sensitive subject as racial dynamics in America. The show took on a very heavy subject matter and explored it in a very brutally honest and truthful way. A lot of the subject matter that we covered was very uncomfortable, but it was necessary if we're going to deliver an accurate portrayal of what it is to be a person of color on a daily basis in the United States of America.
The show also tackled the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence. Were you surprised that a show about the making of a reality show would address such real issues?
I wasn't surprised. I feel like that's the very nature of the show, that we explore issues that are sometimes considered taboo. It was something we, as cast members, were very much aware of coming into this season. We knew we would be having our first black suitor on Everlasting and exploring the issues that come along with that, shining a spotlight into the dark corners of reality television and commenting on the fact that there has yet to be a black suitor or bachelor on any dating reality TV show. We had a very open dialogue with the writers of the show, the producers and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. I knew that we would be delving into the story line of Black Lives Matter with the character Ruby [Denée Benton]. I knew that Jay would be constantly challenged, struggling between staying true to his morals while appeasing his contestants, trying to climb the ranks of the corporate ladder and please Quinn. At the end of the day, Quinn is a hard person to please.
Do you worry at all about your show -- or other shows -- showing police violence on TV? Does that perpetuate the issue?
I didn't worry about it and I don't think it perpetuates it by any means. It's an unfortunate reality, which is occurring in America at this time. UnREAL is commenting on the insanity of it all. I don't think the writers presented the story line in a way they claimed that one side was right or wrong. I feel like if we were going to tackle the massive subject matter of issues that people of color face in America on a daily basis, it would have been a shame to skim over that story line. The timing of it all was quite curious. That episode [207, "Ambush"] was written probably eight months ago, and we filmed it three months ago. It's just the timing of the airing of the show. Lining up with the unfortunate occurrences of several instances of police brutality was a direct reflection of what was happening in the world at that moment. It's not an easy thing to talk about; it's not an easy thing to look at or to digest. But the reality is, if we don't explore these issues in a truthful way, these unfortunate things are going to continue to happen again and again. I feel like, if anything, us putting the story forward probably is going to help change the narrative a little bit, help people change their perspective and the cycle of insanity.
There were a lot of twists and turns this season. Which one shocked you the most?
There's so much subject matter that was covered in the season! From Jay's perspective, I think him becoming the new No. 2, the new Rachel, was a big surprise I didn't see coming. Jay doesn't have any allies in the world of Everlasting. Quinn has always chosen Rachel as her favorite and just recently accepted the fact that Madison is there and helping her to rise in the ranks as well. Jay doesn't have Quinn looking out for him or Chet looking out for him in the way that he does with Jeremy [Josh Kelly]. Ruby was getting kicked off -- that was a big surprise to me. Watching Darius make that choice was pretty heartbreaking. And Quinn falling in love with John Booth [Ioan Gruffudd]. That was a total surprise to see her fall so insanely in love in such a short period of time and to watch Constance play Quinn from a vulnerable place. That was interesting and different.
Jay is a very put-upon person, especially by his co-workers and his boss. Are you surprised by how much he's willing to stomach?
This is something I've had a discussion with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro about numerous times. Just kind of questioning, if Jay sees all these horrible and radical inequalities occurring on a daily basis, why does he sit back and accept it? Why does he remain in the world of Everlasting? And we've come to the conclusion that Jay is in a similar position that Sarah found herself in when she was working as a producer on The Bachelor for nine seasons. She signed a very blanket contract with a reality production company, and she found herself working on one show and was manipulated and pulled into the world of The Bachelor with really no way out. She signed away all of her rights and her soul and it was very difficult to get out of. She was there and forced to do all of these things for the sake of her job and the sake of a paycheck. I feel like that's really the only way I can justify why Jay is there. He doesn't really have a choice in the matter.
Some of the things Quinn says to him or calls him are pretty ridiculous. What’s it like working with Constance Zimmer in those scenes?
Constance is one of my best friends in real life. We have such a beautiful relationship -- one that is the polar opposite of what Jay and Quinn have. So, it can be kind of challenging at times, to get through scenes like that where we don't burst into hysterics. Constance is just so good at her job. When she steps into hair and makeup and wardrobe, she really does become Quinn. Once we are in character and on set, we have to let our real lives take a backseat. It's always real fun to do those control room scenes. A lot of what Quinn says in those scenes is improv-ed. It's endlessly entertaining because you don't know what's going to come out of her mouth next.
Do you have a favorite Quinn zinger?
Oh, so many. From the last episode [209, "Espionage"], in the control room when she says to Coleman [Michael Rady], "Hot Rachel just sh*t her pants on national TV. Boom, drop the mic." "Boom, drop the mic" was an improv from Constance. She had just been at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a few months before and she had seen Barack Obama do the same thing when he finished his speech. So it was a shout-out to him.
Every character on this show has his or her own agenda. Ultimately, what do you think Jay's agenda is?
As much as he's trying to protect himself as he tries to break through the glass ceiling people of color exist under in the world of reality television, he is also, in his heart's core, wanting to [make] impactful television and change the narrative that's been so damaging for so many years around the people of color or LGBTQ-identifying people. It is a constant struggle because he has everyone around him telling him to do the opposite of what he wants to do in his gut.
What will the finale mean for the fate of Everlasting? Where does the show go from there?
I don't know what it means for the future of Everlasting because I don't have the scripts for season three. I truly have no idea where the writers plan on going. We as producers on the show -- Quinn, Rachel, Chet and Jay -- are producers in a reality production company, so we have the potential to go anywhere and do anything really. We don't have to stay in the dating competition show. We're not married to the world of Everlasting. The season finale is one of my favorite episodes for sure.
Both Constance and Shiri told us that the right girl wins. Do you agree?
Yeah, I do. With the options that were presented to Darius, yes, I do believe that the right girl wins.
What do you want for Jay in season three?
I want Jay to continue to stay true to himself, to battle the inequalities that he sees occurring on a daily basis around him, to help uplift the contestants and to change the narrative that has been told in the world of reality television for so long. It's a constant daily struggle for Jay not to sell his soul to the highest bidder when he's surrounded by such temptation.
What about a romance for Jay?
It's a definite possibility and one that's very important that we explore. It was something that we had discussed with the writers for this season. Going into the season, we were thinking Jay would have a love interest. But as time went on, we felt like it was too soon and the character we were looking at for Jay to potentially have a love story with, it just didn't quite make sense. There's such power and incredible importance in the gift that the writers have given me in playing an openly gay character on a television series. It's really important to not desexualize gay characters in television and film in order to make them more palatable for a mainstream audience. The writers are very much aware of that. It's important and necessary, and we'll get there when the time is right.
The UnREAL season two finale airs Monday, Aug. 8 at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.