In light of the finale of our favorite new show, UnReal, we reached out to the producers and stars for an interview to talk everything from The Bachelor to feminism to
How did you end up working on UnReal? How did you manage working on a show about reality TV without ever working in reality TV before?
It was such a great idea to Sarah who had really lived it…I was raised by a lesbian who told me that shaving my legs was giving into the patriarchy…so I have pretty strong opinions about certain genres of reality TV, the ones that are designed to bully and humiliate women. Look at even this season of the Bachelorette and how much discussion has gone on about how she slept with somebody before the end of the season. She’s literally gotten death threats. When the woman is the decider, she is completely being judged the entire time on whether she is there for the right reasons.
Did you watch the Men Tell All this week?
No but I heard that the host was reading the mean tweets that had been sent to her and they were laughing about it. Basically they were reading these slut-shaming things to say that slut-shaming is wrong…it’s a little weird.
Are you a fan of the Bachelor? Do you watch?
I watched one season. I have friends who watch it quote-unquote “ironically” and the weird thing that I found was that there was a competitive girl inside me who found myself getting really invested and asking myself, “if I were on The Bachelor, would I be good enough to get picked?” And then I was like, this just feeds into this old idea that there are all these women out there, the pretty pretty princess wins, and then you’re going to ride off into the sunset with a guy who’s going to take care of you. I don’t remember who the contestant was that year, and I mean, none of them seem super bright, but this guy was particularly not…but by the end of the season I was still kind of in love with him. It’s like this desperate feeling that because he was the object of desire I started to feel the same way. And then when it ended I was like, I’m never doing that again I feel like I need to take a shower.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Absolutely. It’s funny because there’s all this stuff about what the word means. I love that recently women celebrities have started to talk about it — like with Taylor Swift, she got schooled and then suddenly came back and said, “Yup! I am a feminist! I believe in equal rights for all people!” The problem is we’re not in a culture where it’s just about getting equal pay and basic laws that protect all people. We’re in a culture where as much as women have advanced, we still live under a threat of danger that men don’t understand. We’re still put on trial when we accuse someone of hurting us physically or sexually. We’re the guilty party until proven otherwise. There’s so much engrained in this culture and this constant pressure to be everything to all people. So yeah, I definitely am a feminist.
I think it’s a super confusing time in every way for men and women, but it’s a really important time for women to be talking to each other about these issues. Because it’s a world of more mixed messages than ever in our history. I think that sexual politics and women’s issues are just fascinating. It’s hard to be a “good feminist.” I consider myself not a “good” feminist, just a regular person who is a feminist.
What would you define as a good feminst? What message do you think we should be raised with now?
I love the voice of girls talking to other girls, to this younger generation of women who are so smart and so capable of having these high level discussions. But to me personally, I feel like we have to be having discussions about the media. I have an almost 11 year old daughter, and I just need to keep talking to her — we can consume all this stuff, but let’s talk about what the message of this or that song is. I mean I love Megan Trainor, but she has this song — Dear Future Husband — and I started saying, this is a song about a very unreasonable women. Her ideal man accepts that she’s crazy and has no expectations of her. So I was like, I just want you to know that this is a song about a crazy woman. It’s totally great to consume pop culture, but it’s also constantly confusing, and builds expectations, and makes you unhappy with yourself so that you’ll go buy stuff to get happier.
Do you see UnReal as being a feminist show? Do you think it has feminist undertones?
We came in with a very specific agenda that I would call feminist. We were like, this show should be about people who are conflicted, who are making the very thing that makes us crazy. And that trying to be a “good” feminist in our culture is way harder. Especially if you’re in media and it’s your job, it’s way harder than it would look like. I think the idea was that we wanted to take down this particular form of bully culture and say, these women are real people. And it isn’t okay what we do to them. And when we do it to them we do it to ourselves. When you objectify women that way, and it’s a beauty pageant, and there’s a prince charming who’s going to fix your life, we also internalize those messages. And it makes us sick. It’s not good for men or women. That’s why she’s wearing that feminist t-shirt in the first scene, like she’s so fucked up but she wants to be a better person.
I think a lot of people watch at home, just being encouraged to bully and judge, and question women’s behavior because they’re sluts or they’re MILFs. We wanted to go and say, this thing that is so popular is REALLY bad for our hearts and minds, and keeps perpetuating the way we talk about and look at each other, and make fun of each other. We need to stop that shit.
How does it feel to be an actor in a TV show about a TV show?
It’s kind of exciting to use all this random knowledge I have about making a television show for another use. There was definitely a benefit to using all these experiences I have from all these years in my actual job. Like knowing the lingo and being able to use it. It was also nice to be one of the actresses who didn’t have to be all dolled up – that’s like really freeing and fun.
If you weren’t already an actress, woudl you ever go on a reality show?
I mean I definitely love Project Runway, but I don’t think I would. It’s such a crazy thing to sign up for.
Do you watch The Bachelor?
I’ve definitely seen The Bachelor and I’ve watched a lot of it in my life, but it’s not something that I watch now.
What do you think of it? How does it feel to have this whole preconception about The Bachelor and then replay that?
I mean I don’t know how much of it is true, but if ANY of it is true, it’s kind of bananas that we’ve been watching a show do this for like 15 seasons now. But at the same time it’s pretty entertaining television and people get a lot of enjoment out of it. My Twitter feed goes crazy when The Bachelor’s on.
Do you relate to your character in any way?
I think the fact that she’s sort of a no-nonsense person, she’s not frivolous, she’s really hard working – I can relate to that. She’s one of these people that you believe is going to figure out what she’s going to do with her life and make it happen, and she’s at a really confused point right now, but she seems like she’s trying to put the whole picture together. That’s always been something that I’ve done.
So you like your character?
I LOVE her. Even though sometimes I’m totally confused by her and she makes really wild choices, and she’s one of those people that can kind of go with the breeze and the wind, and she’s confused and lost. But I like the fact that she’s trying things out. She’s a ball to play.
How did you prepare to play her?
You have to choose to like something about the character that you’re playing, otherwise you’re not going to have a ton of creativity creating them. You have to want to create interesting things about them and be in the moment with them. I actually really like her even though she’s doing these horrible things. She’s smart and she’s working her way around people, and she’s a survivor.
I feel terrible for her in a lot of ways – she has no friends, no family, she doesn’t have any direction in life. And the one thing she’s good at is the thing that makes her hate herself. What a terrible thing to experience in life.
Have you ever experienced producers who treat people the way your character does on the show?
I mean…yeah, it’s Hollywood. People are going to do or say whatever they need to get the actor or actress to show up on set, say their lines, and get their next job. There’s a lot of people who will say and do things just to get ahead. It’s a business and everyone is constantly wondering, where is my next job coming from?
Speaking of next jobs, how do you choose your projects?
You have to have some sort of emotional connection to the role so that you can connect on a deep level. I run a lot of things by my husband and talk to him about what the projects are. I think I really need to connect to the character that I’m playing to get the job. I like really strong women with careers, if you look back on most of the characters I’ve played.
What do you like most about working on this project?
I’ve never seen a show like this before on television, and I’ve never played a character that was this manipulative and conflicted and confused. So just going into a whole new world and create a show that was going to be completely unique definitely had its challenges, but it was really really exciting. Even the fact that it’s on Lifetime, a place where people aren’t expecting a hard-hitting drama to be on, and getting people to see it has been really exciting and gratifying.
Anything else you want to share about the show?
It ends in a way that people are not going to expect. It ends on such a high note I can’t wait for people to actually get to see it.
SARAH GERTRUDE SHAPIRO
The big question we all have – is any of UnReal a close or realistic portrayal of The Bachelor?
I will tell you a story…we premiered UnReal at South by Southwest, and a young woman came up to us at the end and said, “I just want you to know, I just left my job in reality TV, and I was Rachel and I just got out. Thank you so much, this is dead on.”
Have you watched The Bachelor since you used to work on the show?
It’s kind of like working in a hot dog factory. I really haven’t watched, it’s not anything against it at all, it’s just not super fun for me.
How did it feel to be a producer on a reality show?
It feels kind of like shit. I also had a job in fashion, and I also worked in advertising. So the feelings of the characters are kind of like a combination of all those experiences I had being a feminist working in media. It’s the feeling of being the workaholic work horse while all the pretty pretty princesses are like prancing around, and you’re kind of like a worthless piece of shit work troll.
This is the central charater conflict for Rachel. We were like, we want people to know the thing about this character is that she feels horrible about what she’s doing, which is the experience I had when I was in the situation as well. Not all the time, but there were moments when I was like, wow I am living 100% against what I believe in…can I actually do this and feel sane? The answer for me was that I couldn’t. Morality for me isn’t really fluid, it’s pretty physical. Like I actually kind of feel physically sick when I was doing things wrong.
Did you learn anything positive from these negative experiences?
Yes, I became so incredibly tough. Beause I had to deal with so many insane circumstances, working 15 hours a day on set, huge projects, always navigating creative decisions. Everything I learned in the process has applied beautifully to what I’m doing now. I feel so beautifully prepared for what I’m doing now based on all the horrible experiences I went through. The industry is not for the faint of heart.
Now that you’re running your own show, how do you set the tone for something you can feel morally comfortable with?
It’s like the most incredible feeling in the world really. The show is actually based on a short film that I wrote and directed, so I created the world and this tone that I feel so incredibly devoted to. So for me to be able to expand them with Marti as my partner is a full on dream come true. To be making something I feel really proud of creatively, but also morally, it’s a great show.
How do you make the experience better for the people working under you?
One of the things that we feel strongly about is that our show is about the entertainment industry destroying people’s lives, so we’re pretty conscious about people not staying late if they don’t have to. There’s a really strong ethic on our show of people taking care of ourselves. I mean, we’re not pussies, everyone works incredibly hard, but when life shows up, people have room to take care of their lives.
If you’re demonstrating that it’s possible to work in the industry and do that, why do you think the rest of the industry doesn’t adopt that?
I think there’s a little bit of sadism in the industry. We always talk about going to production like going to war. People overdo it because they get so addicted to the adrenaline of the process that they forget to check out. People always brag about how burnt out they are. Also, I think women get pushed into these roles more than men. There’s definitely that dynamic of the lazy stoner boss and the workaholic woman who’s actually running the show. It’s such a common trope in our kind of industry.
What do you think is the best way for women to handle themselves in the workplace to close this gap?
I think there are some really practical tools like not apologizing as much, not offering to be the person who stays late. I know there’s all these statistics that women write emails that are twice as long as men, which adds up to like 15 extra hours of work. Don’t be scared to take up space, don’t be scared to take care of your own health and your own. Also just expecting more in terms of salary, responsibility, and response. And really, a giant one for me and Marti is that you look out for other women.
I also think there’s a ton of optimism and strength around women working in the industry. I feel like the wave is kind of cresting, the ACLU is now suing Hollywood. The statistics for women directors are worse than any other industry — like worse than underwater welding. Like a lower proportion of female directors than in any other industry.
Back to the Bachelor, do you think it does anything to empower women? What effect do you feel like the Bachelor/Bachelorette has on society?
I think the Bachelorette is a really interesting experiment. It seems really awkward and horrible but it’s really cool that they’re doing it. It exposes that the double standard is so alive and kicking. From what I understand there’s some positive stuff about romance and chivalry, but I think in general the takeaway for women is that they have to fit one of three boxes – the wifey, the slut, or the prude.
I don’t think it’s the heart of evil and I truly undersatnd why people watch it and find it super fascinating. We get it, we get why it’s fun to watch, we’re not saying it’s bad. We’re just asking the question: how do you feel after you watch it? Do you like yourself more or less?
So overall conflicted?
Yeah, I think it’s also cool to see people fall in love…it’s really like there’s hope for love. I also love chivalry, and 1800s literature, so I love that idea of a guy going to meet your parents. I find all the formality of it really charming, and I wish that things we’re more old fashioned a lot of the time.
That’s funny to hear from a feminist.
I know, I think we’re all complicated. I’m a walking contradiction sometimes. I would love somebody to come save me, I know every job I had I would’ve easily quit if some guy showed up in a helicopter.
Do you believe that anyone has ever really fallen in love on the Bachelor?
I mean yeah, I worked on the season with Trista and Ryan, and I feel like that was real. They’re still together.
Your character is obviously really interesting. How did you prepare for it? Have you ever experienced having a producer like your character?
I couldn’t really prepare for this role except being super open to allowing her way of working – which is unlike anything I’ve seen in my career. Quinn kind of became an amalgamation of a bunch of people I’ve worked with in my life, but also people I’ve come across in my personal life. I think it was super important that Quinn was a person doing her job, and doing her job really well. I think if she was a man no one would think otherwise. But because she was a woman in such an important role, everybody wanted her to be just a bitch. But I don’t really think she is a bitch. She has a job to do and she does it. Ethically I think she’s got some problems, but that to me is reality television in general. Reality television crosses a lot of lines that we don’t know about ethically and morally, but that was fun to pull back the curtain on our version of what’s happening behind the scenes.
Do you relate to her?
I relate to her struggle. None of the people on the show are good, everyone on the show is bad. They’re all struggling with something. I could relate to how Quinn is struggling with the balance of career and personal life to an extreme, and the vulnerability of the situation she’s in based on being really good at something that’s hard to do – that’s what I can relate to. It really sucks when you’re really good at something that’s really bad.
For me Quinn was a combination of Anna Wintour and Ari Gold – a fictitious character and a real person. That’s what I was always thinking about.
You seem to really be part of something that’s not just entertaining but a really big cultural statement about not just the Bachelor, but reality TV, and how we end up with people doing what seems like crazy things on screen. What’s your take on reality TV?
I would say that in the beginning I was just as obsessed with reality television as anybody. Like back in the day of the original Real World, that was the best reality television ever. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that, because with all the shows now, it gets watered down and loses its original draw, which was this crazy feeling of being voyeuristic and looking into this world that you would never be looking into. That’s why the drama and manipulation has to happen, because everyone’s onto it now – the fights, the setups, casting a crazy person. So how do you keep it fresh and feeling like you’re watching something unfold in front of the camera that hasn’t been outlined. So I lost my excitement about reality television when it started to feel forced. I still do love The Amazing Race, and shows like Project Runway, where I feel like the reality of it is true – like with Project Runway you’re getting to watch an artist get an opportunity. You can’t manipulate them into making a better or worse outfit. And then the fights and the drama are secondary.
But with shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Who Wants to Marry Harry, Beauty and the Geek…there’s so many of them. They’re not a big draw for me. I just feel so sad for everybody that’s on them. It’s just like watching a trainwreck.
Would you ever go on a reality show for any reason?
I don’t think so. To be perfectly honest I’m really only comfortable in front of the camera when I’m not being myself. It makes me feel sad to think that there’s some aspiring actress who thinks that if they were on a reality show that that could make their career. I really believe there’s payoff in hard work, and that’s all I’ve ever known.
What do you like most and least about working on UnReal?
I would say worst that we shot in Canada – being torn away from my family was really really hard. What I like the most about it was being part of a cast that was so female-strong. The cast was so unbelievably supportive and it felt so good going to work every day – you felt like everybody had your back.
What do you think has helped to create that environment?
It starts at the top. It starts with your writers, your producers, and then it goes to the numbers on the call sheet. I’ve worked on a lot of shows where I’m 10 on the call sheet and the number 1 person is not very nice. And it sort of creates this sour environment. But on UnReal there were no numbers on the call sheets. We were all working towards a common goal to make a show that was believable, watchable, entertaining, and endearing. And if we weren’t all working together it wasn’t going to work. We were all very together and there wasn’t anybody that was better than anybody else.
Have you ever been on a show like this before?
No. With a cast this big there’s usually one person who messes it up for everybody. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on shows with huge stars, and huge stars come with a lot of baggage. I don’t think I’ve had this on any other shows.
How does it compare to working on Entourage?
It’s kind of the complete opposite. It’s weird though because it’s opposite yet a similar concept – behind the scenes in the entertainment world. It was the opposite environment because it was such a male-driven show. There were a lot of women on that show but none of them were really empowered.
We would say you were the most empowered woman on the show.
Right. I mean, Mrs. Ari was Mrs. Ari. They never even gave Mrs. Ari a first name. Well they gave her a name but they never used it. The difference is being surrounded by so many women – the men on Entourage were supportive but in a different way.