Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko have been talking to the press about “UnREAL” for over a year now, but they don’t seem to be tired of it yet. In fact, they’re more than excited about the impact that the brutal but brilliant series has had since its premiere last summer, especially given that “UnREAL” — which takes on the deception and drama behind the scenes of a reality dating show — had to deal with the fact that its network home of Lifetime brought with it… certain expectations.
As you’ll see below, though, Zimmer and Bierko have nothing but the highest of praise for the support Lifetime has put behind the show, in which the pair plays “Everlasting” producers whose personal relationship is anything but a fairy tale. At the TCA Winter Press Tour, Zimmer and Bierko revealed how they first met, explained why promoting a TV show is now a year-long job and what today’s premiere on Hulu means for the show’s potential growth. (Also, Bierko tells us everything he knows about the new season, at least in regards to his waistline.) An edited transcript follows.
Congratulations on everything. From your perspective, what’s the experience been like?
CONSTANCE ZIMMER: It’s been kind of amazing. It’s been shocking and overwhelming because it was really amazing to watch it take shape. Airing a show live nowadays is a huge task, and what I loved was Lifetime caught on very quickly. They realized people binge watch. People can’t watch just one episode because it is that kind of show — what’s going to happen next? Where is that person going to go? And so I think that when they realized that we’re in a different time and people are watching things differently — when they released those first four episodes — I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is bigger than I think we had ever anticipated or had ever hoped for.” Because once those were released, people were hooked. And they were addicted to a television show that I think surprised even them.
The response from the critics — every day I still am like, “I’m sorry. We got another good review?” I kept saying, “There’s going to be a bad one. I know there is.” Because everybody always says, “If you believe the good reviews you have to believe the bad.” So, I read everything. Some people don’t read anything because they just don’t want to know. I couldn’t believe it. I kept calling Shiri [Appleby] and going, “Did you read that? Did you read what they’re saying about the show? This is a show we’re on.” Oh my God.
And I think the fact that we did what we set out to do, which was make a good show on a network where it was not expected as far as it was outside of their comfort zone. We did something that they wanted to use as a vehicle to launch them outside of what they were doing already and what they were known for. This was not what they were known for, and we had to prove that anybody can do anything nowadays. You just have to get the audience.
CRAIG BIERKO: [With Lifetime], we’re the first off the U-Boat onto the beach. You want to sleep late that morning. You don’t want to be on that boat. But we’re the first one. They’re rebranding in a big way. They did not want to do the Kleenex of the week movie anymore. They took to the time, and they made this the show they wanted it to be. Fortunately, it worked out, but they did something that they don’t do on TV anymore: They don’t nurture shows anymore. It’s all driven by the advertisers. But Lifetime, to their credit, they said, “We want to rebrand the way AMC rebranded. Make this show dark. Fulfill your vision. If it fails on its own merits, we’re fine with that. Then we’ll move on.” That’s the team you want to play on — people who are making the same show.
I’ve done a lot of theater and one of the cagiest things I’ve ever heard a director say — he used to run the Denver Theater Center — this guy Donovan Marley used to say, “You gossip about one person in the show, it’s a matter of time before the show dies. It’s canceled. You don’t gossip. You follow the director. And if you don’t believe in the show you’re in, you owe it to yourself and the show to get out.” It happened to be a bunch of people who really believed in taking a chance.
I was at a point in my own life where the show spoke to me. The size of the part and the nature of the part appealed to me. I had never played it in my career. I always played leading guys or the bad guy. But I never played a guy who was set up with the lead woman and who was blowing it in a real human way. I was in new territory that closely mirrored — not because it was bad — the actual reality that took place mirrored my life more closely than ever before.
One of the things that people really respond to with the show is that it’s interested in the lives of people over the age of 35, especially when it comes to your relationship. Had you guys known each other before the show came together?
ZIMMER: We were lucky enough to have worked with each other before on a show called “Boston Legal.”
BIERKO: It was unsatisfying, couple-wise. They brought us in the first episode, and then I didn’t see her until my final episode.
ZIMMER: We weren’t a couple. We were just friends on the show.
BIERKO: But we never spoke. Our dressing rooms were next to each other. This was different. I worked with her enough to know she’s really good. And I wrote you and I told you after I saw this show. I knew you were good. I didn’t know you were this good. I didn’t. I didn’t.
ZIMMER: No. But it is one those things–
BIERKO: I didn’t know she was this good. I didn’t know how safe I would feel on camera, and it brought better work out of me.
ZIMMER: That’s very sweet of you to say, but–
BIERKO: That sounded emotionless and dead.
ZIMMER: No, but I would also say one of the rare things you get in this business is to work with somebody again; to get another run on it. You know what I mean?
BIERKO: You know they’re not an ass.
ZIMMER: And when they had said to me that they were going to offer the part to Craig I was like, “I love Craig. Craig is amazing. He’s an incredible actor. He’d be perfect for the part.” Not that he’s a dick or anything.
BIERKO: I was doing a play at Vassar where playwrights will try new scripts. So, I was up there for the summer, and I got this call: “Would you like to do a show for Lifetime?” And my first thought was, “That’s it. It’s going to be me and Jaclyn Smith in a movie called ‘I Can’t Stop Crying’ and I’m her supportive shrink or whatever.” And it wasn’t. They told me about the show. I said, “What is the part? Tell me about the part.” They said, “You’re the devil.” I went, “Okay.”
I read it, and it was so complicated. The more I read it, the more I realized it’s like three-level chess. It wasn’t exactly what I thought it was when I read through it the first time. Everybody had ulterior motives, but also everybody was trying to survive, but also everybody was trying to be happy. It felt like life. I knew Shiri in the same way that I knew Constance, which it wasn’t a deep friendship, but I was familiar with her and familiar with her work, and I trusted a lot of the people involved, and I thought this was the kind of chance worth taking.
At the time, I had put on about 50 pounds. I told them that I didn’t look good. I said, “Usually when I’m like this, I have a month before we start, so I lose the weight and I’ll come back as the guy you remember.” And they said, “Don’t. Read the script. He’s gone to sea, and he’s on his way down.”
After that season, I said I don’t want to walk around with all those jelly donuts on me. I felt awful. And so I went and worked really hard and I got the weight off. I feel more like myself, and they’re great talented writers and they found a way to work it into the script. I only know half of how it’s going to work out, but nothing is ever like it seems. He looks healthy, but I’m sure some of it’s going to be chemically assisted.
Right now, production-wise, where are you guys at?
ZIMMER: We haven’t even started. We go back in March.
But you have some sense of the scripts at this point?
BIERKO: I told you everything I know.
ZIMMER: We’re the last ones to know anything, by the way. And that was the same way in the first season. We would read scripts and go, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
BIERKO: Do you remember this show called “Damages”?
BIERKO: Well, “Damages” I did a couple of episodes on and I was going to be playing with Ted Danson. I knew all my scenes were going to be with Ted Danson. That’s all they told me. The way they wrote it, they didn’t know how any show was going to end. They wrote it week by week. And they never told anybody what was going to happen. And I loved the show. It was like “The Sopranos.” You didn’t know if Tony Soprano was going to buy it that episode, [but] the show would go on.
ZIMMER: We’re given outlines. I know…ish. I know some storylines that are coming into play. I know relationships.
BIERKO: We’re given more than they did on “Damages.” But for me, the less I know the better because that’s the way life is, and I feel more alive. I’d rather be afraid in a scene with her because I don’t really know what’s coming. And I don’t read the next script until I’m done shooting.
ZIMMER: And they do that to us, too, by the way. They tell somebody something that they don’t tell the other person.
That seems unfair.
ZIMMER: It’s actually really good. It was fun knowing things that somebody else didn’t know.
BIERKO: Their job is to pull a performance out of you that they know you’re capable of. So, if they have to shoot a gun off — which is what Hitchcock used to do — then that’s what they’ll do. And I’m all for it.
I want to follow up on something you said, Constance, when I talked to you guys at SXSW, which is you were telling a story about how you had invited a male critic friend of yours to come to the screening and he was like, “Everyone should see this show.” All these months later, have you seen a similar reaction from other critics, or from other men?
ZIMMER: Yes. We were just talking to a guy just now who was what? Maybe in his sixties.
BIERKO: He was in his fifties, I would say.
ZIMMER: He said, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t really remember you guys at the TCAs last year because you were on a Lifetime show and I don’t watch Lifetime. I don’t think I was in the room because I didn’t care.” And he said, “This show was really much under my radar until people that I respected started talking about it.” And he said, “I watched it and I was blown away. And I got my wife and my 30-year-old daughter to watch it, who then became obsessed with it.” And that to me is, he didn’t need to tell me that. He doesn’t even need to tell anybody that he watches it. We were getting not only older men loving it, and saying, “Oh my gosh. You’re opening up this box that we don’t get to look inside all the time.” But also I had “Entourage” fans, 18-year-old boys, that were like, “Oh. it’s on Lifetime. I don’t watch Lifetime.” And they would watch an episode and say, “This is the female ‘Entourage,'” And that I was like, “What?”
BIERKO: That’s great because that kid’s going to go to college and that kid’s going to get a girlfriend and later in life he’s going to rediscover the show. It might not help us now, but this show is going to be around for a while and it will be the first game-changer. It’s going to have its place. And it’s moving women forward in the industry. There’s a whole population of talented women over 28. They actually exist. It takes a long time to affect these changes, but this is a push in the right direction.
Well, I think it changes the concept of — to borrow a catchphrase — television for women. It does break down that kind of assumption.
BIERKO: But I know so many men who watch it. They watch it alone, and they’re not gay. They’re not even necessarily pro-women. Some of them are assholes. It’s just great storytelling.
ZIMMER: And it’s great characters and I do believe that ultimately men were ultimately enjoying seeing flawed women. There was really pretty girls who had incredible bodies on our show, but those weren’t the ones people were talking about. People were talking about the ones that were ugly — ugly personalities. Like people who can seem like something on the outside but are something entirely different on the inside. We weren’t trying to make all these women perfect. Because nobody is perfect. And that’s what I liked about it. It was the facade mixed with the reality of it. Not only on the show, but also behind the scenes. And the men, too. The suitor. He’s beautiful to look at and wonderful to hear talk, but he’s just as evil as we were. So, that’s what was great — who are you rooting for? And I don’t know if anybody knows.
I wanted to wrap up with something that’s fascinating me, which is the fact that it’s January and we’re talking about a show that you’re not even going to be shooting until March, and it’s not going to premiere until June. It used to be that there’d be a specific window of time that you were promoting a show, but does “UnREAL” feel like something you’ve been living with the last year?
ZIMMER: Yes, because it was six months of press leading up to the show. Because we had to be loud. We did billboards where none of us had clothes on. You know what I mean? And so it was six months of press from when we finished to when the show premiered. And then from when the show premiered — June until September…I don’t even remember when our last episode aired.
I think August.
ZIMMER: Was it August? Then there was all of the real-time press we were doing. So, we’ve been living in “UnREAL” ever since we stopped shooting. But it was interesting because it will be almost two years going back.
BIERKO: The world has changed. We’re now living in the world of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. You can generate your own press. It doesn’t cost you any money. There are many who have enjoyed and watched the show. There are many more people who haven’t. The second wave we can create ourselves. If we do it right, when the second season lands more people will have watched it. The word will have spread.
ZIMMER: And it comes out on Hulu, and I think that’s a whole other audience that might not even be aware of the show and doesn’t want to pay for it. You know, I don’t know. But I think that that’s a whole other space and time.
These days when I talk about a TV show with somebody the instinct is, “Where can I watch it right now?” We become demanding in that respect. I think Hulu is going to be a huge explosion for you guys.
ZIMMER: That’s because it’s been off the air. You can buy it on iTunes, but it’s been off the air. It’s not on demand. You can buy it. And I’ve had people on the streets say, “I just finished ‘Agents of Shield,'” and I had this whole new fan base come from “Agents of Shield” that was, “What can we watch you on now?” I said, “Well, have you not seen ‘UnREAL’?” And they were like, “Where do I watch it?” And I said, “I don’t know.” Because I couldn’t find it anywhere. I called all these guys and was like, “What do you mean nobody can watch it? What are you talking about?” And they were like, “Hulu. February 3rd. You can watch all of it at once.” And I was like, “Okay. Alright. Hopefully they will still remember me by then.
BIERKO: I had the same experience — on the unemployment line.
“UnREAL” Season 1 is now available on Hulu.