“UnREAL” star Shiri Appleby grew up in the entertainment industry, starting out as a child actor on TV shows in the ’80s before aging into teen dramas and movies in the ’90s. “I’ve been working my whole life,” she recently told IndieWire.
The success that came from starring in Lifetime’s hit original series only strengthened her work ethic – something Appleby shares with Rachel, her power-hungry yet conscious-weary character on “UnREAL.” Rachel wants to be the showrunner on “Everlasting”? Well, Appleby wanted to direct an episode of “UnREAL.” And she did it.
“Growing up, the director was the person in charge — the boss who had all the answers,” Appleby said.
Now, Appleby’s the boss. For tonight’s episode of “UnREAL” — the sixth entry in Season 2, titled “Casualty” — Appleby stepped behind the camera for the third time in her career. But it was more significant than any parallels drawn above: This mattered in the real world.
“Back in the day when I was on The WB, I may have only had one or two female directors throughout the entire run of a series,” said Appleby, who starred on that weblet’s hit show “Roswell.” “And so now, out of a 10 episode run, the fact that I can say we have four female directors? I think that’s a really powerful thing.”
“UnREAL” hired four female directors out of six total for its second season, including Appleby and co-creator Sarah Shapiro. But only Appleby took time during the midseason hiatus gaining real-world experience to better inform her decisions as a director and actress. Appleby arranged to shadow three professional executives: one who worked at Lifetime and two at its parent company, A+E Networks — including CEO Nancy Dubuc.
“I got to see what her job was really like,” Appleby said. “I learned things as simple as if you really have a point of view, and you’re really passionate about something, how much the people at the top of the company want you to fight to get your voice heard. They really want you to have a point of view.”
Appleby said the experience “absolutely” informed her performance as Rachel, the would-be showrunner who takes an interest in network-level machinations during Season 2.
“I think they were being smart, in terms of my performance on the show, by giving me access to see how these companies are actually run because that’s the story we’re telling,” she said. “I have experience with what a showrunner is, but in terms of what the executive’s life is like — which is what Quinn and Rachel are so strongly trying to break into — I didn’t really have any personal experience with that.”
Appleby remains focused on the creative side for now — acting and directing — but also sees how her experience on set can benefit a potential life away from it.
“Right now my focus is really acting and directing,” Appleby said. “But I see the creativity and the work that goes into building a network, and it’s fascinating to me. If those doors open for me… I think just learning as much as I can at this point is really what it’s about.”
Appleby has placed herself in an excellent position to do just that, and she took away quite a bit from her time directing “UnREAL.”
“My episode was the first time we’ve established what Dr. Wagerstein’s segments look like,” Appleby said. “So I was able to create a place for the contestants to show these other sides of themselves. Visually, I needed to make it as interesting as possible. And by hour four, the machine was working. I was getting my footage. And I could feel the actors were really sinking into it and owning it. That was the moment I really felt, ‘OK, I have a grasp on this. I have the handle.’ I felt less intimidated and more confidant when that scene was finished.”
Appleby also noted that it was helpful to her as a director not to be a part of the scene, but considering she’s the star of the show, that wasn’t always the case.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Appleby said, about leading a show as an actress and a director. “My No. 1 responsibility on this show is as an actress, so in scenes when it was more demanding emotionally, I really had to work with our DP and our executive producer/director to explain all the shots I have in mind to visually tell the story, and then kind of turn it over to them a bit so I could focus on being the actress. I’m not going to do the story any service if my acting isn’t strong. I really had to weigh each moment, ‘Who needs me more: the actress or the director?'”
Still, Appleby appreciated the other side quite a bit.
“As an actor, you can have your opinions, but our responsibility is telling the point of view of this one character. So really being able to flesh out the story from page one to page 60 and leave a mark on all the characters was something I really appreciated and valued.”
As for the future, it should come as no surprise Appleby is already gearing up for more challenges.
“I’d definitely like to direct another one,” she said when asked about directing “UnREAL” again in Season 3. “And I’m already talking to other people about being a guest director on other shows and maybe directing a movie. It’s really just a matter of how hard you want to work.”
And clearly, Appleby has no problem putting in the hours.