One of the most recurrent themes I came across while writing online criticisms of the first season of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Lifetime Original drama series Unreal was its depiction of debilitating mental illness, especially through the example of its protagonist Rachel Goldberg, portrayed by lead actress Shiri Appleby. Given the enormous amount of critical praise the first season garnered for its characterization of Rachel as she faces the challenge of resisting toxicity in a workplace unarguably sustained by it, as well as criticisms leveled at the show’s subsequent derailment with regard to these portrayals in later seasons, our class asked Shiri Appleby herself how just how pertinent a priority of portraying mental illness was while filming the show’s first season during a Skype call interview with her last Wednesday (Dec. 12th).
“I saw an article on Sarah Shapiro’s original short [Sequin Raze] on Deadline once and I knew the original actress who portrayed Rachel,” says Appleby when asked as to how she first came to audition for the role of Rachel. “I thought it was so cool and then I got an audition for it a few months later. I went in and interviewed with Sarah Shapiro and Marti Noxon, and then I went in and read for the studio and network, and from there I was signed on.”
When asked what initially attracted her to auditioning for the role of Rachel, Appleby was enthusiastic in relating the dimensions of who she saw as complicated, multi-faceted character. “I’m always looking for someone who I can obviously connect with y’know, so it’s always about the writing,” says Appleby. “The show was really like a fight for her soul in so many ways. She’s a really dark character. So even if you’re acting, you’re still living those emotions. You’re working late at night in Vancouver in the rain. Which y’know, can be kind of a bummer but, I think that sometimes inhabiting a character, having a character say things that are mean to another character, even if it’s not real, can be difficult. So I think that’s really the challenging part of her being a darker character, her world and worldview was darker. It wasn’t the Big Bang Theory. with Rachel, I could just emotionally connect to her in this sense of trying to be stripped down and bare and not like, do anything you would normally wouldn’t do.”
When the interview pivoted to the show’s depiction of mental illness and how much the accuracy of these portrayals were predetermined before and during the filming of Unreal’s first season, Appleby was forthcoming about what she perceived of Rachel’s mental and emotional state and how much forethought really went on behind-the-scenes. “I really chose to say that— to me, there was nothing really wrong with Rachel.” says Appleby. “Rachel was a product of circumstances, she had a really mentally abusive mother, she didn’t have any love, her father was checked out. And so she’s always found herself in a bad situation because she doesn’t have anybody to trust in the world, so I always felt like that part was wrong with her. But to be honest with you I don’t think that, as we were making the first season, it didn’t occur to us it was going to hit quite such a nerve as it did. I think everyone was surprised by that. Before we filmed the first season, I was asking before I signed on what Rachel’s journey was going to be and it was all kind of vague. I think they had an idea, but not really fully-formed.”
Having spoken with the show’s lead actress, in addition to having watched a majority of the first season, the various triumphs and pitfalls of the series’ ongoing portrayal of mental illness now assume an hue of both serendipity and blind luck. The nature of television production is such that, no matter how finely tuned one’s target demographic may be or how tightly honed the show’s on-set production is, one cannot possibly account for how a show will be received until it actually airs, let alone how that show will take on a new meaning and reputation within the discourse of popular culture. Is it possible that as the show continued past the first season, due to the press coverage associated with Unreal’s depiction of mental illness, subsequent seasons began to more tactfully approach its treatment of mental illness as a result of new self-awareness of its place in the cultural moment? Perhaps. But we now know that, for the most part, these depictions were more inspired by decisions in the moment rather than by some great overarching design. Still, that’s not excusing the show’s later missteps with regards to its sensationalist depiction of mental illness, nor does it mean that the show is not subject to criticism from the general public and its audience. As Joss Whedon once said in a 2012 interview, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”