With its glossy, bubble-gum, reality television exterior, UnReal was easy to dismiss when it premiered on Lifetime in 2015. But as audiences soon found out, this show had something much darker and meatier boiling beneath the surface.
UnReal takes viewers behind the scenes of a fictitious Bachelor-like dating reality show called Everlasting. Far more than a mere parody, UnReal, whose first season earned it a Peabody Award amongst other honours, uses this seemingly “low culture” platform to look into the dark underbelly of entertainment and provide biting social commentary on issues surrounding fame, gender, mental illness, addiction, inequality, and race.
At the centre of the chaos is Quinn King, Everlasting’s cutthroat, scheming, manipulating, and ratings-chasing executive producer. Played by Constance Zimmer (who earned a Critics’ Choice Award in 2016, and an Emmy nomination in 2017, for her portrayal), Quinn is multifaceted to say the least, at once heartless and full of heartbreak.
Zimmer has made a career out of playing acid-tongued, bossy, powerful, and tough-as-nails women, but she was still hesitant at first to join the UnReal team, initially turning down the role of Quinn before eventually signing on to Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (an ex-Bachelor producer) and Marti Noxon’s Vancouver-filmed show.
What was originally more of a dark horse in the TV world gained enough of a following in seasons one and two that Lifetime was willing to greenlight season four before the third had even begun. So even though season three has now finished airing (it premiered in February 2018 to, admittedly, lukewarm reviews, and ended in April), fans have the satisfaction of knowing that their beloved show will be back for another round.
“I definitely don’t think we thought we’d be four seasons in and people are still just as excited about it and hungry for it now as they were after the first season aired. That’s always such a huge compliment, because you don’t realize it,” Zimmer says, seated in a corner of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia’s lounge the day before she wraps filming season four. “We work in a cave and we’re here, away from our families and Los Angeles…and you’re just like, ‘Am I acting to nothing? I don’t know, what’s going on out there?’ So yes, I’m very surprised, but obviously pleasantly surprised.”
Season three was also a milestone of sorts for Zimmer, who directed an episode—the first of her career. “Doing it for the first time, I can’t really imagine doing it anywhere else except on this show,” she says. “Because I know all these characters so well and so intimately, and I know the set so well, so none of that was overwhelming.” Occasionally, though, she admits, she’d forget to yell cut—overlooking that she was, in fact, the person running the show, not merely a character in it. Then there was the comical matter of who exactly was yelling cut. “The character I’m playing is the executive producer/director of the show,” Zimmer explains with a smile. “So when I’m dressed as Quinn and I’m in the scene, I’m being Quinn—but then when I’m also the director of UnReal, it becomes very meta.”
Aside from Quinn, Zimmer’s career has had her play fast-talking characters like Dana Gordon (Entourage), Rosalind Price (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Janine Skorsky (House of Cards; she revives that role for the show’s sixth and final season, premiering in the fall). But these harsh, no-nonsense women couldn’t be further from the real Zimmer, who is warm, chatty, laidback, and personable—a quick friend to those who enter her orbit. She’s no doubt kind to animals. More likely than not, she’d be eaten alive by the very same characters she has become known for.
“It’s been very shocking that I have fallen into these characters that are just very unfiltered and don’t really care what anybody has to say,” she admits. For Zimmer, it was Dana Gordon in particular who started her on this path. “That, I think, was really the first woman that was allowed to be a woman and be strong and hold her own against a very big dominating male character,” she reflects. “I think that’s where it all came from. And I’m grateful for it.”
Part of what elevates these characters from caricatures into well-rounded human beings isn’t their strength, though—it’s their underlying emotion. And that is the aspect of these personalities that Zimmer relates to the most. “I think the only part of them that is me is actually the vulnerability that’s hiding underneath,” she admits. “That is really who I am, and all that other stuff is being layered on top to hide that.”
“It’s been very shocking that I have fallen into these characters that are just very unfiltered and don’t really care what anybody has to say.”
Zimmer, who grew up in Seattle, now lives in Los Angeles—but Vancouver has no doubt become her second home during her tenure on UnReal. “Everybody’s so nice, and you get to see seasons,” she says. “I’d like to see the sun a little bit more. But I do love it when it’s changing seasons and we’re here for that. And the leaves and the crispness and you have the mountains, the beach, and the city life right in the middle. It’s pretty great as far as that goes.”
A self-professed “crazy foodie” who can’t get her coffee “just anywhere,” she credits many of her Vancouver culinary discoveries to wandering down unfamiliar streets and peeking into windows, and counts herself as a regular at many of the city’s restaurants and cafes. “I gotta go to my places,” she says. “I gotta go say hi to my waiters.” She particularly loves AnnaLena, Nook, and Legendary Noodle. “Legendary Noodle only has 10 tables and they pull the pasta right in front of you, they make it fresh to order,” she gushes. “It’s insane. I do love Café Medina, but I don’t like it enough to stand in line in the rain. So I’ll get my lavender latte and my waffle to go.” Other favourites of hers include Matchstick coffee in Chinatown and Greenhorn cafe in the West End.
It’s goodbye to her Vancouver haunts for now, though, as Zimmer gets ready to pack up her life here and head home to California—where the real Bachelor mansion is located. And although she has never been one to follow reality TV, Zimmer certainly understands the appeal. “What I think people love about reality television is they feel like they’re a fly on the wall,” she suggests. “That’s why you get into it, because you feel like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to be seeing, right?” By extension, she argues, it’s this same obsession with what’s behind the scenes that attracts fans to the twists and turns of UnReal.
The show actually takes it one step further, though, allowing viewers not only into the whimsical world of a romance contest, but also into the lives of the crew who work off-camera to make it all seem (somewhat) believable. The drama, the gossip, the fantasy—it’s all still there. But something bigger is, too.
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