9:00am PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
'UnREAL': Lifetime Names Stacy Rukeyser Showunner
Lifetime has tapped a new showrunner for UnREAL.
The network has appointed Stacy Rukeyser, an executive producer who’s been with the show since the beginning, to oversee the third season of the Emmy-nominated drama. She takes over for Carol Barbee, a veteran producer who served as UnREAL's showrunner last season.
Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the series — which offers a fictionalized look behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality dating show — has long been the subject of rumors about behind-the-scenes turmoil. But Rukeyser, who was Noxon’s very first hire on the show, has been a stable force in the otherwise tumultuous creative process.
Rukeyser served as a co-executive producer during the first season before she was upped to exec producer in the drama's second outing. The writers' room for the new season started up in Los Angeles about a month ago, with the series set to begin production in February in Vancouver. Season three will debut in summer 2017.
In addition to a Peabody Award, the show starring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer recently nabbed Emmy nominations in the drama writing category for Noxon and Shapiro, as well as a supporting actress in a drama mention for star Zimmer.
Ahead of the network’s announcement, The Hollywood Reporter talked with Rukeyser about the show's offscreen drama, season two criticisms and what’s in store for season three.
Having been with the show from the start, how does it feel to step into this new position?
The truth of the matter is I’m totally thrilled to have this opportunity because UnREAL means so much to me. I’ve been with UnREAL from the very first episode, and working on it has been honestly one of the best creative experiences of my life. To get a chance to write truthfully about these complicated, damaged women who are full of contradictions and ambition — as we all are — has really been a dream come true for me. And to do so in a way that is still this incredibly entertaining story with so much humor and all these twist and turns and exciting “oh my god” moments. Now, after two seasons on the frontlines, I do feel like I know our characters and our show so intimately that I’m just excited to have the opportunity to lead us into the next chapter.
Did you slowly transition into the role of showrunner or is this a sudden move?
It’s definitely not a slow transition. They asked me to do it. And I had to prove myself to a lot of people. But I had been really intimately involved with writing the show from the beginning. And I’ve been a TV writer for 14 years and for the last seven of those years, I have been working as a No. 2 to a lot of really incredible creators and showrunners, including Marti Noxon. I worked with her on another show before UnREAL. I was her No. 2 on Gigantic, a [Nickelodeon] show we did back in 2009 and 2010. Other people who were incredible mentors to me, like Glenn Mazarra and Chuck Pratt, I learned so much from them. It's great to have this opportunity to take what I’ve learned and use it in UnREAL.
Is Sarah Gertrude Shapiro still intimately involved in the show?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Sarah is an executive producer on the show, and she and I are in the trenches together. And I would just say also about Marti that there would be no UnREAL without Marti Noxon or Sarah Shapiro. Everything that Marti brought is so embedded in the show’s DNA, it’s so crucial to our characters and our story as we move forward. What’s exciting about the third season is we’re going even deeper into Rachel’s [Appleby] character and her emotional journey, and that path for that journey has been laid by both Marti and Sarah from the moment that they wrote this pilot script that I fell in love with. Sarah and I are both really excited to take all of our characters on to that next journey.
And Carol Barbee is no longer involved?
She is not involved at all. I think she has her own show, actually.
Noxon has said that she isn’t returning to the series this season. What can you say about your relationship with her and her role on the show?
What I would say about Marti is sort of what I said, that there wouldn’t be an UnREAL without her, and that she is so embedded in the show’s DNA that everything we do moving forward is from that. But that said, she has a lot of other shows going on. That’s what her focus is on. I just want to say about the controversy or drama or whatever that it takes complicated women to make a show about complicated women. And I include myself in that description. Complicated women are kind of having a moment right now because one is even running for president, as uncomfortable as that seems to make much of America. But it is very exciting to be a part of that cultural moment. We are all passionate storytellers, and in a room full of creative people, passions can definitely run high, and that is often an integral part of any creative process. From day one, what we have been interested in doing on the show is telling stories of two incredibly real, two incredibly flawed women with scads of ambition, both personally and professionally. And that is very personal to us as well, and that is what makes it so exciting to do.
The show has been rumored to have some behind-the-scenes turmoil. What’s your approach to dealing with drama amongst the show’s creatives?
I don’t believe that you need to be a crazy, tortured artist in order to make good art. I don’t subscribe to that. I do think that one of my goals — and I believe this is one of the reasons that they looked to me — is to make it a smooth, well-running show that’s a great environment for everyone who’s working on it. That said, I’m still a complicated woman, Sarah’s still a complicated woman, our actresses, our characters — that stuff for me is gold. You don’t want to just shave off all of the sharp edges because then you get a lesser product. You want to take all of the passion and crazy ideas and just funnel it into something that is really meaningful.
How will the upcoming season be different from the previous one?
We’re just working this out right now and pitching to the studio and network. But I know what we all want to do — the network included — is really take the time to go deeper with our characters. In season two, I think we took some really big swings and were really proud of that. It’s not only really important for us to engage in the journey of our characters but also to engage with the cultural moment. That is similar to what we’re going to continue to do in season three, but in new and provocative ways. And to continue telling stories that I believe are incredibly relevant.
How do you see the show’s tone and voice?
There’s a pendulum on the show that swings between big swings, “oh my god” moments, exciting twists and turns and then the deeper, really vulnerable, really dark, personal character moments. And I think we find our way in the balance of those two things. But in this season, we want to make sure that for as much fun and excitement that we have, it’s also balanced with really going deep with Rachel and Quinn [Zimmer] and really all of our characters. And just to really take our time with that because I felt like there was a lot of story in season two, and now a lot of that stuff still needs to be dealt with — the ramifications and the repercussions. [We want to] really take our time and have a whole season to explore the ramifications of some of the things that happened.
How would you describe your showrunning style?
What’s really important to me is to create an environment where everybody who is so vital to the show knows that and feels appreciated and rewarded for their work. It’s great that this show has created such a buzz and is talked about, and it’s exciting to be on a show like that, but I would want everyone to have that experience even if we were on a show that no one was watching and talking about. But it’s exciting to be on a show that is having that cultural moment. So everybody should get to revel in that and celebrate that because everyone is such a big part of it. More specifically in the writers' room, I feel that the way that I am is that everybody feels heard and everybody feels valued. And then, yes, I’m the one who has to say at the end of the day, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re not doing.” But it’s really important to me to create a good working environment with a team feeling. And that goes for the actors as well. We shoot in Vancouver and the writers are down here in L.A., so it’s very easy to feel separated. I’m making much more of an effort to make sure that we have a writer on set with our actors and figuring out other ways to have a lot more communication between the writers and the actors so that we’re all on the same team, we all know what we’re doing and we’re all working toward the same goal. And I do feel like since I’ve been here on the frontlines, I really know what makes a good episode of UnREAL at this point. So I’m just hoping to guide everybody to that same goal.
In terms of structuring the season, how do you go about it?
We always do it the same way, which is sitting within our characters and trying to write from their emotional truth. We look at the Rachel and the Quinn storylines before anything else, and try to go from there. What seems honest and emotionally truthful in terms of what these women want? But the other thing is that our show does pull back the curtain on reality television. These two women are still front and center, but it is still within that context. I think that’s part of the reason the show was so [appealing] to people because it’s an interesting time right now where I feel like people are ready to peel away at the layers of illusion in their entertainment, even as they continue to consume that entertainment. But I don’t think that people are consuming it in the same way or with the same expectations or with the same sort of buy-in to the fantasy.
What do you mean by that?
I just think it’s really interesting this cultural moment that we’re in right now. It’s kind of a reality TV moment with our presidential election and it’s not just because Donald Trump starred on his own reality show. it just feels like we could all be on a reality show. They’re all sort of throwing all this lunacy at us trying to get us to have good reactions for the camera. What we are going for, which I think people suspect is true, is that there’s always a lot more going on beneath the surface then you could ever guess. And what the consequences are in that, not only for us as viewers and as a culture, but for the people who are involved in making that and that toll. It’s just so exciting to be able to get to write women like that. It’s so rare. I’ve been on enough shows to know when you get this kind of an opportunity just to love it as much as you can because it’s so exciting. And it wouldn’t have been possible five years ago. I think there is a real moment now where these anti-heroines are interesting to people and acceptable to put on to television and to be a part of that is just really thrilling.
What other misconceptions about women are you taking on?
We hope to reveal things not only about our characters and their journeys but also sort of about ourselves and about our culture. We do look within the context of “Everlasting” for what we’re saying. For example, in the first season it was all about the princess fantasy and how these kind of shows perpetuate the princess fantasy and the absolute myth that is the princess fantasy. And I personally feel that there’s a lot more to be said about that. I don’t think we’re done because that, to me, is the most dangerous thing that these reality dating shows do, which is to perpetuate this myth that there is some perfect prince charming out there waiting for you. And also, “Here is how you should be or look or behave in order to get that person.” I do think that women, young and old, look at that around America and that imprints on their brains and is an incredibly dangerous thing. So we’re also [exploring] what the next thing is to be said about that.
As you’re mapping out season three, do you envision it looking more like season one or season two?
Listen, I’m very proud of season two as well. I think that one of the things that’s so fun about the show is the chance to write these big “oh my god” moments. And there were plenty of them in season one, too. I remember when we decided that Mary [Ashley Scott] was going to jump off the roof in episode six, and it wasn’t even going to be at the end of the season. It was like, “Wow, that’s a big swing, that’s a big chance.” And she’s dead. That was huge. Or even when Adam [Freddie Stroma] had sex with the politician’s wife in episode six and Chet [Craig Bierko] was watching and Rachel saw it. I remember us coming up with those moments, and those things are amazing and fun and will always be a part of the show. I do feel like season two had a bunch of those moments, too. They were darker, perhaps. I feel like we definitely want to have some of those moments, but we are also really wanting to have some of those darker character moments, some of which were private moments in season one. You would just see Rachel alone and see how this was weighing on her. Or you would just see Quinn and Rachel, and we just want to make sure that we slow down the storytelling enough to really have those moments, and not just sort of be going from plot point to plot point to plot point.
One criticism of season two was that there were too crazy moments without enough reflection. Do you feel the pacing was too fast?
I will say that there were a lot of things that were brought up that I don’t feel have been fully dealt with, and that I really want to explore in season three. So I guess to that extent you could say, yeah, I don’t think that they were fully explored yet in season two. Listen, you have a choice when you go into season three: Are you just going to drop all of those things and pretend that they didn’t happen? Or are you going to really go for it and explore them and explore the ramifications of them, and that’s sort of the direction that we’re going in. However you look at it, I feel like Rachel and Quinn had been moved ahead in their journey by the end of season two, and I feel we’re left in a really interesting place — a very low, dark place, but a place that’s a very good place to jump off from. And also, one of the things structurally that I want to make sure of is that when we have a contestant have a big story in an episode that it’s not the same episode in which they’re voted off. Because in season one, for example, Anna’s [Johanna Braddy] first big episode was the one when her father dies and Rachel withholds it from her, and it was this big thing. But you then were with Anna until episode 10, so you got to live with the ramifications of that not only on herself but on Rachel as well. I think that that’s really interesting and that’s definitely a structure I’m looking to get back to for season three.
Appleby and Shapiro both directed episodes last season. Is that something that you encourage more women on the show to do?
We are definitely very female-friendly, and it is important to us to find female directors, but we did not give out these directing slots as charity. Shiri came in and she was so prepared, I can’t even describe it. She’s directed before, some short-format stuff, but her stuff was great. She shadowed all of these other directors and she was so clear in what she wanted to do. It would have been crazy not to give her that chance. She really earned it, and then she knocked it out of the park with her directing. Same thing for Sarah. She didn’t get [the opportunity to direct] in the first season and she’s really proved herself. That’s how it works on this show. You’ve got to prove yourself to a lot of people, like I said.