'UnREAL' Co-Creator Reveals Constance Zimmer Originally Turned Down the Role of Quinn

"She turned us down, like, 16 times," Sarah Gertrude Shapiro said Saturday at the ATX Television Festival.
James Dittiger/Lifetime Television

Now that UnREAL is going into season two, its nearly impossible to picture anyone but Constance Zimmer playing cutthroat Everlasting producer Quinn King.

But at an ATX Television Festival panel for the Lifetime series Saturday, co-creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro revealed Zimmer originally said no to the project, for which she won a Critics Choice award earlier this year.

"She turned us down, like, 16 times," Shapiro said of the actress, who was her first choice for the role.

Subsequently, a different actress was cast in the role for the original pilot, shot in 2013. "We had someone else playing Quinn, so we've seen what that's like and I never want to go back there," she continued. "No offense to the actress, but it was just wasn’t the right thing."

The opposite was true for Shiri Appleby, who plays Quinn's right-hand woman and protege, Rachel. UnREAL was originally based on a short film Shapiro made called Sequin Raze, and the writer-producer admitted she originally had her heart set on convincing the actress who played Rachel's part in the short, Ashley Williams, to come onboard the series.

However, Appleby quickly won her over during their first meeting.

"It was so natural to her and there was also so much kindness in Shiri," Shapiro said. "In the casting of Rachel, Shiri is such an incredibly good person and I think you just feel that ache in her. … We’ve been able to get away with stuff with her that would have been harder with a different casting decision."

Executive producer Stacy Rukeyser said there were a lot of conversations early on about understanding Rachel. One important piece of advice in that process came from her mentor, former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, who said "vulnerability" was the key to cracking more unlikable female characters.

"Quinn and Rachel have giant hearts so it was a question of seeing that," she explained. Subsequently, the episode in which Rachel goes home to visit her mom became episode three rather than episode eight, "so you can get a window into Rachel a little bit more," Rukeyser said.

(Shapiro, however, said she and co-creator Marti Noxon "put a ban on the word 'likability' early on.")

Another character that changed from the original conception of the series was Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman's Jay. The part was originally written as straight, but Shapiro and Noxon changed it to more closely reflect Bowyer-Chapman.

Jay's unique position on the show-within-the-show will factor heavily into his trajectory this season. "Jay really goes on a journey this year and its been such a fun exploration — playing a gay producer of color in this world where he is really the only one who exists," the actor says. "He really has no allies, no one who has his back."

And this year, Jay and the rest of the Everlasting team have new competition in Madison (Genevieve Buechner), who proved herself a surprise force in the season-two premiere.

"She was kind of thrust into producer and its going to be challenging for her," Buechner said. "That transition is very fascinating."

Madison moves up to the place once filled by Shia (Aline Elasmar), who is not returning for season two. Shapiro explained the exit was purely because of storytelling purposes. "Rachel needed a new love interest more than a nemesis," she said. "She was great, but we kind of felt like her storyline was done."

Now that Rachel has moved up in season two, that leaves room for one of the other producers, either Madison or Jay, to take her old role, Shapiro said. "As Rachel becomes Quinn, somebody needs to become Rachel."

But Shapiro promises the mentorship between Rachel and Quinn will remain "complicated" despite both of their rises in power from last season.

Looking ahead, Shapiro was tight-lipped on spoilers but said she was excited for fans to see what's to come, particularly the season finale. "We had permission to go so hard, balls to the wall," she said of season two. "The ending — I'm very excited about that."

UnREAL airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.

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