'UnREAL' Star Constance Zimmer on Almost Rejecting Lifetime, Spoofing Hollywood and the Gender Pay Conversation (Q&A)
"I said no a lot to Lifetime, so bless them for always coming back to me," says the actress, who stars as a brutal executive producer of a 'Bachelor'-esque reality TV show on the network's breakout series.
This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Nobody expected summer's watercooler series to come from Lifetime — least of all Constance Zimmer. The actress initially said no to UnREAL and the part of Quinn King, a brutal executive producer and puppet master behind a Bachelor-esque dating show. But somewhere between her passing on the original pilot and UnREAL becoming one of cable's 2015 breakouts, Zimmer came on board. She's quite happy with the change of heart. The show brought raves, particularly for the 45-year-old actress known for playing tenacious TV women on Entourage and House of Cards. Here, the married mom of one daughter sounds off on the appeal of UnREAL, her own tolerance for reality TV and the dialogue about equal pay in Hollywood.
Were you hesitant about the show being on Lifetime?
To be perfectly honest, when it came to me, I said, "I'm not doing a show on Lifetime!" I didn't even read it. It was shooting in Atlanta, and I didn't want to be away from my family, so I had a lot of reasons not to even address it. They shot the pilot, which I wasn't part of, the show got picked up and they realized that they needed a do-over. [Former Lifetime development senior vp] Nina [Lederman] came back to me and said, "Listen, you have to give us a chance. We're all trying to evolve. In order to do that, we need people like you to come on board and say yes." And I was like, "What? That's a lot of pressure."
The promotional campaign for the show included billboards of the cast naked. What was your initial reaction to that?
Once again, I said no. (Laughs.) I said no a lot to Lifetime, so bless them for always coming back to me. I kept thinking, "I don't want to be naked on a billboard. I'm a mom. I'm over 40." We all took a leap of faith, and it worked. People talked about it.
You've never been part of any reality TV. Did you have to do any research?
I did watch more reality television than ever before. I needed to understand the genre and what the show was about, because I would read the scripts and they sounded so unfathomable. That was my research, being a viewer and trying to put myself in the position of the producer and questioning what was real and what was fake. As far as the actual character Quinn, I made her a combination of a bunch of people I've worked with or met or heard stories about — men and women and not just necessarily people in the business. She's a strong woman who has a job to do. It may be a sucky job, but she happens to be really good at it.
What shows did you watch?
I watched The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, of course, and the Kardashians. That was pretty much all I needed. (Laughs.)
Reality binges can be fatiguing.
I was always doing it on my flights to and from work, and I always felt like I had to say to the person next to me, "This is research." There was a little part of me thinking, "Am I being judged right now? I kind of feel like I'm being judged."
You're never more culturally vulnerable than when you're next to somebody on a plane.
I felt super responsible in telling people, and nine out of 10 times they would say, "You know, I'm glad you said that, because you don't seem like the type of person who would watch these shows." That is an interesting conversation. Why don't I seem like that kind of person? It's an interesting way to get people's outside perspective [of] the genre.
Both your character and Shiri Appleby's could be described as antiheroes. Why do you think, until recently, roles like that on TV were almost exclusively written for men?
I've been in the fortunate position of playing these strong, snarky female characters since Dana Gordon on Entourage. That was over 10 years ago, and a lot of those types of characters didn't exist. I don't think people knew how much they were going to be embraced. Everybody is flawed, not just men. I find that people nowadays want characters on television that they can relate to in one way or another, and we can't all relate to the pretty girls who are like, "I don't have a boyfriend!" I think it's kind of all coming up at the same time: the conversation about feminism, what it is and what it means. I hope it continues, because I really think that these characters have so much going on that you can get to the bottom of "Why are they so angry?" or "Who hurt them?" That's what everyone asks me about Quinn. "Who hurt her?" I don't think anybody did. I think she hurt herself by diving into her career and not necessarily thinking about what it was going to do to her personal life. That's what I find interesting to play, too: women who are in their positions by choice.
What's your take on the growing conversation about actresses being paid less than their male co-stars?
I love that it's public. I do believe that it has to be talked about, because as actors, as people in the business, we're given a platform. And from that platform, we can talk about stuff, and at least people will be made aware of situations like that. If we don't talk about it, then there are these hidden emails of people writing things and then getting exposed. If you just tell it to someone's face, everything would be so much better.
UnREAL and Entourage have both been successful at spoofing Hollywood, which is a subgenre a lot of people fail at. Why do you think they both work?
When Entourage came out, there wasn't Twitter or any of this access to celebrities. Entourage, for me, let you inside of a world that nobody really knew about. And obviously, television shows are always kind of an exaggerated version of the truth, but it was a fun world to dive into. Now that there's a lot more awareness of people's personal lives, I don't even know if a show like that would work as well. It was definitely speaking to an audience that was so craving more information about the lives of celebrities — and that bromance, the friends lifting each other up. On UnREAL, it shows you the opposite. Reality television is all about putting people up to tear them down. And yet, at the core of the show is one of the most intense relationships between two women that you'll see on television.
The arc of the Bachelor-esque show playing out in the first season is incredibly specific. Were you anxious about what they'd come up with for the second season?
The great news is that there are a lot of reality and dating competition shows that have been around for a long time. There are so many stories out there to be told. We were completely shocked — and overwhelmingly excited — by the reaction from the press and the critics. I don't think it was anything we ever anticipated. So going into the second season, I'm excited. Everything we were scared to do, or thought was too dark, I think we can do. We can go there and know people want to see it.