Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, Emmy-Nominated Writer for ‘UnREAL’

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Emmy-nominee Sarah Gertrude Shapiro talks about her surprise nomination for ‘UnREAL’

One of the biggest surprises of the 2016 Emmy nominations was the inclusion of the critically-acclaimed UnREAL on Lifetime, which received two nominations: one for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Constance Zimmer) and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. But no one was more surprised than Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who received her first nomination for writing on the series (a nomination she shares with Marti Noxon). “I was shocked,” Shapiro said with a laugh. “Not even humble bragging! I had no idea that we were even in the running for that. I think we had been holding out for a very slim hope for Constance [Zimmer], but for the writing nomination, I was totally floored.”

I had a chance to talk with Shapiro about her reality TV background, the short film that inspired UnREAL, and how the show is really the “Battle for Rachel’s Soul.”

You used to work for The Bachelor. How close to “real life” is UnREAL? Are you a particular character on the show?

The show is totally fiction. I’m a writer, first and foremost, before I ever worked in reality TV. But I think the feedback we’ve gotten from people who still work on the show is that it feels very real. The world feels real, but all of the stories are totally dramatic writing. Just made up.

In Sequin Raze, the short film the show is based on, the Ashley Williams character is basically the Shiri Applby character, only their names are slightly different (Rebecca versus Rachel). I wasn’t sure if there was a reason for that, that this character came from reality.  

The Sequin Raze character was very much based on a moment in my life. I think I evolved that character, when we went to series, in terms of rounding her out, and also, when Shiri Appleby came on, she really helped create what Rachel has become now. So I hesitate to say she’s based on me since Rachel has just become Rachel. But her family is way more screwed up than my family is. I have a very nice family! The main thing I identify with in that character is being a person who feels like they’ve sold their soul, and what do you do when you’ve lost your soul, and you realize the cost of your soul is only a paycheck. That was the moment for me when I left The Bachelor. I felt like I had become a person I didn’t recognize. So that is the jumping off point for the whole series for me.

Did you at all consider continuing on with those particular characters and actors in Sequin Raze, with Williams in the “Rachel” role, or even having Anna Camp reprise her role? Was that ever an option? Both Ashley Williams and Anna Camp were great! 

Yeah, for sure. I would have loved to have worked with Ashley and Anna again. Ashley wasn’t available, and Anna wasn’t either. The truth was that when Shiri Appleby came in, she just murdered it to this whole new level and color for Rachel that I hadn’t found in the short. Shiri has this vulnerability and girl-next-door-ness that adds so much likability to Rachel, that it’s really allowed us to get away with crazy stuff for her character. She has so much depth and passion in her eyes. It was hard for me to move past my original casting [with Williams], but as soon as I met Shiri, it was a done deal.

One thing that’s different about Sequin Raze is that there’s no Quinn. The show could have easily just been about Rachel, given the focus of the short film. How did the character of Quinn come about in the writing process? 

It’s funny because there actually is a Quinn in Sequin Raze. She just got cut out. (Laughs.)

I wondered about that. Because there is that one character who’s kind of like her that throws papers in the air. 

I think she had about 12 pages of dialogue that all got cut out, once I got into the edit. I just really focused on what the movie was about, and for me it was about Rebecca and the contestant, the mental Mortal Kombat between these two women. I had written all of this off-the-wall stuff for the control room. She was talking so much shit and cracking jokes. Lily Rains did a great job with the part. When she’s in Ashley Williams’s ear, saying, “Gut this bitch,” that’s the dynamic that I wanted, which was this boss puppeteering her to go darker and darker. But what I found in the short was that I really just didn’t have time for it. And so Quinn did exist; she just got cut out of the short film.

Some may argue that Quinn and Rachel are both leads. Did you know Constance Zimmer was going to become as prominent on the show as she’s become?

Quinn was a really big part of the pilot, so we always knew it was a co-lead situation. But it’s almost on a technicality that she’s supporting. The intention from the beginning was always to have them be the central relationship in the show, so that was not because of casting, but it’s been wonderful to have Constance there helping create that character and build her out.

I find it interesting that Quinn and Rachel don’t respect the women on the show for being man-crazy bubbleheads, and yet in their real lives, they are very easily influenced by men, whether it’s Chet or Jeremy or even this season with Coleman. Is this intentional? Or just ironic?

Heavily intentional. (Laughs) It’s all about the hypocrisy. It’s about them calling the girls on the show stupid and then they actually fall for their own bullshit. The truth is everyone is looking for love, and we’re all vulnerable. Feeling superior and making fun of people for wanting to find love is really just a weak way of hiding from the fact that you really want that, too. One of the things I really felt was important about making the series was this idea that when women destroy other women they destroy themselves. It’s very easy to hide behind the camera and talk shit about the women on the show and it’s very easy to hide on your couch and talk shit about the women on The Bachelor, but what we’re talking shit about is a weakness we all have. We all want to be loved. That’s a really, really important part of the show.

Your show cast a black bachelor before the “real” Bachelor did. Why do you think ABC’s The Bachelor is still behind with this? Do you think this will change? 

It may change. We’ve heard some rumblings of that. I think it’s taken a long time because it’s a really big issue to take on. It promotes a lot of conversation and opens you up to a lot of criticism. But I hope it’s something that they want to do soon.

Season 2 just ended. Can you tell us anything about Season 3 with that big cliffhanger at the end?

We’re working on it. I think the thing that’s exciting for us is that we really left our characters at the bottom of a well and now we have to dig them out, and that was super intentional. From the very start, the idea for the end of Season 2 was for them to be in the darkest place they’ve ever been, and where do they go from there?

So I’m a huge fan, and I’ve often wondered whether the show exists in some kind of purgatory of unredeemable souls. Have you ever thought of your show as like the dating-show version of Lost?

Oh my god. I’ve never heard that before, but I think that’s so fascinating. I love that you call it purgatory because what we talk about a lot on the show, specifically Peter O’Fallon who directed the pilot, is that this is the battle for Rachel’s soul. When we need to calibrate the show, or even a scene or episode, we really do talk about the battle for her soul. Will good or evil win?

The show is very claustrophobic. You almost think of it as existing in a dome. 

The claustrophobia is such a big part of why the contestants go crazy. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome, and they’re trapped. But it’s also why the producers go crazy. It’s super on purpose that Rachel doesn’t have a home. She lives in a grip truck. Nobody has a home. My experience on The Bachelor set was that people really don’t go home, and that’s a big part of why it get so, so intense.

Watch UnREAL from the beginning at Hulu.com. Season 1 is streaming. You can also watch Sequin Raze here.

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