“Who doesn’t love to play a good bitch?”
Chances are you recognize Arielle Kebbel from one of her supporting roles on huge shows like The Vampire Diaries, Gilmore Girls, 90210, or Ballers, but it’s her no-holds-barred performance as the reality show villain Britney on UnREAL that’s really caught our eye this year.
It’s pretty common knowledge that every great reality show is made greater by a villain. Survivor had Jonny Fairplay, The Apprentice had Omarosa, and The Hills had Spencer. For UnREAL‘s made-up dating competition Everlasting, that role is forced upon Britney by the producers, but she later embraces it when it gets her a ticket to the finale. We caught up with Kebbel to talk about what goes into playing a reality show villain, and how people have responded to Britney.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I found out that you hate The Bachelor, which is clearly a huge part of UnREAL. Why did you audition for this show?
ARIELLE KEBBEL: Because of that very reason. What a brilliant opportunity to expose so much. It’s true to reality. How funny is that?
What was the audition like?
It was a couple pilot seasons ago. I read the script and I was obsessed, and I actually went in for Shiri [Appleby]’s role. I was aware of [show creator] Sarah [Shapiro] — I’d seen her short film Sequin Raze and I knew the tone they were going for. When I walked into the room, it was full of women, and I just was like “This is awesome.”
What was your reaction when you found out that instead of playing the lead role of Rachel you’d be playing the “token bitch” contestant?
I was thrilled. Who doesn’t love to play a good bitch? For me, there’s certain shows where I wouldn’t be able to just jump from character to character like that. But with this particular show, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of telling this story. I had a feeling about this show; I felt that it was an important story to tell. For me, there’s moments when you fight for a certain character, and there’s other moments where you fight to be part of the story. This is one where I wanted to be part of the story.
Britney isn’t really just a straight-up villain, though. We see her human side come out after she’s been eliminated.
What I love about Britney was that they really let me play her with layers. They let me show how human she was. Britney had to feel like the world was against her every step of the way, so whether she was being sarcastic or trying to one-up Rachel or whatever, it was always because she felt that the world was against her and she had something to prove. And I also had to keep in mind that only hurt people hurt other people. That was a really important phrase for me that I kept every day on set, almost like a mantra. It’s a fun moment to label Brtiney as a bitch, but in reality she really wasn’t a bitch at all, so I had to remind myself, “Hurt people hurt people.” That really helped bring up the vulnerability for me.
What has the reaction been like to you as Britney? Do you get stopped often and recognized as Britney?
Definitely people have stopped me. One of the times that I was most caught off-guard was I was coming out of the bathroom stall recording for American Dad, and I guess I didn’t think that in the offices for American Dad they would know about UnREAL. But they did, and luckily they were very complimentary, so that was a nice moment for me. Honestly, I never do a character thinking about a fan’s reaction, but I’m always flattered when I know a character has made an impact, and clearly with the response, Britney has. Because we’ve all been there: screwed over in your job or in a relationship. Things that happen to Britney happen to all of us. We’ve all felt manipulated from time to time, but my God, can you imagine if it was on television in front of millions of people? Most of us have the luxury of where it’s behind closed doors, she didn’t. And I think that vulnerability of feeling played everyone can relate to, and I think that’s another reason why people really got that moment.
Britney is so ruthless. Was there anything written for her that you couldn’t bring yourself to say or do because it was just too harsh?
I had a hard time with the spitting scene. We actually talked about it a lot in rehearsal, and I was like, “What if I throw my shot glass at her” but everyone was said, “You have to spit, you have to spit. It seals the deal in that moment.” And I give them credit because when I was in the moment and the cameras were rolling, I actually had no problem doing it, but the idea of it was so hard for me to wrap my head around.
Yeah, that’s a really intense moment.
It’s ultimate humiliation on Rachel and Britney, and I think spitting on her seals the deal. But that was really hard. I’ve never spit on anyone! The ironic thing is I box in real life. I have no problem boxing but I can’t spit on someone.
Was there anything you did to get in the character mindset for Britney?
I chose to pretty much stay in character the whole time I was on set, and I chose that for two reasons. The first was, I knew Britney: Britney’s the type of girl where stuff would just fly out of her mouth. A lot of the moments you see are actually improv, and God bless Sarah and Lifetime, they let me keep them in there. In the last episode, when I ask the woman where she got the champagne in the church, that’s improv. I knew to really bring Britney to life, I had to be free enough to just let stuff fly out of my mouth whether it was scripted or not, and I knew if I was breaking character in between takes, it wouldn’t have the same flow. So that was one reason I chose to stay in character the whole time, and another was that I’ve never shot a show where there were so many damn cameras! We had our real cameras and then we had the show’s cameras, and I never knew what the hell they were filming when. I just thought, “If they’re ever going to use a moment from the reality show camera, I want to be sure I’m always in character.”
That sounds so stressful, to always be in character.
It was really exhausting. There were days when I thought I was going to get fired, but I thought, “You know what? I might as well be proud getting fired being in character.” I feel very blessed that they obviously didn’t fire me and enjoyed what I did.
I know the writers’ room only just opened for season 2, but do you know if Britney will be back for the next season?
I know I’m very excited to watch season 2. I know anything can happen, but regardless I’ll be rooting the new contestants on. Sarah knows I’m proud of the show, I love Britney, and I will always come back if that’s in the cards.