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UnREAL: Shiri Appleby talks directing Casuality episode

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Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

Shiri Appleby pulled double duty in this week’s UnREAL. For the sixth episode of season 2, “Casualty,” the actress — she stars as Rachel Goldberg in the juicy Lifetime drama — stepped behind the camera to direct for only the third time in her career.

“I really want to create a second career for myself as a director,” Appleby tells EW. “I would love to direct pilots. I would love to direct features. I see episodic directing as a way to hone my craft.”

She had her work cut out for her with this dramatic hour: In the episode, Rachel licks her wounds after her confrontation with Jeremy (Josh Kelly) and decides not to go to the police, because Chet (Craig Bierko) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) talk her out of stirring up more behind-the-scenes trouble for Everlasting, much to Coleman’s (Michael Rady) dismay. She veers out of control during a hometown date for Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), who also carries secrets of her own. Back at mansion, the rest of the contestants got to air out some bitchery and backstabbing, while Quinn heads to her father’s funeral, bonds with John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd), and makes a new play to bring down Rachel: She brings Adam (Freddie Stroma) back into the Everlasting fold.

The episode may have provided a lot to juggle, but Appleby says she knew how to work with UnREAL and its show-within-a-show. Below, she shares her memories of directing and acting in the latest installment’s biggest moments.

Early in the episode, Rachel covers up the bruises on her face, arms, and back, before heading in to work. Appleby cut together a series of quick shots of Rachel peering at herself in the mirror.

SHIRI APPLEBY: Putting on the makeup is Rachel’s way of putting on her armor and saying, “I’m going to go back out there and go back onto the show and pretend as if this never happened and move on.” She puts on the makeup with such fierceness, determination, and such focus. It was really interesting to me, even before I received the script for the episode and not knowing where the story was going to go. Rachel is very much a character where so much of it happens in her head. She doesn’t have a confidante where you hear her talk about her feelings. It’s one of the things that is so interesting about playing her, but at the same time, as a director, I visually wanted to tell the story that I could put the audience inside. I used a really fast shutter and jumped the line a few times so you can start to feel the chaos of what’s going on with this person who presents this façade to the world that she’s got everything in control.

It was interesting [to direct myself]. In the beginning, I kept trying to say “action” and “cut,” and that was a little bit too much so I learned to let go and trust my wonderful [assistant director] and just say “action.” It was a lot to figure out in the first few days, but at the same time, the characters have so much going on that I felt like it really ended up adding to the performance.

Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

Appleby had to direct both UnREAL and Everlasting when the fictional reality dating show went south for Beth Ann’s hometown date. In reality, the shoot took place just outside of Vancouver, where UnREAL films.

APPLEBY: The thing that’s really interesting about making our television show versus others is we really shoot it like a play in the sense that we shoot three, four, or five scenes together at one time, with three or four cameras running. Everybody is on camera and constantly performing… It was probably more confusing for other directors that were coming in than for me, because I’ve had a strong hand in developing the way the show is made. I’m there all day every day anyways, so I think I actually had an upper hand.

I wasn’t being put into a situation where I was having to figure things out. I knew the difference [between real crew members and extras dressed to look like crew members], I found places we had never shot in, and I saw how to get the best performances out of the actors. There are a lot of young actors on the show who haven’t worked that much, and this is a big break for them, and so nobody’s teaching them what the different angles are. That was one of the things that was the most exciting to me, to share that and teach that to them. You hope you make them better actors as they go on their way.

Of course, Appleby’s co-star Constance Zimmer is no amateur. Appleby directed the pro in a scene in which Zimmer’s Quinn grabs Jeremy, well, by the balls.

APPLEBY: That’s when we see a tremendous amount of strength out of Quinn but we also see Jeremy’s side of the story, and I wanted to feel his pain and his frustration and his anger… I felt like it was really important that when he hits Quinn back [by saying], “She’s taking the show from you,” he hits Quinn in a way that nobody else has, you know? And I thought that that was really strong, and I thought the two of them played really well together. It’s a very tight space — it was in the camera truck — but at the same time, I could efficiently, visually tell the story that way.

[Constance and I], we’re very good friends, so it was wonderful. We are really strong collaborators together, we have really created so much of the show together, and even when there are other directors on set, I’ll always ask Constance, “Is there something you think I should try? Is there something you think we didn’t hit between the two of them?” She does the same with me, so when it came time for me to direct her, it wasn’t that different from the way we normally behave.

Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

The contestants in the mansion later do an exercise that has them talk about why they think Darius didn’t choose them. The segment spins out of control as they end up insulting each other — and Appleby encouraged ad-libbing brutal dialogue.

APPLEBY: That scene was interesting to me, because I thought it was interesting that Jay and Madison would be going rogue. Madison is the brains, and Jay is the one who actually knows how to put the operation together, so I thought that it was Madison’s version of wanting to watch women be mean to each other and tear each other apart. What was exciting about shooting that it was really an opportunity to show all of the contestants’ personalities.

One of the actresses, Meagan Tandy [who plays Chantal], was like, “Well, my character’s kind of prim and prissy. Am I supposed to be doing that in this scene?” I was able to say no. Like, we wanted to see the ugly versions of them. It’s three-dimensional. She can be ugly and she can be nasty, you know? I was saying to the other girls, there are only a few contestants left and when we feel real competition in life, the thing that we want to do to our competition is tear them down.

And so, there was a lot of improv-ing that scene, because we could let it get nasty, we could see these girls’ personalities more. They weren’t in front of Darius and having to act a certain way — they could just really go for it. That was one of the scenes I found most exciting to shoot, because I was also not in it as an actress. I could really just focus on the directing.

Finally, the tug of war between Quinn and Rachel culminates in a scene showing Quinn alone in her office, while Rachel gets some hot-and-heavy action with Coleman. Appleby chose to film the women in adjacent rooms to show the contrast between the two.

APPLEBY: Right away, when I read the script, I asked the writer if it would be okay to have him go down on her, because I thought it was very interesting how these two women who are so close, that their lives are going off in these opposite directions at the exact same time. When I first started to have a really large interest in directing, the woman who mentored me told me to start watching shows and to write down their shot list, and so when Girls had just come on the air, I decided to do it with Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s first feature, and she did a scene where it was two different rooms in the same frame. I drew a lot of inspiration from that, and then I just used a pan to create a nice effect.

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