While production on season two of Lifetime drama series UnReal moves forward in Vancouver, casting director Barbara Fiorentino looks back on a journey that began two and a half years ago. Set in the world of reality TV, UnReal explores the tactics used by the producers of Everlasting, a Bachelor-type dating program, to manipulate their contestants into destructive behavior, causing devastating consequences for all involved in the pursuit of quality entertainment.
A fan of co-creator Marti Noxon, with whom Fiorentino had previously collaborated on the 2005 series Point Pleasant, as well as co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s 2013 SXSW-premiering short film, Sequin Raze, on which the series is based, Fiorentino found in UnReal a mirror to her own beliefs about reality television.
With UnReal, and its meta projection of a show within a show, Fiorentino saw the possibility for a revealing look at the ugly reality behind reality television, as the lens is turned around and the creator becomes the subject. Admittedly, Fiorentino is a little biased; her aversion to reality TV stems, to a certain degree, from her professional responsibilities as an actor’s advocate. “I kind of had a bee in my bonnet about air space being taken up by real people when there are wonderful actors out there who needed jobs,” she says.
On another level, Fiorentino is concerned with the consequences that arise when a society buys into the fantasy sold by this kind of entertainment. “From the start, I’ve had an issue with reality television, and even more so with dating shows, just because I think it exploits women, and men as well—and just the idea of intimacy and love, and how that can evolve,” she says.
In casting UnReal, the mission was to be as authentic as possible, almost in reaction to the synthetic shenanigans conjured up on screen. In this case, that meant finding the right balance of heavyweight actors and relative newcomers, with an emphasis on fresh faces. When casting the show’s lead roles—which went to Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko—the creators asked for actors with the requisite skills and experience to handle very challenging, very dramatic material, and who also weren’t necessarily household names.
“[The viewer] might remember that they saw them on something, but they’re also the kind of actors that can embody characters in such a way that you forget the other roles that they’ve played,” says Fiorentino. Also vitally important, even among newer actors, was the command of a certain range. “Having that ability to weave comedy into drama is so specific, and a lot of people can’t do it,” she says. “If you don’t have that in this show, you run the risk of losing an entire layer of the piece.”
Rising to that challenge in the role of young, mentally ill TV producer Rachel Goldberg was Shiri Appleby, who, like her character on screen, has a very particular set of skills. “She’s soulful and she’s powerful, and she also has this ability to be vulnerable—even playing Rachel, who does some really questionable things,” Fiorentino says.”
Though Fiorentino was a long-time fan of Appleby’s, seeing in her previous roles the promise of something great, the casting director stresses that Appleby had to work as hard for the role as anyone else. “She fought for this part, and did so with zest and passion. She gave no one a choice,” she says. Fiorentino doesn’t let herself off the hook, either, continuing to strive to rise to the level of great material. “I’ve found in my career that when roles are this well written, it’s almost more challenging to find the right people to do them justice. But that’s exciting. It’s like putting a puzzle together,” she says.
Working with casting director Karina Walters on the show’s second season, now mid-way through production, Fiorentino can’t wait for viewers to see how it all plays out. “I’m so excited, and I think viewers are going to be just as hooked on this season, if not more,” she says.
Season 2 of UnReal airs June 6 on Lifetime.