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Exclusive Interview with UnREAL’s Craig Bierko

 

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Craig Bierko’s resume speaks for itself. Having worked with some of the industries biggest names from Valerie Bertanelli to Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe. He’s also been featured in popular TV series such as Damages and Hot in Cleveland.

Bierko currently stars as Chet, Constance Zimmer’s leading opposite in Lifetime’s UnREAL. Audiences follow the sexy and arrogant creator as he works through the trials and tribulations of maintaining his show and their producers.

Read our interview with Craig below, and tune into the final two episodes of UnREAL, Monday’s at 10/9c on Lifetime.

How did you get involved with UnREAL? What was your audition process like?

“I’ve got to say I was very fortunate in that at the time I was doing a play with this wonderful playwright, John Patrick Shanley, who did Doubt. We were north of New York City doing this play during the summer. I got this call about this project called UnREAL. It was going to be on Lifetime. I just thought it was going to be a movie about some woman crying. What am I going to be on Lifetime?

What I found out, obviously, was that Lifetime was being re-braned. Like AMC, the woman who pioneered Mad Men for AMC and turned that whole franchise around. She was behind this, she was going to re-brand Lifetime. They wanted to create content that was darker and more ambitious, and I think more fulfilling and honest, about women. Not as light, obviously.

I’m not putting those types of shows down by the way, I’ve done a few of them. They’re legitimate. That’s what’s lifetime wanted to create. They wanted to broaden their audience. Marti Noxon called me and told me about this show that was created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro that had been pitched to Lifetime in the form of a short, a short film, the name of which I can’t remember.

The essence of it was actually a scene that was in pilot or the second episode. It captured the Rachel character manipulating one of the contestants. Lifetime loved it! They knew that this was the perfect show for them because it was about women. It was created by women, it featured supporting characters by women and it was also very new and fresh.

It’s odd to me that no one has taken on this genre before because it’s been around for a while but fortunately Lifetime really put their money where their mouth is. They worked on it until it was right and they finally got a version that they were happy with. That’s this version.

I’m so proud to be a part of it for so many reasons. It’s such a great feeling to be in something that you are generally proud to be part. Something that challenges you as an actor, which this does. Also, I have to say, it’s long overdue! A show like Girls, which is terrific, shouldn’t be an anomaly. It should be a choice. I think this is the next natural step.

There are going to be more shows like UnREAL on Lifetime. Not just women, guys like this show too. I think just as many guys like this show but that they don’t short shrift women. Women aren’t the reactive characters. I mean, nobody gets short shrift in the show, but I love that I’m playing the Joan Collins role. I love that and it’s more fun for me. I like to play to villain, I like to play these corrupted guys or guys of questionable character, let’s say.

I think that everybody in this show gets that actually. I don’t think there’s really anybody to solidly get behind, including Shiri’s character, although I think the show is sort of about her. She’s fighting for her soul and we’re zeroing in on her fight. I think each character is so well written. We’re each fighting for our soul. Nobody is just a caricature. Everybody is a full human being. That’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure to be a part of something like that.

To answer your question. The audition process was a telephone call where they said, “Do you want to do this show?” I said, “Well, send me the script” and I was thinking “A Lifetime show, I don’t know.” Then I read it and I was like, “No, I’m in. I don’t care.”

The only thing I said was, “Look, I put on a couple of pounds. There’s like a month I’m just going to disappear and come back.” They said, “You know what? Don’t” and I didn’t. They wanted a guy who had gone to seed, although now enough already. Now that the show has been picked up, the 50 pounds are gone.

They’re going to have to figure out why. I’m sure they’ll come up with something. I’m sure it won’t be completely healthy either. That was enough to carry around. I felt like I was pregnant with twins and that was enough. [Laughs]

Have you watched Sarah’s Sequin Raze?

“Yeah, that was the name of the short film that I mentioned. Thank you. I didn’t remember the name of it. I did see that. They sent me that and they sent me the script. I watched the short film first and I went, “That’s interesting. I don’t see it on television.” It felt like a short film. It felt like something you’d watch at a short film festival. It was very, very good. Both of the actresses in it were really, really good.

Then I read the script and I said, “You know what? This is great. If this is what they’re gonna do. First of all, let’s see if they can pull this off.” I’ve been part of things that were very ambitious and they didn’t pull it off.

What a great joy to be part of something where they went for it, the network stands behind it, and they pull it off. People seem to be responding and it’s just great. It’s just great.”

We had talked to Sarah, actually, right before the show aired and she had told us that her favorite character and the one that she would actually hang out with in real life was Chet. You can’t pick Chet, but which character would you hang out with in real life?

“I read that! Well, first of all Sarah is the only one who actually exists. I’ve known Shiri for about 15 years. She was in a movie called The 13th Floor with me. We had a very brief exchange. She was very young. I think she was like 19 or 20 at the time but I do remember she looks up at the camera and it was like looking in the sun or something. She just has this presence. I found her dazzling and I really can’t put my finger on what it is.

As I’ve gotten to know Shiri more, and certainly while we were shooting UnREAL, she has a quiet strength, which as a friend has served me well on a number of occasions and endears her to me. She’s a very sharp, brave person and very smart, very shrewd. I also think she understands a quality that she has, which is a kind of a stillness. She doesn’t overplay moments and allows the writing to come through. When her emotion does come through, it’s really exciting. She’s not always acting, it’s a very genuine, heartbreakingly quiet performance I think.

It’s the center of the show because I think that of all the characters that are fighting for their souls, she’s the one that we’re examining most closely. We watch her make decisions on a daily basis. She makes decisions she knows are not the morally correct decisions but she has to survive. Then when she does make the morally correct decision it makes life a little tougher for her, like ripping up the check. You know, her mother’s check. Yet, you can’t stand behind everything that she does. I like that.

You feel like you’re really getting to know a group of people. The reality that she brings to her character is a gift to the rest of us who are playing characters who might come off a little bit more typical or less three dimensional. We also have decisions to make. Ours aren’t always as apparent or we might not be the focus of an entire episode.

The fact that you’re watching her do that, it throws a light on the rest of the show. It’s sort of like a magic trick and it lights up everybody’s performance. The same with Constance, who delivers a performance that’s incredible. She portrays a bawdy character that would come off as crass in less capable hands. Constance is a very fine actress and she’s playing somebody who can be a loudmouth but if somebody isn’t a very good actor, that can come off as really grating or just loud or big. What it comes off as is really human and you see where all that stuff is coming from.

I think Shiri’s character is fighting for her soul. I think the people on the show, the producers, first of all, Constance and then me. We’re pulling her in a negative direction. I think I’m a little bit further down the rabbit hole than Constance but Constance is sinking too.

I think these two girls are depending on fighting for each other. It’s more complicated than that. In order to survive, certainly in show business I know, but in any business I would imagine, you have to make concessions. If you looked at yourself day by day, it doesn’t seem like you’re changing very much, but if you looked at yourself over a period of 20 years, some people change a lot.

They change entirely. That’s the fight she’s fighting. She’s trying to stay a good person. She made some mistakes and she’s fighting in real time. I think it’s fun for the audience to see someone that they can relate to fighting fights that they can relate to.

A lot of times show business shows are hard sells because you can’t relate to the characters. It’s so out of the ordinary for most people. They made UnREAL a workplace comedy so that people can relate to it. I think they pull off a lot of amazing stuff on this show.

This week was a big episode for Chet, especially the ending. Last week we knew that he was going to get a divorce from his wife. Did you think that him and Quinn would go off into the sunset or did you know something was going to go wrong to implode this relationship?

I keep learning in life not to take anything for granted and not to assume that anybody is who they say they are unless you’ve known them for a while. Those are things that I’ve learned up until the last minute.

The script was actually reflecting a lot of stuff that was actually going on in my life in a lot of ways. I think that was a treat for everybody. It’s so remarkable because there’s a lot going on and a lot of it was very relatable. No, I had no idea and I have no idea how things are going to work out. I love that about the show.

It’s fun to get a pay check and it’s great to work, but there are a lot of shows where you just go, “Well, this character. At the end of the day everybody has to trust him.” That’s most shows on network TV, by the way. Even if you’re playing a renegade cop who breaks all the rules, at the end of the day, because you’re representing sponsors who can’t afford to have people turn the channel off … At the end of the day, the hero of the show has to be the hero of the show. Nothing too dark can happen on most TV shows.

The fact that Lifetime was willing to make a show filled with “unlikable” people, who are sort of bad people … Is a misnomer that actually helps the show. It’s like Seinfeld saying it’s a show about nothing. Seinfeld is brilliantly crafted mini-farces. That show was a miracle, written by incredibly talented people, performed by talented people. It was one of a kind but it wasn’t about nothing. That was just something somebody said and it caught on.

UnREAL is not a show about horrible people. This is a show about people. If you want to call these people horrible, most people are horrible because we all have good and bad in us. Every minute of every day we’re making decisions that could hurt somebody else or help us at another person’s expense or vice versa. Life is complicated and that’s what this show is about. We’re watching Rachel negotiate that. I think that’s the heart of the show. It’s so relatable.

You’ve had a lot of scenes with Constance and then also with Shiri. Is there somebody else on the set that you haven’t had a chance to have a scene with that you would like to?

“For some reason, and I don’t know why, I think it’s to the writer’s credit, maybe in lesser hands Chet, or maybe in earlier seasons of the show Chet used to screw the girls. UnREAL is filled with all these really fine actresses. I got to do a little bit here and there. Someone like Breeda Wool, who’s such a fine actress and such a great comic actress, I regret that I really didn’t get to do a lot with her. Down the line, I hope one day maybe on another project or maybe they’ll bring her back. I miss things like that but I can’t complain.

Even if I was just working with Shiri and Constance every day, they’re so good and they don’t make it easy. They make it challenging. You have to listen and you have to watch because they’re very smart. They know their roles very well and they force you to define your work. A lot of what came out of Chet is because of what Constance was giving me.

I mean, the greatest compliment another actor could give me is sparks were flying off of you and I had to make decisions based on you. Well that happens to me all the time with Constance because she’s very strong. I’ve known her and I trust her. We were introduced together on Boston Legal and then we never saw each other again, but the fact that we were brought in together, I felt in a way bonded with her.

The same with Shiri, even that small moment we had. Shiri is also a close personal friend. I’m getting to know Constance more. I love them as people. That helps you to trust them as actors. They’re making choices for the show, not themselves. That’s always good. It can sometimes be scary but it brings you to good places.

The first day I didn’t know Constance all that well. I hadn’t seen her for years and we had to do really intimate stuff. Then to have what I thought was a heart attack in front of her to go there and then her reaction. It was very moving. It’s scary. Then when you get a kind word from somebody who you have so much respect for, it means a lot. They’re all very supportive of one another. We’re all very hard on ourselves so that’s a good thing. We’re very demanding of ourselves, I should say. We want to serve the show well so we work very hard and we’re very excited to come back.”

First of all, congratulations on the seasons 2 renewal and I’m going to get to that in a second! But, first I want to go back to what you were just talking about. The fact that you are so hard on yourself, performance-wise, does it make live tweeting and live watching more difficult?

“It’s almost like I know what I want something to sound like and until I get it there, it’s very frustrating for me and you have to work very fast in television. For some reason, it’s very satisfying to play this role. They give me a lot of room and I was told it was created for me. It fits but it doesn’t make it any easier because after the first episode, then there’s a new moment, there’s a new thing that they want you to do, a new place that you have to go. The places Chet has to go, they’re pretty dark. Some of the places I’ve been to. Some of the places I haven’t, and some of the places I don’t want to go to. Some of the places I was actually already in at the moment.

When I said I could be hard on myself … First of all, nobody on the cast is hard on each other. We’re all very supportive of one another. I love watching the other ones work. It’s very inspiring to me. I don’t watch the show live, I watch it after. I do the social media stuff and I just listen to everybody’s reaction. That’s fun for me. It’s a unique experience.

Monday was a completely unique experience because I felt the entire east coast go, “What? Jesus holy God, man.” I just thought, “I don’t know if I can walk out on the street right now. Right now would not be a great time to walk out on the street.” It’s funny. I dropped 50 pounds. I look more like I used to look. I don’t look like Chet quite as much right now. I get recognized more for other stuff but today I got recognized for the show for the first time. It was this girl walking out of a store who goes, “You.” It was really funny. Then she smiled.

The thing is, people love these characters. Even someone like Chet. If you met him in real life, he’s a dog but even though he’s a douche bag, it’s within this world. There’s something charming with just the writing because he clearly is in love with Constance’s character and I think he loves his show.

I think he makes mistakes that … He just can’t help himself. There’s something very lovable about that. As a man gets older, which I am, and I remember tripping all over myself at 30. I remember girls they want to take care of you and that’s so cute. At 50 it’s not so cute. It’s more troubling. There’s more at stake and it’s more exciting to play as an actor. The great roles for men begin at 50. This is one of them. This is one of the great roles.

I’m including Harold Hill, Music Man, which is a masterfully written role, and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. This role is one of my favorite roles that I’ve ever played and they write it really, really intelligently. There’s no easy answer. He’s not a fop. Everything he does, there’s a human reason and there’s a yearning. There’s a real, real yearning behind every character. I believe I know what he’s yearning for and I believe I recognize it and it’s very human.

I think people hate the decision Chet made, but who hasn’t been there? Where you do something fucked up, pardon my language, because you’re out of control and you’re in love or you’re angry. He’s an extreme example of it but at the end of the day, he’s recognizable and he’s not Charlie Manson. Yet. [Laughs].

I think morally corrupt is even a dangerous term. I think he can still go a little bit further down the rabbit hole toward morally corrupt and maybe losing his objectivity, which drugs will do and losing love will do and sadness.

If you think about it, Rachel is in the same exact struggle that Chet is. She’s struggling with substance abuse and loss of love and trying to find meaning in her life. She’s younger and she has a little bit more time and she’s looking at characters like Constance, who is making choices of her own which indicate substance abuse and all kinds of abuses and maybe even love addiction.

Look at the idiot she’s tied up with. Everybody’s just trying to survive and hanging onto to something unhealthy just to stay out of the fire. She’s looking at people older than her fighting and losing at times. It’s very scary.

It hits a lot of subconscious levels for people that are more than just soap opera. I think people recognize a lot of unarticulated stuff that happens in life. You walk down the street, you gotta make decisions and that decision might negatively impact somebody’s life. Or you have an opportunity to compliment somebody and you don’t do it and by doing it you could’ve saved that person’s life. You never know.

We’re all walking on such a thin line and that’s the humanity in this show that points out all these negative things that happen. That’s really what they are. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s a reminder, go out there and be nice. This show, to me, says, “Go hug your husband or your boyfriend or girlfriend, your wife, your mother, your dog. Go hug somebody because we’re all so lucky to just have each other.”

It’s so hard sometimes. It’s just such an affirming show. That’s what I love about it. I could go on and on. I’m just so proud to be a part of it.”

It shows. That also makes the performances better because you guys are proud of the project and you do actually really like it. It totally shows.

Oh yeah. Usually people can’t get wait to get home. The crew wants to come home. Even the crew … They’re so committed to this. It’s this weird little story we’re telling and we were up in the corner of nowhere doing it without anybody seeing it. It was a very private thing for a while.

Now that it’s gotten this very nice reaction and we can go up there again, I can’t wait. I just can’t wait. I know a little bit but not a lot. I don’t think they ever really want us to know too much, which is exciting. Like you asked, I never know what’s coming. I wouldn’t guess. You have no idea what’s coming up at the end. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not.”

Do you guys get a script a week or do you get more than one a week? How far in advance to you get to know what’s happening?

It’s funny. The best laid plans. You have the first script for like a month to look at stuff. You go, “Maybe I’ll do this” then if you’re like most actors you throw it together the last week. Then, you’re shooting an episode and they want to re-shoot scenes from another scene and they want to pre-shoot a scene from the next episode. You’re doing three scenes at a time and everything’s out-of-order.

A lot of times, I’m sure when you’re talking to the actors and you’re like in this moment, it’s so funny because if I haven’t just seen the episode, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just did an interview with somebody who said, “So what’s with this and this.” I have no idea. I was probably doing 19 different episodes at that time. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Unless I’ve seen … and I don’t watch the shows until the next day. Some of the episodes I haven’t seen yet.

It’s funny, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s as a rule but most shows, unless you’re a star producer, you have that kind of rights, you usually get it the week before.

That’s enough. Then there are changes throughout the week. You can count on that. They’re rewrite and stuff. Now in this day and age they can just do it through email. We’ll have a reading and they’ll be in LA and we’ll be up there in Vancouver listening to the reading in LA. They’ll change lines at the last minute. It’s very exciting. It’s very alive!

I think it’s going to be even more of that the second season because this is a team that’s very competitive and very bonded. We want this show to be the best version. Like, we don’t want to drop the ball now that we’ve got people with us. I think the writers want to take a little bit more time … Sarah and Marti want to take a little bit more time to make sure that when we come back for the second season, everything is exactly the way that they want it.

Lifetime did a few versions of this show before they settled on this one. It had gone through a couple of incarnations. They’re really doing it slow and right. God willing it keeps going. The second season is very key. They want to make sure that whatever they learn from the audience and from themselves, having a little distance from it, that they’re taking advantage of it and moving forward with it. You gotta let go of some of the stuff that wasn’t adding to the show. There are certain decisions that had to be made because certain things the characters did, they have to pay for.”

Exactly.

“Also, the heartbreaking thing is, just as a man, these beautiful women that you like looking at every day, they have to go. They’re going to bring in a new group of people. I don’t know whether it will be men next year, women, rabbits, I don’t know what the hell it’s going to be.

They’ll come up with something and it’ll be something they choose because it’s going to lead to more questions and rabbit holes and places to second guess and keep the audience on the end. That’s really what they’re looking for. It’s an honest reflection of what everybody’s going through every day. That’s what people relate to. That’s what makes the show a hit.”

We didn’t really know until last episode what the premise for season 2 could be. We didn’t know if it was going to be another Everlasting, if it was going to be guys this time instead of girls, or if it’s going to be a spin-off with Freddy and his wife. Have they told you the premise?

“No, no. I have been told that I’m coming back though. I don’t ask any questions beyond that. First of all, they knew me enough to know I can improvise and I throw stuff in. Some off the stuff is mine and if it works, they keep it in. If it’s not, we do something else. Beyond that, I don’t want to know anything. I want to be surprised.

It helps and I honestly think … I did another show and it was a revelation to me. I did this show called Damages, which is a really, really fine show and very unique in the sense that it was another show where you just didn’t know who to trust. That was the element of the show. I got to know the creators of the show a little bit. I said, “How do you write something like this? It’s so complex.” They didn’t know. They said, “We’re actually writing it as we go along. We don’t know how the season ends.”

I thought that was really exciting. I don’t know that that is the way Marti and Sarah plan. I don’t think it’s the way most shows plan things. These guys were really unique. It added up to something exciting.

I think whatever it is that they come up with, it’s not going to necessarily be, oh, we gotta do girls or we gotta do guys or we gotta do whatever. It’s because they want to investigate what is so exciting for them as writers. Their gift is looking at people, splitting them open, and seeing what makes them tick and then asking an actor to put it back together again. That’s the whole thrill of it and then an audience gets to recognize themselves in it in a different environment. That’s really what it is.

I don’t, in a way, think it matters whether it’s … Whatever it is, even if it’s women again, it’s not going to be like this. The whole set of problems and everybody’s issues will have moved and made the territory different. We will have moved. They will have taken what they’ve learned about these human beings and reassembled the parts and asked the actors to put them back together again. That’s our job.

Everybody will hopefully have the thrill ride of watching good storytelling if everything works out. I trust them. I’ve been doing this for, God I can’t believe almost 25 years. This is one of the first times I’ve ever really just said, “I trust them. I don’t need to know. They don’t need to tell me a thing. I’ll just do my job. Just hand me my hammer and my chisel and let’s go.”

 

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