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‘Unreal’ Star Shiri Appleby on Rachel’s New Attitude and Gaining Confidence as a Director

For two seasons of “Unreal,” Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) has manipulated the reality show-within-the-show contestants and crew members without (much) regret. But after her ex, cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly), caused the death of a producer and a contestant in the second season finale, she was finally pushed to a breaking point. She left the “toxic” set behind — to work on a goat farm. And that’s where the third season of “Unreal” finds Rachel, “really trying to do what’s right,” Appleby tells Variety.

“She really feels like, ‘If I can get a handle on the manipulation and the lies, I can get a handle on my life,’” Appleby says. “This is her only way to take control of her life.”

But to get in the mindset of the new-and-somewhat improved Rachel — who claims she’s committed to a lifestyle of “essential honesty” — required some off-screen work on behalf of the actress who plays her.

Appleby credits acting coach Warner Loughlin with helping her prepare. “Basically you have to imagine her life and what she needs: She needs to learn how to connect with things that aren’t men or through sex, she needs to learn to connect with herself,” she says. “I start to list how these things make her feel…and I really build it out so that when Quinn does come and find her, I feel like Rachel is more at peace and is calmer. So when the whole hurricane of the season happens…we can take her on this wild ride because I started her at a place that was calm and collected.”

Afraid that the show is going to get canceled, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) comes to the farm to convince Rachel to come back to the show — and since she knows her better than anyone, she knows how to push all of her buttons to get what she wants.

“Rachel has a strong need to connect, so she’s like, ‘If I can come back and I can tell the truth, I won’t be doing anything wrong. I can outplay the system,’” Appleby says.

When Rachel steps back into the production of “Everlasting,” she does so not just with that new attitude but also a new suitor – in the form of venture capitalist Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald), the first woman in the power position of choosing between more than a dozen eligible bachelors. “If she can bring on this female icon that she admires, then maybe she’ll be doing something good,” Appleby says. But Serena’s confidence — along with Rachel’s commitment not to lie — further complicates Rachel’s on-set efforts.

“She can’t manipulate any of the contestants in the same way, so she’s learning to produce in a new way,” says Appleby. “And especially a person like Serena, who is really smart and an equal as opposed to a lot of these other contestants that have been on the show, it’s challenging.”

And while Rachel’s relationship with Quinn may well be the show’s “central love story,” as Appleby says, Quinn “hits her low and hits her in an emotional place,” which opens the door to Rachel’s lying ways.

“I think it’s more of a testament to the fact that these women don’t know how to love or what love means to them, but they know they mean more to each other than anybody else and that they have each others’ backs in a way that nobody else ever has,” Appleby says. “Because Quinn and Rachel have such an unhealthy relationship, even though Quinn begged her to come back, she’s still going to abuse her.”

Jeremy is back on the set, too, but Appleby says Rachel’s really just trying to “leave well enough alone” when it comes to him. “I think he wants to have some connection as well,” says Appleby. “[But] from Rachel’s point of view, I think things are better left unsaid and that’s a beast that doesn’t need to be touched.”

But one area that Appleby says does need to – and will – be addressed in the third season of “Unreal” is the traumatic event in Rachel’s childhood that caused her mother to begin medicating her. Something happens during the filming of “Everlasting” that will cause her to want to confront her past head-on – and although she does in the middle of the third season, the effects of finally coming to terms with what happened to her will continue to play out in the fourth season, which has already been filmed.

For the second time on the series, Appleby is also stepping behind the camera to direct. “It feels nice after a long career as an actor to find your own voice and support that,” she says, adding that she’s “very much” pursuing directing as a part of an overall deal she has with A+E Studios. (She also directed two episodes for the fourth season.)

“I do feel like I have a lot more confidence now. I can shot list the episode before I start, but then as things happen on set, I know how to adjust so I can still execute the scene completely and I still know how to make my days,” she says. “Just having more days of being the director on the ground, that’s been invaluable.”

“Unreal” season 3 premieres Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.

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