SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first four episodes of “The Circle” Season 2, streaming now on Netflix.
In the second season of “The Circle’s” U.K. format, television presenter Richard Madeley participated in a few select challenges to shake things up. He didn’t play as himself, and he didn’t compete for the final prize, but his addition to the reality series in general proved that anything could be possible on a format in which players are isolated in apartments, chatting with each other only through a specially-designed app, with the freedom to present themselves or play as a catfish.
Not to be beat, the second season of the U.S. version of the show, which launched April 14 on Netflix, not only included a television personality playing as herself, but also a few other entertainment industry professionals, one of whom was pretending to be pop icon Lance Bass.
“It added a little extra fun to the season,” “The Circle” executive producer Tim Harcourt tells Variety.
Former dating competition series contestant Chloe Veitch from “Too Hot To Handle” was one of the first players to enter the titular circle, playing as herself — although when some of her fellow competitors recognized the picture she chose as her profile image, they questioned whether she was who she said she was, or a fan playing as a catfish. A few episodes later, Bass’ real-life assistant Lisa Delcampo entered the circle, playing as her boss. This resulted in even more raised eyebrows about authenticity but also a few fan freak-out moments.
Here, Harcourt talks with Variety about casting Veitch and Delcampo, the clearance they need when anyone plays as a catfish and whether or not a full celebrity edition season will follow soon.
How did the decision to include recognizable personalities, even if one would be a catfish, on the second season come about?
The idea that celebrities could play as themselves or even not themselves, this is a format that lends itself to that, and the great thing about working with Netflix [is they were] keen to have some celebrity element in the U.S. series. To involve a celebrity heavily in the game, that came from the network and we all loved it.
That Chloe already had a relationship with Netflix probably didn’t hurt.
They did put a Netflix spin on it. But we were big fans of “Too Hot to Handle.” It’s a risk for her, playing as herself. Is she real? Is she a catfish? It seemed fair for her to enter the game and play to win. Obviously she did quite well on “Too Hot To Handle,” but she was playing to win and we thought that was fun and a draw. Beyond that, I think Chloe’s one of my favorite-ever characters I’ve seen in the reality competition series [space] and, no disrespect to “Too Hot” but, I think she shines far brighter in our season because she just plays brilliantly and wears her heart on her sleeve.
Chloe coming in, she chose if she would play as herself or not.
But then with Lisa, you still had to clear that with Lance. Obviously they knew each other so it was easier, but how would it work if a regular player wanted to play as a random public figure?
Any player that comes in and wants to be someone else, we have to go through a degree of legal clearance. We’re getting casting approval from one person, and you’re also getting casting approval and the rights associated with the images of the person [they’re playing as]. And that’s one of the reasons it works when a person catfishes as a person they know; they know the person’s ins and outs and how they’d respond in certain situations. Not only does it make the catfish more authentic, but also from a legal point of view, clearing all of those photos it’s much easier. With Lisa, it was exactly that same process, to be honest. She applied to be on the show and we had to go to Lance the same way we went to everyone else involved in the season who was being used as a catfish. But because Lisa and Lance have such a fantastic relationship, we were just getting the personal archives. We didn’t believe it when it landed in our laps — that she was as huge fan of the show as she was.
Was there an intentional limit to the number of recognizable players, even if catfish, you included? Did you feel star power would shift dynamics in the way players chatted with each other?
I don’t think we had a magic formula, and I don’t think we knew how everyone would react. You see it on-screen: some people believed it was [Lance]. I think people were maybe a little bit stand-offish, almost star-struck, and there was also a bit of, how convincing was Lisa? Because it is so hard to play as a catfish. Lisa has worked with him for [years], she knows him well, but to get under someone’s skin and to be them, it’s a risky strategy. You can get very far, but it’s very hard in the first place to play like that. But with Trevor, because [Deleesa Carrasquillo] is married to him, maybe it’s a bit easier for her to really get to the core of who he is and to play such a brilliant game. What we knew, though, was that however it played out, it was going to signal that the show and the season was going to be fun around all of that strategy that you often get in a Season 2 of a reality game.
It also feels like the actual mini-challenges and competitions were increased a bit this season.
We intentionally dialed that up a little bit, but not too much. The purpose of the game has remained the same, to bring them closer together, to make them show their strategic hands and alliances and to give them the opportunity to show their competitive nature. I think the difference is more to do with the cast: the Season 1 cast came in and was warm and lovely and as the competition went on they became more strategic, [but] in Season 2, especially in the first batch, it gets quite strategic quite quickly. And I have to admit I was actually really surprised by how strategic and competitive it got.
Bryant [Wood] seemed caught off guard by that, too.
Poor Bryant was like a cast member from Season 1 who got pulled into Season 2. This game got sharp! But he’s such a fun character and such a lovely guy.
Since these players are all isolated by nature of the game, it seems like gameplay didn’t need to be tweaked at all due to shooting during a pandemic. How different were things on your production end this season?
It was making the production hub itself secure from COVID-19. We filmed this in the United Kingdom and the contestants had to fly over and quarantine, living in an apartment with a chaperone elsewhere in the city. To be honest, the city was in semi-lockdown with most restaurants and bars closed or with curfew, so there wasn’t an incredible amount to do outside of the apartments. That was a slight change, and it also meant they came into the game having been in a bubble for a period of time. And then it meant that as producers we couldn’t meet the players face-to-face; we had to keep distance and couldn’t go to their apartments to make sure they were all right.
Would you allow bigger name talent onto a season of “The Circle,” or do you feel they’d have to play only opposite each other in a special celebrity edition?
I think the latter. If not, it might be a bit odd and people might doubt it. If someone says they’re LeBron James, they may believe that, maybe not, and that may lead to [that celebrity’s] early demise.
Or if a celebrity catfishes as a regular person and wins everybody over and then wins the money, people might be annoyed because they may not be seen as someone who needs the money in the same way.
Exactly. I feel like it might leave a little bit of a bad taste in the mouth of the fans. Maybe if they said they’d give the money to charity people might accept it, but I’m more inclined to say that a special edition with celebrities would be the way to go. In the U.K. we did a short run — like a limited series — where we had celebrities, some of them playing themselves and some of them playing other celebrities they knew, and everyone was raising money for Stand Up 2 Cancer. The interesting thing about that was people would be like, “Oh I met you at that fundraiser!” and the people who were lying were like, “Oh God…” The prior relationship gave us another strand that was interesting. So who knows? Let’s hope Season 2 is massively successful and then we can talk about brand extension. Those are not conversations we’ve had yet.
“The Circle” streams new episodes Wednesdays on Netflix.