Over the past 10 years, Constance Zimmer had recurring roles on television shows that received a combined 11 Emmy nominations for either Outstanding Drama Series, or, in the case of Entourage, Outstanding Comedy Series. But it wasn’t until the actress finally became a regular on Lifetime’s surprise hit UnREAL that she garnered a nomination for herself.
At next month’s Emmy Awards, Zimmer will compete against Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith, The Affair’s Maura Tierney, and three of Game of Thrones’ most badass women in this year’s Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category. And for an actress who made a major impression but failed to break through on shows like The Newsroom and House of Cards, the recognition could not come soon enough.
In previous interviews, Zimmer has recalled asking directors like David Fincher why she always gets cast as “bitchy” women, and her character Quinn on UnREAL can certainly fall into that category at times. But from the beginning, and especially during the show’s second season, Zimmer has also helped illuminate the jaded reality TV producer’s more vulnerable side—while still having time to laugh uncontrollably at one contestant’s unfortunate bout of diarrhea on live TV.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone just a couple of weeks after UnREAL upped the stakes once more in its second season finale, Zimmer comes off as genuinely grateful to have finally found a major television role as multidimensional as Quinn.
After her co-star Shiri Appleby was passed over in the best actress category and the show failed to get a nomination for best drama, Zimmer thought her first real shot at an Emmy nomination might not happen. It didn’t help that she was on vacation in France with her family and couldn’t get a strong enough WiFi signal to see the list of nominees. It wasn’t until Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, who plays Jay on UnREAL, got through with a FaceTime call that she found out she had been nominated.
“It still is completely surreal,” she says over a month later. “It’s that thing that I think you always wish for or would like to have in your career. It really winded me in a way I wasn’t expecting.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Warning: Spoilers for Season Two of UnREAL.
You’ve done a lot of TV over the years, but this has really been a breakout role for you. Why do you think this was the project to make that happen?
I have been fortunate to have been working for a few years, but I’ve mostly been recurring characters on shows like House of Cards and Newsroom and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They are these great characters, but I wasn’t a regular so I don’t think I was ever really in a place to put myself up for nominations when you’re up against huge stars that are probably doing much greater things in smaller parts. I’ve been to the Emmys as a part of the Boston Legal ensemble and Entourage and that kind of stuff. But Quinn is really the first role for me where I’ve been at the forefront of the show. Rachel and Quinn are really the two faces of UnREAL. So it’s given me, finally, a place to develop a character. And Quinn is so four- or five-dimensional that it’s the first time anyone’s been able to see me play this type of character and get to reveal the vulnerability of a strong woman and why they are the way they are. And why they put up the shields and armor they put up. It’s really touched on a lot of things for a lot of people. The fact that men and women are so drawn to Quinn, you love to hate her and you hate to love her.
And is it true that you originally turned down the role? What made you hesitant to take it on?
You know, there were a couple of things. The original pilot, they shot it I think four years ago. And they were going to shoot it in Atlanta and if it got picked up it would have shot in Atlanta. I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to move somewhere because my daughter at the time was 4. And because it was a Lifetime show, I do what everybody does, which is I judged it based on what they were known for. So once the pilot was shot and they picked it up for 10 episodes, Nina Lederman, who was the head of Lifetime at the time, approached me. Our kids went to the same school and she came up to me at a fundraiser and pulled me over and was like, “You don’t know me, but I need to talk to you. I need to tell you what your next job is going to be.” She was so passionate and so incredibly convincing about how I needed to not judge this. And not judge them. She said, “I’m here to tell you, we want this show to be different, to be out of the box, to be a brand changer. So can you just please go meet with Marti Noxon, meet with Sarah Shapiro, watch the short and come talk to them.” And I said yes, that’s amazing.
So I watched the short film that Sarah wrote and directed and I went and I met with them and we had a 2½-hour meeting and it was one of the greatest meetings I’ve really ever had in my career. Because they were so passionate about this project and they had everyone at A&E and everyone at Lifetime behind them and their vision in making this something that was unexpected. That to me was something so exciting to be a part of. And Marti and Sarah were so inspiring. And they said, look, we’re all in this together. We’re going to do this together. We’re going to make these characters, we’re going to make this show be something that is unique and different. I wasn’t going to say no to that! It was one of the greatest conversations I’ve ever had and I left the meeting and right away said I want to do this. I hadn’t seen a script or anything.
Well, it seems to have really paid off for you and for Lifetime. It has changed the way people view that network.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to necessarily categorize us in this way but it’s like when they brought Mad Men to AMC. People weren’t going to AMC before a show like Mad Men. And we are really proud that UnREAL will hopefully make people look to Lifetime for other things. And that was all we wanted, so all this extra stuff—love from the critics and the awards and the nominations—are so above and beyond our expectations. We couldn’t have asked for really anything more.
This past season saw your character Quinn at her most vulnerable and her most sinister. Is it ever difficult to find the humanity in a character who could be such a caricature?
Yes and no. Those are the moments that I get the most nervous about, because those have to be the most real and the most sincere in order to make the other part of her that is the strong and the brash and the unfiltered and the one-liners and all of that work. So I’m always more concerned about making sure I sell the insecure part more than selling the bigger, larger-than-life part. And that’s what I think has been really the most fun to play and the thing that I was the most concerned about from Day One, was saying we have to make sure that she’s just as human and just as insecure as everybody else. She just has a much better way of pushing it down and hiding it. And she’s used it to her benefit. Those moments are hard, but I always hope in the end they’re worth it.
Yeah, I’m thinking of the difference between the moment she finds out she can’t have children and then her reaction to Hot Rachel’s little accident.
Right. And to be perfectly honest that that was not going to be my reaction to Hot Rachel. But when I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. For me, it was the biggest release that I think Quinn will probably ever have in her lifetime. It really ended up being a big emotional moment. Even though it was her laughing, it was like, oh my God, Quinn doesn’t even ever give herself the time to laugh. So it was fun to find that moment while we were shooting it. It was completely disturbing. Everyone around me was like, you are a sick person. [Laughs] I was like, it’s not me though, it’s Quinn! I don’t know how to explain it. But it was really fun and super disturbing to everyone around me. I definitely made a bunch of the actors and the crew break because I think they calculated I laughed non-stop for nine minutes and 43 seconds. Because they just kept rolling, and I just kept laughing. I mean, it is disturbing when you think about it. But for some reason it works for Quinn.
And it’s not even by any means the most disturbing thing that happened on the show this past season. There was a lot of attention on the fact that the show within the show, Everlasting, had cast a black suitor and then there was the police shooting episode. There has been some criticism that that episode was exploitative of real-life events. Do you think the show went too far?
I’m proud of our show. There are a lot of shows that are forced to not air an episode because, unfortunately, something has happened so similar to it that you just can’t even believe the same thing is happening in real life. For us, shooting the episode, we were thinking that more people weren’t talking about it, that it was happening all over the place all the time. Now, did we think that it was going to be that current? No. And did it make it that much more sensitive? Yes. But I am proud of them that they didn’t choose to say, you know, we can’t air this. Because I think one thing that our show tries to do is not say that we have the answers to anything, because we don’t. We’re writers and actors and producers putting on a show. And I think that what we do is we put the story out there and let the audience start the conversation amongst themselves. As opposed to putting commentary on it and giving you our points and our opinions. So people should have talking about it. They should have been upset by it. They should have also been impressed that we didn’t shy away from it. So I’m glad that there was a conversation that happened about it and people talked about it. I think we could have done more, honestly. I think we could have shown more.
Looking ahead to Season Three, how do you expect the show will up the stakes this time?
I really have no idea. I don’t know what they have planned for us next season. There’s been rumors of them mixing it up a little bit, which is exciting to me. The only thing I’m hoping for is I want Rachel and Quinn, in Season Three, to come out of the gate together, as a team. I definitely prefer when they’re on the same team than when they’re butting heads.
Well, it seems that they are aligned at the end of the Season Two with that mysterious car crash. Do you think that’s something that’s going to come back to haunt them?
Oh no, we can’t move on from that. There’s going to have to be some comeuppance. It’s just going to be a question of who. I’m super curious, because when we all read that script, we were like, how do we come back from this? There has to be some type of consequence. So I’m very curious to see how it’s going to affect all of those characters emotionally as well as what might happen to them physically.
You mention Quinn and Rachel being a team. You’re nominated in the supporting actress category, but you are arguably a co-lead with Shiri Appleby. Do you know if there was a decision made there behind-the-scenes to keep you out of competition with each other?
It was a collaborative decision between me and my team and the network. To be honest, I really do feel like I’m supporting Shiri. Because Shiri is really there 24/7, every day. She’s in almost every single scene. And it is told through her eyes. I’m really very flattered that Quinn has become such a presence. But also, I didn’t want to compete against her, because I would definitely not win. And by the way, it’s a funny thing to try to decide, do you want to be supporting or lead? You make these decisions when you think it doesn’t matter, it’s never going to come into play anyway. But I’m very proud to be in the supporting category, because I don’t think I would be nominated without Shiri next to me.
Well, hopefully you’ll both get in there next year.
I hope so too. She deserves it. I couldn’t do what she does as Rachel. And we actually had such a good conversation when we were shooting. When we swapped roles a bit at the beginning of the season, she was like, “You know what just realized? I could never do your role.” And I said, “You just realized that? Because I could never do your role.” It was such a fun realization to have, these two actors who are playing really strong, super crazy, complicated characters, yet both of us agreed that we couldn’t play each other’s parts. I feel so lucky, it’s such a great bonus that we have such great chemistry off-screen. It really is a lot of what makes Quinn and Rachel work.