November 20, 2018

Actress Shiri Appleby chats about Jewish influences and life on the small screen

It may sound surprising coming from someone who’s been acting on TV since she was a child, but Shiri Appleby (“Roswell,” “Life Unexpected”) insists she doesn’t watch much television. Nevertheless, Appleby found the lead role in Lifetime’s new series “UnREAL” — a scathingly satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a reality dating show — too good to pass up.

The series, which premiered June 1 to critical acclaim, casts the actress as the beleaguered, conflicted assistant to the producer (Constance Zimmer) of a dating show called “Everlasting” (modeled after “The Bachelor”).  It’s a job that requires her to lie to and manipulate the contestants for dramatic effect, which wears on her conscience.

“She’s very good at it, but she’s constantly struggling with the fact that what she’s doing is killing her on the inside,” Appleby said. “She’s one of these people that hasn’t found her place in the world. She’s not close with her family. She doesn’t have any real relationships. She lives in the back of the grip truck. This world is her family. It’s incredibly dysfunctional, and it makes her hate herself so much. But she’s found her community in this world and does what she can to take care of herself. She really thinks she’s doing the right thing.”

Appleby said she was drawn to the concept, which felt “really fresh” to her, and the idea that the characters are all “at odds with themselves and trying to figure out what they believe in and what their morals are.” She also loves that she only needs to spend 20 minutes in the hair and makeup trailer to play the unglamorous Rachel Goldberg. 

Appleby said that Judaism isn’t a focus of the show, but that Rachel is “definitely a Jewish girl.” 

“You see the relationship with my mother [Olive, played by Mimi Kuzyk], and in the second episode, I say, ‘Sheket b’vakasha,’ ” (Hebrew for “Be quiet”).

Appleby grew up in a kosher home in Calabasas, where her Israeli-born mother, Dina, teaches Hebrew school and her semi-retired father, Jerry, is a former president of their synagogue’s men’s club at Temple Aliyah. “They’re both really involved,” she said. 

She attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, and celebrated the Jewish holidays with her parents and younger brother, Evan, observing both her father’s Ashkenazic traditions and her mother’s Sephardic ones. “My parents spoke to us in both Hebrew and English,” she said.

Appleby said her Jewish heritage “gave me a strong identity growing up. I always really knew who I was and where I came from. … I knew what my morals were, [what] my values were and what was expected of me.”

Although she doesn’t keep kosher now, Appleby does celebrate Jewish holidays with her husband, Jon Shook, a chef, and their 2-year-old daughter, Natalie. “He comes from a nice Jewish family as well. That was important to me. There are so many challenges, it’s a lot easier when you’re of the same faith,” she said. 

It’s also important to her to pass down Jewish traditions to Natalie. “We’re doing Shabbat more and more now. Now that I have a child, I feel that it’s important to light the candles, have a family dinner. And getting her together with her cousins for Chanukah, that family experience, was amazing,” Appleby said, noting that she does the cooking for the family and Shook mans the kitchen when they entertain.

“Passing on the wisdom and the experiences that my mother gave me and being able to replicate that in my own way, and also share that with my mother, is lovely. I appreciate the way I was raised much more now that I’m a parent.”

Appleby is enjoying her life as a working mother, but she hesitates to bring her daughter to the set, even though she herself grew up on them. “Having been a child actor, I don’t think [the] set is a place for children,” she said. 

She started out acting in commercials at the age of 4, segueing to guest spots in shows such as “thirtysomething” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” before landing her breakout role as Liz Parker in the teen alien drama “Roswell” in 1999. 

“I never really chose what I was going to do as a profession, which was a struggle I faced in my life,” Appleby admitted, adding that she began to enjoy it as she took classes and worked more. “Obviously, I’ve chosen it at this point. I was really good at it, and I was able to purchase my own home, not be dependent on anybody else. Being an actor is great, but it’s a challenge, and like anything that has great reward, it takes a lot of work.”

Her more recent credits include guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Elementary” and recurring roles on “Chicago Fire” and “Girls,” which she said has reinvigorated her career. 

But Appleby said she’s proudest of her work on “Life Unexpected,” a 2010 series on The CW, and of her experiences working with John Wells on “ER” and the late Mike Nichols on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the future, she said, she would love to do a period piece and to be directed by Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater. “I really respond to great directors,” she said. “It’s like when you’re playing tennis with a great tennis player. It makes you better.”

As for “UnREAL,” she had been optimistic about it getting picked up for a second season before it even premiered. “Since I did ‘Girls,’ I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to do things that are riskier, and this show is that,” Appleby said. “It’s an exciting time for me, and it’s great to be putting something out there that I’m proud of.”

The show was renewed for a 10-episode second season early last month.