Shiri Appleby Wants to Help Change the Way People Define Women, in ‘Lemon’ and Beyond

When Shiri Appleby says she grew up in the business, she’s not exaggerating. Since the age of three, she’s been working steadily in TV and films. And 35 years later, she’s found her biggest success with the critically acclaimed (and Emmy nominated) reality TV satire UnREAL. As Rachel, she isn’t just a tough TV professional, she almost pathologically driven by her addiction to high drama and chaos. A different role from her character Ruthie in the new dark comedy Lemon. Mother (and mother-to-be) big sister Ruthie is a maternal and warm presence in the life of her sad sack younger brother Isaac (co-writer and lead Brett Gelman)…the only one he has. We spoke about appearing in the off-kilter black comedy and embracing roles that aim for a specific type of audience.

The Interrobang: When the part was offered to you, how did they describe the role and her role in the family?

Shiri Appleby: Janicza (Bravo, the film’s director and co-writer) described her as kind of the light of this family, the one with a sparkle and who really brought the family to life. And that’s what I really appreciated when I read the script, the way she was different and how she helps Isaac survive this family. She’s kind of the glue holding the family together, and she’s the middle child, but became this support system for Isaac and can make him feel safe.

The Interrobang: What kind of homework did you do on your own and with Brett and Janicza?

Shiri Appleby: Janicza is very clear with what she wants in a scene, but also gives the actors a lot of freedom. Brett and I had an instant connection to one another, and Martin (Starr) and I have known each other since I did Roswell. So we found it very easy to play siblings and could see how my characters could manage to smooth things over. I was very maternal when playing with Brett and very tough with Martin. I liked kind of fighting back with Martin like a little pitbull.

The Interrobang: Janicza and Brett seem to love stylized and slightly elevated performances. Had you done that style of acting before? I assume it takes some getting used to when the majority of the performances we see now are more minimalistic and aim for complete naturalism.

Shiri Appleby: Brett and Janicza like people to stick to the words, but give you a lot of freedom within that to feel the emotions you feel when you feel them. I know I’m a very spontaneous actor and could go with the vibes Brett brought to the role. So when he went big, I just went along with him to match him and feel like we were all playing in the same world. And I think we all approach it that way, so it felt very natural and realistic on set, but just a little heightened.

The Interrobang: When you read the script on your own, were you laughing or does that comedy come out in the performances?

Shiri Appleby: I don’t think I found it funny, or thought about if something would laugh. I found the characters interesting. I think I was primarily struck by the fact that Isaac is this really sad character and they managed to present this compelling slice of life about him. And then I thought of how I could bring something kind of sparkly to the role and to his life. But in terms of finding it funny, I don’t think I even thought about it.

The Interrobang: The big musical number, we won’t give details, however reviews have already given it away. But what was it like that day on set?

Shiri Appleby: It was so much fun. We rehearsed and did a little harmonizing to determine who’s the leader and who will perform the solo. And I’m not a singer, and I’ve never done something like that. But when we did it, it was like this incredible breath of fresh air. I had a ball and I think when you see that scene you can really see me getting into it. Janicza pushed me to enjoy it as Shiri and I really, really did.

The Interrobang: The film’s acidic tone probably will alienate some audiences while really appealing to a specific group. What’s it like to make a movie where you know going into it that the creators aren’t aiming for the widest audience, but their audience?

Shiri Appleby: I think that’s what it means to make real art. When you make something that everyone likes, you probably don’t have a very strong point of view. And when you’ve made a film that has the ability to turn some people off, you know you’ve made a film with a message and point of view. That’s what I aspire to do at this stage of my career. I want to make work that pushes boundaries and challenges audiences, show that I’m not afraid to take a stand.

The Interrobang: Starting so young, did that idea of making work for specific audiences and not worrying about popularity come from years in the business?

Shiri Appleby: Oh yeah. Right now, my mission is to do work that first and foremost, I find challenging. I’m not interested in those cookie cutter ideas of what it means to be a woman or playing “the girlfriend” or “love interest.” I want to play women who are described as complicated. I want to play women that push back against the things society’s putting on us, so I can be part of the dialogue in my work. I want to be part of shifting the way people define women and what women are supposed to be or supposed to represent. But all that comes with experience and gaining confidence. And knowing the types of characters I’ve played before and wanting to avoid repeating myself. Even when I do something light now, I want it to show a different side of myself. At this point, I’m less interested in being liked and more interested in provoking an audience.


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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.