Reality bites: an interview with Josh Kelly of TV dramedy ‘UnReal’
Reality TV has been getting somewhat of a bad rap lately, for coming across as too scripted and contrived (Unmarried At First Sight, anyone?). But what happens when a scripted TV series points the camera at the action behind the scenes of the reality TV industry? That’s just what refreshing dramedy UnReal does – delving into the drama and tragedies onset, and off, of a fictitious reality television series.
Josh Kelly plays cameraman Jeremy Caner, the on-again off-again boyfriend of lead character Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) in a soap series that’s packed with more bitching and backstabbing since Melrose Place and Models Inc combined.
Here he chats with Cream about the fakeness of reality shows, and the ‘realness’ of UnReal – the series that’s causing a right viral fuss. Confused yet?
Interview by Antonino Tati
Main photography by Joseph Rene Briscoe
Hi Josh. Did you always feel there’d be further seasons of ‘UnReal’ or were there times during shooting in its early days where you wondered ‘Will this continue?’
I guess you’re always kind of wondering. I know there were a lot of questions of how we were going to continue. Were we going to do the same thing? But I think we had a [certain] feeling of how it was going to go…
Your character, Jeremy, is the ex-boyfriend of Shiri Appleby’s [lead] character, Rachel. You dump her in the last episode of season one. Will Jeremy and Rachel be having a relationship or affair in the new season?
We definitely have interactions. I don’t know if having an affair is the appropriate term because we deal with it fairly publicly. Put it this way; it’s not friendly… We are not very friendly.
You play a cameraman on a reality TV show. Did this mean having to study cameramen in your other acting work, or have you always been studious of the behind-the-scenes of TV and movie-making?
Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated with the production side of things, and I’ve always really liked it. Playing a cameraman is a great opportunity to actually finish reading all those cinematography books I’d purchased! And it was a good opportunity to do more research on a subject that I had always really enjoyed.
Would you recommend every actor keeps an eye out on the behind-the-scenes, and not just assume their career will always be in front of the camera?
For sure. In some cases, it might be good career-wise [eg: actors evolving into directors] but I think it helps your acting to really understand how the production works, especially in television. If you want to be able to make it in TV, you have to understand how TV works. I edited a short film, and for me that was such a learning experience.
Is it a surreal experience performing in a television show about a television show?
It’s mind-numbing. Sorry, not mind-numbing; mind-boggling.
Well, actually, some reality TV can be mind-numbing…
Ha! But you do start to experience some kind of an Inception-like feeling. There are layers within layers. I remember shooting the pilot, and pretty much everyone had nightmares about it. You could wake up and think you were on set and being recorded. It was stressful.
Some people say reality TV itself is not so much real as it is contrived and scripted. What do you think?
I think there is way too much producing in reality, and in documentary, mind you. That is one of the reasons I really enjoy our show because it kind of pulls the curtain back a little more for people who don’t work in the industry. It opens their eyes to how fake and how unreal reality TV is. I was disappointed when I found out that some documentaries I enjoyed were actually fabricated: that they had an ending planned already. They have to plan and create ahead of time, otherwise they wouldn’t get the funding to shoot.
What reality TV shows do you actually like?
I like the competition shows, where people have to be creative and actually require talent to succeed.
You’re one of the poster characters for UnReal. In fact, you’ve appeared on billboards naked, save for a monitor in front of your private parts. How does it feel to see that image of you 20-foot-high and naked, for everyone else to see?
I suppose it is, in some degrees, a measure of success. Season one’s billboard is the first one I had ever been on. There was a billboard on Sunset Boulevard – about four hundred yards from the first couch I had couch-surfed on in Los Angeles! It was pretty cool. If I could’ve travelled back in time, I’d have just said to myself, ‘Hey man, you are gonna make it, don’t worry’.
You’ve been in so many TV shows, from ‘CSI’ to ‘NCIS’, ‘One Life To Live’ to ‘Ugly Betty’. Work seems to be getting busier for you these days. Do you ever have to balance projects; work on two productions at the same time?
Yeah, but I prefer not to. I really like going all-in and focusing on one project at a time. But sometimes you have to manage your time. It can be complicated. Especially if the characters are dramatically different. It can really mess with you.
Now here’s a fun fact for fans. You appeared in the very first scene of ‘True Blood’, playing the dude on a late-night drive with your girlfriend, then witnessing the first full-on vampire antics. Looking back, did you know that show would be such a huge phenomenon?
I had a feeling it would. That whole production had a kind of grandiose feel to it, so I was pretty sure it was going to be a success.
I know it was a bit part in the show, but it was an opening-pivotal character. Do you look back and wish you had a greater role in that series?
Yeah, and I think my agents probably tried for that but I think we missed the boat. [Laughs].
Since then, you’ve also appeared in a couple of ‘Transformers’ films. Do you like being in those kind of blockbuster productions that end up having so much post-production and effects applied to them by the time they hit the big screen?
Yeah, I actually really enjoy it, because it adds another element when you get to finally watch it. It’s so different to what happened on the day, and that’s so exciting. You know, Transformers was one of my favourite toys growing up, so to get to play a soldier who takes on the Decepticons is just a blast. And to actually see it on the big IMAX screen is a lot of fun. Sometimes I ask myself, and the cast whenever I’m working on a show, ‘How lucky would your little kid self be, visiting a set to experience this, much less being one of the actors on it?’ You have to remind yourself sometimes of how lucky you are.
Television has moved into darker territory of late. Things aren’t so shiny-shiny like they used to be a couple of decades ago. What do you think about the concept of TV plots and characters getting darker and darker?
I think it’s a good thing, especially since with so many channels that we have now, there are options to go dark or to stay light. At the same time, there are really goofy TV shows that are very light-hearted, and some of those are hugely popular. And so I think there’s room enough for some dark shows, which will be offset by some very light ones.
Do you think the dark storylines influence society and real life in general?
Kind of. But, I mean, you read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is super-dark. There’s murder and backstabbing all through the drama and storytelling. And I don’t think it’s getting any worse; I just think it’s being told a little more honestly on TV now.
Season Three of ‘UnReal’ is currently streaming on Stan, fast-tracked from the U.S.
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