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Constance Zimmer makes directorial debut on ‘UnReal’

The actress and ‘House of Cards’ star has made a career out of playing caustic characters

  • Constance ZimmerImage Credit: TNS
  • Constance ZimmerImage Credit: AFP

For Quinn King, the gruff executive producer of a Bachelor-like reality show in Lifetime’s UnReal, a normal day of boss-dom includes manipulation, shouting into walkie-talkies when scenes don’t have enough drama, and dressing down the crew with words of “encouragement” like, “Why don’t you go and be useful?”

Not exactly the approach Constance Zimmer, who plays the acerbic honcho in the weekly drama, adopted when she made her move into directing during the show’s current third season.

“I definitely was not as intense as Quinn would be,” Zimmer, 47, says while seated on the front patio of her Hollywood Hills home. “I saw Greta Gerwig [an Oscar nominee for her directorial debut of Lady Bird] on a panel recently and she said, ‘When it’s your first time, that’s when you can fail.’ That was my approach. If you don’t go big, you don’t know if you could have done better.”

Zimmer, who has directed a few one-act plays in recent years as part of the Blank Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Festival, makes her TV directorial debut in the UnReal episode titled Recurrent.

The actress, who has made a career out of playing caustic characters on shows such as Entourage, House of Cards, and The Newsroom, talked about going behind the camera, her brief stint as a gymnast, and Hollywood’s reckoning with sexual harassment and assault. Later this year, Zimmer will return as hard-nosed reporter Janine Skorsky in the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards.

We’re seeing a lot of actresses in recent years branch out into producing and directing as a way to take control of their career and create opportunities that might be lacking in Hollywood. Was that part of your motivation?
I had always wanted to direct. I directed a bunch of plays through the Blank Theatre Company. It was then that I thought, ‘Ooh, I really like this, but I wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to do it beyond theatre.’ Obviously, at the time I didn’t have a lot of female directors that I was looking at and going, ‘Oh wow, look at them, they’re working all the time.’ Instead, female directors were such an anomaly. So when Shiri [Appleby, her co-star on UnReal] directed an episode in season two, I thought it would be the best place to try it out.

What was your experience like directing something you were also acting in?
I found that I really liked directing, and I want to do more of it, but I’d like to not be acting in it. There’s a lot of people that do it, and they’re really good at it. I’m just still too new at it that I would like to be more confident in my directing skills before I start directing myself. When I’m in the scene, I’m worried about everything — I’m worried about my acting, and the other people’s acting and if it’s the right look or if it’s the right lens or if it’s the right lighting. I mean my scariest thing for me was the day I had to shoot 12 pages and there were 13 actors in one scene. And the other challenge with UnReal is you also have to do Everlasting [the show-within-the-show] takes.

Did you learn anything while being in director mode that you never realised when you were in actor mode?
Oh God, yeah. From the casting, to looking at the wardrobe, to doing rehearsals. There’s probably a lot of directors that are mad at me and have been mad at me because I tend to not do a full-out performance at rehearsal because then I feel like it’s gone. Being the director, it was the first time I realised, ‘Oh I get it now. I get why they need it.’

As a kid, you were training to be a gymnast — how did that eventually lead to a career as an actor?
I was doing gymnastics after school, and I was one of those kids that the coach plucked out of the crowd and was like, ‘This girl has it. She needs to start training for the Olympics now.’ My mom was like, ‘OK, great,’ because I loved it. I was obsessed. But I was training 18-hour days, and I had no life It was like gymnastics, school, gymnastics, eat, gymnastics, go to sleep. I just thought, ‘Huh. There’s something about this I don’t like, and something I like.’

I went on the dance team while still doing gymnastics. I realised I like being in front of people, I like performing, I like creating. I don’t like working out. I don’t like being in little shorts and leotards.

And you’ve amassed quite the IMDB list of credits. You played “Girl” in the pilot episode of “Felicity”!
‘Girl in the Bathroom’ became ‘Girl in the Glasses in the Bathroom’ because apparently they thought I looked a little too similar to [series regular] Amy Jo Johnson. So they had me put on glasses so we wouldn’t look so alike. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, you can’t have two brunets with bangs on one show?’

Seinfeld is definitely one of my all-time favourites because that was the third TV show I ever did, I was such a huge Seinfeld fan and it was their last season. I remember walking on that set, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in Jerry’s apartment.’ It was the first time that I had been on a set of a show that I was so obsessed. I was so scared, and I was so nervous, and I was only in one scene. I just remember being so afraid that I would get fired.

These days, you’re in the midst of an interesting time in Hollywood — does it feel like real change is underway?
I think an awareness, an open line of communication, is what we’re seeing. It started people not being afraid and realising they’re not alone, and that I think is what’s definitely making a change. It’s a beginning of a movement, and any time there’s a beginning of a movement, it’s slow. It’s baby steps, but it’s better than no steps.

As someone who has worked with a couple of those who have been accused of misconduct [Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Piven], is it a hard line to walk? Your association almost guarantees you’ll be asked about.
It happens to me every day. I’ve worked with almost the majority of the ones that are accused. My thing is I don’t have anything to add. What I have is to move forward. Because I’m not adding fuel to the fire. I have nothing bad to say about any of the people I have ever worked with, but that’s my personal experience and I can only speak for myself. We can’t stay stagnant. We have to go, ‘OK, this happened. OK, what do we do now? How do we fix it? How do we change it? How do we make it not happen again?’

You’re going to be in the final season of House of Cards. Had you already shot before they halted production?
I did, and then they halted production and then I was like, ‘I don’t know. What am I doing?’ And I kind of had to lay it to rest because nobody knew what was going on. And so, when they called me and said that Janine was still coming back for the final season, I was very excited because that’s definitely a character that I missed.

And Robin Wright is taking the helm.
Isn’t it sad that you have to have a fall of a man to uplift a woman? That show was a duet, it was a couple. Just like Rachel [a field producer, played by Appleby, on the fictional reality show within UnReal] and Quinn are a couple. We are a team on that show, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other. But [House of Cards] has still so much to tell, and I’m really happy that they’re doing a final season. And I’m excited as a fan, I’m excited as an actor. It’s gonna be fast and furious. It’s eight episodes, so I read every single script and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s gonna happen? I’m so excited’.