It's one of the most delightful aspects of a professional life in Hollywood: You can find your niche in the industry, do good work on good shows, and carve out a solid career for yourself. And then, one day, a certain special role on a certain special project clicks with a certain special audience, and just like that, you're a superstar,

Just ask Constance Zimmer.

Zimmer's been a familiar face appearing on dozens of television shows since she first hit the scene, especially after breakthrough roles in "Joan of Arcardia," "Boston Legal," and, most significantly, "Entourage" as studio exec/Ari Gold sparring partner Dana Gordon. An array of high-profile projects followed -- including "Grey's Anatomy," "The Newsroom," "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "House of Cards" -- establishing the diversity of her range, but it took an unlikely pitch-black comedy on an even unlikelier cable network to shoot her into the stratosphere: as the deliriously manipulative dating show producer Quinn King on Lifetime's "UnREAL," Zimmer's reveling on the role of her career, one that's earned her an Emmy Award nomination and a degree of notoriety she hadn't experienced before.

As she preps to head into "UnREAL" Season 3, Zimmer can next be seen on the big screen in "Run the Tide" (out now) in which she plays an incarcerated mother who's release from prison threatens to upend the tenuously stable existence her eldest son (Taylor Lautner) has maintained for himself and his younger brother. Zimmer joined Moviefone for a no-holds-barred look at the rocket ride she's been on for the past year -- and, yes, even the disappointments of her series' second season -- as well taking part in the fall TV season's best inside joke on Pamela Adlon's "Better Things."

Moviefone: I'm sensing a pattern here in your work with "Run the Tide": finding seemingly unsympathetic characters and making them surprisingly sympathetic.

Constance Zimmer: Yeah, sure. I'll take that. I'll take it!

What was the challenge here in figuring out who she was, owning the dark side, but showing that she did have the potential for some light side, too?

Once again, it's a character that I was scared of because of everything you just mentioned, but realizing that the characters that I'm afraid of are the ones that tend to have the biggest reward in the end, because you have to find what it is, who they were before they were broken. Because we all have that in us, but it's been marred along the way from this, that or the other thing.

Her stuff is very obvious, and I had to kind of go at her, again, [being] completely nonjudgmental. I had to find where the honesty and the truth was going to come from, and knowing that she really had to claw her way back up. I don't think, for me, it was the reality that it wasn't going to be as easy as she thought it was.

So the awareness of becoming so, like, keen to knowing you've hurt people to a depth that you didn't even know, made it such a more emotional journey than I thought. But always knowing that there was a light at the end of the tunnel was how I was able to know that in two hours I was going to be able to prove to these people that I had changed, I had learned, I had grown, and I was here. I was in it to win it now.

We don't get those chances in life. We have no idea what tomorrow brings. So in a movie like this, that I think helps too, to heal the character and heal the path.

What was intriguing for you to work with a guy like Taylor Lautner -- who could certainly coast on the audience that he already has, could coast on the superficial look or the people's image of him -- and to see him digging deep in a movie like this, seeing him broaden his range and his skill and come at it to work?

I definitely think it was, again, one of the reasons why I wanted to do it because I was excited for him. Because I always find that a lot of these actors who have been put into these franchises at such a young age, without even knowing what it was going to do to them, or how it was going to catapult them into a specific area, and that he was so excited about this being nothing like he had ever done.

I was so excited for him, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to see it because I knew that if he could do it, he was going to do it big, because he was so committed and so into it, and all of us were. It's a small film. It's a small cast. Everybody has a story to tell and every character is so deep and so rich. So I knew that everybody that was signed on to the movie was kind of here to commit to these characters.

You didn't have a choice, and as dark and as messed up as some of them are, we had to all go in knowing that in the end there's going to be hope. But it was super exciting to do a lot of those scenes with him too because he and I were so in it, and all I wanted was I wanted to give him everything. I wanted to give him every emotion so that we could do it together, and it was fun. It was fun and so emotionally draining every day.

You've almost gotten Taylor's experience in reverse. You've built a body of work: "Entourage," I'm sure, got you recognized on the street and got you good tables in restaurants --

Barely!

Then this "UnREAL" comes along, and all of a sudden people are invested in you and they want to talk to you about that character and know about your personal life. So what was that like to have a new degree of fame enter the picture after you were a solid, professional working actor?

It's funny because I don't really even necessarily think that I have any more or less than I've had. It's just, yeah, more people care what I have to say, which has been weird. I take all of it as a compliment. I feel so grateful that I've been around for so long, and yet some people can say, "Where did you come from? I've never seen you before."

And I always say "Thank you." Because you always have this fear of ... it's weird: right before I did "House of Cards," I had this whole thing in my career where I thought everyone was done with me. They were like over me -- like, "We're over her, we've seen her in too many things, we're done." I was like, "That's it. I had my time, my moment is over. And then I did "House of Cards" and it was like a whole different resurgence of sorts of characters in different outlets and all this kind of stuff.

So that's all I'm ever looking for, is to constantly grow through characters and shine light in dark characters that are really not the ones that people might jump to go, "Oh, I want to do that, I want to be in that blockbuster and look amazing and beautiful." No, I'm really always for the underdog, because I've always felt I was an underdog, and I actually like being an underdog.

So it's been fun. It's still shocking for me. If somebody comes up to me and says my whole name, I'm like, "Is that written somewhere? Is my name on a piece of paper and that's why you know who I am?" Because still, I like being like a chameleon and not it being one thing in particular.

Was there a fear factor when "UnREAL" came around to you?

Of course there was! The big story on the block is how many times I turned it down, because it had to be done right, and it had to be done in a way that was going to be different. It being on Lifetime, and they hadn't done anything like it before, we had to put all of our faith and all of our trust that they were going to do it the way that it needed to be done to break out into something more than just, like, "Hey, here's a new show about behind the scenes of reality television."

What I like more about it, I was afraid that everyone was going to hate Quinn. So, again, I was playing a character that I was just like, "Oh God. Are they going to get me? What do I do?" But obviously I could not be happier. It's really kind of superseded anything I think any of us had every hoped for or dreamed of happening with the show. Now, this season, we're diving into another new territory of a female suitor. So I don't know. It's always exciting, and challenging, and scary, even the show has its cult status, it's still scary.

People have said what they wanted to say about Season 2 in comparison to Season 1. That must have been interesting, to go from being a total darling to "Hmm ..."

Yeah, but it's OK. You know why? People cared, and that's the way I saw it. I was like, "Wow, people really care about this show." They care when we miss our mark, and that you don't get very often, and yet people were still watching it, even though they were like, "Hmm, you kind of missed the mark on that, but I'm still going to watch the next episode." And we all were taking it as a learning curve. I hope that this next season will bring it all back together cohesively.

The table was really reset at the end of Season 2. There are so many different things that you can do. Have you had those creative discussions? Have they given you an awareness of what the overall picture is going to be like?

Not yet. I've heard sprinkling of things. We'll do that probably in the next month or so, and then we'll see where they're going to take us, and we'll see if we agree.

Are you excited to get back to work on it?

I'm excited and I'm scared, but that's why I love this part, because nothing is anticipated, and nothing is set. They're loose cannons, all of them, and the show is a loose cannon. The characters are loose cannons. So it's "What are we going to do?" I don't know. I know what we're doing, story point-wise, but how is that going to mix in the whole pot? It's like a big stew, of sorts.

And it's one thing when they do put it on the page, and it's another thing to make it come alive.

Yes, yes. But I have to say, with "Run the Tide," everything that was on the page was very much what was shot, because that's why, when I read the script, I was like, "I see this. I know what this is. This is just dark, and emotional, and deep, and we just all have to go there every day." But that was scary. So it's not that the content was scary. It was about the emotional journey was scary.

I have to ask you about probably your shortest job of the year, your audition waiting room scene on "Better Things." A brilliantly funny scene. I've heard this story from Pamela Adlon, but tell me about it from your side when they came to you with it, and how you reacted to it, had said yes.

[Laughs] It's as simple as Pam texted me, and she's like, "I have this really funny scene that I want to write in my show. I'm curious if you'd be willing to do it with me." I was like, "What are you talking about?" So I called her and we talked about it, because she's talked about it for years. We've talked about the fact that everybody thinks I'm her and she's me, and I have gotten to the point where I just say, "Yes," because I'm just so tired of trying to explain it to people.

So she's always said, "I swear one day I'm going to do something. I'm going to put both of us in a scene, and I'm going to prove to people we're not the same person." So here it was. Here was our moment. I was like, "Yes, what do you want me to do? Where do I go? I'm available, any time, anywhere," and it's the greatest thing. I keep saying to her, I was like, you realize you have to have an audition scene in every season, and we should just always look whatever the part is, because it doesn't end. It doesn't end today.

She's the face of a show. I'm the face of a show. People still -- I was at the Emmys and somebody came up to me and said, "Your show is so amazing. I love you so much. I can't believe you're a mom with three kids." I was like, "I'm not Pam Adlon." She said, "Yes, you are." I said, "No, I'm not, but thank you. I take it as a compliment." So it's fun. I love it. I love that kind of stuff.

We'll get to that scene where you guys beat out Julie Bowen for the part. I think that's what we need next season.

Yes. That would be great. That would be awesome. But the thing is, it's real life. It's kind of like, that's what I think everyone was so amazed that we were willing to just show that that's what it is. I'm like, "No, that's what it is. It happens. It'll happen tomorrow." The second that I'm not on "UnREAL," I'll be right back there, right back there in those rooms, with the same girls. It's just, that's the truth.

What great gig have you gotten as a result? Is there something coming up that we're going to see you in that has kind of come as a result of the exposure that you got on "UnREAL"?

No, because I'm still doing "UnREAL," and so my window of opportunity is small. We do such a big press tour on that show as well. So there's times and moments where I just kind of want to exist in my life and I kind of don't take anything, or want to take anything.

For me, it's more going to be about, like, when "UnREAL" is over. I'd like to then, once again, try and find that character that is different from what I've just done. I'd love to go to like a straight full-on comedy and just flip everybody's heads from being dramatic and so strong, and all of that fun stuff. For me, right now the greatest reward has been getting the Emmy nomination and getting the Critics' Choice Award. Those are the greatest things so far that are coming to me through this show that I never anticipated.

From the Emmy experience -- It's a surreal thing. Any aspect of the awards ceremony process is super-surreal. So give me a stand-out crazy memory from being part of it all.

I have to say, it's when you are walking, when you're doing the red carpet that is all the on-camera interviews, and you're passing people like Henry Winkler and Padma Lakshmi. It's like this whole crazy mix of so many different people from different parts of the entertainment world, and it's as if you've all known each other and you're best friends. We're all here for the same reason.

It becomes this love fest. I never thought ... I couldn't get through the crowds because everybody was like, "I'm so excited for you! This is a long time coming! You deserve it!" And I was like, "Hi, nice to meet you." It was this overwhelming, for me, sense of love and appreciation that is not necessarily what you are around every day in this business.

So that for me was unbelievably heartwarming and it was probably one of the greatest times because
that's a long carpet to get down. It was every step was somebody new, or somebody I've known in my career for 25 years that's like, "We're here! We did it!" That, to me, it was like I could have stood on that carpet for days and just been like, just crying.
Run the Tide Movie Poster
Run the Tide
PG-132016
Based on 5 critics

When his drug-addicted mother leaves prison, a man (Taylor Lautner) kidnaps his younger brother (Nico... Read More

UnREAL TV Show Poster
UnREAL
TV14June 1, 2015
Based on 19 critics

A young staffer deals with the ups and downs of working on a dating competition program. Read More