Directed by Sundance favorite Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband and the film's star, Brett Gelman, "Lemon" mixes quirky family dysfunction with a haunting underbelly of despair and longing (think Wes Anderson meets Paul Thomas Anderson), casting Appleby as Ruthie, the well-meaning (if often annoyingly demanding in customer service calls), very pregnant sister of Gelman's falling-apart lead, Isaac.
As Appleby explains to Moviefone, the role provided a fun departure from her hit series "UnREAL" -- which she assures us has regained its creative footing in its upcoming third season -- her burgeoning producing and directing career, and her very real home life with the Hollywood crowd's reigning restaurateur Jon Shook (Jon & Vinny's, Animal, Son of a Gun) and their children.
Moviefone: You look like you had a lot of fun with this one.
Shiri Appleby: A lot of fun. That's why I wanted to do it. It felt so different from some of the stuff I've been doing lately.
A very different role for you, and just a very different kind of movie. What did you respond to in the very specific voice of Janicza Bravo that you saw here?
I mean, when I saw the movie I had no idea that that was the movie that I was making that I felt like what was on the page was a really strong female character ... Janicza, when I spoke to her on the phone was really like, "Ruthie is the light of this family." It's obviously a very dark, heavy family, and the fact that she's sort of the sparkly energy within this group, I really respond to that.
And I really liked the idea that I was in the handful of beats that I'm in the movie, I was emotionally going all over the place. So I just felt like it was a great, well-written role, and it was a well-written script, and then I watched Janicza's shorts and I was incredibly impressed with her, and I just knew that she would make an outstanding first feature, and I wanted to be a part of it.
The voice of the character itself, especially when she's on her cell phone -- I feel like I've been next to this woman in the grocery store or the movie theater.
She's not aware of how loud she's screaming on the phone demanding what it is she wants.
How fun was that for you, to kind of catch that vibe and to act out those half-heard conversations?
It was really fun, but at the same time I'm talking to no one! "Does this feel believable? I'm kind of coming off sort of bitchy. How's this gonna play?" But at the same time she pushed me to go farther and go really mean and really dark, and so just being able to stretch in that way was something that I was really attracted to.
Did you pick up from anybody that you'd run into in public that was sort of that person?
Myself, maybe, at times! It's just life. We've all encountered those moments, and especially when she's a young mother, life is stressful, she's pregnant again. The weight of the world is constantly on you physically when you're pregnant, and so if things aren't going your way, it's cause for anxiety.
How nice that with all of the great actors that were recruited for this that you guys did get one big scene where most of you were together. What was that experience like?
Well, all the actors in the movie were people that I would hope to work with. I became really close with Rhea Perlman. Martin [Starr] and I have known each other since "Roswell," so it was nice to spend some time together, and it was a group of people that you really respected.
Anybody that you had any downtime with, I felt like "I'm gonna take advantage of this and have some kind of meaningful conversation." There's always something to pick up and learn from people, so it was one of those moments when you're like I feel really grateful that they thought of me for this role. People don't normally think of me for a comedy, so it was really great to be given this opportunity, and to be surrounded by people that you really respect and admire.
It's been cool to see the second act that you've been having. You've been doing some really adventurous stuff, and now you've got a production shingle going. What are you thinking about for the future?
I've been working since I was a kid in this business, and I feel like I'm starting my career over again. I go to work every day at Appletree. We're busy trying to sell shows and option books and articles, so it's been really exciting cause I'm learning a totally different side of the business and now I've got a handle on it and putting things together and it's really finding my voice.
The role of the actor is somewhat limited in the sense that your job is to perform what somebody else has in mind, it's sort of kind of stay out of the way, and so now to have a strong voice and put shows together ... These are the themes and the conversations I'd like to be having that feels really great and to now be on the set as a director and say, "This is the way I imagine it," and being able to make my days and keep things moving.
And on "UnREAL" it's really wonderful – being an actor on a show and directing, you're like, "There's a lot of things that have been untapped here." How do we show the vulnerable sides of Constance [Zimmer's] character, and how do we show tougher moments of Rachel, and how do we get inside of her psyche? And it's been really exciting for me, again, to just have a voice.
So in terms of moving forward, I'm really grateful that "UnREAL" is getting another season, but I'm really looking to the future of like how do I really create this production shingle to be a really strong voice and a real provider of female stories? That's something I'm really, really inspired and passionate, working really hard towards. And I really want to continue to direct and helm those things, and find young writers that I really believe in and start to champion them.
Had that always been a burning desire in your earliest acting days?
So you didn't turn a corner and say, "I've gotta make shows for me to act in"?
No, and it's really not even about that. People are like, "Do you want to be in these," I'm like "Right now I just want to get these shows on the air!" I just really want to have success in this.
Yes, I always sort of admired a lot of directors. I dated a lot of directors, and I had a wonderful female director I worked with, Liz Allan, and she really gave me the push. I produced for the first time this web series for Alloway called "Dating Rules for my Future Self" and I was really committed from day one of prep to the last day of edit, and when they asked me to star in the second season, she said "Tell them you'll only do it if you can direct." And so, she really gave me the push to stand up and say "I'm ready to do this." I really learned that it's constantly using your voice and saying "I'm ready for more." Right now, I'm pushing and asking for two episodes in the second season.
And what's been wonderful is that I do have this vast amount of experience and I've worked with really wonderful directors from Mike Nichols to David Gordon Green to J.J. Abrams. I'm saying like, I know how they all did it, from being on this side of things, so how do I take what I've learned from them and create my own style. I've been taught by some of the greatest people at it, so I'm really excited about having my shot.
And there's the day job, of course, on "UnREAL."
I love acting. Yeah, we start shooting the fourth season October 17th. We'll probably finish shooting the fourth season before the third season airs. So that will be interesting, and then we will see how the third season does.
I know some people thought that there were things a bit off about Season 2. Did you feel like it needed a course correction for Season 3?
Yeah, it needed a course correction. Season 2 was not us at our best, by any means. I think that there was a lot of problems behind the scenes. And so, I think we've corrected a lot of those problems, and Stacy Rukeyser ran a really solid third season. She really came in and stabilized the show, and the show got back to what the show is about, which is feminism.
Really, we don't need to attack any other conversations. I think the show should stick with what it's been really set up to achieve, and the third season is really about "Can a successful woman find love with a man without having to put herself down?" And we really explore that conversation, and then Rachel really sort of does a feminist thing, which is she attacks her past and says "How am I going to fix my past, so I can be a better version of myself today and move forward and create a better life for myself?"
So, it gets really deep and quite dark, which tends to happen in "UnREAL," and we end up in a really good place. And, I feel like the show creatively will feel much stronger than it was in the second season.
Because it is all about feminism, how did the show affect or change you?
Oh my goodness. Well, it's given my whole career a whole other boost again, so that's been wonderful. But you're at the forefront of having a conversation of what is life like for women, so women are connecting to the show and to you in different ways. A lot of women feel like there are such expectations on them that they can't be certain ways, and this character really discusses that.
And also, who she is and what she believes, she believes she is a feminist but yet her job is telling her to tear women down. And so women are constantly feeling at odds about those things, and I don't know if those were conversations that I was completely aware of until I became part of the show and started having the dialogue and hearing other women speak. That's been really enjoyable. Being able to actually connect with the people that are watching the show in that deeper way has been great.
And the show's also allowed me to produce, and has allowed me to direct, so it's given me a platform. I've always felt like I've had this potential inside, but they're allowing me to actually make it happen.
Are you keeping an eye on the actual reality series world? Because this has been a wild year for news coming out of shows like the ones "UnREAL" satirizes.
Yes -- "Bachelor in Paradise." I really sure hope that that's what our show is about in the fourth season because it's ripe for conversation. One of the successes of the second season, for as shaky as the story telling was, is we did have the first black bachelor, and they just had the first black bachelorette. And so to think that we did pave a way, there is success in that.
Have you had conversations since "UnREAL" came out with people who have actually participated in shows like "The Bachelor"?
Endlessly, and they all want to say "Oh the show's based on me. The show's based on me, right?"
That's why they're on shows like that.
Yeah, and producers on the show are saying it, too, and I'm like "I'm pretty sure I know exactly who this character is written about and it's not you," but it's wild that so many people relate to it. So it's interesting that so many people have stories or personal connections to it. I mean, also, reality TV is a big part of our world today. The man running the world is a reality star.
What's been fun and/or weird about being part of a Hollywood power couple?
Oh, with Jon? The great part is that we definitely have our own careers, and that's really wonderful for us as a family, for both people to feel like individuals and to have our own successes, and so that's really great.
Our jobs sometimes [converge]: he's catering the Emmy party, but he's catering the Emmy party. And I'm like, "You have to come with me," and he's like, "Oh my God, please don't make me go to any of those award shows."
So there's a normalcy to it and I think we are both championing for the other person to be more successful. Like, we are both ready to retire if the other person can figure it out, so that's a big thing. I mean, I'm just endlessly proud of him, and he's really passionate, and really inspiring, and he's a really great person to wake up next to.
It's great that as things are happening for both of you, you're career-adjacent. You're not deep in the exact same thing.
No, no, no. And again, he can be totally be much more successful and it's totally fine.
Do you cook for him?
All the time. People are like, "Does he cook?" He doesn't really cook at home that much because by the time he comes home he's like, "Don't make me look at a knife." It's a lot of Thai food. It's a lot of Thai food delivery, and I make food for the kids and for the family, but he usually fixes it.
What else has been on your mind, away from work?
I'm really focused on my kids. My whole life, when I'm not at work, is really on "How do you raise good people and what does that really mean?" Now we are looking at schools, and it's like, what am I trying to achieve by sending my kids to school. Do I need my kids to go to Harvard? Do I need my kids to go to Stanford? Or do I just need them to find something that they're passionate about, that makes them excited? And, how do you give that to your kids? It's not a huge cause, but that's a huge cause to me because these are the two little people that I'm responsible for.
It is very hard to be a working woman because you take time away from your children but you have to keep reminding yourself, "I'm a role model." My daughter sees what it means to go on set and her mommy works, her mommy can be the boss and women can achieve that. And for my young son to see a woman also have full careers and full lives, and hopefully both kids will see that their parents work really hard for the life that they're living. It's really important to me.