We caught up with UnReal’s Craig Bierko talk about the hit show, the unique challenge of creating his character, and not having anything to prove.
Brinson: UnReal blew up really quickly. What is it like to be a part of something that connects so quickly and widely with fans?
Bierko: It’s almost like you’re the last person who can answer that question because you’re in the midst of it. You’re in the middle of all of it. I was trained to not read reviews. It’s part of how I keep my head together—don’t read anyone’s opinions on something as sensitive as the work we do except for the director’s. I knew I was getting to see these guys [in the cast] a lot so the numbers we needed to achieve, we must’ve been achieving.
For you, what was the initial draw to this character?
When I first read the script, I was doing a play in the middle of nowhere and I had put on a little weight. I first told them, “If you’ve written something for me, I’d want to go workout before coming out there.” They told me to read the script first and I did. It read like a film. For me, when I read a piece, I want to see whether it’s something I feel compelled to keep turning the page. With this script, I needed to get to the end of it. That was the first thing I noticed. I wanted to know what was going on with these characters. That and the weight didn’t matter.
That first season, what was the biggest challenge in discovering and inhabiting the character of Chet?
The challenging thing was that in my real life, I was dealing with a couple people who were very much like the character I was playing. When I say that, I mean someone [like my character] whose power is not in question, who has money, who is arrogant and who doesn’t believe that the borderline-illegal/certainly immoral things he’s done should stop. It so happened when I received the script, I was surrounded by people like this in many different ways.
It’s impossible for me to play someone if I can’t find a way to live inside his skin. In such a remarkably specific way, I was to play a guy who did the things I was having done to me. Everything Chet did the first season, I’d witnessed firsthand. I don’t consider myself a victim, but I knew that part. There’s no way anyone could have known that. I think the world is a funny place and everything fell into place. I used all of that stuff when becoming this character.
The first season was a mega-hit. Between then and season two, you lost the weight.
I did. I wasn’t physically comfortable. It worked for the first season but at the end of that season, I went to a fat camp and burned it all off really fast. I told the show I was going to do it and they worked it into the story.
In terms of the seismic shifts that are taking place within not just the entertainment industry but in so many industries, UnReal was, in some ways, ahead of the curve on overtly empowering female characters.
There are people, they’re usually writers, who feel the future coming—who have a sense of something coming in the next wave of our culture. I think there was something in the air that was about to burst and wanted to express itself through this writer for this show. I sensed this was something special.
The show itself couldn’t come at a better time. UnReal’s popularity is reflecting a major shift that’s been slowly bubbling under the surface for a while. We have these bad ass, complex female leads and I hope that it’s reflecting something that’s changing for the better.
You made your Broadway debut as the lead in The Music Man. You’ve since done shows like Guys and Dolls and Matilda. How does working on the stage fill you as an artist in a way screen work doesn’t?
In the theatre, where so much can go wrong, the appeal is the living experience of it. It’s closer to a dance. When you’re filming something to put on screen, it’s closer to being a painting. The director is painting something and you’re a brush. In the theatre, you have more control over the evening. I love both mediums—screen and stage—and you have to have an enormous amount of discipline in both. In theatre, you have to have done the work ahead of time. In film, you have to trust your instinct and that the other person in the scene will be there for you as well.
Some people know you as Chet from UnReal, others from The Music Man on Broadway, others as the guy who “played” Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. As an artist, how do you want to be known?
Somewhere in my mid-40s, I realized the reasons I got into this business weren’t working for me anymore. The main part of show business is that you’re doing well as long as everyone is looking at you. I turned 45 and I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t have anything to prove, I’ve done some stuff I’m really proud of, and I don’t have the need to be the center of attention anymore.