How Josh Kelly Transformed His 'UnReal' Character

The actor talks the new vindictive angle to his character Jeremy on 'UnREAL" and his personal opinions on reality TV. 

Joseph Briscoe

The first season of Lifetime’s UnREAL showcased the unsparing agendas of expert manipulators: reality tv producers. The scripted drama that unfolds behind the scenes of a dating competition show Everlasting (modeled after real shows like The Bachelor) chronicles the dispassionate efforts of line producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and show runner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) – to manipulate the contestants and get the dramatic footage they need for good ratings. To give Rachel an emotional backstory, Josh Kelly’s role as Rachel’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Jeremy, a camera man for Everlasting, is rooted in innocence. He’s still set on being with her – despite the number of times she’s broken him. Until the second season, of course.

At the end of the first season, Jeremy becomes hell-bent on getting revenge when Rachel breaks his heart and humiliates him for the last time. The second season, which premiered on June 6, finds Quinn and Rachel officially in control of Everlasting… while Jeremy stays on board just so he can degrade Rachel’s character. Whereas Jeremy used to be a disposable prop in Rachel’s greater plan, this new season of UnREAL adds a gripping story arc by padding his character with emotional depth and relatable motives.

Inverse spoke with Kelly by phone to discuss his new role as the vengeful Jeremy, his personal opinions about reality TV, and how his time in the army influenced his career as an actor.

In the new season, you’re clearly on a mission to destroy Rachel. How did that concept help shape your character?

I was excited. I think most actors want to have layers to their characters and on a show where the two female leads are the primary focus of the show, it’s exciting to get to develop your character more. It was cool that they cared enough to do that. They could have kept it as, “Aw Jeremy, he really loves her.” But life is complicated.

Were you expecting that?

After the end of season one, I was like, “Well if they keep me on this show I’m definitely going to have issues with Rachel for sure.”

I know these are two extremes — the pushover Jeremy in the first season and the vengeful person he is now. How do you negotiate that?

They’re both the same person, it’s just he’s heartbroken. In season 2, I drew upon an experience I had in sixth grade with a breakup– because Jeremy’s acting very childish, and I remembered a time where I acted a little stupid when a girl broke up with me to show her how much she had hurt me. I think I learned from it and I haven’t acted that way since sixth grade, but I also haven’t had a girl do to me what Rachel did to Jeremy. I don’t know maybe I’m still that childish, but I’ve just been smarter about the girls I’ve dated.

Could you talk a little bit more about that experience in sixth grade?

I came to school in sweatpants and I wouldn’t talk to anyone or her. I was very obvious about showing her — I wanted her to feel bad about me. I looked shitty and wanted her to feel like she had hurt me and broken my heart. Nancy Spencer. Wrecked my sixth grade heart.

You know what, though? It worked. We ended up getting back together like two weeks after the break up. Probably not a good thing, reinforcing bad behaviors.

It looks like Jeremy’s specifically using Rachel’s history of mental illness to ruin her.

He’s using whatever weakness he can. Even though Rachel isn’t particularly a vain character, in season 2 it seems like she’s starting to care more about how she looks and stuff so he talks about her vanity by attacking her beauty and style. He’s heartbroken. He’s going for whatever vein he can find to cut, you know?

So he still loves her. This isn’t him getting over her, this is him still very much dealing with heartbreak.

He thinks he’s getting over her. He probably thinks he’s over her. But he’s clearly not because if you’re over someone you just don’t care. You’re like, “Ok I’m going to move on with my life.” If you focus on them, you still love them or you still care about them at least. He would have gotten a different job.

It’s kind of masochistic that he’s sticking around.

I thought that’s why he went and talked to her mom at the end of the first season. Because he loves her and wanted to make sure he stayed in her life, even if it’s in a negative way. He’s super hurt by her, and he’s lost her, so how do you keep her around? Call her mom. Threaten her. Go for the throat.

In the first two episodes, I can already see the show aggressively tackling political issues like #BlackLivesMatter and mental health. Are those topics that are going to continue to be a big part of this season?

Talking about African Americans in entertainment, that’s one of the central themes and that’s why they chose to have a black suitor B.J. Britt who’s just done phenomenally well. And mental health is one of the central themes of the whole show, questioning whether any of these people are mentally sound. You’ll see Jeremy driven to his extreme this season.

How do you feel about reality TV in general? How has the show changed your opinion on it?

The point of the show wasn’t to unveil the truth about reality TV, but I think in many ways it has opened some eyes to it. For me it makes it more enjoyable because you can still watch these reality shows and instead of pretending to believe, you get to enjoy them for what they are — which is as entertainment. As much as we like magic tricks, no one likes being lied to. And so these shows there is always this uneasy feeling that you’re being lied to.

It’s just an absurd situation, you’re like ‘People aren’t like this.” And that’s part of the reason people watch, but I think watching our show actually allows you to enjoy these shows more. I’ve seen some dating shows that resemble Everlasting since and it was fascinating to watch because they’ve actually broken the fourth wall since our show has been around.

Josh Kelly

Joseph Briscoe

What’s an example of a show that did that?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of a show called The Bachelor, but actually it was The Bachelorette. I remember the season after our show aired they had the line producers, like the Rachel character, on camera sometimes. Previously they never showed them on camera. There was a scene where a guy was on a ledge and the producer comes out and pulls him back and is like, “Hey are you ok?” And they never did that before. It’s kind of like they were admitting something. For me that was more fun, that was more real. These people are obviously in these staged situations, so show it. Allow us to watch it for what it is. Then we’ll all like it better.

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