Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman on UnReal’s African American Suitor: It's an Important Story to Tell at This Point in Time
We all know Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) are the OG dynamic duo on UnReal’s show within a show, Everlasting. But if you’ve been paying attention at all this season, you might have noticed that Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) has swiftly risen through the production ranks, even becoming Quinn’s so-called new “No. 2” after saving the day with the show's Bachelor-like suitor, Darius (B.J. Britt).
And while Jay’s moral compass doesn’t exactly point due north, he definitely brings a voice of reason, and dare we say empathy to the crazy situations that take place on the set. Last week after Rachel sabotaged Yael (Monica Barbaro) with the now infamous “sh*t-gate” date, it was Jay that tried to put the heinous act into perspective for the group. “You just had to destroy her, didn’t you?” he yelled at Rachel as Quinn was literally bowing down to her.
“Jay has an unwillingness to compromise his integrity and cross a certain line with the contestants,” Bowyer-Chapman told us when he stopped by the InStyle offices. “He really does want to tell a thoughtful story from an African American’s perspective. And he wants to protect the contestants and lift Darius back up while they break through that glass ceiling. His intentions are pure—for the most part.”
The only thing standing in his way? Everlasting’s twisted-toxic environment. “When you’re surrounded by a world of constant lies, manipulation, and deceit, that dark energy is bound to seep into you eventually,” he says. “This season has been a struggle for Jay to do his job and appease his bosses without selling his soul. That means sometimes he has to play the game.”
Ahead of the Season 2 finale (airing tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime), we chatted with the star about all things UnReal, including who he thinks Darius should choose and why this season has made such an impact on fans.
Before you joined the cast of UnReal were you a fan of reality TV?
I watched some shows like The Simple Life and The Anna Nicole Smith Show, but I hadn’t really watched The Bachelor until I was cast on UnReal. I caught a few episodes of Juan Pablo’s season and I watched Ben’s season. And I love the girls from those shows—JoJo Fletcher and Andi Dorfman.
So what made you want to take on the role of Jay?
I saw Marti Noxon’s name listed as the co-creator. She’s someone I’ve had such deep admiration for since I was literally 14 years old watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer [Noxon wrote and produced the series]. She is such a talented and skilled story writer and storyteller. And then along with the script—which I loved—came the short film that the show is based on called Sequin Raze. I knew that if we could bring that same idea to the show, it would be something different, interesting, and groundbreaking.
Noxon also co-created the show with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who was notably a producer on The Bachelor. How has she been a resource for you and your character?
I certainly use her as a source of inspiration. Her time on the show was actually really dark. When you’re a producer, you’re put in that position of working 20-hour days, getting paid nothing, and your whole world becomes the five people you work with directly. These contestants come to trust you because that’s the relationship you set up straight out of the gate. It’s like, "I got you. And I’m going to take care of you, and you’re going to win." But really, you’re doing everything in your power to manipulate them. And when they start to unravel that really messes with you personally. Sarah is a feminist and a humanitarian, so to hear how working on The Bachelor for three years affected her has been helpful for me as I play Jay. No matter how pure his intentions are the show is going to eat away at him slowly, but surely.
How did you help shape the character of Jay?
When we shot the original pilot, Jay was straight. He was a little bit of a womanizer and kind of reminded me of Donald Faison’s character Murray from Clueless. And after I auditioned for the role, I was very much open about who I am and open about my own sexuality as I got to know everybody. A few months later when the show got picked up, Marti called me and said, “We’re going to do some re-writing and we want Jay to be more reflective of who you are. We want to make him an openly gay man.” On so many levels that was beyond a dream come true for me.
The Bachelor has never had an African American lead in 20 seasons. Why was it important for UnReal to have a black suitor in Season 2?
Working closely with Sarah, I knew that she was pitching the idea to the network of having a black suitor and hoping that they would bite. It’s an important story to be telling at this point in time. To be totally honest with you, I didn’t realize that it had never been done before on The Bachelor. I didn’t realize how big of an impact it was going to make on our audience. The writers for our show cover the topics of conversation that I have with my friends and my family. Those really uncomfortable conversations that no one wants to talk about but everybody is aware of. We’re starting the dialogue and letting the audience interpret it.
This show also tackles the complexity of mental illness with Rachel. Does the aftermath of Everlasting affect Jay as much as it does Rachel?
Rachel is a character who is very rare on television because we really openly discuss and explore the trials and tribulations of mental illness. She is someone who clearly has a chemical disorder, has been fed pills, and has ended up with a Band-Aid on top of her issues instead of dealing with the root of it. You see that those issues really started during childhood. That’s why this is a really, really dangerous world for Rachel to exist in because every aspect of it is a trigger for her. It fuels her to destroy these contestants because she’s so damaged that she needs to take it out on someone else. Jay doesn’t have those same wounds. He is affected by it, but it doesn’t destroy him.
Jay’s contestant Tiffany (Kim Matula) is still in the running for the finale, but who do you want Darius to end up with?
I would want Darius to go for the person who he’s genuinely more in love with, but I think in the world of Everlasting you’re just looking for the one that’s going to rub people the wrong way or rub people the right way. For the first time, Jay has a real shot at winning because of Tiffany, the football princess. She can offer Darius a life of luxury and travel and never really having to worry about paying his rent or taking care of his family. Jay is also mixed race, so to see those two together is a beautiful representation of his background.
How would you describe Jay’s super-complicated relationship with Rachel?
Brother-sister. Love-hate, with a capital hate. They used to really support and lift each other up, and then it came to a point where as Rachel is excelling in this world, it’s very clear to Jay that she is destroying herself in the process. And it just baffles him as to why she keeps coming back and putting herself through it time and time again. Shiri and I say that it’s really like a sibling dynamic. As much as they love each other, they’re not shy to call each other out on their bullsh*t and to check each other. I personally love to play the scenes when Shiri and I are going head-to-head. The first couple of takes, we’ll really stick to what’s written on the page. And then from there on, we switch it up. Shiri is an advocate of improv, which really, really forces you to stay on your toes.
Why do you think UnReal has resonated with audiences so much this season?
The concept of showing the behind-the-scenes of reality television has been attempted before, but it just hasn’t been done right. What makes it work is that it’s from the perspective of a young female staffer on the show, who is really good at her job but it’s damaging to her personal existence in the process. I feel like having it be told from that perspective, as opposed to just the contestants’ perspective, is what gives it that level of humanity and darkness that really has struck a cultural chord with our audience. And we’re so grateful for it.