Actor Craig Bierko loves playing bad guys—like really bad guys, not just good guys with a slight edge. “Sometimes you think you’re playing a dark character but if you’re a regular on a network television show, at the end of the day you have to be a character you can take home to Mom,” says Bierko. And the graduate of Blind Brook High School has played a lot of different characters over his 30 year career, in films like Cinderella Man and Long Kiss Goodnight and TV shows including Sex and the City and Boston Legal. He’s also a Tony Award-nominated stage actor. Now, he’s playing what he describes as one of his richest, most interesting bad boy roles yet—and he found it in a place that was, admittedly to him, surprising.
Bierko stars in Lifetime’s original series UnREAL, a smart spoof on The Bachelor and the reality TV genre, created by a former Bachelor producer. He embodies executive producer Chet Wilton, a cocky guy prone to excess, from extramarital affairs to recreational drugs. In other words, the perfect bad guy. Here’s what he has to say about UnREAL, now in its third season, and growing up in Westchester.
What drew you to UnREAL?
I was doing a John Patrick Shanley play at Vassar College—it couldn’t have been a more different environment! I got a call from my agent that Lifetime had this great new project. I admit I rolled my eyes, but this was going to be their attempt to start rebranding the entire network. I didn’t watch [reality TV] but I read the script and it was a real page tuner. I realized it’s not about that world but about these characters and it happens to be set in this world.
So you weren’t a reality TV buff before becoming Chet?
I saw one season of The Bachelor and it was candy. I was always suspicious of the genre and it turns out it was beyond my wildest imagination. I didn’t know how much that was the case until I read the script.
Would you say you’ve gained a new perspective on shows like The Bachelor?
These shows are a Disneyland version of love that we all want to believe and these people sell it. It’s their private hell. They manufacture it and they’re tripping over themselves to find it.
You’ve played dozens of characters over your 30-year career. Do you have one that stands out for you?
I got cast as the bad guy in The Long Kiss Goodnight, an action movie with Geena Davis, which was one of the earlier attempts at making an action hero out of a female. It did okay at the box office but it has a cult following. Sam Jackson’s in it—great cast. It was a great break for me; it just started paying off immediately because I was starting to get darker roles. I think it’s much more interesting and challenging.
What’s it like playing Chet? He’s definitely a troubled guy.
It’s a very well-written show and the characters are very rich. I like to find that moment when you find the actual human being. [Chet’s] drugged up and bloated. I wasn’t comfortable carrying the weight around and said I’m going to lose the weight and they kind of went with it and breathed it into the character. He sobers up and he’s [like] a little boy now, finding Quinn and losing her.
How has Hollywood changed since you started out?
I’m a fairly boring person. I doubt my friends would say that, but I’ve never been a party person like Chet in any way. I used to live out in L.A. and a lot of it came down to parenting. Hollywood never had that affect on me. I did watch plenty of people get ground up in it.
Speaking of parenting, you grew up in Rye Brook and your parents owned a community theater. How did that contribute to you becoming an actor?
When I started doing [plays], I had to audition even though they were running it. My first show was a production of Gypsy and I had to sing in front of everyone. I was 8 or 9. And around the same time I saw my first Broadway show. I was aware that all of these people [at the community theater] had day jobs and then came and did this. I had no perspective so it felt as scary and real as any show I’ve ever done. I have such a strong memory of their work ethic, that they were going to do this through hell or high water, and that has stuck with me. And I loved the community aspect of an ensemble cast and still do—like House M.D.
Do you have good memories of Rye Brook?
I went to Blind Brook High School, which was a very unique school and a product of the times. It was the mid ’70s and Blind Brook was the new high school and all the teachers were hippies, guys who got out of Vietnam. I was never a great student but there was a great arts program. I left with a sense of entitlement. The teacher-student relationship—there was a lot of connection there. I grew up on the Blind Brook Club golf course. We were on the corner of the first hole and we’d climb over the fence. Nixon and Eisenhower used to take a helicopter up for a quick trip. We used to run around the course. We’d get in trouble and the guy would follow us on golf cart. I worked there too; I was a terrible caddy. I remember when I went to college realizing how lucky I was to grow up in that place. When you’re a kid you’re so busy being a kid that you don’t realize it.
Now you’re back in NYC. Why did you come back East?
I thought I needed to separate from my family, but I missed New York. I kind of outgrew whatever I was doing in Los Angeles. I was always aware of a darkness [there].
Most surprising part of your career?
It all goes back to my mom. When my parents got divorced she got a job and kept us in Rye Brook. She’s a very strong person. In the long run, things happen that toughen you up that happen to everyone…it’s no joke about the rejection. You make the best choices you can and then move on.
Speaking of working hard, you’re also contributing to a theater production series in NYC.
My girlfriend Ruffelle created the role of Epipone in Les Miserables—she’s so talented. She’s doing a show called Frances Ruffelle LIVEs in New York. I get to sing a couple songs with her and that’s nice. Patty LuPone came and said it was the best thing she’d ever seen. It’s very unique and searingly honest.
What career advice do you give to young people interested in acting?
If you love it, it kind of takes care of itself. There’s no road map. I was way into comedy, and observed Steve Martin exploding onto the scene and read his book about how hard he worked to create a character that’s nothing like him. And I met him and saw how quiet he was. He had to invent a character that was larger than life. Then he decided there was nowhere else to go with this wild and crazy guy and he had to really work just as hard to make himself life-size. That’s what I took from my education at Blind Brook and my mom—hard, hard work. When I grew up I wanted the business to look like it looked on TV and it’s nothing like that.
“I’m so proud of the show. I liked the idea that it is female forward. I didn’t know it was going to be this “Me Too” moment and all this stuff would be happening three years in, and it’s grist for the mill. It’s a show that’s really about the love between these two female characters [and] I love playing the supporting role. I get to be slightly more broken.”
Photographs by Mitch Jenkins