The untold truth of Netflix's The Circle

Netflix's The Circle is everything — it's a dating show, a game show, and a reality TV show. It's a high stakes contest with a $100,000 cash prize. There's drama, there's deceit, there's friendship, and, of course, a hot tub. The only catch is that the contestants don't actually get to meet or interact face-to-face until they're leaving the show for good. They solely interact online via a social media platform called The Circle.

At the heart of it, The Circle is Survivor for people who hate leaving the house. Though it originally aired on Channel Four in the U.K., the series has gone stateside — sort of. You never really know what exactly is true when you're architecting an entire reality TV world through the lens of what's essentially a Facebook page. The contestants can be anyone, anywhere.

So, what's the deal with this super mysterious reality show? Is there even a Circle app? Are Emma Watson and her poorly-received social media-themed film somehow part of it all? (They're not). This is the untold truth of The Circle. Sorry, but you've been catfished.

The Circle's filming location is a catfish

The apartment building in The Circle looks like it's nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It somehow appears to be simultaneously in Chicago and Milwaukee. The whole thing doesn't make any sense. There's a reason no one in the United States has spotted a giant, LED-lit circle on an apartment building in a major metropolitan area. According to a Vulture interview with The Circle creator Tim Harcourt, the block of apartments used in the American series is the same block of apartments in Northern England from the original U.K. series.

"We wanted the building to be in a nonspecific location for the U.S. version — the feeling that it could be anywhere," he told Vulture. "However, it didn't make sense to add shots of the U.K. and its cities — in fact, it was confusing — so we added U.S. cityscapes to give it an American feel for the majority of the audience who assume it is somewhere in the U.S." Or as Vulture put it: "The show was catfishing us all the entire time."

In case you ever want to visit The Circle building like it's the stairs in Joker, you'll have to trek all the way to Salford, Manchester. According to CapitalFM, the brand new Adelphi Wharf development rests on the bank of the River Irwell, and an apartment like the ones the contestants have will run you around £145,000 (about $189,297 USD).

Want to compete on The Circle? Hope you like it indoors.

If you already thought you were isolated refreshing Instagram ad infinitum while Neflix asks you if you're still paying attention, that doesn't hold a candle to whatever the cast of the The Circle went through. Per show creator Tim Harcourt's Vulture interview, the apartment block had to be completely isolated for fear of any residents leaking spoilers. It took the producers "four or five months" to find the perfect location, which they ended up more or less taking over "to drill cables and put cameras up."

Not only is the apartment block in almost complete isolation from the general public, the cast obviously can't interact with the other players IRL or it would ruin the whole premise. Speaking with Decider, Harcourt even revealed that they have an "air traffic controller" who makes sure none of the players run into each other outside of their flats. Contestants were only allowed outdoors to smoke cigarettes and use the hot tub.

Thankfully, filming doesn't last that long. According to O: The Oprah Magazine, the cast was sequestered in the apartments for "15 days of filming." Harcourt told Decider that filming lasted "just over three weeks in total." Each person in the cast was also assigned "a producer and a camera operator," who answered questions and kept them company. "[The Circle] isn't a game show about isolation, about solitary confinement," Harcourt told Variety, adding, "We didn't want them to get too lonely."

Sorry, no WiFi for The Circle participants

For a game that supposedly takes place on the internet, there's not a whole lot of internet happening. The cast were completely isolated from the online world, which is pretty typical for reality TV shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor — because boredom always drums up drama — but it seems kind of awful when you're sitting in an apartment alone. According to Variety, cast members "were not allowed to bring phones, laptops or any other devices" into their apartments "because the producers didn't want to risk them looking each other up online." After all, it'd take about 60 seconds to figure out Mercedeze was, indeed, a catfish.

Instead, the cast had to kick it old school. Harcourt told Variety that he allowed them to bring "books and magazines." He also sometimes let them "watch a drama on Netflix or something like that." How does someone even spend time alone without a Netflix binge? According to O: The Oprah Magazine, they were also allowed "pre-dowloaded music, books, games and magazines."

The apartments on The Circle are styled based on cultural taste

The Circle is so overwhelmingly successful that there are four versions, as of this writing: the U.K. series, the American series, the French series, and the Brazilian series. Though they fly in contestants from all over the world, all of the series take place in the same apartment building. The only thing that varies is the aesthetics and the cities they flash back and forth between cuts. Just like they edited in cuts of Chicago and Miluakee in the American series, they flashed pictures of Salvador, Rio, and São Paulo for Brazil. 

In an interview with Vulture, series creator Tim Harcourt revealed that they design the interior of the apartments based on cultural tastes. "We completely redesign the interior, so when you see the Brazilian and French versions in 2020, most of the apartments are unrecognizable," he said. Harcourt revealed that the Brazilian contestants "[liked] it to be very light" and liked "to have lots of plants," Americans "wanted all their creature comforts," and the fridges were fully stocked with food from each culture. According to Decider, contestants got to put in their own grocery orders nearly every day. "We made it feel like home to everyone that's living there," Harcourt told Vulture.

The British version of The Circle was the most vicious

The different cultures across all four series didn't just have apartments that catered to their aesthetic preferences. They had completely different gameplay strategies. In an interview with Vulture, series creator Tim Harcourt revealed that the Americans were the most loyal and "morally centered" of all the contestants. They didn't "turn on each other" and stayed "true to themselves and true to their friendships." By comparison, the Brits were some of the most viciously competitive. "The Brits ... would probably sell their grandmother for a prize. They happily turn on each other," Harcourt said.

France's cast wasn't necessarily as vicious, but they were the smartest game players of all the countries. Harcourt claimed they were "incredibly strategic, intelligent, calculating," while Brazilians were generally more "suspicious of each other" and "wanted to party every night." Americans, on the other hand, enjoyed staying in and reading a good book.

"We saw lots of these different gameplay strategies, as well as the huge cultural differences we have between different people playing," Harcourt told Vulture.

The Circle is real

We know what you're all thinking: is there really an apartment building somewhere with a giant, glowing circle on the outside — and if so how did they make it? The answer is a resounding yes, this actually exists! The iconic Circle circle was not added in post (we're not living in Avatar or Cats, over here), and it was actually made out of aluminum and LED lights. Series creator Tim Harcourt told Vulture that the diameter of the aluminum track is around 25 meters (about 82 feet) and they "[ran] LED lights through and around" the track to complete the iconic fixture.

"In the first season, everyone thought that we had created an effect in postproduction [sic] with the lights, but actually the lights are on the front of the building, reflecting and shining into the players' rooms," he said. "In fact, there's a hotel in Manchester where, if you go up to the 20th floor, there's a bar. You can quite clearly see the lights from our building if it was on."

The voice recognition tech on The Circle is totally fake

Fans spent the majority of The Circle wondering if producers expected us to just pretend that voice technology actually worked the way it did in their custom app. This is something that's pretty hard to get around, and while most of us would guess that the chat app they use doesn't actually exist at all, we'd be totally wrong. In his Vulture interview, series creator Tim Harcourt revealed that the Circle is a real app that's "a bit like WhatsApp, I suppose, with bells and whistles and lots of extra bits." Those "extra bits" turn out to be humans because as anyone who's ever spoken to Alexa or Siri knows: voice technology still isn't that great.

"When we first set out, we tried to use it all by voice recognition," Harcourt told Vulture. "If we had done voice recognition to the level that the Circle does it, I'd probably have a job working for Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates by now."

Instead, the app uses producers who transcribe what contestants say and "[push it] to the next room." Hey, where does it say an app can't be partially human?

Mercedeze is a real person

Fans know Mercedeze by her sexy Circle photos and the fact that she looks absolutely nothing like Karyn Blanco. In real life, Mercedeze does actually exist, but in the words of Mariah Carey, Blanco doesn't know her — or at least she didn't when she chose to use her identity. 

In an interview with Vulture, series creator Tim Harcourt revealed that Blanco wanted to play as a catfish but had trouble finding someone whose profile she wanted to use that she already knew in real life. Instead, Blanco provided producers with "a number of people and profiles that maybe she knew of" who she could pose as. The producers then helped Blanco reach out to legally license the photos and let the user "know the upside and downside of the fact that their photos are being used."

Eventually Blanco did meet her catfish alter-ego. In an interview with O: The Oprah Magazine, the reality contestant revealed that Mercedeze DM'd her after the show and she ended up putting together a care package of The Circle memorabilia for the silent star. "And when I saw the message I replied to her so quickly, like 'Thank you so much. I really hope I did you justice.' With that conversation we've actually become pretty cool," Blanco said.

Joey Sasso almost passed on The Circle

Joey Sasso quickly became a fan favorite on The Circle thanks to his happy-go-lucky demeanor and unabashed flirtation with just about every single woman on the app. Sadly, there was almost a world in which we never knew the star or his eggplant emojis. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Sasso revealed that he had only seen a trailer for the U.K. version when he got the audition for the American series and almost didn't take the job.

"I was hesitant just because I am an actor," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I've been in the business so many years and am used to this stigma that doing reality TV means the death of your career. I turned down other reality opportunities before, but there's never one that I heard of that's quite like this, where I can truly just go in and represent myself."

Sasso ultimately decided to give the TV show a shot because it didn't take place in a house where people were "starting drama, getting drunk, and hooking up with people" like other reality shows. Spoiler alert: his participation ended up being well worth it. The star walked away with the $100,000 prize, and he plans to save a big chunk as "a cushion" while he's "chasing [his] career and doing what [he has] to do. Being a bartender, working nights is hard work."

The Circle has an on-set therapist

Reality TV and therapy go hand in hand, and in the particular case of The Circle, it's not exactly easy to deal with that sort of competition and isolation from the world. According to The Huffington Post, one of the first reality shows to hire a therapist for contestants was Big Brother, and plenty others followed suit.

The Circle isn't exactly The Swan, the controversial series that had contestants undergo major plastic surgery and weeks of intensive therapy to cope with said plastic surgery, but nonetheless, it did have a therapist available for contestants despite the show's overall wholesome nature. Contestant Shubham Goel confirmed to Cosmopolitan that the cast "could see [the therapist] whenever [they] wanted." (Even in the hot tub?) Series creator Tim Harcourt elaborated to Decider that "[They were called upon] whenever anyone felt stressed or just wanted someone to talk to who was outside the game."

Honestly, that probably helps with the isolation just a little bit, but according to Harcourt's Decider interview, the contestants didn't really seem to mind. "They loved the solitude," he said.

Contestants on The Circle create their own identities

A lot of reality shows have a very loose definition of the word "reality," but producers on The Circle don't use a heavy hand when curating drama. According to series creator Tim Harcourt's Decider interview, the producers really only explain the rules to the contestants and hang out with them in person so they're not completely alone. They don't make anyone become a catfish for the drama, and players get to play the game however they want. "We are very strict that we want the contestants to own their own strategies, so we don't steer players to any identities," Harcourt said.

Of course, contestants need to keep things within reason. There are some rules, one of the biggest being that "blocked contestants can't overtly out other contestants." Harcourt also told Decider that's one of the reasons that Antonio didn't out Mercedeze when the pair finally met face-to-face. The game is also only played during a certain window so contestants don't have their apps buzzing while they're trying to sleep. What's that like?

The cast of The Circle kept a group chat going after the show

If you ever needed any evidence that online friendships are the real deal, this is it. The cast of The Circle didn't get to physically hangout with each other while filming, but they managed to maintain strong friendships outside of the series. Even Joey Sasso and Shubham Goel have kept their bromance going strong.

According to O: The Oprah Magazine, Karyn Blanco and Goel confirmed that the cast still communicate. They've got an active group chat going even though they all live in different parts of the country, though we're guessing the group chat isn't on The Circle, because producers would probably be exhausted with all that voice recognition translation. Sasso even posted a screenshot on Instagram from an hour-long conversation he had with Goel. "Yes people that's right, the bromance is still real. Nothing fake about it. Love my boy," he wrote.

Similarly, Goel spoke fondly of his bromance with Sasso to Cosmopolitan. "Me and Joey still keep in touch. ...When I'm back [in Los Angeles], we're definitely gonna kick it," he said. "I'm hoping to kick it, like, three or four times a week. With Joey, I one hundred percent know that our relationship from [The Circle] is going to be just as strong outside of it."