In reimagining the familiar tropes of summer blockbusters—namely, D.C. superheroes and glamorous secret agents—Wonder Woman and the forthcoming Atomic Blonde seem intent on reminding audiences of the appeal of strong, powerful, and intelligent women. On a smaller scale, GLOW, the new hit series on Netflix, is accomplishing this same feat through a rather unexpected lens: professional wrestling. Inspired by the 80’s female pro-wrestling show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, GLOW, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and co-produced by Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), follows a group of women with no previous experience who sign on to wrestle each other in a live TV show. Buoyed by their newfound physical skills and wrestling alter egos, they unlock untapped reservoirs within themselves and form bonds with their unlikely co-stars.
Emerging from this series as the ultimate platonic power couple are the actresses Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, who play best-friends-turned-wrestling nemeses Ruth and Debbie, respectively. A struggling actress with a predilection for Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, Ruth stumbles into the GLOW ring only to find herself pitted against her best friend Debbie, a soap star and new mother, whom she has betrayed in the series’s pilot.
Here, Brie, of Community and Mad Men fame and Gilpin, known for her work on Nurse Jackie and Masters of Sex, discuss body slamming, leotards, and body awareness (warning: there are spoilers for those who haven’t made it past episode 8).
The show is brilliant. I do feel like in lesser hands a show about female pro-wrestling could go very wrong. For each of you when you got the pitches, did you know right away it would be great or did you need some coaxing to get there?
Alison Brie: I knew right away, after hearing that Jenji [Kohan] was involved. When I first heard the pitch, it sounded really exciting and I knew more than anything that it would be unique. I was like, This is such a bizarre idea. And after googling the original show and seeing a few clips I was like, I can’t believe no one has mined this already for content. And after reading the pilot, the first script written by Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch], I was like, Oh, it’s really good… there’s so much more to it than I would have imagined.
Betty Gilpin: And I knew Liz and Carly first as playwrights, so I knew their top priority is to write an authentic story about a person really experiencing something that’s affecting them in a real way. I think in the wrong hands this could be a story about a bunch of quirky characters going through something crazy.
AB: Underdogs challenging the world!
BG: But with Liz and Carly at the helm I knew that it would be a true, authentic story first, no matter how much glitter was involved.
How much of the appeal was the wrestling, and how much your characters?
BG: It was sort of a dream challenge as an actor because you get to play two different characters in sort of two different genres. And the wrestling world was so foreign to me, and it’s such a huge part of this country, strangely, so it felt like you were cracking the door into this whole colorful world that has existed for so many years. And outside of the ring these characters are so layered and complex and have so much tumult going through their lives that it’s fun to take that churning of pain that each of them has going on personally, and sort of apply that to what they have going on in the ring.
AB: Yeah, it’s a dream job. I think all those things were equally appealing. This character is so compelling, I connect with her in such a deep way. Also, to be working with so many women, to have interesting storylines for so many characters and then to add on the wrestling and get to do something very physical and show that side of ourselves. I think for a lot of women on the show and certainly for myself, it’s an unexpected side. That’s exciting and dangerous to me. And even now, when you tell people you’re working on a wrestling show that they kind of cock their head a little and are like, “Really? You?”
Alison, you’ve spoken about how you really had to fight for this role because people perceived you more like the “good-girl” roles you’ve played. And Betty, you wrote an essay about how your body image has affected your confidence. How much of going after these roles was finding the confidence to do it, and how much of it was convincing other people that you could do it?
AB: The show is all about all of these women defying the odds on a constant basis, and proving people around them wrong, and also proving to themselves that they’re capable of much more than they even imagined. It was life imitating art while we were learning to wrestle. I don’t think I doubted that I would be able to wrestle and handle the material on this show. I knew in my heart this is going to be really fun; I can’t wait to show the world that I can tap into this other thing. But then when we got there and actually started doing it, I do think we were surprising ourselves all the time. Just because my knowledge of wrestling is so minimal that you maybe don’t realize all the things you could be afraid of. When you’re learning stuff, you want to have zero hesitation because it’s a job and we’re all doing this together… it was definitely confidence-building and empowering. And cool the way that every woman on the show just ran at this challenge. There was no hesitation, ever. I feel like we learned things that were very difficult, and sometimes emotions ran very high when we were trying to figure out how to crack a new move. But everybody was going full force and that bounty of support and adrenaline and excitement was thrilling and helped all of us to embrace what we were doing.
BG: The fact that our bodies, each one of our bodies was needed as an additional, powerful force for a scene… On previous jobs, I had always dreaded the wide shots because for me a character is so about what’s going on in my brain and what I’m emoting—and to me that’s all up here, from the chin up. And for the wide shot I have to spend half my time thinking cerebrally but also I have to pop my calf muscle out and suck it in… I always thought of myself as Betty from the neck down and the character from the neck up. And from day one on this show it was clear that all of us were required to be these characters from our scalp to our toes in a very powerful and necessary way.
AB: In terms of how we related to our bodies, it was a game changer. As Betty is saying, as actresses and as a society, sometimes I feel like women are made to be almost hyper aware of their bodies in a very unhealthy way. Figuring out what the standard of beauty is and trying to fit into that box. And this was about being one with our bodies rather than being at odds with our bodies. It wasn’t about setting outlandish expectations for our own bodies—it was about embracing our strengths and working with our bodies, feeling like athletes, feeding and fueling our bodies in a literal way with calories and also in an emotional way. You needed confidence, you wanted to build yourself up and think, I can do this, I’m capable. And when I was thinking about my body, I was seldom thinking about how it actually looked and more thinking about what it can do.
BG: I have a rescue dog, and he grew up in the Bronx and was in a cage forever. And seeing him for the first time in the country, in a field for the first time running at full force—I kind of felt that way about my body. That I had not let it do the things it was capable of doing. This show made me realize that so much of the way that people treated me and treated my body and the male gaze had seeped into the way that I spoke to myself. And I was taking exercise classes that were very focused on small movements and small weights and small, tiny, little ballet classes that…
AB: … and where the goal is just to get as small as possible.
BG: And nothing to do with function at all. Actually it does the opposite—it sort of separates the muscle from your bones. I would take all these exercise classes and go on a hike and be winded at the top because I was doing nothing for my heart. So it felt like I was running full force through a field for the first time. My body was like, I’ve been able to jump this high for years!
And you guys trained for a month prior to shooting with the pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero, Jr.. And I know you, Alison, worked with a trainer additionally, I’ve seen your six pull-ups…
AB: Eleven! There have been more videos since you watched, thank you.
And I imagine, Betty, you also went into it knowing you had to build up your strength to endure everything.
BG: I worked with this lady Cadence Dubus, she runs Brooklyn Strength here in Brooklyn. It’s sort of a blend of physical therapy and kettlebell training and Pilates, and there’s no Kesha or purple lighting or talking about working off pie. Ever. It’s all about strength.
The scenes in the show where everybody’s in the gym and trying to learn moves, is that an accurate depiction of the early stages for you as actresses preparing for shooting?
AB: Yes and no. Our writers did sit in on some of our wrestling training so they could get an idea of what the preliminary training was like. So there were aspects like the order in which we learned stuff; we did start with footwork and locking up and we did sort of learn how to run the ropes very early on. But first of all, the characters on the show are getting trained by Cherry Bang [actress Sydelle Noel], who is not a pro-wrestler. We were trained by Chavo Guerrero Jr., who has been wrestling his entire life. So there was much more knowledge and a lot less guess work. Also, our characters all come with their own baggage; some women in the first couple of episodes maybe butt heads a little and have their differences. And our experience couldn’t have been more opposite: it was so supportive and such a nice way to bond with these women prior to shooting. It was overwhelmingly positive.
BG: It was kumbaya on crack. We were basically all holding hands all the time. It reminded me of the energy of a kid’s birthday party when the cake first comes out and everyone’s like, We can’t wait!
AB: Because it was partial excitement of everyone was just so jazzed to have this job. And then amped up about learning how to wrestle. I feel like if anything, it was everyone being like, When do we learn the big moves? And Chavo being like, First, sit on the ground, feel what the mat feels like.
What does the mat feel like? What does it feel like to slam into it?
AB: It’s hard. You can see some of the real bruises on the show. Anytime you see a bruise on my body, it’s real.
BG: Yeah, it’s a shock to the system the first time it happens. And so much of acting school is so touchy feely, so “whenever you’re ready.” And indoor voices. And this was the complete opposite.
AB: Go! Now! No hesitation!
BG: And one of the times I tried the cross-body splash, which is jumping off the ropes—I had been doing well with it and then I did it again and it wasn’t as good. And I expected the indoor voices of yore that I was used to, to tell me that it was beautiful in its own way. And I stood up and Chavo looked me in the eyes and said, “That was weak.” And I expected tears to spring to my eyes and instead I was like, I love that! You’re right—it was weak! And then I cried later.
AB: It’s true, most of us only cried out of frustration, like, I know I can get this move, I’m doing it again! People would do things until they got them. Chavo would be like, “I think we’re good for today and we can move on.” And I would be like, “No, I want to do that front bump again, slam my face into this mat.”
As a viewer, you start to realize that pro wrestling is very much like dancing. You’re participating in this choreographed dance together. How did you two establish the physical chemistry that is necessary for that?
AB: It came right away. And we had auditioned together, so it was already there.
BG: We were rooting for each other to get [the roles].
AB: And we had time in L.A. together before we started shooting and we did bonding things, like we went to a Pat Benatar concert. And a Melissa Etheridge concert.
BG: Melissa Etheridge was the basis of everything!
AB: We went into a Pat Benatar concert and came out wearing Melissa Etheridge t-shirts!
When I interviewed Gayle Rankin [who plays Sheila the She Wolf], she mentioned that she practiced some of her wrestling moves on her boyfriend. Did you practice with your significant others or any friends?
AB: I practiced with my cat.
You must have been covered in scratches?
AB: No, not at all. It was easy. Because the key is the other person has to be willing to give in. I tried wrestling with my husband [Dave Franco], but he was always pushing back, he wouldn’t let go and give in. So I gave up and went with my cat instead and that worked much better. Though my cat didn’t really give me much back.
BG: I practiced with a 4-year-old because I was trying to impress him with my wrestling skills. But it was also the same, he kept fighting me.
It’s interesting because the rivalry between Ruth and Debbie is obviously integral to both their wrestling and the ways in which their characters develop outside the ring. But it’s not presented as that cliché of a cat fight.
AB: There’s a lot of content and a lot of perception in the world of women being at odds with each other, and female relationships being so catty and difficult, and this show is so celebrating the opposite of that. It’s all these women who don’t seem to have a place in society or have had the opportunity to shine, and they find it in wrestling. But they also discover bonds with people they never would have met. All the women are isolated in their own way and when they come together and form this new community,.
The abortion scene and storyline in episode 8 was so beautifully handled. I’m curious what you thought of that plotline in the context of the show and why that was so important to incorporate?
AB: I loved the way that it was handled. I loved that episode. I think so often when that subject matter is tackled in the media it’s about shaming women and making them feel guilty about this action that should just be a woman’s right. And it currently is, in a lot of places for as long as possible. And this show is about women’s bodies, it’s about women taking ownership of their bodies. And I think that’s what that episode is about, is Ruth being able to make her own decision about her body. It’s not a difficult decision to make. She certainly has feelings and emotions about that decision and about the thing that caused her to be in this situation, which again, comes back to this friendship, and I think it pulls up a lot of those emotions for her. But the actual action is not a difficult decision. And that’s okay. And I think it’s important for young women to see that you’re allowed to make that decision for yourself and it’s okay. It doesn’t have to guilt you or shame you or stay with you for the rest of your life. You go on.
On a more superficial level, the costumes…
AB: The clothes were great!
The leotards: I can only imagine given everything you were doing, that you didn’t even think twice about wearing leotards for so much of the show.
AB: I’ve never felt more comfortable. And I loved being in a leotard every day. It was actually super freeing and easy. It was the easiest costume I’ve ever worn.
BG: Yeah I never had that feeling where I’ve had on other jobs, like, I’m taking off my warming jacket and here’s my costume, yes it’s really small… this I was walking around in the crafty truck in a tiny bathing suit and Capezio tights, like, housing slices of turkey.
AB: We just existed in them all the time! Eating in them. Because again, this speaks to the environment on set: it was a community of women. We were 14 women in the cast, our showrunners are women, most of our writers are women, many of our directors are women. A lot of our crew were dudes, we had some women, but also the dudes were great. It was such a wonderful environment, Liz and Carly set a tone, and all of us, too, being like: this is our set and we will wear what we want and we will be how we’re going to be.
BG: And what will jiggle will jiggle.
AB: There was no sense of feeling like you needed to be polite or look attractive. It was not at the forefront of our minds. We had other goals to achieve.
You’re both shooting other projects now. Alison, you’re working on the Steven Spielberg film The Papers, in which you play Lally Weymouth, and Betty, you’re shooting Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson. Has that sense of thinking of your body less as an aesthetic and more as an instrument overflowed into your other work?
AB: Oh, definitely. I think this show changed my life and I carry with me those lessons all the time. And not one hundred percent of the time.
We’re all human!
AB: Yes, and I think you start talking about this stuff and everyone is like, Wow, I guess the goal is to feel like that! Her ideals are perfect! And I’m like, No, no, no, I still have days like this morning where I go, Do I feel like taking a photo today? I don’t know. But I will say the empowerment, the confidence has stuck with me in a really cool way. The thing I’m shooting now is not as physical at all, but every actor knows the first moment of your costume fitting where you have to take off all of your clothes and your body will be analyzed and dressed in the most flattering way… and it can be a soul crushing experience at times. And this was not that way at all, I was just like, I love my body now, the clothes will fit me how they fit me, everything is going to be fine. I didn’t even think about it. And it’s great because then you’re able to put clothes on and go, Yeah, this looks like my character, how cool for the movie. It’s not about how I look physically.
BG: Yes, this movie I’m working on there’s two realities—there’s the real world and then there’s a dream sequence, and everyone’s a little shinier in the dream sequence world. And yeah, the GLOW sensibility of my body being part of my character has definitely bled into this job. In the scenes where it’s the real world, I’m hunched over and have my stomach pushed out and am making unattractive weird sneeze faces. In the dream world I feel ready to body slam, I would say. I’m standing taller.
Ruth was sort of the villain inside the ring, and arguably outside; Debbie was the scorned friend for whom everyone had sympathy. Hypothetically, would you two ever want to swap villain and good girl roles?
BG: Totally. So the face and the heel, good guy, bad guy. I would love to be the heel, sort of Cruella de Vil character? I would love that.
AB: I would not want to be the face. I love being a heel. It’s so fun. It would be so strange, I feel like, to be the face at this point. But I would love for Ruth to have more redeemable moments, sure, sure. That would be fun.
BG: She works Habitat for Humanity in Season 2.
Do you have any favorite wrestling moves you learned?
AB: I love doing the suplex [lifting your opponent over your head and slamming down onto the mat on their back]. I really enjoyed learning that one. It’s a very flashy move and it’s kind of a big move, but when you’re locked in with someone and you know they know what they’re doing, it’s not as scary as it seems. And I got to be on both sides of it, which was so cool, to be suplexed and then get to do it to someone else. I also think I enjoy being body slammed.
AB: Well, mostly by Betty.
BG: I love just the simple getting your head thrown into the turn buckle, to sell that with some 80s hair.
AB: And it actually looks great.
BG: It does! It looks like it hurt.
A lot of it looks like it hurt.
AB: And most of it did.
BG: I also love the way people get into the ring.
AB: Ohh, I love your entrance into the ring in the final episode. It’s like [co-star] Kia [Stevens, who plays Tamme “The Welfare Queen” Dawson]. I always love the way she slides in. The way she slides in in episode 7, I’m like, Yes!
BG: Yeah, we’re about to get drinks with Kimmy [Gatewood] and Rebekka [Johnson] who play Stacey [Beswick] and Dawn [Rivecca].
AB: It’s going to be a real rumble. No, we’re probably just going to sit and drink.
BG: And compliment each other.
Charlize Theron on Atomic Blonde and James Bond: