Why the star of new wrestling drama GLOW had to fight for the role
Alison Brie is sleepy. Jetlagged from flying in from LA to promote her latest show, women’s wrestling drama GLOW, she’s just woken up from an afternoon power nap and her California drawl is punctuated by yawns and lazy laughter. It’s OK, because I’m sleep-deprived too, having stayed up into the small hours bingeing on the latest Netflix series from the creators of Orange is the New Black.
“Yeah, bingeing on Netflix, I love doing that too,” she says, pleased that GLOW appears to have that just stay-awake-and-watch-one-more-episode effect that made OITNB such a hit.
Set in 1980s Los Angeles, GLOW is all about women’s wrestling in all its big hair, big slams and tiny Lycra leotard glory. Based on the real story of the 1980s female wrestling league, it has the same executive producers, Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann, as OITNB and is co-created by Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (OITNB).
Brie plays Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress, too meek and “real” to get a gig until she is called to audition for a new weekly professional wrestling show, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling or GLOW. Dismissive at first because she sees herself as a serious actor, when she’s rejected as not quite right again, she comes out fighting, determined to win a place in the ring, and stay there.
“Ruth is at the end of her rope but very determined and very passionate about performing. As soon as she gets told again she doesn’t have the right look, it lights a fire under her and she fights to stay part of it. Although she scoffs at first, she finds it a really creative and challenging outlet. Plus, she wants to be liked by her peers.”
Like Orange is the New Black, with its ensemble cast of female characters, GLOW is as much about the interpersonal relationships of the women as it is about the action. As it develops they learn self-awareness as well as how to execute everything from a suplex to a choke slam.
“Yeah, we’re watching these women learn how to wrestle and about their strengths and weaknesses, who they want to be. Ruth realises that how people see her is not how she’s always envisioned herself. She believes herself a great actress, but feels invisible and not respected. Now she steps forward as a leader for this group of women.”
Much of the challenge to Ruth comes from one of the few male characters in GLOW, washed up producer Sam, played by US comedian Marc Maron, who can’t decide what he likes least about her, the face or, the personality.
“Marc couldn’t have been better cast for this role, and we had very natural chemistry on set,” she says. “Sam finds Ruth grating, obnoxious and desperate, but her determination wins him over and they realise they have the same goal, which is to make a great show. Sam also hasn’t lived up to his potential and realised his dreams. This show is so off the mark of what they imagined for themselves, but they realise that it could be their thing, their legacy.”
Fighting for a role is something that Brie, born in LA, raised in a Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Jewish household and trained at the California Institute of the Arts, has experience of herself. Never more so than for the part in GLOW, in a classic case of life mirroring art.
“Oh yeah, I was told many times by my agent they don’t think you’re right for the role. So I had to work to win them over and I felt myself becoming more and more like the character every time I came in again to audition. It’s very satisfying to fight for something you really believe in and prove people wrong.”
So what was it about Brie they weren’t sure about? Now 34, she has hit shows on her CV, with eight years as Trudy Campbell in Mad Men and six seasons as Annie Edison in college sitcom Community. She’s done comedy with How To Be Single, Sleeping with Other People with Rebel Wilson, Get Hard with Will Ferrell, The Five Year Engagement and The Lego Movie. Then there’s her voicing of Diana Nguyen, a feminist Vietnamese American ghostwriter in the off-the-wall animation comedy Bojack Horseman. Brie also voices other characters in the show, including Cow Waitress, an unnamed server with a bad attitude and Vincent Adultman (three kids stacked on top of each other in a trench coat). “It’s a really fun space to be, to experiment with different voices, being silly and surprising yourself,” she says. Then there’s her physique, which is super fit with daily workouts with a personal trainer.
So was it her face, was she “too real” to play real or could the GLOW casting directors initially not see past her more polished former roles?
She laughs as she ponders the question.
“Everything is third hand, but I was told I was not quite what anyone was picturing for the role. I think there’s a grit and an edge to this show that I have not really demonstrated before. So I did physical things like going to auditions with no make-up at all, wearing workout clothes with my hair tied back, because Ruth’s a woman who doesn’t care about that kind of stuff, doesn’t know how to play the game. I think I come off maybe too polished having worked on a network show for six years and eight on Mad Men, with the costumes, the hair and make-up, and there’s just an image of me that I have honestly been looking forward to shattering.
“Being told I wasn’t quite right was even more proof to me this was a role I wanted to do. They don’t think I’m right for it? That’s exactly why I want to do it.”
Going back to the 1980s meant a physical transformation for Brie, to develop the physique of a wrestler, with personal training sessions that saw her powerlifting one and a half times her bodyweight and do push ups with 50lbs of chains on her back, plus the ten hour sessions with the other wrestlers learning the moves. Then there was the even more scary prospect of an old school perm.
“Yeah, the hair was the biggest part. We cut it into a kind of crazy shag and it’s permed. A legit perm that took me back, because my mother was constantly perming her hair. The guy doing it told me it was going to smell a little and I said, ‘I know the smell…’ It’s a kind of nostalgic, comforting smell to me though. And oh my God, a perm is so easy, it’s the best! I just loved having it. Now it’s grown out and it’s very short and straight, I so hope we get a second season so I can get another perm.”
The perm might have gone but Brie has maintained the physical fitness, although she misses actually climbing into the ring to wrestle these days.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” she says. “The adrenaline that you feel, the constant overcoming of your own fears. We all felt like badasses, and still do. It’s something I’ve carried with me from shooting, just a new confidence. The fearlessness, and knowing you can do it is like being a secret superhero. You walk a little taller and are more confident.”
So is she able to go home and throw her new husband, fellow actor David Franco, around like a rag doll?
“Ha, ha. No! There were times when I would come home and say ‘I want to show you this’, and then you realise right away the other person has to know how to do the moves too, it’s kind of like dancing. Otherwise you could both get hurt.”
OK, so she’s on her own with her favourite move, the suplex, a two person body slam that ends up with you both flat on your backs on the mat.
“It’s great, you should google it,” she says. I do. It’s terrifying. But Brie is enthusiastic about her new love and the benefits of sport for women in general.
“I think it’s always a good idea to get into something physical that kind of scares you. It’s good to do things that intimidate you, push yourself to prove your worth to yourself and it’s nice to teach girls that it’s OK to get your hands dirty.”
One of the big things about GLOW is the 1980s setting, a time of female empowerment where women who had grown up during the second wave of feminism reading Betty Friedan, Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, were now fighting for rights around the workplace, sexuality, family and reproduction.
“Ruth’s life does not revolve around a man,” says Brie. “Whereas although Trudy in Mad Men was a very independent character and changes a lot over the years, she was always in love with her husband Pete, and wanted to be a good wife first and foremost. Her goals were in the home. Ruth couldn’t be more opposite. None of what Ruth does ever has anything to do with pleasing men. I think it’s likely one of the reasons she has not yet succeeded as an actress because she doesn’t know how to play that game. She doesn’t flirt, she doesn’t wear make-up, she’s not living her life in a way that’s hoping to get male attention. She’s living in an era coming off the very intense feminism of the 1970s.”
So does Brie think those battles have been won, or does each generation have to rediscover feminism for itself?
“Women have to keep fighting, and also evolving, because the world continues to change and certain battles don’t need to be fought any more, so you re-evaluate. But yes, we have to keep fighting.”
Not that you have to worry about being hit over the head with a message in GLOW, because most of all it’s a comedy, it’s meant to be fun and set in the weird and wonderful world of wrestling, a twilight zone between sport and entertainment, one of the things Brie loves most about it.
“What makes it so unique is that wrestling is its own beast and GLOW is its own world. The silliness, broadness, outrageousness, the characters that were created.”
With period settings from the 1960s to the 1980s to contemporary times under her belt, a second series of GLOW aside, Brie is now looking forward to something different.
“I always try to do unique jobs, things I haven’t done,” she says. “I’d love to do some drama, a thriller or maybe some sort of horror movie. Those things interest me and kind of scare me. They would be a fun challenge.” Brie goes on to qualify with, “Well, I’ve done a bit of horror, Scream 4, and a B horror movie called Born, about a woman impregnated with a demon foetus that possesses her so she kills people and eats their body parts. Yes, I played that character! It was intense and campy and fun and truly terrible, but in the best way.”
Before she dips her demon toe into the world of horror, she has two films set for release: Little Hours, due out this month and available online, and Disaster Artist, both working opposite her husband David Franco.
“Even just to be in the same city is great after often spending months apart on different jobs. Working on the same set and on the same film is nice. And playing the love interest is wonderful, to act like you’re in love with someone that you’re really in love with.”
Inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, Little Hours was filmed in Tuscany and seeks to give the humorous stories of the 14th century Italian writer a modern and unashamedly common touch.
Brie and Franco also play the love interest in his brother James’ film The Disaster Artist, based on a true story of the making of the 2002 film, The Room. “It’s well known, well in LA, as the worst movie ever made and it has an intense cult following, midnight screenings and fans who recite all the words. So it’s a look at the making of that movie and the larger than life character who made it, played by James. It’s just premiered in Austin at the South By Southwest Festival and I think it’s coming out later this year.”
Born in Hollywood and raised in LA by a musician dad and education worker mother, Brie went to drama college in her home city, and while there did a three-month exchange at the RSAMD in Glasgow. It’s an experience she now describes as “probably the best three month period of my entire life”.
“I loved it so much!” she says. “I have Scottish blood, from my dad, so I really liked being there. Glasgow itself is its own character and there is so much avant garde theatre, it’s a very artistic city. Knowing you’re there for only a short period of time is very freeing. You just go for it. At college I thought if I make a fool out of myself I’ll never see anyone again anyway, so I took more risks and we had great workshops, improv capoeira, or a new take on Medea... and I was also more social too. It was like on GLOW, wanting to give it my all and be the first to try the scariest wrestling moves and jump right in. It’s a great way to live your life. Trust your instincts and run full force after things you want. That’s something I try to do.”
Inspired by the likes of Sigourney Weaver in the original Alien (she took a picture of Weaver to GLOW producers as a suggestion for her wrestler’s haircut), Annette Bening, Frances McDormand and Laura Linney, Brie loves watching women who can flit in and out of being leading ladies and character actresses. “And really, I mean, Meryl Streep, obviously. People who impress me with their range and consistency of good work,” she says.
It’s time to get ready to rumble with the waiting press assembled for the GLOW promotion junket, so with another yawn and stretch, she powers off to sock it to ‘em with her California charm and sunny laugh, and if that doesn’t work, maybe a friendly choke hold.
“I just hope GLOW will be inspirational to people in lots of different ways, and continue to forge a way for the women coming behind us. It’s women of all shapes and sizes really inhabiting their bodies and learning what they are capable of. That’s what’s cool about it. For these women the primary thing is not male attention. They’re living their own lives and forging their own way for themselves.”
Alison Brie stars as Ruth Wilder in GLOW, Netflix, out June 23