Minor spoilers ahead for GLOW.
Alison Brie played a type-A college student on Community and a demure housewife on Mad Men. On GLOW, her new Netflix comedy premiering Friday, Brie combines her theater background, comedic chops, and flair for drama to create Ruth, a desperate and semi-broken actress who finds the career and emotional boost she needs in the world of wrestling.
Based on the real pro-wrestling women’s TV show that aired in the late ’80s, GLOW follows the creation of the TV series from casting and development to the filming of the pilot. Brie, co-star Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie), and their 12 female cast members spent two months training to do body throws, headlocks, leaps, and falls so they could do their own stunt work. Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin) start out as friends, but a betrayal tears them apart them until they have no choice but to work together in the ring, in character — Debbie as a Miss America–Hulk Hogan hero and Ruth as a Russian supervillain.
Before she ever got on the mat, Brie fought hard to land the role. The 34-year-old actress spoke to Vulture about why she wanted the part so badly, what she loved about getting in the ring, and what it was like to work among so many talented women.
I read that this was actually a hard part for you to get. Can you tell me about that? What were the obstacles, and why did you want it so badly?
I connected with the role immediately and I was excited by the idea. My agents called me and said, “Jenji Kohan is producing a show for Netflix about a women’s wrestling television show in the ’80s.” And already I was like, “Yes! This sounds unlike anything I’ve heard of before. It sounds really different.” And that is what I was looking for at the time more than anything. Something different. A new challenge. And when I read the script, the writing was so compelling. I liked that the tone kept shifting between comedy and drama, and the wrestling just seemed like a scary challenge.
I can’t explain it but there are roles that I click in with, and I want them immediately. There have certainly been things I’ve auditioned for where I read it and I kinda go like, I don’t know if I’m even right for this. But it would be fun to do this job if I got it. And there are other things I read and just go, I know this woman, and I am her. I feel like Trudy was one of those. And I felt that about this and thought, I will do anything. Let’s go after this.
Now that everyone has been doing interviews, I’ve heard more of [co-creators] Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch]’s side of it, which was sort of what I suspected, which was just that they really wanted to cast new faces. And Ruth as a character is described often as an unconventional woman, and she is not meant to be conventionally attractive. I think they were responding to roles that I’ve played in the past that are very polished and adorable, which was not what they were looking for. So, I was brought in many times and I wore no makeup, and wore workout clothes, and tied my hair back, and really didn’t hold back my desire to be a part of the show. I think sometimes you go into auditions and you’re playing it very cool. If you seem like you don’t care at all then it’ll be more likely that you’ll get the part. I was not that way at all. Every time I went up I was just like, “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I love this group very much.”
I think they started to see Ruth’s desperation in me. And the audition process really did go on long enough that I think I was transforming into the character before their eyes and before my own eyes. But it was a really satisfying feeling, I will say, to prove yourself and then get a job. It’s the most satisfying thing.
Is it the job you’ve worked the hardest for?
It’s also interesting because of where Ruth is in her career.
Ruth is so desperate to land a good part, too.
Yes. Well I think also to me the fact that they didn’t think I was right for the role made me want to do it even more because I was really looking to showcase the different sides of myself and prove to the world that I can play a different type of character. It was an amazing clue that they were like, “We don’t’ think you’re capable of this.” And I’m like, I’m going to prove you wrong.
Did the wrestling part of it ever make you wonder if you actually could do it?
No. That excited me more than anything. I’m a really physically active person — I’ve been working out with my physical trainer for about six years and it’s been a ball.
His name is Jason Walsh and he trains in Los Angeles, and he and I always have talked to each other about, “Just wait until we get that action movie and then we can really kick things into high gear!” I love strength training. I love being a strong woman and proving things to myself in the gym, physically. So, the wrestling side of this was one of the most exciting aspects. I was like, Oh my god. This is my superhero moment. This is where I can really surprise people.
From what I understand, stunt doubles weren’t really used very much.
Right. We did all our own stunts. I had a great stunt double, Helena Barrett, and we also had Shauna Duggins, our stunt coordinator, and Betty Gilpin’s stunt double.
And they were on set with us everyday. But Betty and I did all of our stunts. And, really, we had Shauna and Helena there for coaching and for breaking down moves and also they would step in to give us breaks just so we could last, shooting for 12 hours at a time. You know, wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.
What was it like to be in the ring?
Oh my god. It’s the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever experienced. I understand it. I’ve never been super into wrestling and now I have a great respect for it. And I really get it. I get why people are into it, why they enjoy watching it. I definitely understand why people want to do it. You feel like a superhero. Being booed is an incredible thing. It was so fun to play a heel and watch a crowd go on a journey with you and to get to play larger-than-life characters. I come from theater school, and really playing to a large audience, and then you transition into film and television where everything you do is really small and nuanced and you’re always holding back. In the ring, nothing is held back. Everything is over the top. Everything is unleashed. It’s so fun and campy, and you really have permission to go all the way.
What about that move — the Ruth and Debbie move?
That move! That was a challenging move.
You mean just her jumping on to me? The cross-body splat!
Totally scary. The final version of that move we do with Betty on wires so I never felt the move in its full capacity onto the net, although it’s a goal of ours if we get a second season. But the funniest thing to me is that we would practice all of the moves with our trainer, Chavo Guerrero Jr., before we’d do them with each other. So Chavo would play both sides of it and practice with both of us. My first experience learning that move — and of course we had big pads for me to fall back on — was having Chavo Guerrero Jr. who’s upwards of 200 pounds, jump off of the top rope onto me. There’s a really funny two-second video that he took of me [makes a plop sound]. It just looks like I’m getting squished like a bug. It’s really funny.
It’s like those cartoons — splat!
It is. Splat. That’s what it was like. And then you’re like, oh, okay wait, now I understand what I’m supposed to do.
In the last episode when Debbie finally does it, I kept looking out for the stunt doubles. But it was really you and Betty, right?
That was a really exciting thing and a real point of pride for us when we were shooting. Our doubles were always like, “Are you tired? Do you want us to step in?” And I feel like we were so reluctant to let them most of the time. We were just, “No! Where are the cameras? They can see my face! I want to do it! I want them to know it’s me!”
The other part I imagine was super fun for you was creating the Soviet wrestler character.
Yes! You know, I’m really going for a Boris-and-Natasha thing with this accent, and that was fun. It’s almost cartoonish levels of non-PC playground. It was really fun just to play against such an over-the-top character and surprise myself. I feel like inside the ring is the only place where we would improvise on the show because the writing is so good. So outside the ring, you’re playing with such nuanced emotions that we weren’t really improv-ing at times in the regular scenes. But inside the ring they couldn’t control what we would say when the audience gets you going. You’re just unleashed. Even I would be surprised about the things that would come out of my mouth.
Did you know you had that person in you?
No! It was an amazing surprise. [Laughs.] Or even that it’s something I would enjoy was funny to me.
It’s interesting how cringeworthy it could get on that mat.
Like when you hear Welfare Queen for the first time. But then it turns it on its head, and it’s so clever.
Well, that’s the fun thing about getting to do a behind-the-scenes look at a show like this. Wrestling in the ’80s was really racially charged and a lot of racial stereotypes were implemented in forming wrestling characters. But on our show, you get to see the women’s reactions and the discussion that go into playing these characters and how people may have felt exploiting their own background.
It’s amazing too that there are so many female characters.
Yeah, there are 14 women on the show. Yeah. It’s wonderful. And they’re all very unique. I feel like it’s so cool. It’s always really fun to look around at all the different women and say, no two of these characters are the same.
Everybody is bringing their own point of view to the characters. The task is amazing.
This role has so many layers. Ruth is working out a lot of stuff internally.
I really like that Ruth is a character who makes mistakes. She’s not perfect. She’s rough around the edges. As an actress, she really thinks highly of herself, but has not ever been able to hone her skills. She comes from a theater background as well. As an actress she is so big and over the top, she’s never really been able to rein herself in, and that’s why wrestling is an amazing outlet for her. It’s the one place where the size of her acting fits perfectly. I really loved playing with the Ruth and Debbie relationship over the course of this season. Betty and I talked a lot about the fact that our relationship is the will-they-won’t-they of the show. And it was really refreshing to play that TV trope with another woman. And have it relate to a platonic friendship but in a really deep, grounded way. And we see that friendship go on such a journey over the course of the season, and it was exciting to play with the subtleties and complications of that relationship outside of the ring. Where these two characters can hardly even be in the same room together, to then inside the ring where they’re forced to be in such close proximity touching each other’s bodies, really relying on each other. And the difficulties that go into that for the characters.
What did you think when you read the script and got to the reveal about the betrayal?
I loved it. I know. I gasped. I did. I definitely gasped. Audibly. And I loved that twist. Because you really don’t see it coming and I think it challenges the audience as to whether or not they’re going to continue to stay on this character’s side. And that’s cool to me. It’s compelling to play a character that is so complex and can be endearing and can also be a piece of shit.
You mention she thinks highly of herself in terms of her acting abilities, but it’s also very endearing that she takes to this job. Pretty early on, she gets serious about creating this Russian character and working so hard on it.
Well, I think, if there’s one thing that Ruth has, it’s passion. She has a fire under her to do something, to perform in any capacity. She gets this opportunity and she runs at it. Again, I think that’s why she excels in wrestling. In that when it comes to performing, she’s pretty fearless. I think she had given away all of her dignity a long time ago. So she has nothing to lose. And, really, in earnest, wants to make a great wrestling television show. Whatever mode she’s in, she’s like, I’m going to do this at 100 percent. And her relationship also with Sam Sylvia, played by Marc Maron, I think that’s an interesting one that pushes her as well. Cause he’s constantly challenging her and underestimating her. And I think at the heart of this show it’s about all of these women being misfits, a strange group of social outcasts who all wanna be performers. They’ve all been underestimated in their lives, and they’re ready to prove to people, to the world, what they’re capable of.
As actresses, Ruth and Debbie find themselves in a place where a lot of women say they still are today in the industry — not finding meaty, well-rounded roles.
Yeah. Well that’s what great about this show. It’s only meaty roles for women. And shows like Orange Is the New Black and a lot of shows that are on Netflix. Especially with streaming services and what we’ve seen with cable over the last eight years, there are a lot of great roles popping up for women in television. It’s an exciting time and it’s an exciting phase to explore these characters to their full capacity. In success, in theory, you have years to delve into whom these women are.
You’ve had the experience of being on broadcast, cable, and now working for a streaming outlet. Did you find it very different?
There are tiers of how much control the companies have versus how much control is given to the creative people, the artists, on any job. In a network television show, it’s the least, I think. The networks have retained most of the control and they’re really trying to reach a broad audience. I was lucky to work on Community for Dan Harmon who never really succumbed to that and fought it all the time to make sure we were doing unique and compelling work.
But definitely it was a battle because it goes against what network television is going for, which is reaching the most broad audience possible.
And then with cable, you do see more that people are more willing to take bigger risks and push the boundaries. On Mad Men I feel like Matt Weiner definitely retained creative control and got to do the show he wanted to do, and it made for a really beautiful, interesting, top-tier show.
And with Netflix, that was even more so the case. They have such a great relationship with Jenji Kohan because of Orange Is the New Black and they put a lot of trust in her and our showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, and really gave them full control to tell the stories they wanted to tell the way they wanted to tell. And they’re able to take these risks because they have so many shows. They’re really not trying to reach everyone, but they know how to tailor their shows to who’s watching. It’s a great advantage that they have and a really cool way to work because you just don’t have as many cooks in the kitchen. You’re telling true artistic stories from the visionaries that thought it up.
I can’t let you go without talking about the ’80s. I know your jeans are being talked about a lot. The perm too! But I want to talk about the pregnancy test. What in the world was that contraption?
Oh my god. That is a full-on real pregnancy test from the 1980s. This is what women had to go to. This is why we need to continue the fight for places like Planned Parenthood to help women to figure this stuff out in a quick and efficient way. Isn’t that bizarre? We had a real pregnancy test back in the day, with the full instructions, and the whole process would take over an hour. You have to pee into a little thing. It’s like you’re in a laboratory. It’s like you’re a mad scientist. You have to pour a little bit into one thing, then you pour another chemical into another thing. Then you mix them together. Then you wait. That was the biggest part I think they show well on the show — the waiting. Because obviously with something like that you want to know right away. And in the ’80s it was a really agonizing thing to have to sit and wait and mix another chemical together, then wait.
It was a total lab experiment.
It’s a lab experiment! That’s exactly what it feels like. Yes! It was really funny and an interesting thing to learn. Who knew this is what pregnancy tests were like in the ’80s.