Who would’ve thought GLOW was hiding Liza Minnelli in wolf’s clothing all along? Finding herself unexpectedly inspired by the Viva Las Vegas lifestyle, Sheila “the She Wolf” (Gayle Rankin) undergoes the biggest metamorphosis of all our gorgeous ladies in the Netflix show’s third season, thanks, in no small part, to befriending a drag performer (Kevin Cahoon) who encourages her to shed all those heavy, furry layers and embrace her true self. And that true self? She’s a talented thespian who rattles off Miss Julie monologues like there’s no tomorrow, and a loud-and-proud lover of Judy Garland’s daughter.
Rankin, a Scottish actress who found her breakout role in GLOW, took a call from Vulture earlier this week to tell us all about Sheila’s transformative season. Unsurprisingly, embodying the legendary Minnelli was a real hoot.
I need to start by asking all about your incredible Liza moment in the ring. What did your Liza boot-camp training entail?
Oh man, it was just incredible. It really was my favorite moment of the season. I love Liza. Who doesn’t? It was very intimidating — I mean, it was a wrestling impersonation persona of Liza Minnelli. What! I watched a lot of YouTube to prepare. I didn’t want to make it a perfect impersonation, but it wasn’t going to be a bad, fall-on-your-face impression.
I trained in musical theater growing up, actually. I went to a musical-theater high school in Scotland. I just love classic movies. I have it in me, I have her in me. I think Sheila does, too.
Was Liza With a Z Liza always going to be your Liza? Was there any talk about, say, channeling Cabaret Liza?
That was the big question, and there was a lot of talk about it. We had an incredible costume designer who worked with an equally incredible team. They had an inspired idea to use that saucy red ensemble. We had never seen Sheila’s body before, or had seen her look like a woman. I remember watching Liza With a Z, and there was something very “coming out” about her, wearing this tiny dress and running around. She was in her prime, looking sexy and happy. That’s what we wanted to channel with Sheila.
It’s remarkable that the dress held its shape while you were wrestling. I’d be unable to walk if I wore it.
Thankfully I was able to kick the heels off before I entered the ring, but yeah, that dress was tight. I was also wearing stockings, which is super-tricky to wrestle in. They’re so slippery. Paired with the Spanx underwear, which was very necessary. [Laughs.]
What was it like filming that scene in the ring? Were you able to play around and improvise?
It was the best day ever. All of us women, collectively, were extremely nervous and extremely excited to play other wrestling personas in the ring. It was intimidating because we spent a long time building our original characters, but we did get to improvise and make them our own. Remember when Liza makes her big debut and everyone else is offstage watching? Everyone got to see these new characters unfold in real time.
Why do you think Liza is such a great character for Sheila to embody for her grand reveal?
There’s something very iconic, classic, and extreme about Liza, and also deeply sensitive. Liza’s also very much a character, and allows Sheila to express her internal life in a way she hasn’t done before. Liza’s both a persona and very much a person. She’s almost too much of a person, she’s too wrought for this world. They share that. It says something about what Sheila likes, too. She loves quality. My father would always tell me while growing up, Don’t buy five cheap leather bags, buy one that’s the real deal. Liza is a classic and Sheila connects with that.
Similarly, what is it about meeting Bobby that begins Sheila’s transformation? And why do you think an outsider, as opposed to someone from her GLOW group, was the catalyst for this?
For that very reason — he’s an outsider in his own way. There’s a boldness to the way Bobby approaches her. In a deeper way, she’s ready for this. Maybe it’s Vegas, maybe it’s her GLOW girls. She’s been challenged by Ruth a few times and some of the girls have questioned the way she’s been living her life, but Bobby really calls her out for it. She appreciates it and she wants it. She wants someone to care. She wants someone to fuel the fire in her. He did that very quickly. Bobby also struggles with his own persona this season, and she, in turn, sees that.
With Sheila’s internal life now becoming more of a focus, have you ever thought about why she took this wolf persona to begin with?
I do have a backstory that I developed. But! It’s interesting to be working on a television show like this, because you never know what’s going to be revealed as the story goes on. Like, I didn’t know she has a Polish last name! The more I think about it, the less open I want to be about what I think, because her struggles are quite universal. She could’ve turned to that wolf life for any reason. People can both understand and not understand at the same time. I really want to see where she came from.
I’d love to know how you interpret Sheila’s encounter with the wolf during her hike. Was it a dehydrated hallucination or a real experience?
I go back and forth every day. It definitely happened; it definitely didn’t. Right now, I believe it did happen. It was one of those moments in life that you can never prepare for. It’s so surreal and dreamlike. Even though the wolf “turns away” from her with its back, I think the wolf is releasing her. It’s giving her permission to move forward.
At this point, what would you say are the things Sheila wants “to do and become,” as she put it?
She has this inner fire for pursuing her dreams. She wants to become a serious actor, but she also wants to understand herself better. Whether she just wants to do plays and work on her monologues, Sheila’s on a quest to figure out who she really is. Aren’t we all? But she means it quite literally. Does she want a husband? A wife? Children? She’s on a mission to discover that.
If anything, I hope it was nice to ditch that itchy wolf costume.
I thought I’d be ready to let go of it and literally shed 20 pounds off me, but it wasn’t. [Laughs.] It was so hard.