The title of Starz’s Heels is a layered one. Yes, it’s about the frequently feuding brothers of a small-town wrestling dynasty who confront their problems in and out of the ring. But there’s also an actual heel on Heels who is meant to personify the real corporate villains of the industry who work behind the scenes. That would be Chris Bauer’s loud and large Wild Bill Hancock, a former wrestler from these parts of Georgia who is back to show off some swagger and cause commotion.
“He’s pure id,” says Bauer, a character actor already known for making the most of screen time on shows like HBO’s The Wire and True Blood and Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse. “He’s what happens when someone dissociates from anything but applause and boos — meaning b-o-o-s, but you can throw the Z spelling in there too.”
In honor of Heels’ second episode, in which we got to see a lot (and we mean a lot) more of Bill, Vulture talked with Bauer about his love for the part and the culture of wrestling as well as the power of being consumed by a character.
This character seems like so much fun! You get to walk around and lord over people while wearing snakeskin pants and sporting a furry horseshoe mustache.
I love this show so much. I haven’t loved a show really since True Blood. And it has a similar kind of genesis in that it all just came together and felt right. But unlike True Blood, where I was neither a cop nor a vampire, in real life I’m a huge wrestling fan. And in particular, the world of independent wrestling.
What went through your brain when they said they wanted you to play a character named Wild Bill?
Honestly, the first time I heard it, I was a little bit ambivalent. Because I’ve never been a huge fan of a cowboy gimmick. So I didn’t really have much of a reaction to it beyond that. But this character literally played me … In fact, because we had such a long delay before we started production, I had grown the most epic beard. Like, so big, so long, and it just had these two white great tusks basically coming out of my chin. And I wanted to play the character like that, which was a gross misperception on my part.
Luckily, that’s what’s fun about a network process and collaboration. People can say, “Yeah, I get it, but he’s a showman and he’s a peacock. He’s a little more vain than that beard suggests.” So two days before we started, we cut that long cowboy mustache, and all of a sudden, the Wild Bill–ness of it made perfect sense.
You also do some nudity in the second episode. How did you feel about that?
I just didn’t give a shit. This is exactly what that character would be like, and I did train [to wrestle] for a year. Starz was really supportive in terms of the physical training, so I felt a little more comfortable with my body. But I think Wild Bill is way more comfortable being naked than I am, and he’s in charge.
Is this one of those immersive acting experiences where it was hard to let the part go?
Well, when I took my hair extensions out and shaved and looked in the mirror, I fought off tears. I thought, Oh God, the accountant is back. But he’s so alive and well in me. I am so hoping that we get to do this again because this character has basically set up on an old porch in my heart. He’s sitting there in a rocking chair and drinking from a jug, waiting to pounce on the world again.
You’ve said that you’ve based this character on wrestlers like Randy Savage and Terry Funk. Was that something you came up with on your own, or was that dictated by the script?
It’s something I did on my own inasmuch as it took place in my brain. But [creator] Michael Waldron and [showrunner] Mike O’Malley are both very explicit authors. So whatever I say, they put on the page. Ultimately, the source of any character is what a writer created on the page, and I’m kind of monastically adherent to that.
But in Heels, O’Malley gave me a lot of latitude to exploit some of the spontaneous declarations of Wild Bill Hancock. But that was very rare. Those guys created the character; I just watched hours and hours of promos of a couple of wrestlers that I thought fit the description.
What do you mean “exploit some of the spontaneous declarations”?
There are some moments and upcoming episodes where Bill has the floor, shall we say. And he’s a man who is most alive when there’s 360 degrees of eyeballs right on him. When a great promo artist like Ric Flair is center ring with a mic in his hand, it’s really hard to stay on script. So there are a couple of moments like that in the show where even I couldn’t resist the temptation. And I said some things that Wild Bill thought that they hadn’t written yet.
Your wife, Laura Bauer, is the costume designer on the show. What was that collaboration process like in designing Wild Bill’s look?
What’s so special about her as a designer is that she’s never looking for ways to call attention to how dynamic the costume design might be. She’s always building costumes from the character out. So we had so much to work with with Wild Bill, that, luckily, the palette was pretty wide open. I showed her wrestlers that I thought were kind of genetically relevant, and she really took it from there.
I would say the one concept that we used to build out from is that he’s this psycho cowboy. So that created, obviously, some texture and some reference with the hat, and the snakeskin, and things like that as a place to start from.
You said you’re a wrestling fan, but did you know much about the behind-the-scenes world of wrestling before you took this job?
I knew a little bit because my son was really into it when he was young. He persuaded me to go see this indie wrestling league in L.A. called Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. And the first time I went, I thought, I haven’t seen anything like this since I used to go to punk-rock shows in the early ’80s. And I just fell in love with it. So we were frequent attendees of PWG. I ended up making friends with some of the wrestlers and getting a real glimpse into the nature of their business and their passion. I got the fever so bad that I decided to promote an event with my friend, Alan Denkenson, called “Quintessential Pro Wrestling” — QPW. And on my bill were [pro-wrestling tag-team all-stars] the Young Bucks.
What I consistently walked away with was a huge sense of relating as an old-fashioned theater actor. I met so many great people who were working for $75 a night, and instead of doing Shakespeare, they were doing harm to their bodies.
What do you say to the people who say wrestling is fake?
I say gravity’s not. And physics aren’t. If they’re still listening — which is rare — I say, “Let me take you to a show and watch a man or a woman launch themselves out of a ring onto a bunch of folding chairs. Listen to the sound that makes and tell me if you think that’s fake.”
Isn’t there something reckless about throwing yourself on a chair?
Yes, but you can’t argue with the consequences. It is not a fatalistic act of self-destruction only. It’s also a rare example of physical sacrifice for the amusement of your ticket-buying audience. I think the old-fashioned [saying] “Give them a dime’s worth of work for the nickel they paid for the ticket” is so hard to find in the modern world, but it’s really alive and well in wrestling.
You’ve played a lot of characters where you become almost unrecognizable because you so fully embrace that role. And a lot of these are smaller roles. Do you actively look for parts like this?
All my strategies are instinctive. I have no game whatsoever when it comes to career or how I’m perceived. The nature of my skill is just that I can play the part that you write. And I can close the circle, where I can turn what’s one-dimensional on the page into an authentic human being. I see myself basically as an advocate for fictional people.
Here’s some breaking news: I want to be thought of as a big deal. But I think I have that in common with just about everybody. I’m really grateful that I’ve gotten the opportunities I’ve gotten because I think that I’ve been able to play a much broader array of characters than most people ever do.
A lot of the roles you play are based on the public’s perception of what a character will look like. Your character on The Wire looks like what we collectively imagine a Baltimore dock worker to look like. Your character on True Blood looks like a small-town southern cop. So are we stereotyping what people look like when we cast actors?
It’s a sobering answer, but I think the answer is yes. I always feel like the nature of a vocation like acting is that you’re secondary, at best, to the inception of the vision. The writer writes the character and then you come and play it. So you’re molding yourself into something that preexisted.
I think that there’s probably some latitude — there’s ways to resist rushing into the stereotype. But in my case, I can just go down the list and tell you [about my characters]. Like Wild Bill Hancock: That’s a guy who I guarantee — based on just the visual iconography of wrestlers — does not have short hair. Frank Sobotka on The Wire, I was cast in that at a pretty young age, before I saw the script, and I saw how old the character was and I insisted on a fat suit because I thought it would make me look older, so it would be more plausible for the audience. There’s very pragmatic reasons why I ended up playing characters certain ways that turn into a visual, but I’m not trying to engineer [that]. I’m mostly just trying to not get fired.