In the first scene of Netflix’s spandex-spackled ’80s wrestling series GLOW, struggling actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) walks into an audition and begins deliberately reading the man’s part. “What I’m interested in are real parts, not secretaries telling powerful men their wives are on line two,” she explains to the casting director afterward.
Thankfully, while there are still plenty of shows that deserve this indictment, GLOW is not one of them. Executive produced by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan and created by TV vets Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the new Netflix series might have the best roles for women since OITNB, in a show that brilliantly straddles the line between feminist fable and showbiz satire, drama and comedy, realistic relationships and over-the-top camp.
When we first meet Ruth, she is reeling from a constant string of professional failures and one major personal screw-up: an affair with her best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin)’s husband. Broke and desperate, Ruth inadvertently finds herself signing on to an all-women’s wrestling show called GLOW, a.k.a. “the gorgeous ladies of wrestling,” run by a similarly down-on-his-luck B-movie director, Sam (Marc Maron). In a twist of fate, Debbie gets cast, too, and Ruth is tasked with figuring out a “heel,” or villain, that she can play opposite Debbie’s all-American hero.
For Brie — whose eventual villainous persona couldn’t be farther from the prim, high-strung characters she played on Community and Mad Men — Ruth was the part of a lifetime. “I feel that so much of me was unleashed in this role,” Brie tells us. “After working on something so inspiring, I just don’t want to settle for anything less.”
With Ruth, were you actively looking to do something different from Annie and Trudy and the types of characters you had become known for?
Absolutely. I really wanted to do something different. I had also been looking to do something more physical because I think that’s a side of me people don’t expect, and I’ve never really shown it to anyone. I’ve been training with my personal trainer for about six years, and the stuff we do is pretty cool. It’s basically strength training in a very athletic way, like the way football players train, pushing weighted sleds down a track and stuff like that. I liked the idea of being physical and women being strong and using their bodies in a strong way, so I had been looking for some kind of project where I could do that. I thought it would be a movie because there are maybe more action movies than there are shows. And then GLOW came along and I just thought, Oh my god, wrestling, that’s brilliant; it’s everything I never knew I always wanted.
Beyond the physicality, what else about wrestling makes it so interesting to explore?
I think that it is like a superhero movie. I think that it allows these women to become superheroes in the ring. In the ring, everything’s very black and white, there’s a hero and a villain, and our show really plays with the juxtaposition of that reality in the ring versus the reality of these women’s lives outside the ring, which is all shades of gray. Obviously, the relationship between Ruth and Debbie [Betty Gilpin] is very complicated on the show. I think the audience may change their mind a lot when watching the show when it comes to who they should be rooting for, versus when they see these characters in the ring and are told who to cheer for and who to boo for.
It was also a great way to get characters physically close to each other, even when emotionally they’re very distanced from each other. When these characters are outside the ring, some of them can hardly look at each other; but when you’re in the ring, the only way to survive is to work together. You’re putting your life in each other’s hands in a very real way. And the set could not have been a more comfortable or safe space to explore our bodies and what we were capable of. We were really taking big risks with our bodies in the ring, and that confidence I think translated into our scene work outside of the ring.
One thing I found refreshing about your character’s arc is that it isn’t about falling in love at all.
That is one of my favorite things about the show in general, that the main relationship in the first season is between two women. Betty and I talked about this a lot on set, that our characters are playing out the will-they-won’t-they trope that happens on so many sitcoms and other shows, and it was really fun to play that depth of emotion with another woman in a platonic way. I think female friendships are very powerful, and sometimes it’s even more gutting when they sour. And I just feel like that is at the heart of what makes this a really feminist show, that the lives of these women don’t really revolve around men at all. They have a singular focus and it’s on themselves and what they are working toward.
There’s this joke that recurs a lot early on with Marc Maron’s character saying he can’t decide if your character is hot or not, and I also read that the show creators had said they worried you were too attractive for the role. Can you talk about how calculations like those have affected your own career?
This joke about the character was written in the script from the beginning. I think at the heart of it is that Ruth is not a very superficial character, and I think part of the reason she had not been successful as an actress is that she kind of doesn’t know how to play the game and exploit her own sexuality for the purposes of her job.
As an actress, I feel like I’ve been up for roles where I was not pretty enough, and then for this it’s like, Maybe you’re too pretty — I’m like friggin’ Goldilocks with the porridge over here. I was excited to really be stripped of the superficial qualities and just be able to delve into the character. For me as an actress, that was a nice way to stretch and grow and not lean into cuteness, which maybe I sort of did on Community, for example.
You’ve made some headlines recently with comments you made about auditioning for Entourage wearing a bikini top. And the series opens with a commentary on the lack of good parts for women in Hollywood, where you go into an audition and read the man’s part because it’s just so much better. To what extent did that scene ring true to you?
I think that scene will ring true to all actors, female and male, who are just starting out. As actors, we suffer mild humiliations all the time trying to get jobs. For me, I could certainly relate to coming out of theater school, where you get to play all these great roles and you do get to play men’s roles — you’re doing Waiting for Godot and Hamlet — and then the harsh reality of the entertainment industry sort of hits as soon as you graduate. And you’re like, Wait, I really want to work, and I’m happy to audition for three lines in a Cheetos commercial, but it’s certainly a jarring reality at first. And for Ruth, because she’s getting a little older and still has no traction in her career, I think she’s feeling really bored by the lack of opportunities for her.
I think with shows like GLOW and OITNB, there’s a lot of roles out there these days for women in particular, and for newcomers. I think it’s a real strength of Jenji Kohan’s — finding new talent and really trusting in people who don’t have a long résumé, but have an innate ability.