Alison Brie’s first big fight on GLOW, the Netflix series about an ’80s women’s wrestling TV show, was to just get in the ring.
To anyone who has seen GLOW, which returns Friday for its second season, it’s baffling that Brie initially couldn’t land an audition for Ruth, the relentlessly optimistic aspiring actress whose signature wrestling move might be pure gumption. Brie’s bright-eyed work on shows like Community or Mad Men should have made her a shoo-in contender for the role.
“I guess the character was described as being an unconventional woman, and perhaps the roles I’ve played have been somewhat conventional: a conventional ’60s housewife, a type A student at a community college,” Brie tells The Daily Beast. “So I get them not seeing me as this right away. And I kind of loved that they didn’t, because that to me signaled that I was on the right track to doing something different.”
Brie’s pursuit of the role would play out as a bit of life imitating art.
The first season of GLOW centers around Ruth’s sometimes cringe-worthy desperation to be a part of the wrestling show, showily jumping through every hoop director Sam (played by Marc Maron) lays out for her. This is a girl who thinks that showing off a niche impression of Audrey Hepburn winning an Oscar for Roman Holiday or reciting a monologue from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would impress a cantankerous burnt-out director.
Brie got her. She understood her. She needed to play her.
She cried in her car after each audition, she tells me when we meet in the East Village on a hot June afternoon, scared that she might not land the role. But by channeling Ruth’s desperation, she was in turn blowing show co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch away.
“There’s something about her feeling underestimated as an actress and she’s not getting to stretch her wings as wide as she knows she can,” Brie says about Ruth. “I certainly did have more success in my career than Ruth has had, but I connected with that. There was a part of me, while working on Community and Mad Men, that felt like I was doing such different performances in two totally different eras but people were still very easily able to put me in like a Type A character box. And that was frustrating for me as an actress.”
In her mind, she had been showing off her range, but that wasn’t how she was being received. “I had to work hard to show people I was capable of doing more than just comedy, even though I had done Mad Men for seven years.” (Imagine having a recurring role on the most acclaimed TV drama of the millennium, and having to prove you are a skilled dramatic actress.) “So I connected to that feeling of wanting to be unleashed, wanting permission to showcase more than had been asked of me in the past.”
That GLOW gives Brie that showcase is an understatement. In any given episode she leaps off the ropes performing wrestling stunts as her Russian alter ego Zoya the Destroyer, or might have a full emotional meltdown while trying to repair a relationship with her character’s best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin).
More, this is a show not just about women dramatically fighting each other in a wrestling ring, but how a diverse group of underestimated and undervalued women unite to overcome misogyny, show off their talent, and demand their worth. That those themes resonate in our current culture goes without saying. As No. 1 on the call sheet, Brie has had to speak to everything from the #MeToo movement to the gender pay disparity while doing GLOW press.
Playing an aspiring wrestler hasn’t just helped Brie to find her strength, but also her voice. And she’s eager to use it.
When the first season of GLOW was in production, the assumption was that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidential election and the country would have its first female president. The show, then, would be a cultural mirror, bedazzled with ‘80s messages of girl power. “So much has happened politically and culturally since we’ve been shooting this show that we never expected,” Brie says. “A lot of that resonance was a surprise.”
Brie’s co-star, Betty Gilpin, compares the show to a Trojan Horse. By virtue of its concept alone, people—men, especially—might tune-in expecting to see a series in which girls in skimpy outfits wrestle each other. They’ll get that, too, which allows the show to smuggle in truths about sexism, feminism, and complicated female friendships.
GLOW season two includes a casting couch episode in which a character is invited to a producer’s bungalow to discuss her career, only to be at the receiving end of his sexual advances instead. Echoes of Harvey Weinstein are inevitable, but Brie says the episode was actually written before the Weinstein investigations published. Similarly, there’s a plot about gendered pay disparity and women demanding the money they’re worth that could be ripped from today’s headlines.
“These episodes were written because we have a writers’ room full of women who are speaking candidly about their experience in Hollywood,” Brie says. “We’re making a show about actresses set in the ’80s, so of course we wanted to have an episode dealing with a sexual power play and the way women experience that in Hollywood. And now that these stories are coming out in the real world, I’m glad that we’re a part of this movement in a real way and that we’re on the right side of history in terms of what we’re making and who we’re making it with.”
She admits that it’s scary and disappointing that this is a show that takes place 30 years ago, and yet the challenges its characters face in the industry are the same as the ones women still face today. But she also can’t shake the feeling that change might actually be on the horizon.
“It feels like women have finally made a ruckus in big enough of a way that we’re all committing together to not shut up,” she says. “Working with these women at this time has only inspired me to be more active and defend myself harder in situations where I feel like I’m being exploited. I think that’s the hardest part of all of it, taking stock of where I’ve been complicit in bad behavior.”
There have been times when she was made to feel uncomfortable and didn’t want to speak up about it, she continues. “It’s about moving past feeling shame about those things into feeling like you can empower yourself to make a different choice in the future. That’s maybe the most important part of the unity that women are feeling right now, is taking away those shameful feelings, the way that women have been made to feel over years of this type of treatment is shameful.”
It’s given her somewhat of a career mission statement. “The thing now is looking forward and thinking how do I choose jobs, how do I voice my opinion, how do I protect myself and give myself permission to speak up?” she says.
That goes beyond protecting herself from sexual harassment, she explains. It entails crusading for more complexity in the characters she gets to play. It means taking into consideration the environment on set and the kinds of people she works with. (She doesn’t bring them up specifically, but both Community showrunner Dan Harmon and Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner have been accused of leading unpleasant work environments.)
“I feel more empowered to turn down a job when I’m like, I already know that’s going to be an unpleasant experience, or that character has nothing going on,” she says. “But that’s difficult because then I’m just not working. I’m hoping we get a third season of GLOW while I’m waiting to find something that resonates with me.”
Another result of the watershed embrace of these conversations has been the media’s craven appetite for content that engages in them. It is not a field known for its nuance or sensitivity, which has also meant the movement has been commoditized for headlines.
Brie saw that first-hand at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, which she attended as a double nominee, in the Lead Actress category for her work on GLOW and also as a member of the ensemble. The award show happened to also be the first major Hollywood event after a Los Angeles Times piece published in which several women accused her brother-in-law James Franco—Brie married actor Dave Franco last year—of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior.”
By the time Brie even finished walking the red carpet, nearly every entertainment website on the internet had already picked up and run her short, even-handed response to a question about the allegations. (“I think that above all what we’ve always said is that it remains vital that anyone that feels victimized should and does have the right to speak out and come forward,” she told E! News. “I obviously support my family, and not everything that’s been reported has been accurate, so I think we’re waiting to get all the information. But of course now is the time for listening, and that’s what we are all trying to do.”)
It was an early symptom of what eventually spread into somewhat of an epidemic in entertainment journalism as the #MeToo-dominated award season marched on: Demanding that actresses doing press in support of their own work answer for the behavior of men they have associations with, and turning those soundbites into headlines.
That’s not to say that Brie should be immune from talking about allegations against Franco. But that also doesn’t make the impulse entirely fair or particularly elegant, or any less frustrating.
“That was disappointing,” she says when I ask about the SAG interview. “Because I was there to be recognized for my work.”
Her chipper demeanor varnishes slightly during this portion of our conversation, the only time her infectious sunniness dims. She’s visibly hesitant to broach the subject, stopping and starting her response multiple times with long pauses in between, nervously running her hand through the top of her hair and sighing. Still, she collects herself, straightens her posture and forces direct eye contact, and fully, thoughtfully, and honestly answers the question.
“I don’t know. I think part of women supporting other women is that you want to hear people’s stories and give them support, but also we should be able to celebrate the work we’re doing. That recognition in its own right is something that deserves its moment.”
She takes a deep breath and her expression changes, her blue eyes widening, seeming to ask for a little bit of empathy as she struggles to articulate something that she knows will be parsed for headline-grabbing meaning, no matter what she says or how delicately she says it. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say. It’s all just tricky, I guess.”
Uncomfortable as that aspect of our conversation may have been, Brie still contends that the fact that these discussions have become an inextricable part of her work on GLOW contributes to her unqualified assertion that this has been the best job she’s had in her career—and may ever have again.
“It’s been an interesting thing to reconcile my younger perspectives on what success would look like versus what it looks like in reality,” she says. “When I was starting out as an actress, I really wanted to be in movies. To me, being a movie star was the height of success as an actress. Of course, I’ve mostly worked in television. Getting this job is where I had the realization that it’s the character that matters.”
“Yes, in my off time I do dabble in films with Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg,” she jokes, letting out a piercing laugh and launching into an adorable story emblematic of how goofy and charming, for all our serious talk, Alison Brie can be.
“There was a guy watching it on the plane when I was flying here, and I was finding myself just like repeatedly walking past his seat, just getting up to get a snack,” she laughs. “He didn’t say anything. Part of me just wanted to be like, ‘That’s me!’ That’s me with Meryl! You had no idea you were sitting with someone who acted with Meryl Streep!’”