In her first ever on-screen role, Alison Brie played a woman possessed by her demon fetus in the horror B-movie Born. The experience was clearly memorable—Brie quickly switches into the high-pitched voice of her scared mother-to-be and the gravelly growl of the body invader trying to force her to commit nefarious deeds as she recalls the plot—and it was admittedly a fun job to have right out of theater school. But still, it wasn’t quite the role she imagined she would be playing when she became An Actress.
“When I was standing on set at like three in the morning in a cemetery with a weird contraption strapped around my body to shoot green ooze out of myself when my water breaks… I was like, ‘Huh. This is not maybe what I pictured working as an actress to be like,’” Brie laughs, recalling the experience for The Daily Beast.
Given this slimy start to her own career, it’s easy to see how Brie connected to the role of Ruth when she first read the script for GLOW, a new series premiering on Netflix on June 23. Unable to find a substantive female role in 1980s Hollywood—or to secure any role, to be exact—Ruth jumps at the chance to join the ragtag cast of a new sport-cum-television show, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Inspired by the WWE, reluctant director Sam Sylvia, played by a perfectly cast Marc Maron, and his young trust-fund producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell) are determined to train their chosen crop of ladies to cultivate personas, create in-the-ring feuds, and develop their wrestling chops to enthrall the American viewing public. The result is a show that is both hilarious and emotional, with more than a dash of the neon lights, high-leg spandex, and glitter that made the ’80s so… ’80s.
But what makes GLOW more than just an ’80s comedy is the bond evident among the ensemble cast from the moment the diverse group of women congregates around the ring. These characters are giving wrestling a try because they are desperate for the chance to show what they can do. It’s a storyline with more than just a faint echo of the experiences many women continue to face in Hollywood today.
“I do think it’s difficult to find rich, interesting, complicated roles sometimes as a woman. I’ve been fortunate to work on some great characters, but a lot of the time, you’re the straight man and the men get to have a lot of fun,” Brie says. “In my experience, you get sort of put in a box very immediately. At first, it’s kind of exciting and great because you’re like ‘Oh they found a box to put me in, and that means I will work doing that thing and that’s great.’ But then you get to a point where you’re like, now I want to do other things.”
Brie has led an impressive career, but many of her characters up to this point can be boiled down to a formula: type-A women trying to lead conventional lives despite the messy perils of reality. There is the neglected housewife Trudy in Mad Men, the temporarily derailed good girl Annie in Community, and the dating-obsessed Lucy in How to Be Single.
“Though Ruth has not worked at all, I feel like that’s sort of where we’re both existing, in that place of, I want to do other things [and] I know I can do better things, if you would just let me,” Brie says.
Both women may have found the path to stretching their limits—and, in Ruth’s case, finding herself—in the middle of a sweaty wrestling ring.
“For me, to play a bit of a villain or to play even just the ‘heel’ in the ring was exciting because I don’t think it’s something that people picture for me,” Brie told the audience gathered for a sneak peek of the first episode at the Austin Television Festival on Sunday. “Even close friends were surprised when I would tell them that aspect of the character.”
But the experience of filming GLOW was unique in more than just Brie taking on the role of the “heel,” wrestling parlance for the villain in the ring (a role she seems to have embraced in real life, wearing a white T-shirt stamped with “Villain” over a floral maxi dress). In a Hollywood landscape that continues to be male-dominated, GLOW joins a small but growing roster of shows that are not only female-centric, but that also feature an ensemble cast notable for its diversity.
For a month before official filming began, the soon-to-be Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling gathered together to train full-time with professional wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. in order to learn the sport well enough to be able to do all their own stunt work (although, they did have stunt doubles who could tag in on long days of filming).
“It felt like a sports team,” Brie says. “And it was always funny to me, never having been on a set like this with this dynamic, that everyone was so supportive and cheering each other on so constantly that we would finish scenes where we were just acting, no wrestling involved at all, and all the women would rush over and like, ‘Woo! Great scene!’”
Betty Gilpin, who plays Debbie, the best friend and heroine “face” to Ruth’s villainous “heel,” agrees but goes a step farther. She says the act of playing such a physical part amid a cast of supportive women has changed her irreversibly.
“I feel completely altered by this experience—and being around these women who are so courageous—[in] the way I think about my body especially,” Gilpin tells The Daily Beast.
“I think that actresses have the very wonderful option of thinking about your body as this ghost space between your face and your feet that exists, like obliques, triceps, and nipples, and that’s it. And it’s gonna die at 31,” Gilpin says with more than a little sarcasm. “It’s just this shame chasm. [But] to use [my body] in a powerful, functional, loving way changed the way that I think about how I walked around in the world.”
Despite some progress in the film industry, behind-the-camera jobs continue to be disproportionately held by men, executives are only now starting to wake up to the fact that viewers are hungry for female-led stories, and chauvinism can creep into the process of auditioning in ways that are so obvious they are laughable.
Brie didn’t hesitate with responding “no” when asked after the GLOW screening if things are better for female actors today. She recounted an early audition for a part on Entourage when, after arriving to the audition in a bikini covered with skimpy shorts and tank top per the role, Brie was asked to go further and remove her shirt.
“To take your top off in an audition and then to not get the part does not feel great,” she said.
Brie’s GLOW wardrobe is a wonderful 1980s 180-degree turn from her Entourage debacle. While Ruth wears her fair share of spandex (complete with a perm and a shag haircut), she owns only one pair of outrageously high-waisted, straight-legged jeans that Brie discovered post-filming so offended Maron that he commented, “How was anyone getting laid in the ’80s if that’s what they were wearing?”
While the perm and jeans may be gone (Brie contends she loved those pants), the experience of creating GLOW lingers.
“I’ve seen the first episode now probably three or four times and every time it ends, I burst into tears like I did when I watched Wonder Woman. There’s a through line of like ‘we’re doing it!’” Brie says. “I’ve never been happier every day driving to work.”
After conquering her opponents as the villain in the ring, there’s no telling what Alison Brie will take on next.