[This story contains spoilers from the second season of Netflix's GLOW.]
Inside the wrestling ring, actresses turned wrestlers Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie Egan (Betty Gilpin) square off as Russian supervillain Zoya the Destroyer and the patriotic darling Liberty Bell, respectively. Outside the ring, their fractured friendship is the heart of GLOW.
The second season of Netflix's female wrestling comedy (which launched Friday) hinges on one big match between the estranged friends that goes terribly wrong. Struggling with her own self-identity as a new mother going through a divorce, Debbie snorts cocaine before her big match-up against Ruth. Instead of delivering the exciting TV moment that could save their struggling 1980s female wrestling show, Debbie abandons the moves they rehearsed and, in a fit of cocaine-fueled rage, snaps Ruth's ankle. The injury sends Ruth to the emergency room where the two friends — who haven't recovered from Ruth sleeping with Debbie's husband in season one — lay into each other with years of pain as ammunition and, for the first time in the series, truly begin to inch their way forward.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with both Brie and Gilpin about the #MeToo parallels in season two, the motivations behind their characters' betrayals (Gilpin says the ankle break was an accident; Brie isn't so sure) and how two seasons on a female-dominated Hollywood set has transformed them in unimaginable ways: "Self-worth can be contagious if you let it." Read the combined conversation, below.
GLOW is set in the 1980s yet remains relevant today. What was the experience of tackling themes like harassment and fighting for female voices to be heard while the real world was changing with #MeToo?
Alison Brie: More than anything, I felt so incredibly lucky to be on this set at this time. Mostly because I'm surrounded by incredible women who are in a power position and it's such a warm, safe space in which to create. That's been a major relief as all of this stuff has been coming out. We're lucky that we didn't have to go to work every day with that nervous anxiety, wondering if some horrible story was going to come out about someone we were working with. That feeling that so many women have to work in scary environments and ours is the opposite. We also tell stories about women going through what a lot of women are currently talking about, so it feels incredibly valuable to work on a show that is written from the female perspective and can analyze all different themes about working in this industry and struggling as an actress.
Betty Gilpin: Being on a set with female bosses [co-showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch], the level of comfort and bravery I felt really made me reflect back on my whole career. I'd always known about things that men did that made me shut down, creatively. But I was surprised to reflect on things that I did to myself as a result of being in a male-dominated environment. My brain had taught itself to have a male gaze representative at the door, proof-reading ideas like a checkpoint: "Oh, that would make waves, don't do that" or "That choice is a little too big." I felt a level of fear and anxiety that if I didn't behave like the quiet Barbie I was playing, they wouldn't let me play a quiet Barbie again. In previous jobs, I would spend four takes auditioning and then in the fifth take, sneak in my biggest and weirdest choice. In GLOW, I spend my first take doing my weirdest and biggest choice and just get bigger and weirder from there. Our set can feel like this sort of protected, feminist bubble where you get to trot out your bravest, most-empowered self for free. And whether you chose to bring that self into the rest of the world that doesn't feel exactly like the GLOW set is your choice. I've tried to in other jobs that I've had this year, but it's not as easy as I had hoped.
In the fifth episode, Ruth Wilder (Brie) is sexually harassed by the network boss when she meets him for dinner and is told he "always takes dinner meetings in his room." How personal was that scene?
Brie: We don't have to deal with misogynistic directors in our day-to-day life, but we portray them and in season two we get to show the abuse of power through a male executive. That episode demanded a lot of vulnerability and it was also wonderful to shoot on our set where there was such great sensitivity shown toward me and everyone involved. We shot it with a skeleton crew; a whole day was dedicated to the sequence. It was as if we were shooting a nude scene, it was handled with that kind of sensitivity. There was a lot of discussion and thought that went into every detail: like, should Ruth be facing the bedroom so she can always keep eyes on the bed, or do we want it to be behind her? Even the physical choreography of how we get into certain positions. The actor who plays Mr. Grant was so fantastic. If anything he was too respectful. Take after take, I would tell him: You can go further with it, you gotta go further! But it's certainly a step in the right direction to have men be too respectful on a set and have to pull it out of them, than the reverse. Because our environment is so polar opposite; there was a lot of relief between takes.
And it did feel personal. It was interesting to shoot a scene like that in the current climate, but it also felt very necessary to portray that on a show about actresses. The scariest part is that the first time I read it, my question was: Is it bad enough? I had to take a step back and be like, "Wow." Because we read stories in the news and the pendulum has swung really far. Even talking to our writers, I know that the stories that were shared in our writers room — real experiences that our female writers have gone through — were far more salacious than what we have in the episode. But it's not about shock value. What we're showing is just the slippery slope of how easily a woman can find herself in that position.
Gilpin: Prior to this being written and prior to this season, we had shared experiences with each other. Alison and I and the whole cast were already very vocal about things that had made us feel small and alone and had already found unity in that feeling. So, we were lucky that we as people had a united front of support, where our characters do not.
Showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch spoke about how the meat of the episode was in the conversation after, between Ruth and Debbie. Ruth confides in her friend and expects sympathy, but is confronted with a differing perspective about what women have to do to hold on to a Hollywood career in the 1980s. What conversations did you have with the writers, and with each other, about what you wanted to portray?
Brie: The conversation between Ruth and Debbie is the most important part of that episode. To not only show a woman put in a very precarious position but the reaction of another woman — a contemporary in her industry who has had a very different experience. I know it was important to Betty that Debbie not come off as too much of a villain during that conversation. But she plays it so beautifully. Essentially, what we're showing is that it was sort of learned behavior. I think a lot of women really felt that to work in this industry and be successful, you had to play the game. You had to put yourself out there with men in a certain capacity to continue to work. What you see in that scene is one actress' resentment at another actress not following the rules that she had been made to feel like she had to follow her whole career. And in that way, Ruth is really naive when it comes to the entertainment industry. Having had zero success as an actress, she really hasn't found herself in difficult positions very much of the time.
Gilpin: At first, I had a visceral negative reaction. I was so disappointed in her. But then I realized, her reaction isn't about Ruth at all. Debbie is thinking only about her own experience and feeling shame and regret and vulnerability. I think both Debbie and Ruth went into the scene thinking it was going to go differently. There's a way of looking at it where it's super black and white. Where Debbie is the cool, "How could you?" ice queen and Ruth is the victim, but they’re both victims. They both have the map of their own experiences on their faces. And it's even more complicated because they're both feeling extreme shame and loneliness in that moment. All they want is their best friend who knows them to be able to open their arms and to just fall into the other person. And of course, because of their history, they can't do that. It breaks my heart.
Ruth escaped the scenario, running out of the bungalow and rejecting the boss. Were you surprised by that reaction?
Brie: That made sense to me because it's more Ruth's naivete that she wouldn't even realize the possible repercussions of that action. It adds to what makes Ruth a really complicated character — where she chooses to take the moral high ground and where she fails to do that, which of course Debbie references by saying that she slept with Debbie's husband last season but now is drawing the line with sex in a way that's going to hurt everyone. It was more a sign of Ruth's internal struggle and just her newness to this whole industry.
Gilpin: Debbie wouldn't have done the same thing Ruth did. She wouldn't have walked out. I don't know that she would have had sex with the guy, but she would have teased him into thinking there's a world in which it could have happened so that she didn't upset the boss. Something that is unique to our time now is people becoming more vocal and supported when they speak out, whereas in 1985 that wasn't the case.
Both Ruth and Debbie also fight for a seat at the table this season, with Ruth directing and Debbie producing. How do you compare their quests for power?
Brie: Debbie is certainly much more upfront about asking for what she wants and demanding it, and I think Ruth sort of thrives when she's beaten down and challenged — which is good because she finds herself in that position often in the context of this show. Ruth is almost more collaborative by nature, but she is at a disadvantage in terms of her naivete. She's often misinterpreting signals from Sam [Sylvia, played by Marc Maron]. In the first episode she takes the reins to direct the cold open of the show – she doesn't really have Sam's permission, but in her mind they're collaborators! Now they're working together and rolling with it full force, even though she hasn't been given that authority. Ruth tends to get in her own way; whereas with Debbie, we see the real male obstacles that are keeping her down.
Gilpin: It's really interesting to see in what ways Ruth and Debbie are strong and in what ways they second-guess themselves. There's a big difference between self-confidence and self-worth. While Debbie may have pretty good self-confidence when it comes to putting on a bold lip and sauntering across a room, in terms of self-worth, she has a long way to go. In her soap opera days, I don't think she ever dreamed of the possibility of becoming a producer. Ruth has always known what she's worth and has always dreamed to the stars. I think she's thought about directing for a long time, and Debbie is just forming these dreams. I certainly relate to that. As an actor, I kept my dreams very low, achievable and realistic because I love it so much and I didn't want the heartbreak of not achieving something. And what's happening on GLOW is so beyond my expectations. I'm in this feminist apocalypse and it's happening at the right time for me, because I'm watching women around me who have dreamed this big for their whole lives and I'm learning how to do that. I think self-worth can be contagious if you let it.
They are bucking gender rules that existed in the '80s, some still today. How do you view the sexual politics they encounter?
Brie: I don't think Ruth really even thinks about it. Last season, GLOW opened with Ruth reading the man's part in the scene because it's a better part. Ruth is not getting on a soapbox about women's rights; it just doesn't occur to her that she shouldn't be able to do this stuff. Whereas Debbie has worked much longer as an actress and she knows how to show up to a meeting and get what she wants. The battle is harder than even she anticipates. Debbie's able to get the title, but she's not able to get the respect right away. Ruth is just diving in and doing the work and not thinking at all about those titles or those things, and then gets hurt so much more when it doesn't work out for her.
Gilpin: As an actress, Debbie is used to there being one girl part: A story about a bunch of men and then there's the Bond girl or the mother. Debbie, like me, is shocked and inspired by being in a work environment where there are 14 women around her. Suddenly, there are many spaces and different ways you can be useful and your 7-year-old creativity is just as valuable as the way your butt looks in tights. She's figuring out, "Where do I fit in? If I'm allowed in that room, at that table — what do I want that to look like?" Producing, for her, is a really good fit. In the 1950s, there are so many women who could have been CEOs. Debbie has been a producer in her own home, by herself. She just has to give herself permission to have a voice. Men's brains are going to take forever to change, you may as well work on your own brain first.
What was it like to film the scene where Debbie, after snorting cocaine, snaps Ruth's ankle during their match — and did she do it on purpose?
Brie: It's always such a blast to be in the ring with Betty. In this case, again, there was a lot of sensitivity paid in terms of — how much do we want the audience to think that Debbie really did this on purpose, or was she just so coked out of her mind and unstable that she took the move too far? And I think it's a little bit of both. Betty is such an incredible actress and it's one of our favorite things, to be in the ring together and to get to layer in so much stuff. We're doing the moves, working off of our chemistry in the ring and the chemistry between our wrestling characters. Then at the same time, playing real heavy, human emotions underneath that are bubbling to the surface. That's a dream day of shooting for me.
Gilpin: It was long because we had two different directors — it was the end of one episode and the beginning of the next. Every wrestling sequence takes so long; usually we start the day pretty ambitious with a set of shot lists and sometimes I'll do a move and say, "OK, we can do four takes of that, not 16." But I was worried about that scene because playing Liberty Bell not on cocaine is already like she's on cocaine. (Laughs.) The way to wrestle safely is to do it slow — you are more of a stumbling, drunken bear than a coked-up deer. I thought, "Maybe she just drops the character totally." That Debbie is so angry, it's Debbie fighting Ruth. And that's what I tried to play with in that sequence. The rage is easily accessible, it's within all of us. The past two years, the breaking news is: Every woman, in every stage of time, in every place has a bottomless well of rage that can be harnessed into art or business or whatever they choose. I definitely was thinking about Roy Moore during the cocaine match. I was like, "Roy Moore!"
I don't think Debbie meant to do it. She was feeling genuine feelings of: I want Ruth to feel pain. But I don't think she meant to or thought she was going to break her ankle. There was a sequence they cut after it happened, where all the girls come down from Sam's office and each one glares at me with a horrible look like, "How could you?" And after we filmed it, I was like, "She had sex with my husband! It was an accident!"
Since you do your own stunts, what were you most proud of pulling off in the ring this season?
Brie: I always love the suplex; we did it last year and again this year. I also love the sunset flip, we do it in that same match where I get injured. I like when I get locked into a move when I no longer feel extreme anxiety, then the move gets to be more fun and not scary or exhilarating. Shooting something where my character gets an injury was a wakeup call. We all like to really not think about injuries when in the ring and doing our own stunts. (Laughs.) I actually wrestled a lot less this year because Ruth is in the doghouse for so much of the season and then injured, so no real injuries for me and probably even less bruising than last season. It was only emotional bruising because it's so hard to see Betty in the ring with other people — I get jealous!
Gilpin: In the finale, wrestling our wrestling coach Chavo Guerrero Jr. [who made a cameo] was when it felt like an out-of-body experience. I couldn't believe I was wrestling someone in the WWE; same with wrestling Kia Stevens [who plays Welfare Queen]. Alison Brie is the first wrestling partner I ever had, so she will always be my favorite person to wrestle. We have so much fun together and our bodys' communication is something I've never had with someone. The only time I've had to be close with someone on camera is in sex scenes, and that's when body communication shuts down. You think, "I can't wait for this to be over. I hate my body. I can't believe I'm doing this." I can just spin out and feel so frozen. This is the complete opposite where every part of my body is listening, talking, valuable and powerful. That was the first thing we did with each other, Ali and I — wrestling training, just the two of us doing somersaults. That's how we got to know each other, and that is so invaluable to me.
There was one moment that reminded viewers that Ruth is still keeping her abortion a secret from Debbie. Do you think that secret will ever come out?
Brie: Betty and I have talked about it. My hope for Ruth and Debbie's friendship is that it never comes out, but I can see a version of the show in which it comes out in a later season. It certainly is a great hidden ace in our back pocket, if we ever need to add fuel to the fire. It doesn't seem to need that right now, so I'm hoping that it never comes out. I also just love the way we handled the abortion sequence last season and that it was never brought up again. It was never exploited for melodramatic purposes. I'm glad we got to tease it as something Ruth will always know is something she did and she will have her own feelings about that, and we got to touch on that this season without exploiting it.
Gilpin: I hope it doesn't come out, because I really like how it was treated story-wise. That was Ruth's day. There were things that were painful and confusing about it, and things that were just logistical about it. I think the reveal that she had sex with my husband is the reveal, but who knows. Maybe season 15 we'll be running out of ideas and say, "Let's bring up the abortion."
How do you view Ruth and Debbie's friendship in the finale? Can they get back to being true friends?
Brie: Their friendship is on the road to recovery after their major, blowout fight. Clearly, there have been years of resentment building up inside of Ruth that she may or may not have even been aware of. Their dynamic as friends had gotten set in this place of Debbie being the alpha and Ruth being the beta, and it needed to evolve. Ruth sleeping with Debbie's husband was the first breaking point and in season two, you could argue that Debbie breaking Ruth's ankle is a fair amount of payback — at least it opened the door for them to air all of their old issues with each other and after that, they're in a much better place to be friends again. It certainly will be interesting, if we get a third season, to see how they are in this new environment. Maybe they'll need each other as allies a little more being in a whole new state of mind.
Gilpin: This season we get to glimpse what was wrong with their dynamic before this fissure happened. Debbie wasn't listening to Ruth and wasn't fully there for Ruth. Debbie did 80 percent of the talking at lunch when Ruth was struggling. It's not Debbie's fault, but Ruth didn't sleep with Mark out of the blue. She was in a really bad place and, looking back, I think Debbie should have seen that and been there for her. We also see Debbie this season where she feels powerless in other areas and she knows she can gain power in an interaction with Ruth by putting her down, and that's not OK and something she needs to work on. That's the very immature part of Debbie. Ali and I both have fantasies of them in season-whatever running toward each other in an airport to Phil Collins' "Take Me Home" or at some funeral, like in Sex and the City when Steve shows up to Miranda's mom's funeral. (Laughs.) We've pitched it all to Liz and Carly and they think it's adorable and useless.
Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) evolves as the season goes on. How do you view both him and his and Ruth's relationship by the end — are there feelings there?
Brie: Ruth and Sam, when they're at their best, bring out the best in each other. At the beginning of the season, Sam is so insecure and feeling like he has to protect his position as director of the show. He takes that anger out on Ruth pretty immediately and then she's in the doghouse for so much of the season. I do think he is an ally for her. Sam cares about Ruth pretty deeply and actually does respect her as a creative partner, but he would never want that public perception, artistically. In terms of their personal relationship, that is something to me that is again really not on Ruth's radar for too long. I've always really liked this as a character trait for Ruth — she doesn't do things to attract male attention. Despite her actions in season one of sleeping with her best friend's husband, she is not a person who seeks out male attention or who is really any kind of sexual presence. She doesn't really know how to flirt, it wouldn't have even occurred to her that she had romantic feelings for Sam until she's really confronted with them and I think they scare her.
Gilpin: GLOW is certainly the first set I've been on where there's not a toxic male presence who is insisting that the level of air-conditioning is the reason why he can't remember his lines and throwing things and grabbing butts. For the record, Marc Maron is a baby angel of a man — he's a bigger feminist than me and I tell him I love him every day. But the character of Sam is certainly a love-hate letter to that kind of guy. But then you realize that he is just enacting his own Sopranos fantasy at this job — something that is true for so many men, from my driver's ed teacher to the president of the United States. I think that the girls get to Sam and Ruth certainly gets to Sam. Vulnerability and not knowing the answer to a question, while a terrifying thing for some men to handle, is essential to creativity and making art. Sam experiences vulnerability for the first time with these girls and with Ruth, and I think it would serve his work.
The season ends with the GLOW team hopping on a bus to continue the show live in Las Vegas, Ruth vowing to make it work with boyfriend Russell (Victor Quinaz) and Debbie finding comfort in her friendship with Tamme (Kia Stevens). What does the future look like for each of them when they step off the bus?
Brie: Ruth has never had a healthy relationship with a man, as she admits to Russell. I think she's making this decision toward the end of the season that she should try for a healthy relationship, that it's something she deserves in her life because she's never felt like she deserved it before. She really does want to make it work with Russell, but her career will always be her first love. I don't think anything is going to come above her career and her drive to succeed and that is probably part of why she doesn't really want to get involved with Sam, because they're such a great team when they're working together. She doesn't want to ruin that relationship and she knows how fucked up Sam is in and out of relationships. They know each other pretty well, maybe more than anyone on this show now that her and Debbie's relationship has been severed so severely. I really think it's just Ruth's luck that as soon as she's involved in the first healthy relationship in her life, that her job is going to move her thousands of miles away. Ruth is starting to let herself lean on her new friendships more as well, and all of that is a nice sign that she is ceasing to punish herself, which we've seen a lot of over the last two seasons. She's finding her confidence again.
Gilpin: Debbie had listened to the world when it told her that her value was to be the ingenue, the wife, or the pretty doll. Once the rug was pulled out from under her, she realized all of those things have an expiration date and need a man to reflect off. That she's not a supporting character in someone else's story, she's the lead. But she's also thinking, "I've based my identity on having status in a conversation and being a little self-righteous and having everything together — if I am supposed to be a very put-together piece of arm candy, who am I when I'm a mess and alone?" She was surprised to find that the answer to that question is: I'm more powerful and valuable than I thought I was. In her own insane, Blanche DuBois-falling-down-the-stairs way, she is finding her own power in this season. Learning from the women around her and, much to her chagrin, seeing Ruth go after what she wants and being so sure of it and confident on her own two feet. Being a mother has ripped off this trap door she never knew she had to this cauldron of power inside. But — she's still a total mess. I told [showrunners] Liz and Carly that I never want to do a season where Debbie is fine and taking vitamins. That's so boring. I want her always to be unstable. They're like, "We promise!"
How do you describe the transformation that you've experienced after two seasons of this show? How has GLOW empowered you?
Brie: The show has changed my life. I feel like a different person than I was before we started shooting. A lot of that does have to do with real emotional empowerment — having a great support system in the shape of 14 incredible women who I work alongside every day, a handful more who work behind the camera and our showrunners who are inspiring me. It's just given me a lot more confidence and fulfillment as an actress, because we get to do everything and that sort of work is insanely challenging and rewarding. Physically, I am stronger than I have ever been before and that's a really good feeling — to feel literally strong has made me also feel strong in other ways as a woman.
Gilpin: It's completely changed the way I think about my body. I think about it as a group of muscles and ligaments and joints and bones now, and I can't believe it's the first time I'm thinking of it that way. The entertainment business conditions women to think that their bodies are these sexual parade floats that you have to ride in on if you want to be in the movie. Sadly, it's a common female experience where you have days where you think your body is a diseased-troll mobile, but those days are so much fewer for me than before this job. I'm just more comfortable in my own skin. As an actress, I've become more vocal in what I want and less afraid to talk about it. I've deleted emojis, question-marks, ellipses and jokes from my business email, which is unique to the past two years. It seeps in in these little ways.
The new season of GLOW is streaming now on Netflix. Head here for more season two coverage.