Alison Brie on Why 'GLOW' Is Part of Evolving TV Landscape for Women

GLOW - Production Stills - 018 -Season 1-  EPISODE 1 -Publicity- H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the full first season of Netflix's GLOW.]

When viewers first meet Alison Brie on GLOW, her character, Ruth Wilder, is a bit of a mess.

The time and place is 1985 Los Angeles. After a failed audition where Ruth purposely read the man's meaty part instead of the woman's throwaway line, the struggling actress approaches the casting director about why she didn't get the gig. The woman says every director wants to see unknown actresses who are real, so she keeps bringing Ruth in to show the directors "they actually don't want the thing they want."

After complaining to her best friend, former soap star and new mom Debbie Egan (Betty Gilpin), that she only has $83 in her bank account, Ruth is tipped off by that same casting director about an unconventional audition: the first-ever women's wrestling show on television, GLOW, aka the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. After a demoralizing audition with director-coach Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), Ruth gets an unexpected late-night visitor — Debbie's husband (played by Mad Men's Rich Sommer), and the pair proceed to cheat on the other woman in each of their lives.

"Ruth is troubled," Brie tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Netflix comedy, which was created by Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie, Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Orange Is the New Black, Nurse Jackie) and is executive produced by Orange creator Jenji Kohan. "She’s in a dark place, but she’s determined to get herself out of it."

Debbie finds out about the betrayal and shows up to the set where "homewrecker" is the kindest accusation she launches before challenging Ruth to a fight inside the ring. The unplanned wrestling match causes Sam to have a lightbulb moment, casting the stars of his show in his head, and the idea for GLOW's good vs. evil is born. 

The rest of the season (now streaming its 10 episodes on Netflix) plays out like an origin story as the 14 women of GLOW learn how to wrestle — the actresses all performed their own stunts for authenticity — and create alter egos for inside the ring, all building to the filming of the actual TV show the series was inspired by in the finale. But the glitz and glam of the wrestling world spins around the center story of Ruth, Debbie and their fractured friendship — one that can only be pieced back together, perhaps, through this shared, rise-from-the-ashes experience of GLOW. The season ends with a roaring match between Ruth's Russian supervillain and Debbie's patriotic Liberty Bell, seemingly setting the stage for many more matches to come.

In the penultimate episode, Ruth sums it up best: "I was sober and insecure and acting out of this deep well of resentment I didn't even know I had. It was just buried. It all came out and f—ed up a real friendship. But then I found wrestling, and it saved me."

In a chat with THR, Brie tracks her character's physical and emotional journey, says the pace of the first season sets up the potential for many more to come and reveals why her freeing role on GLOW is representative of the change Hollywood has experienced since the days of 1985 auditions.

Coming off of Mad Men and Community, what about GLOW made you want to return on TV?

I couldn’t think of another thing that’s on right now to compare it to. Even when I watch it, the feel and look of it is more like an ‘80s movie than like anything  on TV right now. I'm just so proud of the show. I'm proud of all the women on it; I think everyone shines.

The show has a running commentary about women in Hollywood, which highlights what has changed — and what hasn't — since 1985. Is the 14-person, female-led GLOW part of the change?

Yes, this show is definitely a part of the change that’s been coming on for a while now. There are a lot of shows on TV and streaming that star women. There are great roles for women happening right now — for women of all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds. It’s a good time in television. But the film industry is still representative of what’s happening to the women at the start of this show [Gilpin’s character loses her gig when she gets pregnant]. It’s a very narrow alley that you’re expected to fit in if you want to work in film.

What still needs to improve for women in Hollywood?

Hollywood has been evolving and is always sort of changing. It’s taking baby steps. Shows like GLOW and Orange Is the New Black — people like Jenji Kohan and Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who created this show — are definitely leading the charge of creating interesting and exciting characters for all types of women and really aiding in finding roles for unknown actresses. It feels daunting to even break into the industry, and that’s something that hasn’t changed very much. That’s where these horror audition stories come from where we have all said, “Well, you gotta start somewhere.” At this point, in some ways, it’s nice that not everyone has to feel that way anymore. There are opportunities for people that you haven’t seen before to have a great breakout role in a really cool show. The TV landscape has changed, especially with the streamers, like Netflix, taking bigger risks creatively. Even five years ago, when Orange Is the New Black went up, that seemed like a real big and shocking risk to have so many unknown women starring in a new show, and look how that turned out.

What are some of the Orange influences you see in GLOW?

Well, it's not prison. It's way brighter than prison! You could compare the shows in terms of the casting. Jenji has a real talent for finding new faces that people haven’t seen before and casting all different types of women and that is very exciting. They’re not stereotypes. Finding a group of 14 women where everyone is bringing something unique and different to the table is a major challenge and that is, I think, where our show really shines. 

You trained with wrestler Chavo Guerrero, Jr. so you could all do your own stunts, something Flahive and Mensch said they wanted for authenticity. What was that like, and is this the most physically challenged you have ever been for a role?

Absolutely, and it was great. As tiring, as exhausting as it was, it really kept everyone’s energy up, especially if we were shooting with an audience. We were so filled with adrenaline. We could do all of the stunts — I can do a flip! We did four and a half weeks of wrestling training and we continued the training while shooting the show. Betty and I have both worked with personal trainers as well for strength and agility. We also had stunt doubles on the show. Shauna Duggins was our stunt coordinator. She dealt with all the women’s safety on the show, and Helena Barrett was my stunt double. It was very important to us that we were able to do every move that our characters were doing on the show, and we were.

Shauna and Helena became like a great safety net for when we’d been shooting for hours and you need someone to kind of tag in if it’s going to be a wide shot where we’re really not going to see what’s happening. They were invaluable in terms of figuring out camera angles, because there were certain moves that we were capable of doing, but not that many times. That’s when Shauna and Helena would step in to say, “Let’s lay this out. Let’s make sure you know this exactly before the rest of the girls come in to do the moves so we can shoot it however many times.” Sometimes we would have five takes in us. There were times where they told us we could skip past the big move and just throw ourselves on the ground and pick up from there.

Did you leave set with bruises or any injuries?

No major injuries, but definitely bruising. There was a scene where Marc’s character — I don’t think it actually made it into the show, sadly — but there was a scene where Marc’s character comments on bruises that I have on my leg and my butt. I remember coming into makeup that day — they wanted me to come in early to establish the bruises — and pulling down my pants and our makeup artist just saying, “Oh, well, they’re already there. Should I just darken these?” (Laughs.) It was always a fun game to figure out where the bruises came from, which was usually from whatever we were doing with our hands. I always had fingers on my legs. I did take a lot of Epsom salt baths, but it was like a badge of honor more than anything. 

Ruth is introduced as being a pretty terrible friend. What is the struggle to play the villain and still keep her likable? 

That’s one way to put it! You could say she’s misunderstood, trying to find a home in any person who will listen to her. I don’t think that Ruth is fundamentally a bad person. She’s made some really bad decisions as of late because she really feels like she’s not seen or heard, like she maybe doesn’t even exist. That is what has driven those bad decisions, but she now has this opportunity for redemption in many ways. Redemption of a failed career in this new career opportunity, and then in the fact that this friend of hers is still in that environment. A chance at redemption with her and with everyone around her. Ruth’s main obstacle of this whole season of the show, I think, is getting people on her side and winning people back over. Making friends, if you will. 

Jenji Kohan wrote the sixth episode, when Ruth really hones in on her wrestling alter ego. How is that a turning point of the show?

For the first half of the season after this betrayal that Ruth commits in the first episode, she’s really put in a powerless position. A lot of the women on the show don’t necessarily respond to her and she’s kind of isolated and floundering, trying to figure out who she is and what kind of character she wants to be and what her strengths are. That is the episode in which we see her kind of let go a little of caring what people think about her. She stops trying to win Debbie over because she has a little bit of a break from her to let loose a little, in some ways, and do her own thing. That’s how she is able to empower herself and find her voice.

Fans were treated to an exciting Mad Men reunion with your affair with Rich Sommer in the premiere.

Yes. If there is any good Mad Men Harry-Trudy fan fiction that exists out there, we’re acting that out. (Laughs.)

But beyond that, the show shifts to centering on the relationship with Ruth and Debbie. How was that freeing as an actress?

The main relationship at the center of the show is the one between Ruth and Debbie, and it’s a really great way to play with the will-they-won’t-they trope. The hope is that the audience should want these characters to be together and through wrestling, they’re able to find this amazing outlet where they can still be connected physically when outside of the ring, they are still totally repulsed and afraid of one another, and not even able to really look each other in the eye. Without having to really address any of their issues, they can use wrestling to stay connected.

How do you characterize Ruth’s relationship with Sam?

It does become a very interesting friendship, and it is one of the things I love about the show that, as one of the central characters, there’s no love interesting. Ruth is not concerned with what a man wants from her. That is so refreshing to get to play. And I think it’s much sweeter to be finding this friendship.

His showing up for her when she decides to get an abortion is a big turning point in their relationship. What would you say to viewers who do want them to see them get together?

Let people have their fun, people can ship whoever they want! I love the Ruth and Sam relationship and I do recognize that Maron and I have great chemistry, so I can see why people might want to make that happen. But I think at this point, that would be a bit of a distracting idea and would certainly take away from the themes of this show. But, dig in — have at it! I think fan fiction is kind of fun.

For your wrestling character, you land on this Russian supervillain. Is that accent something you always had a knack for?

Apparently, I just never knew! It’s been hiding inside me all of this time. (Laughs.). The Russian accent is so funny. I do a few different accents and voices on the journey to finding Ruth’s wrestling character and in terms of the Russian, I just never wanted it to be too good. It should be kind of offensive and I hope that people can realize that that is the nature of ‘80s wrestling. It’s more of a commentary on that than actually being offensive to Russian people. 

How did you perfect it?

I got some Russian accents CDs, but I couldn’t stand the guy’s voice on them so I ended up listening to a gentleman on our show who is Russian. He plays the manager at the motel where we live. I also watched old scenes of the Russian character on the original GLOW, Ninotchka, and how over-the-top her accent was, because she was really incredible. I watched her to get an idea of the campiness of it. It’s more Boris and Natasha than it is Meryl Streep playing a Russian person. I never thought it would be so fun to play a bad guy. Really, the bad guys, like Debbie says in the show, get all the best lines and they have the most fun. It’s such amazing fuel to get booed. I didn’t realize how many Russian puns I had inside of me.

When you’re being booed in the finale, were you improvising?

Oh, yes. We would improv stuff in the ring only. It was the only place where we could get away with doing that, and even then they would come over and say, “Talk less. Just do the moves.”

The season takes it time to set up the official TV series. Is the intention that this could go on for many seasons, since there is still a lot to tell? (Netflix has yet to hand out a renewal.)

Absolutely. There are so many lives to delve into. I know that it was important to Liz and Carly to have a really slow burn for this first season. We give you a taste. The original GLOW was on TV for four seasons. But you see how rich this show is and full of different characters. You can mine those characters for years. On the original GLOW, it was a slight revolving door in terms of some women who were on the show for years and years and other new characters coming in. So, there’s a lot of possibilities for longevity.

If season one is the origin story, what can a second season look like — what would you like to see more of or do more of?

Betty and I like to play this game together, but we’re always so speechless because neither of us have any idea of where they’re going to take it. I think the obvious idea is to see more wrestling, because this first season is about these women learning to wrestle and it’s all building to the shooting of the pilot episode of GLOW. So imagining that the show within our show is picked up, then I would look forward to more of the glitz and glam of shooting actual GLOW episodes and not only doing the wrestling side of GLOW, but hopefully getting to do some of their sketches and a bit more of the rapping would also be fun.

How has your body changed from the training?

I just have so much more muscle mass to my body. I feel a lot stronger in general. My arms are much more muscular. The way I workout is different, the way I eat is different. I’m always thinking about protein and eating enough calories, whereas in the past as an actress, I think the goal was to eat as little as possible sometimes. Now, that is not the case at all. More often I’m saying to someone, “We need to eat. We have to get a snack.” The way I feel about my body changed a lot while shooting this show in a really positive way. I feel like I have more confidence than ever and I really learned to love my body and work with my body rather than against it, which is healthy.

As they get better and better with wrestling, are you committing to still doing your own stunts? Are you hitting the gym in preparation?

One-hundred percent. More than ever. Betty will text me crazy GIFs of wrestlers doing moves and say, “Season two!” We have fantasies of going to a secret wrestling camp and coming back and knowing these incredible moves — though I’m not sure they’d be as gentle with us as Chavo was. We’re really looking forward to getting back into training. All the women are. We all miss the wrestling. We have a text chain that is constant and everyone brings up the fact that we miss being in the ring. I’ve kept up my heavy lifting with my trainer and am staying in top shape to be prepared. But it’s a little scary, too, I do think about that. How there is no end in sight about how good the moves have to be. They just have to get better and better! 

What did you think of Ruth's rise and the first season of GLOW? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full show coverage.