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Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch discovered the world of professional female wrestling when they stumbled upon a documentary about the women of the original GLOW, a syndicated series that broke glass ceilings and became a cult hit when it aired from 1986 to 1990. They sent a one-line e-mail pitch to Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and that’s how Netflix’s version of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was born.
Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead the 14-woman GLOW ensemble of wrestlers who audition and subsequently assemble wrestling personas while being coached by Marc Maron’s director in the 10-episode comedy (now streaming on Netflix) that takes place in 1985 Los Angeles.
“We knew we wanted to build all new characters from scratch,” Mensch tells The Hollywood Reporter in a chat about drawing inspiration for their fictionalized series. The season serves as an origin story that introduces the women, both in and out of the ring, and takes its time building to a finale showcase. “That was definitely intentional. There is so much comedy in the women learning something new and taking our time and being able to craft stories that we felt inclined to tell,” adds Flahive.
As the women settle into their personas — some campy, many playing on gender and race stereotypes — the actresses were also learning how to wrestle so they could perform their own stunts.
“It was something we asked from the audition. It was a big part of what we wanted for the authenticity of the show,” says Flahive about their stars learning how to flip and get flipped in four-and-a-half weeks of training with wrestler-trainer Chavo Guerrero Jr. (His uncle, Mando Guerrero, trained the women of the original series.) “We knew from the beginning GLOW was a show about bodies and women using their bodies in different ways that they hadn’t used them before, and using bodies in ways that we as an audience haven’t seen before. It felt pretty important that, to honestly tell that story, we should show you the women’s real bodies going through this experience.”
Together, the co-creators’ writing resumes include Orange, Nurse Jackie and Homeland and, along with Kohan, Orange‘s Tara Herrmann also serves as an executive producer on GLOW. Below in a spoiler-free chat with THR, Flahive and Mensch reveal how Brie had to work for the role, how the world Kohan created on Orange bleeds into GLOW and what the heart of this show is truly about (hint: not wrestling).
How did you come up with the idea to make a show about professional female wrestling?
Flahive: We came across the documentary of the women of GLOW looking back on their time on the show and that was our point of entry. Then we just got really interested about the world and everything in it. We were not aware of GLOW and had not seen episodes of GLOW until after the documentary. We went on a research spree. We went off and we worked on the script together for a while before reemerging.
Did you then do a deep dive and watch all of the episodes (104 in total) of the original series?
Flahive: We watched a bunch. Then we did a lot of ‘80s research. From watching Ronald Reagan’s speeches to a bunch of ‘80s movies we hadn’t seen, we really immersed ourselves in everything 1985.
Mensch: We knew early on that we were going to want to create our own fictional version, so a lot of it was schooling ourselves on wrestling in general. Because we knew next to nothing. Maybe we had some assumptions about what it would be, but it was really fun to discover wrestling as total outsiders and talk to people about what they really love about it, get sent all of these funny videos of some of the most insane gimmicks from the ‘80s. We got really into Fabulous Moolah, who is kind of a legacy in the lady wrestling world. We went everywhere and sprawled throughout the ‘80s, but also went deep into wrestling since we were total amateurs.
What characters and ideas did you take from the original and where did you branch off?
Mensch: We knew we wanted to build all new characters from scratch. Pretty early we kind of just left the original. We were inspired more generally by the world and by the fact there was this first-ever women’s wrestling show on television that played by its own rules.
Flahive: And having all of these different women together and in their camaraderie, it’s sort of Bad News Bears meets A League of Their Own.
Mensch: We loved how vaudevillian the original was. As theater people, we responded by getting excited to do our own hodgepodge mix of comedy storytelling. The original GLOW had raps for the characters, which were amazing and strange and not what you would expect in a wrestling television show. (Laughs.) It was fun to explore the world and the fact that it happened and we wanted to honor that, but also do our own thing and build a new world.
Jenji Kohan is an executive producer but she said she advised but also took a step back so it could be yours. What was her involvement?
Mensch: We would send her all scripts and for feedback. Whenever we had big ideas or questions for casting, she would weigh in on all of them, but then as she said, she would kind of give us her opinion — and she’s a very smart and opinionated person — but then let us be the deciders and let us make the version that we wanted, even if it wasn’t the version maybe that she would have made. She’s immensely helpful. She’s always there, ready to read stuff and happy to weigh in, but then kind of step back. Which is an ideal mentor.
Flahive: Doing the first season of the show was just so much work and so hard, and she was fundamentally so supportive and helpful to us in moments where we asked for it. Even just from saying things that were really encouraging.
Mensch: We were working like maniacs and she would say, “You need to take Saturday off. Just listen to me: Just go home, take Saturday off, go hang out with your families.” It’s not the advice you think you’re going to get from your executive producer, but it’s sometimes the most helpful.
She wrote the sixth episode, “This Is One of Those Moments.” Why did you have her write that episode?
Flahive: We asked her to write that episode. At the same time that we were making the show, she was making Orange, and it was a scheduling thing. We were really hoping she would have time and it was the only place that it lined up. We feel really lucky that we got her to write an episode during the first season, period, but it was really just a juggle of Orange and GLOW, which was going on all season long for her, and that’s just where it ended up. We were really excited.
There are certainly feelings of Orange in this show, especially with its large female ensemble. What did you bring over from Orange to GLOW?
Mensch: Having written on Orange, it’s really freeing to know that you can juggle this many storylines and it can work. That you can juggle this much empathy into one show, that you can care about this many characters and that you can shift focus and not lose the heart of your shows. That’s a lesson I took from Orange. Just knowing that there are shows with an ensemble that big. Obviously, they have more time because it’s an hourlong series, but knowing that a canvas can fit that much in it is empowering in the lesson that we took.
At its heart, would you describe this show as a love story of Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) friendship?
Flahive: For sure. That was our goal, from day one. We knew that the center of the first episode and really the spine of the first season was going to be about this very complicated friendship. And that was definitely interesting to us. That was something we knew we wanted to do.
Why are Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, whom you both worked with on Nurse Jackie, perfect for these roles?
Flahive: Carly and I had both worked with Betty on Nurse Jackie and in theater, and she’s just such an extraordinary actress, but also had so many gifts that I feel like have not been fully explored onscreen. She’s so strange and comedic and so incredibly physical and I don’t know that she’s gotten to do that all in one role before. So that was super exciting.
Alison we were less familiar with and it took us a while to realize — she was perfect for it, but we had completely overlooked her at first. From her first audition, it was super clear that she was going to have the range, the smarts, the physicality and both the gravitas and comic chops to do this extremely complicated role. Ali is also incredibly precise, her precision is amazing in terms of her performance on all levels. Watching her chase this role hard also let us know that she could really play this character because Ruth is so desperate and can be so needy, and that was something we didn’t see in her initially. Then as she came after this role with every audition and every callback, it became more and more apparent.
In what ways did Brie’s audition process end up informing the Ruth that made it to the screen?
Flahive: She informed her a lot. In some ways, it’s like fitting an outfit. It kind of goes both ways where she informed it and then we write more to her the more we get to know her and how she’s going to play this role. So we were channeling her voice and her experience. But she’s so talented, we didn’t have to do much tailoring of what our original idea was just because she nailed it so perfectly.
She goes through many wrestling personas and ultimately lands on a Russian villain. Was Russia in the news at the time when you wrote that?
Flahive: Russia was in the news, but in the ‘80s it was such a big part of the culture. The Cold War was the thing everywhere you turned in movies. The villain was Russian. So we knew we wanted to have a thing of America versus Russia wrestling story.
Mensch: We knew we wanted her to be the villain and the biggest boogeyman of the ‘80s for a lot of people were Russians, so that was in the granular even before Alison. Then with her job with the role, it worked out just great.
What is the struggle of creating a character like Ruth — where she is “the villain” and flawed, yet always likable?
Mensch: We’re people who believe you root for people because they’re flawed, and that makes them far more relatable and far more human than if they weren’t flawed. But it definitely was a tightrope act to watch her do something pretty horrible in the pilot and then get people on board to root for her. I think a lot of it was just making sure that her mistakes were understandable and that you were with her while she was both making them and trying to find a way to atone or grapple with what she did.
The show has a running commentary on women in Hollywood. What are you trying to say with GLOW and in your opinions, how has it changed since the ‘80s and what do you still want to see for women?
Mensch: The fact that we’re making the show is a cool indication that we’re not exactly in 1985.
Flahive: We’re not the first show that has had a lot of women in the cast. The level of discourse is different, from people being transparent about who is getting jobs, what rooms look like and who is directing and who’s not. What all elements of making something looks like and how much of that is female, versus what it used to be. We’re definitely not in 1985, which is not to say that there aren’t issues still.
Mensch: You can definitely see both some type of progress and be a bit demoralized by some things that haven’t changed. I think that’s just the nature of slow changes.
On a female-ensemble show like this, did you also want to have women make up the majority of the off-screen roles?
Flahive: I do think that the numbers on our show speak for themselves. We have a cast of 14 women, all of our executive producers are women, the majority of our directors were women. I’m happy that people are saying it, but clearly that’s a part of our intention.
How many episodes were directed by women?
Mensch and Flahive: I believe six.
Why was it important to the authenticity of the show to have the actresses do their own stunts?
Flahive: It was something we wanted from the audition. It was in the audition notices that, “You will have to learn how to wrestle, are you up for that?” So we needed actors who were game and who were physically able or willing to become more physically able if they didn’t feel that they could do the moves. We didn’t need superhero crosstrainers. (Laughs.) But it was a big part of what we wanted.
Mensch: We knew from the beginning it was a show about bodies and women using their bodies in different ways that they hadn’t used them before and using bodies in ways that we as an audience haven’t seen before. So it felt pretty important that to honestly tell that story we should show you the women’s real bodies going through this experience. And then also, be able to see their faces. On a logistical filming level, if you want to be with them as they are going through this story and be able to film their faces, they actually have to be in the ring doing these things.
Flahive: Our stunt coordinator, Shauna Duggins, and our wrestling coordinator, Chavo Guerrero Jr., were exceptional. And we really built to their strengths. We built away from things that were problematic. If somebody had back issues, we didn’t make them do a back jump. We changed up the moves that we were trying to figure out for their matches so everybody had a road to a great match if we were building one.
As the wrestlers get better and better, are you now nervous they will have to still do their own stunts?
Flahive: I have to tell you, they are all pretty good now. We had to hold as much back as we actually showed.
Mensch: They had to unlearn wrestling for the first half of the season. And then by the time we got to the finale, it was like they were chomping at the bit to show off all the things they had already learned.
Flahive: And ‘80s wrestling is different from wrestling now. It was comedic and is not the super slick, hyper-violent wrestling we see.
Mensch: So much about it is about selling pain, as opposed to intense choreography. There is a combination of both, but a lot of wrestling isn’t about the flip or the jumping off the rails.
GLOW‘s 10 episodes are now streaming on Netflix. Keep up with Live Feed for more coverage next week and tell THR what you think of the show in the comments.
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