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“I’m Sam Sylvia, the sleazy, washed-up B-movie director,” says Marc Maron while describing his GLOW character in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter. “I like broken men. Broken men around strong women. That’s always a good combination.”
Sam stands out when viewers first meet him on Netflix’s professional female wrestling series, which is set in 1985. Mainly because he’s a man who is tasked with coaching and directing the 14-women ensemble that goes on to star on the first-ever TV show about women wrestlers, GLOW. There are other male roles — including Bash (Chris Lowell), the deep-pocketed Hollywood producer who finances the series, and Mark (Rich Sommer), the guy who comes between the show’s two stars, Ruth Wilder and Debbie Egan (played by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, respectively) — but Sam has the unique task of often being outnumbered by the starring women on the show.
“This cynical, heartbroken, bitter guy finds a space to grow, reluctantly, because of these women and because of Ruth. It was exciting emotional territory for a guy to have that,” says Maron of relating to Sam, who despite being a coke-addled director with a big ego ultimately becomes a mentor and champion to the women, especially Ruth, by season’s end. It’s that one-step-forward, two-steps-back mentality that attracted Maron, a comedian and host of the hit podcast WTF With Marc Maron, to the role: After surprising viewers, and Ruth, by showing up for her when she decided to have an abortion, he later pulls a disappearing act when one of his wrestlers confesses that she is his biological daughter. “I understand this guy. I’ve been in dark places. I’ve made bad choices. I’ve failed. And I’m also delusional,” admits Maron. “But I’m self-aware of that stuff, and the fact that he wasn’t enabled me to look like I was acting.”
Below in a chat with THR, Maron describes his eye-opening experience on the female-heavy set, the daily victories that moved him as he and the women became a team both on- and off-screen and his hopes for his character Sam if GLOW were to score a second season.
When viewers meet Sam, he’s begrudgingly casting and directing GLOW as a stepping stone to the project he actually wants to make. What drew you to the part of Sam and in what ways could you relate?
At the time that I was cast, I was finishing up four seasons of my IFC show, Maron, and I was looking forward to a little bit of downtime. But I got the script and I thought, “I know this guy, I can play this guy.” A swaggering, coke-addled, mid-level director who thinks he’s a genius. He’s an arrogant guy that thinks he might not have gotten his due and doesn’t realize that he might not be that good at what he does. Also, the writing was great. I’ve never really had that before because my experience as an actor is limited to playing a version of myself on my own show, and a couple of roles here and there. There are similarities with Sam that I could draw from my own life, but he’s not me. It seemed like a perfect role for me to try to act in something that wasn’t fundamentally me. He’s not emasculated by all of these women, but he is kind of and just doesn’t know it. So, the comedy of that, as well as the comedy of him seeking redemption through this project of GLOW, once he realizes what it has to be and gets involved with the women as individuals, is what drew me to him.
This is a show about women and was staffed with women — from co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch to the executive producers, the majority of the directors and the cast. What was it like to be so outnumbered?
I’m a guy who doesn’t have sisters. I’ve never been around this many women and that was fun because it wasn’t a sexual landscape. All of the women became clear individuals very quickly, and everyone was unique and we were all working toward this end. The emotions that I had being one of two guys on this thing surprised me as myself and also as the character, to experience vulnerability and this respect for women and for who I was working with. Plus the fact that they were also carrying me as this kind of pathetic dude. At some point, we became a team. In the beginning, Sam is thinking, “I have to f—ing do this thing. I want to do what I want to do and I don’t care about this.” And then it just became that we needed to make this happen. We needed to make it work. There’s that feeling at the end where I myself felt, “Oh, my god, we’re all doing it.” And then the character has that same moment where it all comes together. It was pretty sweet.
GLOW is inspired by the original series and women of GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. What kind of deep dive into the syndicated series, which aired from 1986-1990, and their director did you do?
Since it is a fictionalization and I was told that my character doesn’t really know anything about wrestling, I did little-to-no research. I wanted it to be mine and from what I understood, that was how they wanted to do it. I know a little bit about wrestling and had talked to some people about GLOW, but I stayed away from the documentary and away from who they based it on so I could build it from the inside out for myself. I got the script and I wasn’t doing any acting, I really don’t go on many auditions. But I loved the guy, I really connected with him. They weren’t seeing people in L.A. at the time, but I liked the world of the show so much that I went out and got aviator frames, put on a Lacoste shirt and read my part with a woman, also an actress, who I train with at the gym. She read Alison’s part and we filmed it on my iPhone. We did two or three takes and sent it off and that’s how I got cast. So I guess I was the guy. I just related to him.
Sam grows a lot from the beginning to the end of the season. What would you say was a turning point?
I think the turning point was probably after the party, in the third episode. There’s a point where Ruth and Sam become sort of spiritually aligned. It’s clear to me from the beginning that Sam likes her a lot, but is a bit of an emotional bully, and there is a point where we both are a little bit desperate and know that we need this thing to work. I think it happens in that episode where she tells me to go back into the party and make it right with Bash. From that point on, that relationship between me and Ruth becomes a very beautiful, sweet thing that’s not sexualized in any way, but is an understanding and a connection.
How would you describe how Sam feels about Ruth by the eighth episode, when he supports her during her abortion?
I’m getting choked up talking about it, I’m such a baby. That is the seed of the connection where the relationship changes. Certainly that episode is emotionally heavy, but it’s played fairly straightforward. I think we could both feel the weight of it, just from me showing up for her like that. That definitely sealed the deal.
How do you view Sam and Ruth moving forward, is there a potential for something romantic?
I don’t know. The relationship between Ruth and Sam becomes this partnership of sorts. Sam is one of those guys who doesn’t have any quality experience with relationships. They don’t seem to go well for him and I would say that he gets it where he can. I think that what happens for us emotionally by the end of the season is that there’s a lot to learn about both of us that we can each find out — especially coming out of that last episode of learning that Justine (Britt Baron) is my daughter and the emotional turn I have there. But I don’t know if it will become sexual. It feels like one of those things that if it did, it would probably be a mistake unless the ground work and all the emotions are there. You don’t want to burn that relationship on a stupid sexual escapade, but I don’t know what they have planned.
Sam now knows this secret between Ruth and Debbie — that Ruth got pregnant from her affair with Debbie’s husband and decided to have an abortion. Is it potentially dangerous that he knows this secret?
If I’m thinking in terms of that character, I think that could be his and Ruth’s secret. But I also think that in a moment of anger or if he feels threatened somehow, he might hold it over her. It’s hard for me to know what they would be doing if we go to season two, but it involves a lot of trust between two people who I don’t think are fundamentally trusting people.
It’s rare to see a non-sexualized relationship between two people of the opposite sex on TV. How attractive was that to you to be able to play out with Alison Brie?
Especially for two characters who clearly have sex. They have sex and are not hung up about it. Sam has a fling with one of the girls that seems intentionally really empty, because I think that’s the way he works. I knew this guy was very self-involved and there was a thinly veiled desperation to him, but I saw him as a very dug-in, Hollywood character. There’s a lot of people in Hollywood at that tier of having some very marginal success and really thinking that you’re still in the game and it’s just a matter of the next thing happening for you to get back on top. I liked him. And then the idea that you can also get some other emotional core out of him with this relationship with Ruth to see that he’s not one-dimensional. He is sensitive and capable of change. When I read the script, I wasn’t even thinking about them in terms of sex or romance. This journey of all these women becomes so paramount and exciting that that became the thing that was amazing to watch. Sam was so selfish in his own intentions. Even with Sam and Kate [Nash]’s character, Rhonda, that just happened. There’s no courting. It’s all of a sudden happening and then it’s not. I don’t think Sam was thinking about sex as he was trying to just make the thing and move onto his next movie.
If GLOW does come back for a second season, do you think Sam will continue on this path and move in a positive direction?
I think Sam is a guy who, on some level, is his own worst enemy. There’s always room for a guy like that to be a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of guy. His ego versus the good and the progress of the show will always be a struggle. But I think what we learn in the first season is that he is a redeemable asshole. He’s not going to be stuck in a caricature. He’s always going to be surprising, against his own habits and his own patterns of behavior. It seems like he is capable of doing the right thing and taking the hit and that he is a guy who, unlike me — which is one of the reasons I took the role — doesn’t do a lot of soul searching. He doesn’t question and he’s not fundamentally neurotic. He’s very insecure, obviously, but he would never acknowledge that. So that leaves a well of things for him to find out about himself.
How did making yourself vulnerable for years on your own podcast help you to play a guy like Sam?
There was a point in my life where I certainly had that kind of swagger. I certainly knew the dimensions of this character. Where I am at now in relation to when I was more like Sam, I know what those behaviors and emotions that he has are and I know where they’re necessary for a guy like that to get through life. I knew I had enough distance from being more like that guy to handle the role and make him have depth by turning off some of the more self-aware components of my personality. It gave me enough distance from that character to be able to play with him as an actor.
What did you learn while watching these women — who did their own stunts — become wrestlers on- and off-screen while filming GLOW?
It was very moving. I don’t hang around a lot of people in general. I never played sports and I’ve never even been around that many men before on a day-to-day basis, either. To see the kind of relationships that were forming over the course of the show, and behind the scenes of the show, was sort of becoming this weird theme of learning how to do something new and to become completely different people than the people that they are through this very physical form. It was astounding and humbling. I went in with a very open mind and I knew that this was a show about them and I was there to sort of service this team. But it was a relief to be in a world where I was unfamiliar with how women even interact with each other when there’s that many of them. Even the day-to-day struggles of leotards — there’s a lot of boob adjusting and pulling leotards out of butt cracks — and just maintaining their hair. (Laughs.) But when things get physical, I’m very sensitive. Going to a musical and seeing people singing chokes me up. There were several times during the show where they were able to achieve a move or some sort of choreography that I found to be very moving, that they were pulling this stuff off. It’s like when someone wins something. There was a lot of winning going on on a day-to-day basis because this is all new to them and if they did a flip or a move, there were all of these little victories happening all over the place.
GLOW, which is set in 1985, has a running commentary on women in Hollywood and it also represents a lot of the change in terms of opportunities on TV for women. What would you still like to see change?
Because of things like Netflix and the expansion of the outlets, I think it’s come a long way for women in a lot of ways. It seems like in television and in cable and streaming, there is a lot of opportunity and people are doing really interesting things. I’m not a woman, and I certainly wasn’t acting in the ‘80s, but I’ve never seen a show like this before. There are so many different types of people, very diverse and different kinds of women. I’ve never seen that. It’s strange because it seems like the film industry is struggling for survival in a way. Given the shift in culture and administrations, women need big hits like Wonder Woman. They need to feel like they’re still fighting the good fight. A lot of the directors, showrunners, the producers and people on the crew of GLOW were women. Women should be able to do everything they want to do and have the opportunity to do it. They should have all of that.
What do you hope to see from Maron’s Sam Sylviaa if GLOW gets a second season? Tell THR in the comments below and head here for full coverage of the series, which is now streaming all 10 episodes on Netflix.
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