The best pro-wrestlers are actors: They adopt a character and tell a story. For Betty Gilpin, starring in the new Netflix series GLOW was the perfect melding of body slams and emotional beats. "There's the wrestling world, in which it's our Grecian cavewoman selves to the mezzanine, and then, there's this through line of this kitchen sink drama."
The story of GLOW is that of the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. An all-female pro-wrestling promotion that ran from 1985 to 1992, it was overblown, insane, and a landmark in both exploitation television and women's depictions on TV. Series co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch took the broadest outlines of the true events, transferred the action from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and cast Gilpin and Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) as Debbie and Ruth (respectfully), two former friends forced to endure each other's company for the good of the show and the desperate need for a paycheck.
Flahive and Mensch were working on Nurse Jackie when they started looking for another project. Flahive said, "We wanted it to be very female-focused," and that's when they came across the 2015 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Even though they knew nothing about the promotion, Flahive said they were struck by "the emotion of the women talking about this time," and so, started watching old episodes. "We were like, 'What is this? This is bananas. How have we not heard of this, and why has no one touched it yet?'"
After a year of writing, they approached Netflix and got an immediate positive response. Of course, it helped that one of the streaming service's executives was a massive fan of the original show. Flahive said, "We were in a pitch meeting with someone who was finishing some of our sentences, and it was so staggering. He was going, 'Oh, you mean like this this this,' and we went, 'Who are you? Were you sent from some Hollywood god?'"
Flahive and Mensch had worked with Gilpin on Nurse Jackie, and the actress saw the part of soap-star-turned-grappler Debbie as a welcome change from the parts for which she normally auditions. She said, "Especially in the last couple of years, I feel there's this trend in female roles for the impenetrable slip of a thing, this tiny little pornographic chickadee playing the ukulele and not revealing anything about what's going on inside, and answering monosyllabically. I watch my tapes that I make for these auditions in my apartment and I'm too big for that kind of thing, and I wasn't getting parts because I was making too many faces. When I read the key words about what GLOW was about, it was 'The 1980s. Wrestling. [Orange Is the New Black creator] Jenji Kohan.' I can make as many faces as I want, and it would totally make sense."
Brie admitted she knew even less about GLOW, or wrestling in general, than Flahive. Yet as soon as she immersed herself in it, "it was everything I never knew I wanted. Seeing that pitch from my agent going, 'We have this script we want you to read, and Jenji Kohan's producing it for Netflix, and it's about women's wrestling in the Eighties,' and you just go poof!" As she got deeper into her research, she found how unlike anything else in professional wrestling GLOW was. "It is bizarre and outrageous and radical, and the women, the characters they've created, are so over-the-top, and they're having so much fun, and then the wrestling is really scrappy and wild. It's such an exciting, bizarre thing, and so quintessentially Eighties."
The story also provided a rare opportunity for a series that did not just concentrate on female leads, but was filled with roles for women. Flahive said, "We've all been there. There's a great series, and there's one female part. Are you fucking kidding? There are so many great actresses, so why don't we flip the script and have one man?"
An early and pivotal decision was that the cast would do their own wrestling: Get in the ring, grapple, fly, put on submission holds. Brie said, "I'm a rather petite woman, but I'm playing a heel, so the mission is to get people down to my level. What moves can I do? And this is something in wrestling that changes for all wrestlers."
The training started weeks before shooting, with the cast effectively attending a wrestling school run by third-generation wrestling star Chavo Guerrero Jr. and stunt director Shauna Duggins: Everyone would get in line and practice the move as they were shown. Brie said, "It didn't dawn on me until week four of training, where the moves start to get a little bigger, when suddenly I was like, 'Wait a minute. Now that I'm working on this show, they're only going to get bigger and more complicated. We just have to get better.'"
Gilpin said, "I went to theatre school, where there was a lot of holding each other's faces and crying, and going, 'You're perfect,' and 'Don't ever change,' and a lot of kid gloves. The first time I tried the move where I jumped off the ropes, Chavo Guerrero Jr. looked me in the face and said, 'That was weak.' 'What?' My tiny, privileged self didn't know where to go, but it felt so good to go, 'Yeah, it was weak, and I need to do it again and again and again until it's perfect.' We were covered in bruises and wore them proudly."
GLOW is now streaming on Netflix.
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