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Alison Brie on her “sexless” GLOW character and getting thrown around a ring

Graphic: Jane Harrison (Photo: Netflix)
Graphic: Jane Harrison (Photo: Netflix)

This interview discusses plot points for GLOW.

Alison Brie is good at playing underachieving overachievers. On Community, she was Annie, the type-A student whose breakdown landed her with the Greendale misfits. Now, on Netflix’s new GLOW, she’s Ruth, a dedicated actress who goes to scene-study class, yet can’t seem to get cast in a project. That is until she finds herself auditioning for Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, based on the real-life female wrestling series of the same name. Ruth is a different kind of female antihero than we’re used to seeing. She does an unimpeachably bad thing in the first episode by having sex with her best friend’s husband, but she’s also an off-kilter dork, a theater kid trying way too hard. We spoke to Brie about Ruth’s dichotomies and how she learned to kill it in the ring.

The A.V. Club: What attracted you to Ruth?

Alison Brie: I was drawn to the complexity of this character and the tone of the show overall. I like that she is a shapeshifter. At some moments she’s totally sexless and determined, and then other moments she’s doing this outrageous, horrible thing to her friend. I like the idea that we’re not quite sure if she’s a good person, though I think that ultimately she is. I like that other people don’t like her, that she’s sort of unlikable in a lot of ways, even though she is trying her hardest, in earnest, most of the time.

AVC: There’s always a lot of talk about unlikable characters. Often the picture of the unlikable character is a little “cooler than thou.” Ruth is very much not that. She’s lame in some ways.

AB: She is totally lame and kind of grating, and if you ask Marc Maron, reeking of desperation, which I do sort of agree with. But she’s very determined, and she means well, I think for the most part, which I think is something that is always fun to play.

AVC: In that context, how do you read her ultimate betrayal of her friend?

AB: It’s another part of the anomaly that is Ruth. I think something like that tracks to the fact that she as a person for a long time has felt really invisible and just wanted to be seen, just wanted to be recognized by another person for having value. And unfortunately the person that was recognizing her in a couple of bleak moments was the wrong person to engage in that kind of behavior with. It’s interesting to me because I find Ruth to be such a nonsexual person and one that goes out of her way not to play into the male gaze. She doesn’t wear makeup. She doesn’t really wear clothes that do her any favors. I feel like, for the most part, male attention doesn’t interest her. But I do think attention in general does, and that she’s lived for a long time in the shadow of her more successful friend, and that despite herself that just got the best of her.

AVC: “Sexless” is an interesting word.

AB: Yeah, I do think barring that first episode, which is a huge part of what the character is, the rest of the time it’s not a main part of her focus. I’m not sure if part of that is she’s just been through this really traumatic event that has to do with sex. But I also think it’s just a part of who she is and part of why she’s not very successful as an actress, because she’s not good at playing into those flirty games that actresses are expected to play. I don’t think she thinks of herself as being very sexual. It’s a major difference between my character and Betty Gilpin’s character, who has been a successful actress and has a bombshell body, and every time you see her she’s in full hair and makeup. They couldn’t be more different in that way, and it’s part of Ruth’s personality to feel like she’s almost above that because she’s a serious actress who does theater and takes herself too seriously to prostitute herself for her art. And yet, at the same time, she’s willing to do anything to get a role on a show she’s not even sure she wants to be a part of. There’s a lot of interesting qualities that are at odds within the show.

AVC: There is a lot more sex in that first episode than there is in the rest of the series. There is nudity for you. How did you navigate that in terms of the male gaze?

AB: I think that what we see in the first episode is this person tapping into Ruth’s deepest desire, which is more just to be appreciated. That monologue that Rich Sommer gives is about feeling acknowledged and feeling special. And that is the thing that Ruth is looking for. I don’t think that Ruth is not having sex with guys every once in awhile. I’m sure she does. I just don’t think it’s a main part of her life goals. She seems like she’s a fierce chick. Even the way it affected me as a person, not wearing makeup at all every day on set, and carrying myself a little differently and wearing ill-fitting clothes some of time. Not being looked at that way was actually very freeing and empowering. A lot of performers have this dual personality, and I think this is true about Ruth—that she feels like she’s a really great actress, like people don’t know what she’s capable of. She has to prove that to them. She has this killer confidence, in one way, which we see in the very first scene of the whole show. It takes a lot of balls I think—for lack of a better word—to go into an audition and read a part that you know is not the part you were meant to read. It’s like she believes in herself so much in this one way, and then on the flip side of it, she can be down in the dumps and feel like a zero and feel totally unrecognized and maybe feel like that’s never going to happen. So that moment was more about a special moment, feeling special. I actually think the special moment happens pre-the first episode, and the moment we see in the first episode is a very sad, last-ditch effort. She already knows, “This is not going to make me feel better, but how else am I going to get this guy out of my apartment?” There is that side of Ruth that can be a bit of a doormat. And again, it’s a weird dichotomy, because in the ring and in doing this show, she finds the strength to empower herself.

Alison Brie in GLOW (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: Your trainer said in an interview that you did 100 percent of your stunts. What was your training like and how did that affect your performance?

AB: We trained for just over a month before we started shooting, doing wrestling training, and continued wrestling training throughout shooting the show. We trained with Chavo Guerrero [Jr.], pro-wrestler, and Shauna Duggins, our stunt coordinator, and at the same time I did really increase the type of training I was doing with my personal trainer. We were doing really heavy lifting and pull-ups and aggressively tackling weight training in a way that I hadn’t really done before. It was all really empowering and exciting. I think one thing that’s helpful as a woman is that the goals did not become about losing weight. I don’t own a scale. I have not stepped on one throughout this training process. But you see your body change as you’re setting goals in terms of how much weight you want to lift and what move you want to be able to do in the ring. We’d be like, “Ooh, I saw this move. I want to do a drop kick. Can we work towards doing that?” You start to think of your body like an athlete thinks of their body. Like, “How can I train in the gym so I can more easily do this move in the ring?” And your body becomes this machine and like an amazing tool that’s working for you rather than, women with dieting, where you’re kind of at odds with your body.

The training was so empowering, and it was a great way to get to know all the women on the show. We all trained together, and it was like we had this amazing boot camp for a month before shooting to really get to know each other and see each other at our most vulnerable, learning how to do things that no one had done before, except for Kia Stevens, pro-wrestler who plays Tamee on the show. It was exciting. In terms of our stunts on the show, I do want to clarify that I have a stunt double on the show, Helena Barrett, and she was there all day, every day. Shauna Duggins, our stunt coordinator, also doubled Betty, but it was very important to be able to do all of the moves. Everything you see, we did it, we shot it, but you may not always be seeing us doing the stunts. Because we would sort of tag team in during long shoot days. Our stunt doubles definitely would pop in for some of the wider shots. Just to give us a break. I think they probably use a mix of both of us on the show, but I am proud to say we were able to do all the moves on the show, except for the monkey flip in the first episode.

AVC: The show tackles the stereotypes that GLOW and wrestling in general trade in. It doesn’t affect Ruth as much, but what did you think about how it deals with that?

AB: Well, I think it’s great that we get to watch while it’s a show about women starring women, they are all still existing in this male-driven world and trying to find their way there as some of the first women who are going to be doing what they are doing. In terms of stereotypes, this is the luxury of doing a making-of type of show, where you’re seeing the fictional behind-the-scenes of what might go into making a show like this, so you get to hear the thoughts and opinions of the characters on our show while they are creating their possibly very racist wrestling counterparts. I thought that was a very important thing. Certainly, we started to get scripts that dealt with race and stereotypes. People on set had mixed feelings about it. In some ways certain people were like, “Should I be offended by this?” I think once everyone learned how their characters were going to to deal with it, everyone was much more comfortable. To say, “Oh, good, our show is taking a step back and commenting on it,” and using these characters to point out that it is a bit uncomfortable and learning how they can use it eventually to their advantage even when it’s very taboo.

Britney Young and Alison Brie in GLOW (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: Did you have any contact with GLOW or wrestling before this? Did you have any opinions about it?

AB: I didn’t because I was never really into wrestling in a major way. As I’ve started to learn more and watch even the characters on GLOW and how racially charged some of those characters are, it’s wild to go back and watch wrestling from the ’80s and watch what an American sport it was, and how all the villains are foreign and all the heroes are American, and there are some really dark wrestling matches that happened even in the ’70s and the early ’80s that are almost kind of scary to watch. But there’s something about the field of play when you’re in the wrestling ring that it is fantasy and the people want—I don’t know—they want to exploit things in a way to create larger-than-life characters and vendettas and storylines, and it’s hard for me to know how people felt at the time, if people felt like it was offensive or if it was not that big a deal because they know that these are just characters and they get into the whimsy and the fantasy of it. But definitely our show has its own take on how these women might have felt.

AVC: Are you into wrestling now?

AB: I still maybe prefer watching episodes of GLOW to current wrestling because it’s just so bizarre. There’s never been anything like it before or since. Part of the fun is their silliness and their rapping and their sketches that they do, which were so quintessentially ’80s, and that’s why it’s so fun to watch. I record WWE Raw, so I do watch that sometimes. Lately there’s been a lot of talking, but then when they start wrestling, I’m blown away by the moves that people are capable of, and sometimes Betty and I will text each other videos of WWE wrestling and be like “goals. Let’s learn that one. Season two! Season four!”

AVC: Ruth finds her persona in this Soviet caricature. There was a Soviet villain in GLOW, Colonel Ninotchka. Did you look to her?

AB: Definitely. Especially as we got deeper into the season, I liked to watch her stuff, to listen to her accent. I didn’t work with a dialect coach, because I wanted the accent to be cartoonish and over the top and Ruth’s take on it. I enjoyed watching Colonel Ninotchka’s videos to get a handle on her accent, which is much more Boris and Natasha than it is Eastern Promises. As we were getting toward shooting our finale, I would go back and watch some of her matches just to look for inspiration in terms of moves. It was like, what moves can I steal? Are there any cool moves that we could use in the ring? I watched the documentary especially, which was probably the most interesting thing to watch. And watched some episodes from the show early on as we were just starting out and training. Then when we first started shooting the show, I took a step away from it because all of our characters are fictional and I didn’t want to read into who these women were. Because we’re not playing them. Ruth has a storyline unto herself, and I wanted to create the character from within. Towards the end of the season I was like, “Ooh, I’ve got to go back and watch.”

AVC: Did you have any say in the choreography?

AB: Absolutely. It was a really collaborative process with Chavo, who was unbelievably gracious with us and patient and wonderful. Chavo was on set with us every day, and if he wasn’t on set with us, he was training us. He worked with all the women on the show to see what their strengths and weaknesses were physically, so we could play into our strengths in terms of the types of moves that we would do in the ring. And then as we all found our wrestling characters, obviously that played a part in it as well. But it was exciting the more we learned about wrestling and the more we learned about our own bodies and our own capabilities that by the time we were doing the choreography for the finale, 100 percent we would weigh in. Betty and I would find moves. The sunset flip, which is a big move that we do in our final [match].

AVC: Is that where she comes over and lands on you?

AB: Where she fully jumps over me and, as everyone liked to put it, she has to sort of credit card my butt cheeks with her nose and then flips me over onto my back. That move was all Betty. That was Betty’s suggestion. And I was like, “I want to do a drop kick in the final match.” We were able to build off of fights we had done previously in the season. Because that’s what the girls are doing as they are putting it together on the show. So we would go through and be like, “What moves did we love from that last match? Which ones looked really strong? Which ones did we not love? Which one is hurting?”

AVC: Did you get hurt?

AB: The overarching answer is no. I think that training with Jason Walsh, my trainer, helped a lot with my stamina and resilience in the ring. Definitely Shauna, our stunt coordinator, and Chavo, too, made sure we were doing everything in our power to be safe and keep our chins tucked and not do anything that we didn’t feel comfortable with. I also would like to say that anyone who thinks wrestling is fake has never landed on their back on a mat in a wrestling ring before. Because it does hurt. Your body’s getting thrown around. To be honest, when it’s happening and especially when we would shoot with crowds watching us, the adrenaline in your body is so high that you kind of don’t feel anything until the next day. But there certainly were matches, even just taking straight back bumps, getting clotheslined where you maybe land wrong and eventually you are like, “Man, I’m just slamming my body into the ground. That hurts.” I remember Betty once being like, “I’m sort of hurting.” And Chavo was like, “Where?” And she’s like, “Just sort of the whole surface of my back and my arms.” And he was like, “Oh, well, yeah, it’s going to hurt.”