In Netflix’s elbow-throwing, butt-kicking, lacquer-haired GLOW — set in the women’s professional wrestling circuit of the 1980s —Alison Brie gets to flex way more than muscle.
The women’s marches. The #MeToo movement. Wonder Woman, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Big Little Lies. The ladies definitely brought it last year. It’s no surprise that 2017 has been dubbed the “unexpected year of the woman.”
For actress Alison Brie, her own 2017 moment of girl power was equally unexpected, as it involved hairspray and spandex for her portrayal of Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress–turned–professional wrestler, on the Netflix comedy GLOW. The reckoning came last fall, some four months after the show’s debut.
“I realized that GLOW had really struck a chord, because so many women dressed up as our wrestling characters for Halloween and sent pictures through social media,” Brie says.
“We all got tons of pics of women, different shapes and sizes, wearing leotards, in crazy wrestling positions and pulling faces — the antithesis of those sexy-kitten Halloween shots. It had a total ‘take back the night’ vibe and felt really powerful.”
GLOW is based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a real-life league that burst onto television screens in 1986 and was packed with everything from body slams to rap tunes to dubious comedy sketches.
Part of the appeal of the low-budget series was the motley crew of scrappy misfits in the cast. It was a mixture of struggling actresses, dancers, models and stuntwomen, all dressed up in outlandish Lycra attire, with character names like Babe the Farmer’s Daughter, Vallerie Vendetta and Draculetta.
But during casting of the Netflix series, Brie almost didn’t make the cut. The role she ultimately scored is that of a desperate unknown actress with more drive than talent. At first, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch — GLOW’s creator–executive producers, showrunners and longtime friends — thought Brie was a bit too established and almost too good.
“We looked at a lot of women for Ruth,” says Flahive, who worked with Mensch as a producer on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. “It was in our heads to pick someone that we’d never seen before.”
“It was an extensive process,” adds Mensch, who spent a year with Flahive tinkering on the initial GLOW script. “We were telling the story of a woman who wasn’t finding her place, was overlooked. Ali came in to audition, and she had to play someone who doesn’t have nearly the amount of talent that she herself has in real life.”
“Yes, their initial impression of me — who I was and what I had done — was not what they’d envisioned for Ruth,” Brie confirms, adding that she’d turned down other pilots in hopes of landing the role.
“At first I was told I couldn’t meet with the showrunners, but they had me in for a pre-read, which is something you don’t usually have to do after working for a long time. I wanted this role so badly, I fought tooth and nail for it because it was unlike anything I’d ever read. So, basically, I just beat them down.”
To say they put her through the wringer would be an understatement. After a lengthy audition process that included multiple callbacks, Brie was asked to fly to Toronto to read opposite possible costar Betty Gilpin, who was filming American Gods at the time.
“Honestly, I was initially horrified that they were flying her out to audition with me,” Gilpin says. She plays Debbie Eagan, Ruth’s estranged best friend and fellow wrestler, who is trying to regain some semblance of self-esteem — and career. “In real life, I’m one of those people who gets anxiety meeting a new friend for coffee, so this totally stressed me out.”
To add to the tension, one scene they had to run through was the initial wrestling match from the premiere episode, which involves tears, screaming, insults and definitely injury.
“The second Ali walked in that door for the audition,” Gilpin says, “I thought that this woman couldn’t be more kind or more game, and I could tell she wanted her part as badly as I wanted mine.” She chuckles at the memory of the nervous teenage casting intern filming them on his phone while they yelled and threw each other across the room.
For Brie, the appeal of GLOW (also exec-produced by Jenji Kohan and Tara Hermann) was about getting to show her love of comedy and drama at the same time. After landing her breakout role in 2007 as serious Trudy Campbell, frustrated wife of Peter Campbell on AMC’s Mad Men, and simultaneously playing the comedic nerd Annie Edison on NBC’s Community, she wanted a character who did it all.
“Both of those were exciting to play,” Brie says. “I feel like AMC really allowed Matt Weiner [creator–executive producer of Mad Men] to have a singular vision. Every time I stepped on set, Trudy had morphed into a new person who was on her own journey.
"Community was obviously totally different, but I loved it. It was such a funny show, but after a while I felt that Annie couldn’t progress much because of the nature of being on a network comedy. Characters have to remain kind of the same so viewers can tune in at any time and connect to them.”
Growing up in leafy South Pasadena in southern California, Brie always knew she wanted to act, and even in her teen years she seemed to be making smart career choices. Eschewing the usual Hollywood trajectory of L.A. child actors, she stuck to community theater and the high school drama club, then applied to California Institute of the Arts to earn a theater degree.
“In a totally nerdy way, I wanted to learn as much as possible,” she says. “But it’s helped me in my career, because it gave me a discipline as well as this huge wealth of knowledge that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d just run out and gotten headshots and started auditioning for pilots.”
It also paid off in the sense that her acting résumé is light on cringe-worthy newbie roles. Her first television job was on Hannah Montana (the Disney Channel series that made Miley Cyrus a household name), and she followed that up with a single B horror movie. “It’s painful for me to watch now, but wasn’t painful to make. I have no regrets,” she chirps.
After both Mad Men and Community ended in 2015, Brie decided to take her time looking for her next TV job.
In the interim, she landed roles in a couple of acclaimed films. In one of them she starred with her real-life husband, Dave Franco — The Disaster Artist, which was directed by his brother James Franco.
“The role wasn’t even on my radar, but I’d been doing all the research with Dave. So when it came time to cast the role of Amber, and they asked me if I wanted it, I said, ‘Sure, I know all about it, and I’m not doing anything else right now.’ And that was that.”
At the end of 2017, she also appeared in Steven Spielberg’s freedom- of-the-press drama The Post. She credits her experience with GLOW for giving her the assurance to perform alongside the likes of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
“I totally felt the weight of being on the set of The Post,” Brie says, “but landing GLOW gave me this amazing confidence because of how I fought to get it. I truly feel like it has helped me come into my own as an actress.”
Part of what gives GLOW its empowering appeal — to the performers as well as the viewers — is the far-and-wide approach taken by casting director Jennifer Euston in assembling the oddball yet authentically charming characters.
“She is a finder of unicorns,” says Mensch, who previously worked with Euston on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Along with Brie and Gilpin, the cast includes professional wrestler Kia Stevens, English singer-songwriter Kate Nash, dancer-actress Sunita Mani and comedian-actor Marc Maron, one of the show’s few prominent men.
Aside from her emotional scenes with Gilpin, Brie’s most tender and revealing moments are with Maron, who plays Sam Sylvia, a borderline-sleazy B-movie director hoping to relaunch his career with the GLOW series. “My character has a gruff exterior; he’s totally inappropriate and kind of a bully,” Maron says.
He met Brie a few years ago when he interviewed her and her Community costars for his WTF podcast.
“But in the scenes with Alison, where our characters were experiencing pretty heavy emotions, there was a great dynamic between us. She was able to effortlessly find common ground and emotional connection with me. Plus, for her to have a character that’s ambitious, desperate and selfish — none of which are attractive attributes — and manage to make it appealing and charmingly earnest is no easy trick.”
It’s pretty common for castmates to wax poetic about their experiences with fellow actors. But with Brie and the rest of the ladies in Lycra (along with the handful of men), the praise feels genuine. The enthusiasm and support seem to have seeped through all the ’80s grit and glitter to create an unexpected tale of female empowerment.
Brie chalks it up to whip-smart writing, compelling characters and endless hours of physical training that showcase the women in a raw, un-self-conscious way.
Gilpin agrees. “It was like our own little secret environment for a few months, this feminist theater biodome,” she quips.
“And because it was a female-run set, a lot of us felt braver, which lends itself to taking bigger creative choices and risks. I mean, on one hand we’re all shooting these wrestling scenes with crazy physicality, no facial expression too garish, and then it’s punctuated by these quiet, deeply emotional, kitchen-sink-type scenes.”
Before the series started filming in L.A., everyone showed up for a month of wrestling training, and they continued with workouts and choreography throughout shooting. “When I first watched season one, I’d be amazed at the different bruises all over me,” Brie says. “In the ring, we all just had to throw ourselves into it, and the most beautiful thing was that no one hesitated.”
While much of what will happen in season two is hush-hush — the launch of the next 10 episodes was June 29 — everyone promises more of what made the first season so compelling, with an extra helping of wrestling.
Brie couldn’t be happier about another season of spandex and hairspray. “Yeah, it’s a lot of wrestling in this season, because it’s more about the filming of the actual show. I’m in my Zoya the Destroyer costume 90 percent of the time.
“I’d love this to go for years and years,” she adds, “but for now I’m just on a little break and enjoying it all.” While she’s definitely not one to rest on her laurels, with her seemingly seamless career trajectory, Brie looks poised to make the right decision.
“Alison is right where she wants to be,” Maron says. “She loves the business, she loves acting — she just loves it all.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018