Brie’s character on the new Netflix original series — from creator Liz Flahive (“Nurse Jackie”) and executive producer Jenji Kohan (“Orange is the New Black”) — is an actress whose resiliency is rewarded with the role she needs. But the connection between artist and art is a touch more specific than that.
Ruth spends the first scene of “GLOW,” and much of the first episode, auditioning. The first scene is an audition, and she’s quickly rejected. Another audition, another rejection. It’s a pattern in the pilot, and it was a pattern for Brie when she was trying to be a part of it.
“They did not want me to have this part,” Brie said, remembering the long, challenging audition process while sitting next to Flahive and co-star Betty Gilpin (“American Gods”). “I’ve never felt more like Ruth than when I was auditioning for this show.”
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The first hurdle: Flahive and casting director Jen Euston were looking for an unknown to play Ruth, the lead in the series, and that meant the former star of “Community” and “Mad Men” wasn’t an option.
“I think we had an idea in our head that [Ruth] was somebody who hadn’t been cast; who you hadn’t seen,” Flahive said, noting they got past it by watching Brie’s auditions. “[Casting] was a combination of seeing people again and again and again, and the other roles where it was just, ‘There’s only one person. This is the person.'”
Brie and Gilpin fell into the former group, as the duo had to come in repeatedly to try out for their parts.
“It felt like a series of tests,” Brie said. “‘But will she come in and do a pre-read for casting?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely, I’ll wear no makeup.’ ‘Will you fly to Toronto and read with Betty in front of no one?’ ‘Yes, absolutely, whatever you want me to do.'”
In total, Brie and Gilpin went on four auditions — two individually and then two together to test their chemistry. The first step was reading for Euston, and the second was in a “very cold, weird, silent room” with producers. Even when they got the call to come in together, they were filmed “alone in a room with like two casting assistants who were not working on this project,” Brie said.
“[It was] like a stoned 16-year-old who they found on the street to press record,” Flahive said, laughing.
Because of these oddities, each actress developed individual rituals to keep their expectations in check.
“Every audition for Debbie, I thought of it as the last time,” Gilpin said. “I would say goodbye to her every time because I was like, ‘You cannot take this dream all the way in.'”
“I cried in my car after every audition,” Brie said. “I would sit in my car like Ruth and sob. And we were both listening to the same Ultimate ’80s mix while auditioning, so “Flock of Seagulls” was playing [while we were sobbing].”
Their final audition was in Los Angeles “five days before my wedding,” Gilpin said. Flahive said they needed to see the two of them together again because “[Ruth and Debbie] is the relationship of the series,” but it was all more than worth it to the actors because of the script’s unique opportunities.
“I’ve been in this strange sweet spot of making my living as an actor but not doing crazy big shows like this,” Gilpin said. “I’ve auditioned for a lot of what’s out there, which is like squinty cop in tight outfits who aren’t taking any shit in the first scene and in the second scene they’re naked and blowing the captain of the police force. And I tried really hard to get those parts because I want my future children to go to school and have appetizers at dinners.”
“So when this came along I was just shaking reading it because I hadn’t really allowed myself to dream of a part like this,” she said.
Brie agreed, taking it one step further. “It was amazing to get the opportunity to prove myself the way that Ruth also does,” she said of the audition process. “But I also had this dream criteria in my head where I was ready to sign off on certain shows that checked like two of the six boxes, and I was like ‘Two whole boxes!’ And then ‘GLOW’ came in, and it really did check every box.”
“It was indescribable when I first read it, in the same way that Betty described: the fear and excitement at reading it and being like, ‘Oh my God. This is the thing!'”
But even now, with the season wrapped and rolling out on Netflix and plenty of prestige TV in their past, these actors are still nervous for the next audition.
Do you feel like there’s been a tipping point? Was there a moment where you thought, “OK, I’ve got this. I feel like I’ve broken through?”
Gilpin: Absolutely not, no.
I hope you feel that way now.
Gilpin: I don’t!
Soon, though, maybe?
Brie: We never do.
Gilpin: But there is a feeling on set, in every department on “GLOW” that everyone has sort of paid their dues and gritted their teeth through certain jobs to get to this one.
Brie: To be rewarded with this.
Gilpin: That this is the passion project.
If art does imitate life, may this piece last as long as Brie, Gilpin, and Flahive care to live in it.
“GLOW” premieres Friday, June 23 on Netflix.