Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin were so invested in selling their ability to get physical during their second “GLOW” audition together that series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch were afraid the actresses would injure themselves right out of a job.
“You were lifting her onto your back, and we were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’” Flahive said to Brie during a “GLOW” FYC event earlier this year.
“GLOW” is the fictionalized retelling of the rise and popularity of the 1980s syndicated women’s professional wrestling promotion known as the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, aka GLOW. At the screening and panel in North Hollywood, the cast and crew of the Netflix series gathered to give insight into the show’s casting process. For the amount of kicks, flips, and other attacks required in wrestling, stunt doubles just weren’t going to cut it for the majority of the action seen on screen.
That meant that the show had to basically recreate its own wrestling complement with actresses who would be game to learn the acrobatic moves to give the show’s sequences in the ring authenticity. Casting director Jennifer Euston had the Herculean task of wrestling together 14 women who’d fit the bill within 10 weeks. A longtime fan of wrestling since childhood, Euston also watched the 2012 documentary, “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” to get inspiration for the look and spirit required of the performers.
“There was so much passion there, so I knew I needed actors like that, who were really going to commit 100 percent,” she said. “I also knew I needed actors who were not just going to commit 100 percent in their craft, but who were going to put their bodies through some really hard things. Those are the two elements, really. I just wanted unique faces, so I had to be very specific in the casting. When I was auditioning them, I had them do some sort of physical thing so I knew they could do it. So I had actors doing somersaults and handstands and doing all sorts of things just to [show] that they were game, obviously.”
Casting the Best Friends-Turned-Enemies
Euston usually has about 10 weeks to cast a pilot, and in the case of “GLOW,” a good chunk of that time was spent trying to cast leads Ruth Wilder and Debbie Eagan, two actresses whose careers had taken different trajectories, yet landed them both at GLOW to portray wrestling alter egos “Zoya the Destroya” and “Liberty Belle,” respectively. They also happen to be best friends — or at least they were before Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband.
“In our first, first draft, I think they were sisters,” said Flahive. “We always knew we wanted a strong female friendship at the core, exploring that, the complications of that, and that they’re both actresses in the ‘80s and having different experiences and different successes and failures. That’s the love story of the show.”
“You had to feel that they were friends and they were fractured and you’d want to watch them slowly come closer, closer, and closer,” Gilpin said, pretending to almost kiss Brie.
In order to test the actresses’ dynamic, the producers had Brie and Gilpin go through not just one, but two chemistry reads together.
“In our auditions with each other, one of the scenes is the final scene from the pilot in which Betty comes in and is accusing me of sleeping with her husband and then we have this wrestling match in the ring,” Brie said. “Betty and I just fully wrestled each other in the room twice, to the point where I would be crawling and clawing the ground, and Betty was dragging me back. And the second time we did it where it was our last audition before we getting the parts, I felt like [the producers] were like, ‘Don’t do so much. We need everybody healthy.’”
Casting the Rest of the GLOW Gals
“We had to build the ensemble around [Ruth and Debbie]. So those two parts were the ones I was looking for the hardest for the longest, probably,” said Euston. “And then it all came together once we had them. From all the people I had read and all the tapes I had showed [the producers] and the people I had brought in for them, it was really a smooth process, just saying, ‘This one, this one, this one, this one.’”
A dozen more actresses joined Brie and Gilpin to fill out the fierce, female wrestling brigade. Among the combatants are Gayle Rankin as Sheila “The She Wolf,” Jackie Tohn as Melanie “Melrose” Rosen, Ellen Wong as Jenny “Fortune Cookie” Chey, Sunita Mani as Arthie “Beirut the Mad Bomber” Premkumar, Kate Nash as Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson, Kia Stevens as Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson, Britt Baron as Justine “Scab” Biagi, Marianna Palka as Reggie “Vicky the Viking” Walsh, Kimmy Gatewood as Stacey “Ethel Rosenblatt” Beswick, and Rebekka Johnson as Dawn “Edna Rosenblatt” Rivecca.
One of the final two actresses to make the cut was Sydelle Noel, who portrays former stuntwoman and Blaxploitation actress Cherry Bang, who acts as the girls’ head trainer. In the ring, she’s known by the name “Junkchain.”
“What makes this show so great is that we are all so different — shapes, sizes, and everything,” Noel said. “I remember even being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m supposed to be the trainer of these girls? I’ve got to be the badass? Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get in the gym and get more fit.’ Liz and Carly were like, ‘No, you’re great. You’re great as you are.’ And then I heard the other girls saying the same thing, like, ‘We cast you guys based on what you are. You don’t have to lose 10 pounds for the camera or gain 10 pounds. We like you as is.’”
The last piece of the puzzle was finding the perfect woman to play Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade, who hails from a professional wrestling family, but suffers from stage fright. The role eventually went to Britney Young, an actress from Alaska.
“Carmen was really hard to cast. It was one of our hardest parts because I was seeing all of these women, and I was casting really late. She came in at like 8 o’clock at night. She was my last person of that day,” Euston said. “She walked in and she smiled, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. Please be able to act.’ And then when she told me she was a cheerleader and did all of these athletic things, I was like, ‘It just keeps getting better. It just keeps getting better.’ And was like, ‘Please let Liz and Carly love her and see what I see.’ And thankfully [they] did. It was just her smile. She came in and it was her joyous presence and her light, but also the athletic part was so good.”
Putting the Cast Through the Wrestling Wringer
Once cast, the actresses had to get down to the business of actually learning to wrestle convincingly. It was a trial by fire that began with small tumbling moves that kids may have learned as toddlers, but then escalated exponentially.
“Day 1 of wrestling training was very rudimentary somersaulting, and that felt like, ‘Whoa, we’re really doing it,’” said Brie. “We have real wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr., who trained us to wrestle, as well as our stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins and stuntwoman Helena Barrett, who were there to break down Chavo’s language because he’s been wrestling since he was three years old. He’d be like, ‘You just fall on your face,’ and they would tell us how to do it 20 times without hurting our face.
“We had to learn fundamentals for so long, but as we got more into the wrestling training, I feel like we were anxious to get to bigger moves,” she added. “Then you realize there’s this gap between just sitting on the ground and feeling the mat, and then eventually you just have to do it. There’s not really a lot of baby steps to learning wrestling moves. You’re sort of like, ‘Here’s somersaulting, and now just flip onto your back from the air.’ Every day I feel like it was that kind of realization of like, ‘Holy shit. This is what we signed on to do.’”
The physical ordeal only served to reinforce the psychological side of building the team. Nothing bonds like shared misery and sore muscles.
“It did feel like what Jen’s talking about, that [she] succeeded in casting 14 women who were up for anything. Everybody came in totally fearless, ready to do this thing that no one had ever done before except for Kia Stevens, who’s a pro wrestler who couldn’t have been more gracious and lovely with us,” said Brie. “And because we all learned to wrestle together and had to be really vulnerable in front of each other right away, we were bonded so immediately in such a unique way.”
Young, who is very similar to her character Carmen, had a slightly different experience.
“I come from an athletic family and I was a cheerleader, so I’m used to people’s bodies falling on me,” she said. “But coming on and having to do an emotional, crying scene — like, Liz and Carly, I seriously had a meeting with them halfway through to be like, ‘Are you guys okay with what I’m doing? Is this what you wanted?’ They were like, ‘This is why we chose you. You are Carmen. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ It made me feel so safe… There’s no judgment on our set. It’s so positive and so encouraging.”
Casting the Fearless Leader
One essential person in the cast didn’t have to endure any intense training, but he did bring his own personal expertise to the role. Euston had comedian Marc Maron in mind from the start to play the jaded Sam Sylvia, a B-movie director who created GLOW and the storylines for each of its colorful characters.
“I met him when I was 22 in New York. Marc was the hot comic at the time,” said Euston. “I was an assistant, and he would come in and swoop by me and look at me and audition and swoop out. I was like, ‘Man, that guy’s cool.’ But [he was] high, I think, through a lot of it.”
Maron has been open about his past drug and alcohol abuse and has been sober since August 1999. Nevertheless, his life experiences served him well to play Sam, which required a rather different practice from what the actresses experienced.
“I just had to work up and get some old muscles into shape: the doing-blow muscle, the smoking-cigarettes muscle, the drinking muscle. It’s surprising how quickly those come back,” he joked. “Obviously I wasn’t smoking or drinking or doing any real blow, but man, it was fun just to fake it.”
Maron also contributed to Sam’s overall style and unique drug habits, authentic details that the series creators were only too happy for him to suggest.
“I made some decisions about Sam. I knew he needed the black cowboy boots. I was hung up on aviator glasses,” he said. “And I had a very specific way that I wanted him to do cocaine. I said to them, ‘Look at this guy, no paraphernalia, he’s not a show-off, he doesn’t share it. He keeps it in a bindle cut from a magazine corner, and he’ll do it with a pen top or a key. That’s it. I think it was Carly who looked at me and goes, ‘We’re so glad you’re here.’ I’ve been sober 18 years but goddammit I knew how to do that shit.”
Season 1 of “GLOW” is currently streaming on Netflix. Season 2 will be released on June 29.