‘It was always about empowering women’: Alison Brie’s return to Glow

Hit series Glow tells the story of women wrestlers. But off camera, there was a female-dominated production crew too. It made for a liberating experience, Alison Brie tells Ed Power.

‘It was always about empowering women’: Alison Brie’s return to Glow

Hit series Glow tells the story of women wrestlers. But off camera, there was a female-dominated production crew too. It made for a liberating experience, Alison Brie tells Ed Power.

Alison Brie made her name in Mad Men as Trudy. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/ Getty Images for dcp
Alison Brie made her name in Mad Men as Trudy. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/ Getty Images for dcp

Alison Brie noticed the difference the moment she set foot on the set of Glow. The Netflix drama takes place in the eighties and tells the true-life story of a short-lived, all female wrestling group in Los Angeles.

The thing that set it apart, though, wasn’t the subject matter, but what was going on behind the scenes. Glow was created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Orange is the New Black show-runner Jenji Kohan. Uniquely, all the major figures off-screen are women.

“Having so many women at the top... we joke with them sometimes,” says Brie. “‘I hope they keep this bit in the show’. And they’ll be like, ‘we are “they” – we are making the final decision’.” Glow is different in other ways too Brie tells the Irish Examiner ahead of the return of the series for a second season on June 29. Having been on TV sets since her early twenties– she initially achieved fame on Mad Men and cult comedy Community – for Brie working on a female-majority production was deeply educational. “It feels unique... in the transparency, in the way we do things. There is a lot of communication,” she says. “The set feels very comfortable and very safe. And with the majority of the cast women, it feels we have ownership over that space. That is different.”

Brie’s character, Ruth, starts as a big-haired fish-out-of-water (it’s the eighties and the show has the hair-spray budget to prove it). A struggling actress she signs up to Glow – “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” – out of desperation for a paying gig.

As the series goes on, and Glow proceeds from the pipe-dream of wrestling promoter Sam Sylvia (comic and pod-caster Marc Maron) to a reality, we see Ruth come to regard wrestling not as a humiliating last resort but a life-changing opportunity and her fellow wrestlers not as rivals but family. It’s funny – but feel good too.

With Ruth as the audience’s stand-in, we are introduced to the fascinating cast of secondary characters. These include Bettie Gilpin as Debbie, Ruth’s best friend until she discovers that her pal is sleeping with her husband, and English singer Kate Nash as Rhonda, a hard-edged Brit abroad who joins the wrestling troupe. Echoing Orange is the New Black, these characters are fully-drawn – real women, with real hopes, fears and dreams.

Season two of Glow sees Sam’s unlikely plans reach fruition as Glow makes its television debut. “Year one of the show was about all the ladies learning how to wrestle and figure out if they could make a show,” says Brie. Season two is about them making that show. Glow has finally been green lit. “There is going to be a lot more drama…you’ll also see the women struggling with their small amount of fame… having fans, how they feel about that.”

Shooting took place against the backdrop of Me Too, and the parallels, says Brie, were often uncanny.

“It’s a happy accident of sorts, “ she says. “It didn’t [influence] the way we were making the show. The episodes for season two were already written before we started shooting. But with Me Too being to the forefront of our industry, it is great timing in terms of relevance of the show and in terms of it resonating with the audience. Glow was always meant to be about empowering women and having their voices heard. Certain plot lines seems to mirror things happening in the industry.”

“With our business being so male dominated for so long, there is a lot of shame and fear and second guessing of yourself as an actor,” adds Gilpin. “Being surrounded by brave women made me feel brave myself.”

Brie was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of an entertainment journalist father and a mother working at a non-profit organisation. With the glamour of the industry close-by (at school one of her classmates was the star of cute pooch blockbuster Beethoven), she grew up dreaming of being an actress.

Success arrived in 2008 as she came to attention as wide-eyed housewife Trudy in Mad Men. The role, as written, could have been light-weight. Brie imbued Trudy with grit and pathos. She reprises that feat on Glow, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Ruth is capable of immense selfishness and self-destructiveness – but Brie never loses sight of the character’s humanity. She has fantastic comic timing too – important in a series that stands right on the line between drama and comedy.

Aged 34 Brie is one of those overnight successes a decade plus in the making. Through it all she’s clearly had her head screwed on. Though set on a career in acting she decided against joining a performing arts college, feeling she would develop better as a person attending a regular high school. After a bizarre year away in Glasgow, where she developed a taste for chips with cheese, she studied acting at CalArts. Mad Men came straight after graduation – a huge opportunity but also a surprise to Brie, who had quietly resolved never to do television and to instead focus on cinema.

“I lovvvved Trudy,” she told the Guardian last year.”Matt Weiner [writer of Mad Men] was fantastic at writing these complex characters for women in an era where they were trapped in stereotypical roles, but could wield power. They made men think that they had the power while secretly controlling everything. Trudy was such a badass.” In person Brie is bubbly and friendly. She doesn’t do Hollywood fake. Her enthusiasm for Glow is clear, with her eyes lighting up as the cast are describes the elaborate training routine required to pull off the wrestling stunts in the series. “You start to go a little insane,” says Brie of the process of preparing to wrestle. “It’s exciting and scary. You have to remember to let go of the fear and literally throw yourself into those moves. It’s really cool.”

“Even though I didn’t have any connection to [wrestling] I immediately related to it,” adds Gilpin. “It’s all these actresses taking this huge risk doing something crazy and silly. I understand that leap of faith. I have too fully through myself into that.”

The success of Glow seems to have caught everyone involved unawares. It started off a word of mouth hit and kept growing. Second time out expectations have changed, as Brie is keenly aware. “Last year it felt very insular and protected – this secret feminist camp,” says Brie. “Now there is an understanding that this is a show that people watch. So there is pressure to meet people’s expectations.”

- Glow season two begins on Netflix on June 29

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