The essential contradiction of professional wrestling is that it is both fake and real at the same time. While its outcomes are predetermined, the participants still have to push their bodies to their limits, using daring physical feats to tell elemental, primary-coloured stories. Although the Alison Brie-starring GLOW finds much delight in its 1980s setting – you worry that everyone on screen is about to choke on hairspray at any minute – the series uses the premise of a fledgling women’s wrestling promotion to explore the nuances of female friendship, the barriers to career advancement facing women and the opportunity to find empowerment through the reclamation of one’s own physicality. Given her shaded, customarily excellent work in everything from Mad Men to BoJack Horseman to Community, in person Alison is unsurprisingly passionate and thoughtful.
In both the show and the real world, wrestling is often dismissed as frivolous, yet the women of GLOW find something meaningful in it. Could you relate that to your own experience?
I think the women in GLOW are initially suspicious, they don’t take it too seriously, but they each learn that it allows them to tap into this primal warrior they had inside. Having studied acting and taken myself fairly seriously as an actor, I found that I’ve never had more fun than when I was in the ring, shooting our wrestling scenes and getting to be a larger-than-life wrestling character. It reminded me of theatre school where you can play anything. Sometimes you were doing a man’s role and sometimes you were someone really powerful and all of these things are no longer part of the equation when you start working in film and TV and you’re playing mothers and daughters and annoying girlfriends.
Have you made a deliberate decision to avoid those sorts of roles?
It’s part luck and part choice. Early on in my career I would have done anything, and I have – I’ve certainly played girlfriends and I’ve found value in every project I’ve worked on so I don’t want to totally dismiss it – but I’m drawn more to work where I get something to do.
There’s a beautiful scene later in the series where your character Ruth undergoes a difficult personal experience and she says “I’m a wrestler”, almost to herself. I like the idea that it becomes a self-definition: she’s someone who fights.
It changes the way she thinks about her body and her self, and I found that too while training for the show and shooting it. I almost started to think of myself more as an athlete than as an actor. It positively affected my confidence because as an actress so often your body and the way you look feels like it’s not your own. You’re trying to be what other people want you to be, or to look a way you think people want you to look, and in this show we were training for something so specific. You really had to take ownership of your body and then I became almost in awe of what I was capable of. I learned so many moves and surprised myself all the time, and that made me feel really empowered. That’s what Ruth is talking about in that moment. She’s made herself into a different person. She owns her body. She owns her decisions. She’s a bit of a warrior.
What was it like to train to that level?
It was so fun, at the time it was all I wanted to do. I’d been looking for a project that was more physical. I’ve worked with my trainer for six years and had already gotten into pretty good shape but I knew that I needed something to set goals for. When I was chasing this show, a part of the reason was to show this other aspect of myself that I’ve been working on for a while, and I loved it. I was ready to get my hands dirty.
How much thought do you give to the direction of your career when choosing parts? Do you often look ahead?
I’ve learned that it’s hard to set really distinct goals because you never know what opportunities may arise that you hadn’t thought of. I don’t want to limit myself to my own imagination. Recently I’ve been trying to be more strategic and I’m always looking to do something I haven’t done before, whether that’s due to the character or the genre or the people making it. Especially in regards to Annie in Community, I felt like it’s time to grow up. You can only trade on your adorableness for so long before you want to play a character who’s got a bit more depth, who’s dealing with complex emotions and has lived a bit more. My ambition is to stay interested in and excited by what I’m doing, and to be able to show different facets of myself as a performer and as a woman. There are so many ways that a script or a job can be appealing, so while I have some criteria in my mind and a general idea of a direction I’d like to go, it remains fluid. Being rigid makes accomplishing your goals nearly impossible.
Does that flexibility extend to coping with the job’s frequent lack of security? Community, for instance, was on the verge of cancellation for its entire run.
There’s no security, ever – even when a show is doing well, it’s still going to end at some point. When I was younger I thought there’d be a time where I’d know: “Now I’m successful and I don’t have to worry anymore”. It never comes. Every time I feel secure I have intense moments of vulnerability. I still think I’ll never work again. It’s a constant reality of the business and you need to deal with it. You have to let yourself think you’re going to fail sometimes and then just forge forward anyway.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight.