“I often think I am my truest self when I am Zoya the Destroya in the ring,” Alison Brie tells ET, referring to the wrestling persona she embodies on Netflix’s summer darling GLOW. The series, about the formation of a women’s wrestling league, sees the former Community and Mad Men star playing Ruth, a struggling actress who auditions for a spot in the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a fledgling 1980s syndicated TV series. The show follows the league of 14 women -- mostly new to the sport -- who come together to challenge themselves and each other both inside and outside the ring.
While Ruth is a persistent, calculated individual, concerned about screen time and initially resistant to the idea of degrading herself for a role, Zoya, her wrestling alter ego, is a different character entirely. The Russian caricature is free of inhibitions, full of confidence and bravado, unafraid to taunt her many costumed counterparts.
While an entire cadre of women seemingly inspired Brie’s Ruth, her biggest inspiration for Zoya is, well, herself, the Hollywood native says with a laugh during a recent interview with ET, recognizing how silly that might sound. “What a total narcissist,” Brie says. “I like to channel myself, I’m very inspired by myself for this role. What!” But the actress -- whose humility shines through in her thoughtful answers and easy manner -- has good reason for counting herself among her own inspirations for her onscreen characters.
“It’s like tapping into my childhood silliness, or any stage of my life -- times in high school or college or even on the set of Community, the way we used to make jokes and do characters and voices off-camera with each other,” she says. “The silliest way I like to joke is embodied by Zoya.”
It’s an apt metaphor for the role that Brie plays on GLOW, which returns for a second season on June 29. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the Netflix series chronicles the changes that the women undergo as they learn to empower themselves through the rough-and-tumble sport -- primarily by shedding their inhibitions and getting closer to themselves.
“The show as a whole felt very different from anything I had ever worked on before, in tone, [and] I found it to be very intriguing and tricky, too,” Brie says. “It seemed a little dangerous in that respect, that if we don’t do it right, it could go really wrong. If we do it right, it could be really special, which was exciting.”
So much of the transformation that Brie’s character undergoes in adopting a new wrestling persona parallels Brie’s own transformation as an actress. “I went through this empowering experience training for [GLOW], and then while shooting the show, the character is getting in touch with that aspect of herself,” the actress says, adding that it’s a “dream job” to play two characters on screen.
“It’s almost like you’re acting on two different shows at times. There’s one show when we’re outside the ring that is very nuanced and there’s a lot of subtlety to it, and you’re playing very real human emotions and situations. And then we get into the ring and we’re shooting the show GLOW within our show and suddenly I’m Zoya the Destroya and nothing is off-limits and you can be as big as you want to be, as silly as you want to be. There are no wrong answers, and it’s insane! And so fun.”
Wrestling itself was also a challenge for Brie, who had never really watched it before joining the series. Training lasted for four weeks leading up to season one, and another four weeks prior to shooting season two. The women worked with stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins and Chavo Guerrero Jr., a wrestler whose uncle, incidentally, trained the original women of GLOW (“So you can enjoy that coincidence!” Brie says with a laugh).
“I am a really physical person,” she says. “I’ve been training with my personal trainer and doing strength training for seven years now, so there was this side of myself that I felt like I really wanted to showcase, and [that] no one would suspect would be something that I would do, you know? I’ve been looking for a project that would allow me to be more physical, and in my mind, I sort of thought that it would come in the form of a movie, so I was actively looking for a cool action movie or something that people would let me audition for, and then this show came along, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is exactly the thing that I've been wanting to do.’”
Once she started really digging into her training for the show -- “a lot of it is about heavy lifting and really focusing on certain muscle groups and building them,” she explains -- she felt like she had crossed a threshold and couldn’t go back to her previous way of viewing workouts: as simply a way to burn calories and stay trim.
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“The wrestling training was the most life-changing part of the GLOW process, because it was very scary and it was very exciting,” Brie says, before correcting herself. “I didn’t feel very scared going into it, actually. Only excited and very naive about it. But very gung-ho about it, too. All of the women were. It turned out to be this amazing bonding experience for all of us to learn this new physical feat together, and everyone was really surprised in ourselves everyday of the things we were capable of and were still learning from each other. We had to be really vulnerable with each other right away because we had to get really physical and really intimate with each other right away, like, ‘So, you’re going to put your chin against my vagina and then kick your legs up,’ you know?”
In addition to learning stunts, Brie started weight training, building both strength and confidence, as she went from being unable to do one pushup to now being able to complete multiple sets. While she hasn’t bulked up -- at least not intentionally -- she’s much more lean, allowing her to reportedly do 100 percent of her stunts on the show. “It was also really empowering to just use our bodies in a different way and in a strong way, and for me to think of my body as an athlete and not just as an actress,” she says.
One of Brie’s favorite memories from shooting season one, in fact, took place in the ring, during a scene that she shot with costar Betty Gilpin, who plays her best friend-turned-nemesis-turned-lukewarm-friend Debbie. In the scene, producer Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) is envisioning a fantasy sequence of what GLOW could be, with Ruth and Debbie as the headlining event -- Ruth as the “heel” and Debbie as the “face.” The scene was shot in the Mayan, a nightclub and theater space in downtown Los Angeles (“where I’d actually been to see a wrestling match before,” Brie notes), and involved an arena full of several hundred extras.
After the stunt doubles warmed up the set, helping cameras to get all the right angles and marking all the right spots, Brie and Gilpin themselves stepped into the ring, much to the background actors’ surprise. “I think the audience just assumed that [the stunt doubles] were gonna do the match and we were just gonna jump in and do the dialogue,” Brie says. “And so when Betty and I got into the ring and just did the whole match, top to bottom, with a body slam and a front three-quarter and stuff like that, the crowd went crazy, and you could sense that it was genuine. Betty and I had so much adrenaline. I’d never felt so powerful. I felt like I could lift up a car. I didn’t feel a thing, my body was numb. I was like, ‘Body slam me 30 more times,’ you know? I just felt totally invincible, like a god.”