If you ask Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, wrestling was just better in the 1980s: They say it was less slick, less violent, more fun — even silly. There were easier entry points, too.
"Liz and I will watch a wrestling match now, and we'll actually make it 15 minutes in and still have no idea who the good guy or the bad guy is," Mensch says.
Mensch and Flahive are diving back into the world of '80s wrestling in their new Netflix series GLOW. The show stars Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actor who finds work with Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling league — a wrestling circuit which actually existed in the 1980s.
Ruth takes on the persona of a Russian villain named "Zoya the Destroya."
"Capitalist pig!" she yells at her nemesis Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin). "I shall neuter all your dogs and fill your swimming pools with borscht!"
Co-creators Flahive and Mensch say making a wrestling show meant dealing in a lot of offensive stereotypes — and figuring out how to address those tensions within the show.
On the theatricality of wrestling
Carly Mensch: It's almost like Greek theater in that it's like you're telling stories on a scale that we're not used to, but that's really exciting — that can cross cultures, can cross languages. From one side, if you're being ungenerous, you can say it's super reductive and then from the other side, you could say it's storytelling at its most potently inclusive and epic. And if you can figure out how to harness that, I think that's exciting.
On the wrestling personas playing up offensive stereotypes
Liz Flahive: A lot of it was about keeping our eye on the characters' experience of having to play these characters. There's a lot in wrestling that is exciting and also that makes us uncomfortable. And that tension is in the show ... everywhere and is something we keep going back to, and exploring, and digging into.
Mensch: [The character of "Welfare Queen"] she's played by Kia Stevens who is an actual professional wrestler in her alternate real life. ... We would check in with her a lot just to see whether we were getting things right and just to help us speak to the women about the experience of playing these types of offensive stereotypes.
And she would tell us, as a black woman who's been in the industry for a while, like, she's had to play tons of offensive things. And Welfare Queen is perfectly in line with the requests that she gets.
On Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin playing characters who hate each other
Mensch: In real, real life [they] love each other. Which is actually a really helpful dimension because they trust each other so much. ... They're very much taking care of each other's bodies, and no one's ever actually slamming someone's head into a post.
On the actors learning to wrestle at the same pace as their characters
Mensch: From the beginning we knew that in order to tell this authentic story — and to embrace the funny, Bad News Bears side of learning something totally new — that it would be smart for us to go really slow this first season and actually let our actresses learn how to wrestle at the same pace that their characters are learning.
Flahive: It did something to the women, too. We had them training in a bootcamp for three weeks before we started shooting and just the physical intimacy that they all experienced together and the idea that they had to learn something as a group I think bonded them deeply. I think in their performances the level of trust they all established in the ring was really helpful to us as we filmed the whole season.
Christina Cala and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio of this interview Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's time for some '80s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
BETTY GILPIN: (As Liberty Belle) I'd like to call on the power of my three favorite Americans - Ronald Reagan, Larry Bird and Jesus Christ himself.
MCEVERS: This is a scene from the new Netflix show "GLOW," GLOW as in Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The actor Betty Gilpin plays a wrestling character named Liberty Belle, and she's about to take on her Russian rival in the ring.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
ALISON BRIE: (As Zoya the Destroyer) I will neuter all your pet dogs and fill your swimming pools with borscht.
MCEVERS: The characters are of course stereotypes. That's the deal with professional wrestling. But that is exactly what got the creators of this show excited about telling the story. Turns out "GLOW" was a real thing. It was a syndicated TV show in the '80s. And then more recently there was a documentary about that show. And now there's a show about the show. The documentary is what got "GLOW's" creators, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, into the whole thing. They say professional wrestling was just better in the '80s.
CARLY MENSCH: It was less, like, violent.
LIZ FLAHIVE: And less slick, too. There was more comedy in the personas...
MENSCH: And story, yeah.
FLAHIVE: ...And story. And it was silly at times, too, in ways that I think maybe wrestling isn't as silly now.
MENSCH: And for people who don't know wrestling, like, that clarity was also really helpful. For us, people like the Iron Sheik, who was, like, you know, a huge villain in the '80s, that just made sense in a way that people who are trying for the first time ever to tell wrestling stories - that felt like a much easier and more fun entry point for us than kind of, like, Liz and I will watch a wrestling match now and we'll actually make it 15 minutes in and still have no clue who the good guy or the bad guy is.
MCEVERS: Oh. It's kind of interesting, too. When you're talking about how wrestling was different in the '80s, you're kind of - you're, like, taking seriously this thing that people definitely nowadays do not take seriously - right? - this WWF style of, like, fake, theatrical wrestling. What is it about the theatrics of it that interested you?
MENSCH: I mean, it's almost like Greek theater in that it's like you're telling stories on a scale that, like, we're not used to but that's really exciting, that can cross cultures, can cross languages. From one side, if you're being ungenerous, you can say it's super reductive. And then from the other side you could say it's kind of like storytelling at its most potently inclusive and epic. And if you can figure out how to harness that, I think that's exciting.
MCEVERS: When you talk about being reductive, I mean, I think what happens is that the characters are all these types, right? I mean, that's what has to happen in the world of wrestling. You have become somebody that's, like, easy for people to, like, hang on to. And of course, because this is the '80s, like, these types are potentially very offensive to people who are watching. There's - like, the Asian character's named Fortune Cookie. The Indian girl plays an Arab terrorist named Beirut.
MCEVERS: Let's just, like, listen to a clip of them, like, describing themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
ELLEN WONG: (As Fortune Cookie) I am one who is cute like panther. I'm in danger. Help me. Save me. (Laughter) Tricked you because I am fast like dragon. I am Fortune Cookie and Asian.
MENSCH: Yes, our names are on this.
MCEVERS: Exactly. You own this. I mean, so - right, so you knew you were going to have to do this.
MCEVERS: What were the conversations about how to, like, do it well?
FLAHIVE: You know, a lot of it was about keeping our eye on the characters' experience of having to play these characters, you know? I mean I think the emotional honesty of an actress being asked to do this and how they grapple with that is a big part of our story.
MCEVERS: Yeah. I mean there's times when the characters comment on their characters, right? They say, like, hang on a second. This is racist.
MCEVERS: There's a character whose name is Welfare Queen. And she's like, oh, man, is this bad? Should I be doing this? Like, she is able to take a moment to question that, right?
MENSCH: And Welfare queen - we were lucky because she's played by Kia Stevens, who's an actual professional wrestler. You know, we would check in with her a lot and, you know, she would tell us 'cause she's had to play tons of offensive things. And this - like, Welfare Queen is perfectly in line with, like, the requests that she gets.
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, I think one thing - for people who haven't seen the show, these 10 episodes, a lot of it is just them, like, putting this whole thing together. I mean, it's literally the whole thing from the beginning. We're not going straight into the ring.
MCEVERS: And there's this great scene. One of the main characters, who's played by Alison Brie, she's been working on figuring out what her character is. And she's landed on this idea of a - being a Russian villain, Zoya the Destroyer, who would be pitted against this other character named Liberty Belle, who's played amazingly by Betty Gilpin. And I just want to play a clip of the first time these two kind of try out these characters together.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
BRIE: (As Zoya the Destroyer) You think you're so great with your decadent fast food and your disgusting football, which is wrong name for this sport because football is soccer.
GILPIN: (As Liberty Belle) In America, we're free.
BRIE: (As Zoya the Destroyer) In Soviet Union, we eat stars and stripes for breakfast.
MCEVERS: It's so "Rocky IV" (laughter). Isn't it "Rocky IV"?
MENSCH: "Rocky IV" we definitely watched.
FLAHIVE: Oh, yeah.
MCEVERS: And we should say that that whole scene takes place. I mean they're there in the ring.
MENSCH: You hear the sort of wobbly ropes and...
MCEVERS: And their kind of circling each other, like, you know, villains are supposed to do as they fling insults at one another. And then it takes many episodes for them to kind of learn how to physically fight each other.
MCEVERS: And you watch them learning and practicing it over and over and over again. These of course are two people who in real life don't like each other, also and so they're kind of navigating that.
MENSCH: And then in real, real life, they love each other...
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right.
MENSCH: ...Which is actually, like, a really helpful dimension...
MENSCH: ...Because they trust each other so much that even though you have to watch them go on this journey of not wanting to touch each other's bodies, they're very much taking care of each other's bodies. And no one's ever actually slamming someone's head into a...
MCEVERS: Right. I understand that they learned...
MENSCH: ...A post.
MCEVERS: ...A lot of the stunts as they went long and did do some of them themselves.
MENSCH: All of them.
FLAHIVE: All of them, yeah.
MENSCH: I mean from the beginning, we knew that in order to tell this, like, authentic story and to embrace the kind of funny, bad-news-bears side of learning something totally new...
MENSCH: ...That it would be smart for us to go really slow this first season and actually let our actresses learn how to wrestle at the same pace that their characters were learning.
FLAHIVE: And it did something to the women, too, I think. You know, we had them training in a boot camp for three weeks before we started shooting. And just the physical intimacy that they all experienced together and the idea that they had to learn something as a group I think bonded them deeply. And you know, the level of trust they all establish with each other in the ring was really helpful to us as we filmed the whole season.
MCEVERS: I understand you guys are still waiting to hear whether or not there's going to be a second season, but it just seems like there's so many directions this could go, right? Are you going to follow the original story of the original "GLOW," or are you going to kind of go off on your own at this point?
FLAHIVE: I feel like we've just scratched the surface on a lot of these women. And they're incredible to play with as actors and as characters. So - and we've got a lot of them.
MCEVERS: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, thank you so much.
FLAHIVE: Thank you.
MCEVERS: And "GLOW," all 10 episodes, is available now on Netflix.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOSS OF AURA'S "SWEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.