Like many others, the actor Alexander Ludwig was an occasional professional wrestling fan. Aborted as he got older, how to do it.
Over the years he has worked with real-life wrestlers on occasion who will entertain him with stories about the business, such as Dwayne Johnson and Adam Copeland wrestling as Edge. But like many other former pro wrestling fans, Ludwig never really thought about what went into practical entertainment.
That changed when he stood in the ring for the first time.
Now, after months of training and filming for his role as a pro-wrestler in the Starz show “Heels”, which premieres on Sunday, Ludwig can hardly believe how naive he used to be with the sport, he said in a recent interview. “This is a full stunt performance,” he said. “The sportiness that is in it is unbelievable.”
“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for these men – five minutes in the ring and I’ll be gassed,” he added. “When you’ve been thrown into this world, the only thing fake about it is the storyline, and even that can change in an instant.”
In the fictional town of Duffy, Georgia, Heels goes behind the scenes of the once secret world of professional wrestling. The show revolves around Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Ludwig), a pair of wrestling brothers who inherited a small wrestling business from their late wrestling father and are arguing over the best way to go to run the company.
Jack, the elder, is a writer who goes into every detail of the Duffy Wrestling League. Ace, the baby of the family and a real fun boy, just wants to get the audience going. Most of these fraternal arguments take place outside the ring, and when they eventually face each other in a scripted battle, the tension manifests in unexpected – and narrative explosive – ways.
At a time when professional wrestling is more popular than it has been in years, it is thriving as a dramatic subject as the real stories in the industry are often as compelling – if not more – than what’s going on in the ring. For many of the characters on “Heels,” wrestling is the primary escape from the pressures of reality – a lousy job, an unsatisfactory relationship – and the show often stays away from wrestling as these dramas unfold.
“We’re not just doing a wrestling show,” Amell said. “This is a show about people who want more out of life.”
The wrestlers who perform in companies like the Duffy Wrestling League often resemble starving artists who hone their craft for little money while waiting for a big break to catapult them to national notoriety.
“These are creative people who want to do anything,” said showrunner Mike O’Malley of the “Heels” characters. “All the people who make it in show business and professional sport had to start somewhere. And were they disappointed or encouraged? That’s what the story is about. “
But “Heels” is primarily devoted to researching the emotional and conceptual nuances of a lifestyle that, for the participants, resembles a secret society. The characters openly explain terms such as “kayfabe,” the performer’s obligation to insist that the action and melodramas are strictly “real” and the best way to hit someone with the elbow without actually hurting them.
At a time when most wrestling fans over the age of 12 know that the winners are predetermined and the storylines are written, modern wrestlers must constantly find new ways to get the audience’s attention. “We know that they know, and they know that we know that they know,” says Jack Spade of the fans and suggests a particularly complicated story for his business partner. “Heels” explores how the lines between truth and fiction can be blurred so convincingly that even the performers cannot tell what is authentic – good entertainment for us and big headaches for the people who, if not careful, can easily forgets that you are playing a character.
A particularly significant confirmation came from wrestler Phil Brooks, who performed professionally as CM Punk and was a guest as a veteran of the independent wrestling scene.
“He turned to us and said: ‘That’s how it is,’” said Ludwig. “‘You’re doing exactly the show I want to see.'”
Heels isn’t the first scripted TV show to look at how pro wrestling is done. “GLOW,” which ran for three seasons on Netflix, recorded relationships within a female wrestling show from the 1980s. NBC’s “Young Rock,” recently renewed for a second season, often touches on Dwayne Johnson’s closeness to the wrestling company his grandparents started. WWE and Blumhouse recently announced “The United States of America vs. Vince McMahon,” a miniseries examining the 1994 trial in which McMahon, the owner of WWE, was accused of conspiring to supply steroids to its cast members to distribute.
“There are so many characters and storylines in and around this process that it just felt like a great place to develop a drama,” said Blumhouse TV President Chris McCumber, who compared it to the Blumhouse-produced Roger Ailes miniseries . The loudest voice. “
All of this is happening as pro wrestling is experiencing its biggest boom since the 20th century, with wrestling programs airing on American television every week. Long considered an industry leader, WWE has signed a half-billion-dollar rights deal with Fox. All Elite Wrestling, founded in 2019, now hosts two weekly shows on TNT: “Dynamite” and a new “Rampage” which premieres on Friday.
“Most cable properties have changed audiences from what you might have seen in the 1990s,” said Tony Khan, founder and president of All Elite Wrestling. “But a wrestling show can attract a large audience – especially a very young audience.” WWE and AEW programs routinely have some of the highest ratings on cable in the esteemed demographic between the ages of 18 and 49.
And his audience is very engaging, said Brett Weitz, the general manager of TNT, TBS and truTV. “Between fan and athlete, wrestling feels like the most connected relationship people have,” he said. “In a cluttered content environment, there is nothing that breaks through like these performances.”
“Heels” was conceived in 2013 by writer Michael Waldron (“Rick and Morty”), who grew up a wrestling fan and “has always been interested in telling a story in this world,” he said. But at first it was a tough sell. He sent the pilot script to “11 or 12 networks,” he said, but Starz was the only one who agreed to hear a pitch.
Starz bought the show in 2016, but Waldron struggled to cast the two Spade brothers who needed both acting skills and physical credibility to play wrestlers. It was revived in 2019 when Amell ended his engagements as the title character on CW’s “Arrow”. The superhero franchise ended that year, and Amell was cast as Jack Spade shortly afterwards. Around the same time, Ludwig’s run with the “Vikings” of the History Channel ended, so that he could slip into the second leading role.
Although Amell is a lifelong wrestling fan who has actually participated in matches and other events for WWE and other companies, he was initially not interested in doing another series so soon after “Arrow”. But he was intrigued by the scripts and the chance to explore the hidden sides of the business further.
“The more the curtain is pulled back for me, the more respect I have for the industry,” he said.
At this point, Waldron was busy with his job as head writer for Marvel’s “Loki” and had given the showrunner duties for “Heels” to O’Malley, who also played a rival wrestling promoter. O’Malley said the challenge is finding a balance point for wrestling enthusiasts and the curious.
“If my mom, who doesn’t watch professional wrestling, wants to understand what’s at stake, the characters have to explain, ‘Wait a minute, how does this work?'” He said. (A rookie wrestler named Bobby Pin offers one such perspective, as his colleagues are constantly teaching him the tricks of the trade.)
Waldron said his staff, as a resident wrestling expert in the writer’s room, sometimes prevented him from “getting into baseball.”
At the same time, “I think people like to see shows where the characters are experts at what they’re doing,” he said. “Even if I don’t always know what you’re doing or what you’re talking about, I think it’s good to know that someone is really good at something.”
To this end, the actors consulted with professionals to make sure the details were right. Ludwig asked Adam Copeland, who is currently performing on WWE, if he should shave his armpits. (The answer: It’s a personal decision that makes Ludwig keep his hair.) Wrestler Cody Rhodes, executive vice president of All Elite Wrestling and a longtime friend of Amell, shared tips on how to get a proper wrestling tan get or buy the right kneecaps.
“If wrestling is not presented the way it is wrestling, then a core segment of the audience – the wrestling fans who want to see themselves in a different medium – could be put off,” said Rhodes. Evidence of physical realism: Amell broke two of his vertebrae while trying to make a move, which kept him from stunt work for some time.
Since its heyday in the 80s and 90s, pro wrestling has flirted with mainstream attention – for example, when Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film “The Wrestler” became a surprise hit during the awards season – without achieving sustained success. As wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista and John Cena have become reliable box office attendants and wrestling shows appear on television programs, the conditions are increasingly being created for “a spark to really ignite the fuse,” as Amell put it.
It could take the form of a single transcendent star – a Hulk Hogan, a Stone Cold Steve Austin – or a show that becomes an undeniable audience smash. Ludwig pointed out that the entertainment industry is primarily a business with a tendency to chase trends and not predict them. If Heels is “the big hit we all hope it will be,” he predicted that scripted show networks will be much more accessible in the wrestling world.
But this current show shows that something has already changed, if only slightly. Evan Husney and Jason Eisener are the creators of Dark Side of the Ring, a documentary series on Vice TV that delves into the dirtier stories of the wrestling business. At the beginning of their partnership, Husney and Eisener tried to develop a script series in the style of “The Sopranos” or “Boogie Nights”, but were rejected outright.
“Most people in Hollywood just weren’t interested in researching wrestling,” said Husney. “They checked it out and checked it out immediately.”
Vice, where Husney was working at the time, was looking for new content and encouraging his staff to develop pitches. “Dark Side” immediately aroused great interest and has now been broadcast for three seasons, received the station’s highest ratings and was spun off into two new shows. Now the networks are no longer so cold.
“I get a lot of feedback from people in the industry who tell me: ‘I didn’t even know it was like this,’” said Eisener. “And I say, ‘I tried to tell you.'”