‘Heels’ Is A Family Drama With Body Bumps

Like many people, actor Alexander Ludwig was a casual professional wrestling fan. He moved away when he grew up, like some do.

Over the years, he’s teamed up with real wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson and Adam Copeland, who wrestled as Edge, to keep him entertained with work-related stories. But like many other former pro wrestling fans, Ludwig never thought about what went into hands-on entertainment.

That changed when he first found himself in the ring.

Now, after months of training and filming for the role of professional wrestler on the Starz show “Heels,” Ludwig can’t believe how naive he is about the sport, insisted in a recent interview. “This is a complete stunt performance,” he said. “The athleticism that went into it is incredible.”

“I can’t tell you the amount of respect I have for these guys – five minutes in the ring and I’m on gas,” he added. “Just thrown into this world, the only thing fake about it are the story lines, and even that can change in the first place.”

Set in the fictional Duffy town of Ga., “Heels” takes you behind the scenes of the once-secret professional wrestling world. The show centers on Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Ludwig), who inherit a small-time wrestling business from their late father, who was also a wrestler, and argue over the best way to run the company. .

Older Jack is an auteur obsessed with every detail of the Duffy Wrestling League. Ace, the baby in the family and having a good time, just wants to get the audience moving. Much of this fraternal rivalry takes place outside the ring, and when they finally face off in a scripted fight, the tension unfolds in unexpected – and narratively explosive – ways.

At a time when professional wrestling is more popular than it has been in years, it’s burgeoning as a dramatic topic because the industry’s true stories are often more compelling, if not more, than what happened in the ring. For many of the characters in the “Heels” series, wrestling is their primary escape from the pressures of reality – a crappy job, an unsatisfying relationship – and as these dramas unfold, the show often stays away from grappling.

“We’re not just doing a wrestling show,” Amell said. “This is a show about people who want more from life.”

Wrestlers who perform for companies like the Duffy Wrestling League are like starving performers who hone their craft for little money, while waiting for a big break to catapult themselves to national fame.

“They’re creative people who want it to work,” said showrunner Mike O’Malley of the “Heels” characters. “All people who excel in show business and professional sports have to start somewhere. And were they met with disappointment or encouragement? That’s what the story is about.”

But “Heels” is specifically dedicated to exploring the emotional and conceptual nuances of a lifestyle that resembles a secret society for those involved. The characters clearly explain terms like “kayfabe”, the actor’s commitment to insist that the action and melodramas are absolutely “real,” and the best way to hit someone with your elbow without actually hurting them.

In an age where most wrestling fans over the age of 12 understand that winners are predetermined and story lines are written, modern wrestlers must constantly invent new ways to grab the attention of the audience. “We know what they know, and they know we know what they know,” says Jack Spade of fans, while proposing a particularly complex story to his business partner. “Heels” explores how the lines between fact and fiction can be blurred so convincingly that even artists can’t tell what’s real – good fun for us and a huge headache for people if they’re not careful. easily forget that they are playing a character.

Particularly meaningful support came from wrestler Phil Brooks, who has performed professionally as CM Punk and guest-starred as a veteran of the independent wrestling scene.

“He turned to us and said, ‘That’s it,’” Ludwig said. “’You guys are doing exactly the show I want to see.’”

“Heels” isn’t the first scripted TV show to explore how professional wrestling is done. “GLARE,” It chronicled relationships on a 1980s women’s wrestling show that aired for three seasons on Netflix. NBC’s “Young Rock” Recently renewed for a second season, it often refers to Dwayne Johnson’s affiliation with the wrestling company his grandparents founded. WWE and Blumhouse recently launched a mini-series “United States vs. Announced Vince McMahon.

“There are so many character and story lines in and around this trial that it felt like a great area to develop a drama,” said Chris McCumber, head of television at Blumhouse. Blumhouse’s Roger Ailes mini-series “The Loudest Voice.”

All this comes with wrestling programs broadcast on American television every weekday evening, when professional wrestling is experiencing its biggest boom since the 20th century. Long considered the industry leader, WWE is halfway through billion dollar rights deal with Fox. Founded in 2019, All Elite Wrestling now runs two weekly shows on TNT: “Dynamite” and a new “Rampage” that premieres on Friday.

“For most properties on cable, audiences have changed from what you might have seen in the ’90s,” said Tony Khan, founder and president of All Elite Wrestling. “But a wrestling show can attract a large audience, especially a very young one.” WWE and AEW programming routinely highest ratings of cable great value in the 18-49 demographic.

Brett Weitz, managing director of TNT, TBS and truTV, said that his audience is deeply invested. “Wrestling between fan and athlete sounds to me like the most connected relationship people have ever had,” he said. “In a messy content environment, nothing stands out like these performances.”

“Heels” was conceived in 2013 by writer Michael Waldron (“Rick and Morty”), a growing fan of wrestling and “always interested in telling a story set in that world.” But it was a hard sell in the beginning. The pilot sent the 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 select two Spade brothers, who required both acting and physical reliability to play wrestlers. He was revived in 2019 as Amell completed her commitments as the title character on The CW’s “Arrow.” The superhero franchise ended that year, and Amell was cast as Jack Spade shortly thereafter. At the same time, Ludwig’s run on “Vikings” on the History Channel was coming to an end, which allowed him to take the second lead role.

Although Amell was a lifelong wrestling fan who really took part in matches and other events For WWE and other companies, he wasn’t initially interested in starting another drama so soon after “Arrow.” But the scripts and the chance to explore more of the hidden side of the business drew him in.

The more the curtain pulls back for me, the more respect I have for the industry.”

At this point, Waldron was busy with his job as the lead writer of Marvel’s “Loki” and handed over the duties of showrunner on “Heels” to O’Malley, who is also a rival wrestling promoter. The challenge, O’Malley said, is finding a balance point for wrestling enthusiasts and enthusiasts only.

“If my mom, who doesn’t watch professional wrestling, wants to understand what’s at stake, she’s like, ‘Wait, how is this happening?’ “You have to have characters that explain,” he said. (A rookie wrestler named Bobby Pin provides such perspective, as his colleagues constantly brief him on the tricks of the trade.)

As the resident wrestling expert in the writers’ room, Waldron said his collaborators can sometimes pull him back from “getting too much into baseball.”

At the same time, he said, “I think people like to watch shows where the characters are experts at what they do.” “I like to know that someone is really good at something, even if I don’t always know what they’re doing or talking about.”

To this end, players consulted professionals to make sure the details were correct. Ludwig asked Adam Copeland, who is currently performing in WWE, if he should shave his armpits. (Answer: It’s a personal choice that led Ludwig to keep his hair.) Wrestler Cody Rhodes, executive vice president at All Elite Wrestling and a longtime friend of Amell’s, offered tips on how to get or buy a decent wrestling tan. . right knee pads.

“If wrestling is not presented as wrestling is, a core part of the audience – wrestling fans who want to see themselves in a different setting – can be turned off,” Rhodes said. It’s a testament to physical realism: Amell broke two of his vertebrae trying to make a move, keeping him out of acrobatics for a while.

Since its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, professional wrestling has flirted with mainstream interest—for example, when Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 movie “The Wrestler” became a surprise hit during awards season—without achieving sustained success. As wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista, and John Cena become reliable box office assets and more wrestling shows appear on TV shows, conditions are increasingly set for “one spark to really light the fuse,” as Amell puts it.

This can take the form of a single transcendent star — a Hulk Hogan, a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — or a show that has become an undeniable rating smash. Ludwig pointed out that the entertainment industry is first and foremost an industry that tends to follow trends rather than predict them. If “Heels” was “the great success we all hope to be,” he predicted, the networks would be much better suited to scripted shows set in the world of wrestling.

But these current shows suggest that something has changed a bit. Evan Husney and Jason Eisener are the creators of “Dark Side of the Ring,” a documentary series on Vice TV that dives into the wrestling industry’s more miserable stories. Early in their partnership, Husney and Eisener attempted to develop a scripted series in the style of “The Sopranos” or “Boogie Nights”, but were completely turned down.

“Most people in Hollywood have never been interested in exploring wrestling,” Husney said. “They looked and checked right away.”

Vice, where Husney was working at the time, was looking for new content and urged its employees to develop sites. “The Dark Side” gained immediate attention and has now aired for three seasons. received the highest ratings of the channel and turned into two new shows. Networks are no longer so condescending.

“I get a lot of feedback from people in the industry saying, ‘I never knew it was like this,'” Eisener said. “And I say, ‘I’m trying to tell you.’”

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