Heels Stars Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig on the 'Animalistic Quality' of Wrestling's Villains

The Starz wrestling drama comes from showrunner Mike O'Malley and Loki creator Michael Waldron.

by | August 13, 2021 | Comments

The debate over whether professional wrestling is fake has always been there: there’s no denying that people are body slammed to the ground. But are they actually hurt and was it all planned out and part of a larger, character-driven narrative?

Or, as Jack Spade, Stephen Amell’s lead in the new Starz drama Heels, puts it at one point: “We know that they know and they know that we know that they know.”

In Heels, which premieres August 15, Amell plays one half of a Georgia wrestling dynasty. The older, more upstanding, brother to Alexander Ludwig’s Ace, Jack is married to wife Staci (Alison Luff) and they have a little boy. He has a good day job selling lawn mowers and she sings in the church choir; meanwhile, Ace lives in his childhood bedroom and spends his days and nights partying and bedding women like he’s still the all-star athlete he was in high school.

(Photo by Starz)

But in the ring? Jack is a “heel,” or the antagonist in the wrestling matches who taunts and provokes the crowd and his opponents. Ace is the ripped, blond Adonis, or “face,” who represents the belief that good  conquers evil. Everyone in their small town knows not only the backstory between their characters, but also that of their family. This includes the legacy of their father, another local wrestling giant whose tragic death is explored in the show. References to Bible characters Cain and Abel are obvious and mentioned.

“I wanted to explore something where conflicts outside of the ring — real-world, unscripted conflicts — bleed into the scripted conflicts inside of the ring,” creator Michael Waldron told Rotten Tomatoes. “To me, two brothers — one’s a good guy in the ring, but maybe not such a good guy outside of it, and the other’s a bad guy in the ring, but perhaps a more decent guy outside of it — just felt like good compelling math for a show.”

Waldron, who does have a positive relationship with his own brother, has conquered this territory before. He’s also the creator of the Disney+ series Loki, which focuses on Tom Hiddleston’s less respected sibling of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He tells Rotten Tomatoes that these themes entice him because “the cool thing about family conflict is you don’t get to choose your family. But they’re the people you’re closest to in the world.”

“I think people … relate to warring brothers,”Heels showrunner Mike O’Malley added. “The tragedy of Cain and Abel is that it’s God saying to Cain ‘Where is Abel?’ and Cain saying ‘I’m not my brother’s keeper.’ This is what this story is about, especially when it has a father who abandoned them and a mother who isn’t in support of what they’re doing because of [how] this league did damage, emotionally, to their father.”

(Photo by Starz)

These dynamics are even stronger in the world of wrestling. Ludwig’s Ace gets to have the glory and worship of adoring fans. He also has a valet, or female sidekick, in the form of Kelli Berglund’s Crystal Tyler — an extremely talented wrestler in her own right who doesn’t get any recognition (or a locker room) of her own due to the industry’s inherent sexism. But it’s Amell’s Jack who, like all heels, actually calls the shots. Jack also writes the scripts, which means he has control over what storylines he, his brother and the other wrestlers get to tell.

“It does seem like [it takes] a special kind of person to want to be a heel,” Amell said. “There is something somewhat disconcerting about people really viciously, actively, booing you in this sort of vitriolic way.”

He says that, back in the day, being a heel “was a real sacrifice that you would have to make” because “you don’t make as much money from merchandise because people don’t buy as much of your stuff.”

But, Amell says, quoting a line from the show, “you only love the good guys as much as you hate the bad.” In fact, one of the most scene-stealing characters in Heels is Chris Bauer’s gaudy and bawdy Wild Bill Hancock, a former wrestling star from the area who made in the big leagues and is now a scout who may or may not be trusted. In other words, he’s a heel both in and out of the ring. And he has an interest in Ludwig’s Ace.

“I think that there’s this animalistic quality in all of us that are enamored with heels,” Ludwig said. “Because to get to a place where you’re comfortable not needing anything, or caring about anything, that’s kind of fascinating and exciting. What made me so attracted to the character [of Ace] was simply that he’s not in a place where he’s secure enough. He’s trying to find his own place in the world. And, and, you know, looming over them is this tragedy that is their father’s death.”

The former Vikings star also acknowledged that this is not the first time he’s been on a show about feuding siblings and birthrights. But “every story has been told since the beginning of time. It’s how you tell it. The same way as that every song has been sung. [It’s] just how you sing and how you make it,” he said.

(Photo by Starz)

Both Amell and Ludwig trained to do as much of their own stunts as the show’s executives would allow. Amell even overshot a Coast to Coast (a wrestling move involving a giant leap and a dropkick) and suffered a compression fracture in his vertebras. But, the former Arrow star pointed out, “you can’t hide in a wrestling ring … if someone’s in a hood and a mask, it’s pretty easy to double them.”

“It was probably the most painful experience I’ve ever been through and it’s certainly the most training we’ve ever done,” Ludwig says of the rigorous practices. “In turn, it made us all bond together because we realized just what these men go through and how hard we had to work to make this really look real.”

Since they are both Canadian actors playing Southern American characters, they also took dialect instruction. The show is also premiering at a time when both the sport of wrestling is changing and there has been a renewed interest in depicting it on screen, as with 2019 film Fighting With My Family, Netflix’s GLOW, and this year’s NBC series Young Rock.

(Photo by Starz)

Waldron began conceiving the story in 2013 when he says the “idea of trying to build a little indie wrestling promotion into the biggest thing in the world to compete against the WWE was especially crazy, because there was simply no infrastructure.” Events that he says used to be recorded on “sh–y handheld, camcorders” are now done with GoPros and “anybody can put on a wrestling event that really feels top flight.”

And shows like GLOW and Young Rock depict the world of wrestling, but they’re set decades in the past.

“I like making a show after the wrestling star has burned bright and maybe it’s burned at its brightest,” Waldron said. “And now these guys are living in the shadow of all of the giants that came before.”

Heels premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday, August 15 on Starz.

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