‘GLOW’s’ Britney Young on the Paradoxes of Pro Wrestling and the Constrictions of Hollywood Tropes

"All of us girls say, 'I'm a wrestler now.' And that's kind of our mantra."

GLOW‘s first season was an unremittingly fun piece of period meta-television that somehow didn’t feel forced. It had a keen understanding of how pro wrestling is not only a performance, but also one with narratives that reflect society’s generalizations about body type, ethnicity, and gender at any given period. And it showed its central characters beginning to learn about themselves through performing highly campy secret parodies of what society wants to see. Because of its fundamental knowledge of the processes of reduction through which Hollywood imagines people, those elements resonate organically without, ultimately (particularly after its more on-the-nose first episodes), hitting you over the head with a constant thesis.

What unfolds is a show about a group of women who’re all, for their own reasons, somewhat lost in the perception pit of L.A. in the ’80s, and who’re all given a totally bizarre opportunity to bond, and perhaps most fittingly, to pretend to body-crush each other – while actually engaging in a complex choreography of collaboration and hyper-awareness of one another’s well-being.

Britney Young, a Tokyo-born, Alaska-raised, 29-year-old actor (by way of a USC degree in Cinematic Arts, then production secretarial work, then roles on the likes of Those Who Can’tBetter Things, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) plays Carmen Wade, whose character has a pretty singular relationship to wrestling: all of the men in her family are relatively famous wrestlers (and, incidentally, her two brothers in the film are played by real-life pro-wrestling stars). And since she was a kid, the presumption was that this would never be (because they’d refuse to let it be, on the grounds of nothing but typical gendered assumption) her fate.

When she becomes a part of the syndicated Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling series, directed by the soulfully sleazy Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), she’s assigned the role of Machu Picchu, the Peruvian “gentle giant” — a reification of a sizeist trope and a (false) ethnic assumption. (Carmen herself is not Peruvian; nor is “Fortune Cookie” Chinese, and “Beirut the Mad Bomber” is actually Indian American.) But even within those constraints, away from her family, she can still work towards her own self-invention: given the weight of the wrestling dynasty she comes from, the actual idea of escaping familial expectations and carving out a niche for herself is all the more challenging.

I spoke to Britney Young about her experiences playing Carmen, playing the ’80s, playing around with the show’s incisive commentary on how type is reified in Hollywood, and playing aggression while actually enacting meticulous care and awareness.

Flavorwire: You and Carmen seem to have had similar introductions to wrestling: Carmen’s a novice in a family of wrestlers, and the actual actors playing your brother characters are professional wrestlers Brodus Clay and Carlito. Did the fact that you were paralleling Carmen’s experience of being a novice within a wrestling dynasty make it easier for you to understand her?

Britney Young: By the time Carlito and Brodus Clay had come onto set, that was the second month of shooting, and we had already been training the whole time. But what I really appreciated from them specifically was that they taught me a lot of wrestling etiquette, not necessarily actual wrestling moves – specifically in Episode 4, when [her father] Goliath Jackman is talking to Carmen through the ropes. They were telling me, “if she were a real wrestler, she would bend down to get on his level to show respect, and talk to him at face level instead of going over him,” little things like that. We didn’t end up doing it, but knowing those things and understanding that dynamic helped me in that scene; we know Carmen is standing up to her father by not coming down to his level, and saying, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Even though she’s not at that point yet, she’s already saying, physically, ‘This is where I need to be, you have to respect that.’ So having them there showing me these little tidbits was really great. In addition to them, Chavo Guerrero, Jr. was our wrestling coordinator; he comes from a wrestling dynasty just like Carmen does. And he and I had a lot of conversations about how he knew he wanted to be a wrestler from the very beginning, and his journey to carve out his own Chavo legacy within the Guerrero family.

I know that a lot of acting training is paired with physical training (particularly in theater, from Tai Chi to more formal theatrical trainings like Suzuki and Viewpoints) to help actors achieve specificity and grounding and awareness in their bodies. Did wrestling training itself have a similar way of actually helping you more broadly in your acting technique?

All of us girls say, ‘I’m a wrestler now.’ And that’s kind of our mantra. You get into that mentality, and the physicality where you need to go out there and hit this performance but still be so aware of so many things, like communication, respecting your partner. There are so many things that go into wrestling that are overlooked, because it’s seen as this aggressive sport. But that really informed me a lot, especially in having to communicate and understand where all these actors are coming from and why they’re making these choices, and having to play off of those choices to make this scene make sense — it really helped a lot. It was informative more even in terms of mentality than physicality.

Was there a character in the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling who you were emulating, or a few of characters? Or did you come at Carmen without those references?

Our show is inspired by the original — we’re not exact replicas and we don’t even use the word “based on” because the characters aren’t the same exact women. But we watched a lot of the clips and we specifically watched the documentary that inspired our showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch to write this show. And there was one character in it who I was immediately drawn to. Her name is Emily Dole; she played Mount Fiji. But it was more that I was drawn to her because she was a plus-size woman, she was this bigger standout on the show, and she was the sweetest, kindest person. And I really drew on that a lot for Carmen. You can be in this aggressive sport and go out there and wrestle around with people, but you can be a genuinely sweet person. But again she is a separate character. I wanted very much to be truthful to the material and the situation that our writers were putting her in, and how she would react to that — and not so much what Mount Fiji would do.

One of the intriguing things about this show is the paradox of the characters existing totally outside of the stereotypes they’re given by Hollywood, but because the job necessitates that they embody them, they seem to find their own sense of liberation through playing around with stereotypes, making the joke about the existence of the stereotype itself. Did that complexity read on the page when you first saw the script?

To be honest, we would read things sometimes, and all of us girls would freak out a little bit. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re going there.’ But we has an actual professional wrestler, Kia Stevens, in our cast, and she’s fantastic, and we would ask her, ‘Kia, did you ever experience this, or is this truthful in any way?’ And she would just go on and tell all of these stories, and it would start this conversation with all of us girls specifically about how this stuff wasn’t okay, and how do we go forward? And that’s one of the things I love about this show: we bring up these stereotypes, and these women do play into them, but we don’t just leave it there. We try to bring these stereotypes down and get to the root of where you think they’re coming from, and specifically why they’re not okay. All of our characters say ‘do not define me; let me show you exactly who I am.’ We don’t just leave it, or walk away like, ‘ha ha, Beirut the Bomber’ — she really breaks it down and tries to find the emotion and the fear and the root of where this came from. I really appreciate that about the show.

The show is irreverent and fun without being too nostalgic about the ’80s. How aware were you as a performer of acting “period,” of even playing around with cultural projections of type within a period that isn’t your own? 

One thing I like to say about our show is we’re not trying to pay homage to the ’80s. We’re trying to be the ’80s, with everything we do — from the simple things like the hair, makeup, and styling choices, to the gritty gray filter that our DP Christian Sprenger used to make it look like an ’80s film. I really appreciate all of that. I was in the ’80s for a solid year-and-a-half, so I’m not conscious to everything that was happening. But I grew up on ’80s film, and to think about what these characters had to go through for it to be normal for them — that’s how we approached it. It’s not normal for us, but for Carmen, for Ruth, for Debbie, for Sheila, it is.

It’s not your scene, but I think the opening — where Alison Brie’s Ruth is auditioning — is the best introduction to how the show tackles the way type is made by Hollywood, and the reductionism of auditions and casting calls. With auditioning for you, as someone who hasn’t been acting professionally for that long (four years), has it changed with the more professional experience you’ve gotten, and since you were cast on GLOW? When does one get the mobility to be seen on a more personal than symbolic level in Hollywood? 

It’s starting — when I began, it was frustrating, because I was maybe getting one or two auditions a month. Whereas my friends were getting one or two a week at their slowest points. And for most of those characters, their descriptions weren’t even about personality. They were like, ‘Plus Sized, Big Stature, Tall, Big Girl.’ It was always so much about trying to fit this physical type. Which is funny, because in this business a lot of people are like, ‘You have to be gorgeous, you have to be blonde, you have to be blue-eyed.’ But you don’t realize a lot of people get work based on physical constraints in a negative way. I’m grateful for the roles I booked because all of the projects I’ve worked on have been fantastic and everyone’s treated me so well, but now I’m starting to notice I’m getting a lot more auditions where the physicality aspect is becoming a bit looser — open size, open weight. Now it’s more like, ‘we’re looking for outgoing, we’re looking for bubbly.’ It’s now becoming a character description, and I’m so grateful for that. I read something Maya Rudolph said recently that pertains a lot: she said she never set out to be a ‘funny female comedian.’ She just set out to be funny, and she’s female by no choice of her own. And I didn’t set out to be a funny plus-size actress. I just set out to be funny. To be an actress. To put that disclaimer in front of it — let’s get rid of that. Let’s start seeing people for the talented performers they are who can transform into these roles, instead of ‘she can only do plus-size things.’

Carmen had a pretty fully developed arc in this season. Now that she seems to overcome the weight of her legacy — she had her panic attacks, but through her family’s ultimate show of support and through her own sense of self worth has conquered this thing. What’s your ideal for where Carmen will go next? 

I agree that she had a great arc, but I don’t think that arc is finished. She has a lot of growth to do; she still needs to find confidence where she can get it on her own, and not get it from her family. I want to see that continue. But she’s still innocent and naive in this way of life, especially the Hollywood life. I want to see how she reacts to certain things — like sex, and drugs, and parties. Really coming into this era when those things are extremely prevalent in the job she’s chosen. I want to see how she deals with the Hollywood side of everything.