The 2021 San Diego Comic-Con kicked off with a panel on Heels, which introduces wrestling fans and newcomers alike to the world of the DWL, the Duffy Wrestling League. Created and executive produced by Loki’s Michael Waldron — with Mike O’Malley at the helm as showrunner — Starz’s big summer series is a family drama set through the lens of the world of small town, independent professional wrestling. Stephen Amell (Arrow) and Alexander Ludwig (Vikings) star as Jack and Ace Spade, two brothers who run the DWL while feuding with each other both inside and outside of the wrestling ring. When the bell rings, Jack is the heel and Ace is the face (the aforementioned good guy). Once the lights are off and they’re outside the square circle, the roles aren’t exactly the same.
Joining Waldron, O’Malley, Amell, and Ludwig at the SDCC panel were the rest of the Heel cast: Alison Luff, who plays Staci Spade, Jack’s wife, who struggles with the strain the DWL puts on their family; Mary McCormack, who plays Willie Day, Jack’s business partner and the brains of the DWL operation; Kelli Berglund, who plays Crystal Tyler, Ace’s valet and love interest; Allen Maldonado, who plays Rooster Robbins, a very talented wrestler who’s been waiting a very long time to get his big break; James Harrison, who plays Apocalypse, a journeyman wrestler; and Chris Bauer as Wild Bill Hancock, a former wrestling star who came up in the DWL, got big, and is now a pro wrestling scout.
Early in the panel, Otterson gauged the cast’s level of professional wrestling love or even knowledge prior to the show, jokingly asking who the biggest wrestling fan of the group was coming into this show, “and why was it Stephen?” Amell, of course, translated that love into wrestling in a tag team match at WWE’s SummerSlam pay-per-view in 2015, followed by a couple more matches for the smaller wrestling promotion Ring of Honor. Maldonado spoke of his childhood love of wrestling and how that translated into his performance on the show. “Well, it was me living out every eight-year-old fantasy that I had in the living room, wrestling, jumping off the couches—just kind of reliving that moment anytime I got into any particular match or any stunts or anything,” said Maldonado. “I always thought to myself, the eight-year-old Allen, ‘Make him proud.’ This is me having the opportunity to live out what I fantasized as a kid. So that was really what was special as a wrestling fan and now being a part of this show.”
But Bauer’s love of professional wrestling — which allowed him to draw from Ric Flair, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Terry Funk, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts for the role of Wild Bill — especially translated into the type of world Heels exists in, as a fan of “the regions and the smaller, sort of indy, outfits,” like the DWL in Heels. Upon meeting Waldron for the first time, Bauer explained, “We talked about the show for about a minute and then the rest of breakfast was about wrestlers and indy wrestling. And it really got me excited, ‘cause he knew what he was talking about.”
That knowledge of professional wrestling and the independent circuit is why Waldron chose to set and focus Heels in the world of a small town wrestling league, despite the fact that most people’s minds go to juggernauts like WWE, or even a newcomer like AEW, when it comes to professional wrestling.
“I think that even the big promotions like WWE ultimately had humble beginnings before it grew into an empire. It was a bunch of regional promotions that were ultimately unified under Vince McMahon and everything,” explained Waldron. “It seems impossible, the idea of building a modern wrestling empire now. And because that seems impossible, I think that makes it an exciting kind of story to watch. That’s what Jack and what our characters are struggling up against—they’ve got big dreams that seem impossible, but they’re not daunted by those odds. And so, really, starting them at the bottom of the ladder and giving the audience the chance to watch them climb that ladder, I think is really fun.”
Bauer also eventually quoted his favorite line as Wild Bill (a character who can be described as “a lot”): “It’s all a ring, sweetheart.” He elaborated, “It is the metaphor for life, in terms of the DNA of wrestling. It is so performative. What’s taking place in that squared circle is a version of the world that’s idealized or simplified or politicized. … The DNA of the show is so authentic because of where Michael [Waldron] comes from. His own personal experience of this world as a fan.”
O’Malley later went on to elaborate why a story about such a small-scale promotion still makes for something so, in a sense, big.
“What [Waldron’s] showing and what these actors have portrayed with these characters are that people are in their lives, they have creative impulses, they have things that they want to do. They have ambitions, they have yearning, and they want to go do those things. And even if it doesn’t seem like it can be as big as something like the WWE, to them, in this town — just like anybody who’s in a play at a small town, at a local theatre, or is in a band that is going and playing their first show or their tenth show at a local music venue —the approach that they bring to their work has incredible effort and passion [... And so, I think what’s interesting about this story that Michael [Waldron]’s created is that you have these characters who want to do these things. Yes, they have ambitions to maybe take it someplace else, but their task is to make it as great as they can and to be so passionate about what they’re doing, right now.
“And sometimes, when you’re super focused on what it is you’re trying to create and do, that can take your attention away from other things that you should be doing. Being a good father, being a good mother, being a good husband, being a good wife, being a good friend. Because you’re so caught up in trying to make something out of your life, trying to make it mean something. And make it seem bigger. And make it seem all worth the struggle. So, how those two things intertwine, that’s what I think is so rich about this show.”
Like the cast of GLOW before them, the cast of Heels grew an appreciation for the physical toll professional wrestlers have to go through — and they had to go through in their own training. “To be totally honest with you, I think it was a little bit easier for me, because I had played professional football for 15 or 16 years,” explained Harrison, a two-time Super Bowl champion. “The thing about wrestling is, a lotta people wanna say it’s fake. You know about the outcome, but the actual, physical nature of hitting the mat and getting up and hitting that mat again, and making sure that you don’t get hit the wrong way… The physical nature of it is real. It’s 100% real.”
Amell followed up, “It’s not jumping off your couch onto your cushions. It’s a wooden board, and it gives a little bit in the middle — and not so much at the edge. Ask my back.”
“Just the training in general, and a glimpse into that whole world — of just fitness and challenging your body — was such a new thing for me,” Berglund added. “I have so much respect for people that do this. I mean, just the fitness side is one thing, but also, the wrestling is not as easy as it looks. But these people are so great at making it look easy.”
“The biggest misconception I had going into it is just how much abuse these people take on a regular basis,” Ludwig said. Calling it a “a full-on stunt performance,” he continued, “When you hit the mat, you hit the mat. These guys use and abuse their bodies on a regular basis, with no help from anyone else. They’re traveling carnies. I mean, it is insane what they put themselves through. And it was so important to us that we did that justice. And so much so, to our detriment a little bit — there were some big injuries on this.”
The cast and executive producers also talked a little bit about the aspect of Heels that focuses on women existing in a male-dominated industry, in the form of McCormack, Berglund, and Luff’s characters. McCormack’s Willie and Berglund’s Crystal find themselves in somewhat opposing positions within the wrestling world, while Luff’s Staci has to deal with the issues that that world has created for her family (both her husband and her mess of a brother-in-law).
“I love this script and I was drawn to it,” said Luff, “because I feel like all the women in this world are kind of the underbelly of how this community and how these people in this industry work. Without Stacei, Jack wouldn’t be able to function on the level that he functions. Without Willie, the DWL would not function. And without Crystal, Ace would have zero confidence. And it just wouldn’t function in the same way. I’m drawn to the fact that all the women are kind of the unsung heroes of it, in this world, and kind of the heroes that don’t wear the capes.”
At the center of Heels is the rivalry between brothers Jack and Ace Spade. Amell describes Jack as “his brother’s keeper,” while Ludwig describes Ace as “a frickin’ mess.” “There is real love there,” the actor said. “But they’re overshadowed by this immense trauma that they’ve experienced in their father’s death. And they’re trying to work through it the best they can.” But according to Amell, “It gets worse before it gets better.”
Which is why if there’s one show that Heels is perhaps most comparable to, according to McCormack, it’s Friday Night Lights. “When I read the script and sort of met the world, I just was so taken with it in the way that I was taken with Friday Night Lights, similarly,” she explained. “It felt like wrestling was a way into this family drama. And for me, that was really exciting. I remember when my husband—he was a huge Friday Night Lights fan — said, ‘Oh, you have to watch it. You have to watch it. You have to watch it.’ And I was so annoyed because I was like, ‘I don’t care about football.’ … He said, ‘Please just watch one. And if you don’t want to watch anymore, you can get out.’ And then I watched one and became, like, a shut-in. I stopped parenting and seeing people and all that. And I hope that’s what people feel like with this show, because I certainly have no experience with the wrestling world and I’m in. I mean, I’m in on all these characters and their relationships and their struggles, and that’s just what good dramatic writing is like. And so I’m excited about all kinds of people watching this show, for that reason.”
Heels premieres Sunday, August 15 (at 9 p.m. ET) on Starz.