Starz’s upcoming drama Heels will kick off its eight-episode first season on August 15, 2021. The new series is set in small-town Georgia and focuses on a family-owned wrestling organization, with brothers Jack (Stephen Amell, Arrow) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig, Vikings) at the heart of the story.
Starz hosted a [email protected] panel for the new drama that included interviews with series stars Amell, Ludwig, Alison Luff, Mary McCormack, Kelli Berglund, Allen Maldonado, James Harrison, and Chris Bauer. Series creator/executive producer Michael Waldron and showrunner/executive producer Mike O’Malley also participated in the pre-recorded panel.
Stephen Amell’s fresh off an eight-year run playing the title role on The CW’s Arrow. That role required Amell to be in top physical shape, however Amell says playing a wrestler in Heels put him and the rest of the cast portraying wrestlers through real physical transformations.
James Harrison, who played professional football for more than a decade, agreed. “Training for the show has been actually fun for me,” said Harrison. “ I think the fans will be excited to see the wrestling – actual actors doing a lot of their own stunts.”
“After doing this for god knows how many months, there’s nothing fake about this,” said Ludwig, laughing.
“You’re going to see superplexes and people jumping off the ropes. There’s a giant fight in a car wash which is really exciting,” revealed Amell.
Discussing the training process, Amell said, “It’s not jumping off your couch onto 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.”
Series creator/executive producer Michael Waldron (also the creator of Disney+’s Loki) promises Heels will take viewers inside the world of wrestling in a way that’s never been done before. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that’s just as compelling as what you’re seeing there in that ring,” said Waldron.
Waldron explained the decision behind setting the show in a small-town wrestling league. “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. I was excited to explore…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 is 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 climb that ladder is really fun.”
Asked which has more complicated storytelling – superhero content or professional wrestling – Waldron laughed and replied, “Just wait for the time travel. You don’t know there’s not time travel in this.”
Amell asked, “Is that coming up in season two? That’s exciting!”
Alexander Ludwig says what drew him to Heels was the richness of its characters. “It’s about people wanting more. The world is an incredible world but it’s all these complex characters living in small-town Georgia trying to make a life for themselves and dealing with the complexities that come with everyday life, just trying to make it work. All of these characters are so damn rich and all of these actors that are around me are so talented – I mean I’ve never been more excited for people to see a show.”
According to the cast, it’s not necessary to be a fan of wrestling to get into Heels. “I was never a fan of wrestling,” said Mary McCormack. “But 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. It felt like wrestling was a way into this family drama and for me that was really exciting.”
“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,” added McCormack.
“The biggest misconception I think I had going into it is just how much abuse these people take on a regular basis,” said Ludwig. “It was really important – I know Michael when we first talked and Mike and Stephen when Stephen and I talked – that we did this justice. The only thing that is predetermined is the storyline, but this is a full-on stunt performance. I mean 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. It is insane what they put themselves through and it was so important to us that we did that justice. So much so to our detriment. There were some big injuries on this and I’m so proud of the way that this ended up turning out.”
Ludwig added, “You’re going to see some of our really, really incredible female characters also enter this world and deal with what it would be like to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry. I think that we kind of explore every single thing you could expect in this world and that’s why it’s so rich.”
Kelli Berglund says the most transformative experience for her was the physicality of it all. “There’s so many layers to the world of wrestling and my character, Crystal, dips her toe into it,” explained Berglund. “She cares so much about this league and all of the people in it and succeeding as a wrestler, she does what she can to get by even though she’s not probably given the opportunity that she should have right now. But 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. I have so much respect for people that do this.”
Alison Luff’s character, Staci, has more of an outsider vantage point on the world of wrestling. She’s not involved in the industry but is married to Stephen Amell’s Jack. “I feel like all of the women in this world are kind of the underbelly of how this community and how these people in this industry work. You know without Staci, Jack wouldn’t be able to function on the level that he functions. Without Willie (played by McCormack), the DWL would not function. And without Crystal, Ace would have zero confidence. 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 a bit in this world and kind of the heroes that don’t wear the capes.”
When season one of Heels begins, the sibling relationship between Ace and Jack could be described as dysfunctional. “Jack is his brother’s keeper, straight up. He’s thrust into a situation that he didn’t necessarily ask for and he’s doing his best but he’s not necessarily wearing the hat perfectly. I like Jack because the way that he treats Ace leaves a little bit to be desired, but that’s just real. That’s how he feels like he has to do things. And working with Alexander and the chemistry that we were able to generate I think starting basically at a dinner at Musso and Frank’s in March of 2020 two days before the world shut down, everything since then it’s been great. Their relationship is interesting. It’s complex, it’s rich, it’s faulty, but that’s real life.”
“There is real love there, but they’re overshadowed by this immense trauma that they’ve experienced in their father’s death,” explained Ludwig. “They’re trying to work through it the best they can. I think it’s something that even members of our crew were telling me they’ve dealt with in some way. It’s just so fascinating to watch. You so badly want them to just hug it out as an audience member, but they’re just so stuck in their ways and so driven by external forces trying to mask what they really need to deal with with other things. Just watching that play out to me was so fascinating.
Stephen was so kind to invite me over so we could cuddle every night and just kind of create that bond.”