Like many people, the actor Alexander Ludwig used to be a casual pro wrestling fan. Drifted away when he got older, as one does.
Over the years, he has occasionally worked alongside actual wrestlers who would regale him with stories about the business, like Dwayne Johnson and Adam Copeland, who wrestles as Edge. But like many other former pro wrestling fans, Ludwig never really thought about what went into the hands-on entertainment.
That changed when he found himself in the ring for the first time.
Now, after months of training and filming for his role as a pro wrestler on the Starz show “Heels,” premiering on Sunday, Ludwig can hardly believe how naïve he used to be about the sport, he insisted in a recent interview. “This is a full-on stunt performance,” he said. “The athleticism that goes into this is incredible.”
“I can’t tell you the amount of respect I have for these men — five minutes in the ring, and I’m gassed,” he added. “Having been thrown into this world, the only thing fake about it is the story lines, and even that can change at the drop of the hat.”
Set in the fictional town of Duffy, Ga., “Heels” goes behind the scenes of the once-secretive world of professional wrestling. The show centers on Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Ludwig), a pair of wrestling brothers who’ve inherited a small-time wrestling business from their late father, also a wrestler, and squabble over the best way to run the company.
Jack, the elder, is an auteur who obsesses over every detail of the Duffy Wrestling League. Ace, the baby of the family and a proper good time boy, just wants to get the audience going. Most of this brotherly bickering occurs outside the ring, and when they finally do face off in scripted combat, the tension manifests in unexpected — and narratively explosive — ways.
At a time when professional wrestling is more popular than it’s been in years, it is thriving as a dramatic subject because the industry’s real stories are often just as — if not more — compelling than what happens in the ring. For many of the characters on “Heels,” wrestling is their primary escape from the pressures of reality — a crummy job, an unsatisfying relationship — and the show often stays away from the grappling as these dramas unfold.
“We’re not just making a wrestling show,” Amell said. “This is a show about people wanting more out of life.”
The wrestlers who perform in companies like the Duffy Wrestling League often resemble starving artists, honing their craft for little money as they wait for a big break to catapult them to national prominence.
“They’re creative people who want to make it work,” the showrunner Mike O’Malley said of the “Heels” characters. “All of the people who make it in show business and professional sports, they had to start somewhere. And were they met with disappointment or encouragement? That’s what the story is about.”
But “Heels” is particularly devoted to exploring the emotional and conceptual nuances of a lifestyle that, for those who participate, resembles a secret society. Characters openly explain terms like “kayfabe,” the performer’s commitment to insisting that the action and melodramas are strictly “real,” and the best way to hit someone with your elbow without actually hurting them.
In an era where most wrestling fans over the age of 12 understand that the winners are predetermined and the story lines scripted, modern wrestlers must consistently invent new ways to capture the audience’s attention. “We know that they know, and they know that we know that they know,” Jack Spade says of the fans, while proposing one particularly complicated story to his business partner. “Heels” digs into how the lines between truth and fiction can be blurred so convincingly that even the performers can’t tell what’s authentic — good entertainment for us, and a big headache for the people who, if they’re not careful, can easily forget they’re playing a character.
A particularly meaningful endorsement came from the wrestler Phil Brooks, who performed professionally as CM Punk and who guest stars as a veteran of the independent wrestling scene.
“He turned to us and said, ‘This is how it is,’” Ludwig said. “‘You guys are making exactly the show I want to see.’”
“Heels” isn’t the first scripted TV show to delve into how pro wrestling is made. “GLOW,” which ran for three seasons on Netflix, chronicled the relationships within a 1980s women’s wrestling show. NBC’s “Young Rock,” recently renewed for a second season, often touches on Dwayne Johnson’s proximity to the wrestling company that his grandparents founded. WWE and Blumhouse recently announced “The United States of America vs. Vince McMahon,” a mini-series that will explore the 1994 trial in which McMahon, the owner of WWE, was accused of conspiring to distribute steroids to his performers.
“There’s so many characters and story threads in and around that trial, that it just felt like a great space to develop a drama,” said Blumhouse president of television Chris McCumber, who compared it to the Blumhouse-produced Roger Ailes mini-series “The Loudest Voice.”
All this comes as pro wrestling is experiencing its biggest boom period since the 20th century, with wrestling programs airing on American TV every weeknight. WWE, long considered the industry leader, is halfway through a billion-dollar rights deal with Fox. All Elite Wrestling, founded in 2019, now runs two weekly shows on TNT: “Dynamite” and a new one, “Rampage,” that premieres Friday.
“For most properties on cable, the audiences have changed relative to what you might have seen in the ’90s,” Tony Khan, the founder and president of All Elite Wrestling, said. “But a wrestling show can draw a big audience — in particular, a very young audience.” WWE and AEW programming routinely draws some of cable’s highest ratings in the much-valued 18-49 demographic.
And its audience is deeply invested, noted Brett Weitz, the general manager for TNT, TBS, and truTV. “Between fan and athlete, wrestling to me feels like the most connected relationship that people have,” he said. “In a cluttered content environment, there’s nothing that breaks through like these performances.”
“Heels” was conceived in 2013 by the writer Michael Waldron (“Rick and Morty”), who grew up a wrestling fan and “had always been interested in telling a story set in that world,” he said. But initially it was a hard sell. He sent the pilot script to “11 or 12 networks,” he said, but Starz was the only one that agreed to hear a pitch.
Starz bought the show in 2016 but Waldron struggled to cast the two Spade brothers, who required both acting chops and the physical credibility to play wrestlers. It was revived in 2019, just as Amell was finishing his commitments as the title character in the CW’s “Arrow.” The superhero series wrapped up that year, and Amell was cast as Jack Spade shortly afterward. Around the same time, Ludwig’s run on the History Channel’s “Vikings” was also ending, allowing him to slot into the second lead role.
Though Amell is a lifelong wrestling fan who has actually participated in matches and other events for WWE and other companies, he wasn’t initially interested in taking on another series so soon after “Arrow.” But he was drawn in by the scripts and the chance to further explore the hidden side of the business.
“The more that the curtain is pulled back for me, the more respect I have for the industry,” he said.
By that point, Waldron was busy with his job as the head writer for Marvel’s “Loki,” and had passed off showrunner duties on “Heels” to O’Malley, who also plays a rival wrestling promoter. O’Malley said the challenge was to find a balancing point for wrestling enthusiasts and the merely curious.
“If my mother who doesn’t watch professional wrestling wants to understand what’s at stake, you have to have characters explaining, ‘Wait a minute, how does this work?’” he said. (A rookie wrestler named Bobby Pin provides one such perspective, as his peers continually wise him up to the tricks of the trade.)
Waldron said that as the resident wrestling expert in the writers’ room, his collaborators would sometimes pull him back from getting “too inside baseball.”
At the same time, “I think that people like to watch shows where the characters are experts on what they’re doing,” he said. “Even if I don’t always know what the hell they’re doing or talking about, I do like knowing that somebody is really good at something.”
To that end, the actors consulted with professionals to make sure the details were just right. Ludwig asked Adam Copeland, who currently performs in WWE, whether he should shave his armpits. (The answer: It’s a personal choice, leading Ludwig to keep the hair.) The wrestler Cody Rhodes, an executive vice president at All Elite Wrestling, and a longtime friend of Amell, provided tips on how to get a proper wrestling tan or purchase the right kneepads.
“If the wrestling isn’t presented as wrestling is, then a core part of the audience — the wrestling fans who want to see themselves in a different medium — might be turned off,” Rhodes said. One testament to the physical realism: Amell fractured two of his vertebrae while attempting one move, keeping him off stunt work for some time.
Since its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, pro wrestling has flirted with mainstream attention — such as when Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film “The Wrestler” became a surprise hit during awards season — without achieving sustained success. As wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista and John Cena have become reliable box office presences, and more wrestling shows pop up on TV schedules, the conditions are increasingly set for “one spark to really light the fuse,” as Amell put it.
That might take the form of a single transcendent star — a Hulk Hogan, a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — or a show that becomes an undeniable ratings smash. Ludwig pointed out that the entertainment industry is foremost a business with the tendency of chasing trends, not predicting them. If “Heels” is “the big success that we all hope it will be,” he predicted that networks will be much more amenable to scripted shows set within the wrestling world.
But this current run of shows indicates that something has already changed, however slightly. Evan Husney and Jason Eisener are the creators of “Dark Side of the Ring,” a docu-series on Vice TV that dives into the more sordid stories of the wrestling business. Early in their partnership, Husney and Eisener attempted to develop a scripted series in the style of “The Sopranos” or “Boogie Nights,” but were roundly turned down.
“Most of the folks in Hollywood just didn’t have an interest in exploring wrestling at all,” Husney said. “They looked at it and immediately checked out.”
Vice, where Husney was working at the time, was looking for new content, and urged its employees to develop pitches. “Dark Side” drew immediate interest, and has now aired for three seasons, drawn the channel’s highest ratings and spun off into two new shows. Now the networks aren’t so dismissive.
“I get a lot of feedback from people in the industry who tell me, ‘I never knew it was like this,’” Eisener said. “And I’m like, ‘I’ve been trying to tell you.’”