It's early afternoon on a perfect 80-degree day in Los Angeles. I'm trudging up the West Observatory Trail when I realize that the bottle of water I chugged just before heading off is coming back up to say hello. I step off the path and promptly projectile vomit into a nearby sagebrush.
Oh, and I'm with actress Alison Brie, whose expression quickly turns from surprise to concern. Normally I'd be mortified. But if you have to spew in front of an actress, Brie might be your best choice. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry!" she says emphatically. "Can I hold your purse? Are you okay?" I'm fine, I tell her—we can keep going. But sensing that I've already overestimated my physical capacities enough for one day, Brie gently nudges me to turn around and walk back down the trail. "It's just water!" she reassures.
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I probably should have known better than to think I could keep pace hiking a mountain with Brie. She's in the best shape of her life after filming GLOW, the just-released Netflix show about 1980s female wrestlers based on the 1986 show of the same name (G.L.O.W.stands for "gorgeous ladies of wrestling"). A dramedy executive-produced by Orange Is the New Black's Jenji Kohan and written by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, GLOW showcases a female-led ensemble of quirkily memorable characters; like Orange, it's both hilarious and heart-wrenching.
Brie plays Ruth Wilder, a struggling Los Angeles actress who finds herself in the ring with a group of misfits cast as professional wrestlers. With its empowering spirit of sisterhood, GLOW feels like the perfect show for the current zeitgeist: it makes a great case for female strength in numbers. To Brie, it's a reminder of how womanhood can build rather than divide. "Feminism is an idea that has to keep evolving and always will," tells me.
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Brie grew up just outside Los Angeles in South Pasadena and was a theater kid throughout her childhood, acting in plays at the local Jewish Community Center. She's still close with her family—she recently took her nephews to visit her favorite animals (giraffes) at the Los Angeles Zoo.
For a while in her 20s, Brie focused on animals of the balloon variety, working as a party clown while hoofing it on the audition circuit until her 2006 breakthrough on an episode of Hannah Montana. She then landed two great parts back-to-back that spotlighted her clown-honed ability to turn on a dime between drama and comedy: On Community, she played the aptly-named Annie, whose sun-will-come-out-tomorrow optimism often came back to pie her in the face. As Mad Men's Trudy Campbell, she was the cheerful Lady Macbeth to Vincent Kartheiser's aggressively ambitious Pete, pushing her husband to grip his aspirations while making you wonder what kind of powerful boss bitch she might have been if this were set in some other time.
Community and Mad Men both demonstrated Brie's talent as an ensemble player and comedian while hinting deftly at her dramatic depths; she understands that a good pratfall is equal parts comedy and pathos. The 34-year-old excels at bright, big-hearted dreamers with barely-hidden dark sides—good girls gone weird—and rides the line between cheerfulness and mania like no other. Onscreen, she recalls the Italian actress Giulietta Masina, director Federico Fellini's wife, who starred in his films La Strada and Nights of Cabiria and was likened to Charlie Chaplin for her tendency to play innocent characters drawn to misfortune. Similarly, Brie's wide-eyed, open-hearted characters are both overachievers and underdogs, clown ladies proffering their best balloon animals to a sometimes-uncaring world.
In GLOW, Brie's character is thrown headlock-first into a situation that requires her to use every physical and mental muscle in her arsenal. The same could be said of Brie, who did all her own stunts in the show and says she was actively hoping to find a role that would allow her to get physical after auditioning (unsuccessfully) for several superhero movies. Encouraged by her Five-Year Engagement costar Emily Blunt's transformation for Edge of Tomorrow, Brie enlisted Blunt's trainer Jason Walsh before auditioning. She also drew inspiration from Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien—a super-tough heroine and one of Brie's idols—for Ruth's journey from aspiring actress to wrestling queen. (It was Brie's idea, endorsed by showrunners Flahive and Mensch, to give Ruth an androgynous '80s perm just like Ripley's.)
Brie never considered herself much of an athlete, and credits Walsh with helping her do what sounds deceptively simple: "To set goals and then achieve them," she says, "and watch myself get in better shape." She was so excited about her newfound powers—her greatest training accomplishment is doing 10 pull-ups in a row—that she'd send videos of herself at the gym to new husband Dave Franco (brother of James; after dating for three years, Franco and Brie married in March). "He's like 'I get it, you're a badass,'" she jokes. "No, he's very supportive. He's like 'Oh my god!'"
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Getting strong not only changed her body, she says, but her worldview. "It's empowering, because it's not about losing weight necessarily. I've not stepped on a scale, ever. I don't own one," she says. "I'm mindful about what I'm eating, but I hate when people are like 'My favorite food is pizza and cheeseburgers and I look amazing!' It's just an interesting mindset, to think of food as fuel. I've had fucked up food issues like most women in Hollywood; my whole life I've had a weird relationship with food. So it was nice to be like 'I'm thinking about what I'm eating, but not in a psychotic way.'"
For a month before shooting, the GLOW cast took wrestling lessons from cast member Kia Stevens, a pro wrestler known in the ring as "Karma" and "Awesome Kong," and from Chavo Guerrero, whose uncle Mondo Guerrero helped trained the original gorgeous ladies. Guerrero "really made us fall in love with wrestling," says Brie. "He helped us respect the philosophies of wrestling, the kayfabe [a professional wrestling term for onstage fakery and stagecraft], the characters, the storytelling aspect of it." The first time Guerrero saw her in the ring, he called Brie a "natural athlete." "My proudest moment," she laughs. "I was like, 'I think I should record you saying this and play it back for my dad, because he won't believe me.' Also, there's nothing natural about this! I worked very hard for a very long time!"
The day before our hike, Brie and Franco went to see Wonder Woman; its ageless spirit of Amazonian sisterhood is alive and well in GLOW's 1980s universe. "My mindset was, I want to support female directors and superheroes, and this film is very important to the feminist cause right now," she says. She'd read about women crying during the movie, but didn't think she'd have the same reaction. "I totally did," she admits, praising Robin Wright's fighting skills in the big Amazon beach scene. "I left the theater wielding a fake sword and jumping around, stabbing my husband, like 'You have to DIE! Because of…love.'"
Brie credits Franco with teaching her to slow down and to take her time picking roles. "He has amazing taste and is one of the most patient people I know," she says. "It's nice to get to a place where you're like, 'I know my worth and what kind of projects I really want to do, and it's worth fighting for the really good ones.' Because my instinct has always been much more of a frantic workaholic, where I'm like 'I always want to be working! I'll take any job!'
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Franco, she says, is GLOW's biggest fan. Fitting, since the young actors prefer to keep a low profile, mostly Netflix-and-chilling at home. As for their binge picks, Brie's a huge fan of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but says she has to watch it twice because she's usually stoned the first time. "I always think, 'I should be stoned to watch Kimmy Schmidt,' but I always enjoy it more when I'm sober because the jokes are so fast," she says. "When I'm stoned I'm like 'WHAT'S HAPPENING?'" In the summer, they go to wine tastings at Barnsdall Park, a place that has a doubly sentimental value for Brie: "As a kid our theater would do performances up at Barnsdall, but I wasn't reintroduced to it as an adult until my husband took me there, because he really liked to go and read. It's one of my favorite spots in the city—the tiniest little park with an amazing view."
Back on the trail, I ask Brie if she'll pose for a cell-phone picture. "Should I jump?" she asks. "Of course," I say, and manage to snap a shot of her mid-air, flexing her biceps. She looks strong and powerful and ready to conquer the world. When she comes back down to earth she is laughing, a little astonished by her own strength.
Photography by Jeremy Liebman
Styling by Shibon Kennedy
Hair by Charlie Taylor
Makeup by Quinn Murphy
Special thanks to Splacer & Chauncey for the location