It was Saturday morning in the late ’80s, and for a young Stephen Amell growing up in Toronto that meant it was time to turn on the TV and devour the day’s WWE matchups. But that was never enough — Amell would head down to his local Videoflicks and rent or buy the latest VHS tapes of colosseum and Pay-Per-View matches, as he didn’t have one of those big satellite dishes to watch his heroes live. Never did he dream that his boyish fascination would eventually find him in the ring pitted against Cody Rhodes in a WWE SummerSlam or that he’d be headlining a series where he was the heel (in wrestling talk that’s the villain). But he also never realized he’d fall so in love with a story that was so heartfelt, so complex and so thrilling.
“Frankly, I hadn’t really thought about what was going to be next after Arrow,” Amell tells. “I read the scripts [for Heels], and I fell in love with the project, not just because I grew up a huge wrestling fan and then was lucky enough to live out that childhood dream, thanks to Cody Rhodes and the WWE and AEW and just making friends in that industry, but just the family dynamic and the richness of the story — my character’s marriage and my relationship with my brother and mother and father.”
Despite being told not to “kiss the first girl that looks at you at the bar,” Amell knew he had something extraordinary and made Starz’s Heels his first TV project to follow his nearly 10-year run as Oliver Queen on Arrow. A wise move, indeed.
And Along Came “Viking” Great Alexander Ludwig
For nearly seven years, on the other side of the world, Alexander Ludwig spent his time as the brutal but beloved Viking warrior Bjorn Ironside on the global hit series Vikings. Ludwig had plenty of box office successes prior to his role as Bjorn (including playing Cato in The Hunger Games), and was approached by Heels’ creator and showrunner, respectively, Michael Waldron and Mike O’Malley.
“I was just blown away by the material. I just thought it was so up my alley and it’s just so well written,” Ludwig shares.
His only hesitation was on casting, as this was a drama about two very different brothers — Jack and Ace Spade — who clash over their dreams of wrestling fame and running their deceased father’s small-town Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). “I thought this would be a great thing to be a part of. But so much of this is going to depend on who they get for the brother, so I kind of kept a distance from it. … Finally, when Stephen signed on, I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be great.’”
A Little Bit About The Bros: Jack And Ace Spade
The Spade brothers are from the small, close-knit community of Duffy, Georgia. Jack (Amell) is the older brother; and you know how oldest kids can be — controlling, selfish at times, bossy and impatient. In their family-owned wrestling business, he’s the heel — the villain of the show — and also the writer. Jack controls the storylines.
“One of the things that we learned about Jack pretty early on is that he’s not above making a decision for selfish purposes,” Amell admits. “It’s all about what will Jack do? What is the cost of the DWL? At what point does it become too expensive, personally, professionally, spiritually? Because if he hangs on too tight to one thing, then he’s going to be left with nothing. And that’s really what we try to go over in this first season.”
Ace (Ludwig) is the superstar, the fun-loving, hunky hero of the DWL. Outside of the ring he’s also the wild card — brash, self-destructive, very unpredictable — but charming, as well.
“You love to love him, and you love to hate him,” Ludwig adds. “Ace is an absolute tornado inside of himself. I think he’s a complete mess. All these external things in his life impact him in ways he doesn’t know how to deal with, especially with his father’s death looming over this family and casting a dark shadow from which he’s trying to crawl out.
“He truly is trying to find his place in the world. I think that’s why I connected so much with the character. He’s trying to please everybody and be the man that he thought his dad wanted him to be and all these things,” Ludwig continues. “I do think that in his core Ace is a good person. … He’s kind of this roller-coaster character where he acts like a rock star, but inside he’s a really, really tormented child.”
Getting Ready To Rumble
Amell went through a bit of a physical transformation for the role, putting on some extra weight. Jack works as a lawnmower salesman during the day and he’s main-eventing the DWL every Saturday night, along with booking the matches, doing yardwork and trying to be a good husband and father. “I don’t think that he’s spending two and a half hours in the gym,” Amell laughs. “So I want to make myself more rough and tumble. … It was like all the work that I did for Oliver Queen, except I’d eat a giant bowl of pasta and steak at the end of the day. And just try to keep on calories. I got myself to a point with work where the fight was actually keeping on the weight.”
As for Ludwig, a self-described adrenaline junkie, he was all in on the training and learned how to do a backflip off the top turnbuckle. “Vikings was exhausting … but the hardest thing was the elements — the weather, the mud, the cold, like that was its own type of beast. But when you’re in a wrestling match against somebody else … Stephen and I both almost passed out and like threw up. It was just vicious … wrestling is certainly more painful.”
You Don’t Need To Know Wrestling To Enjoy “Heels”
This is a deep drama that is filled with relatable and very complex characters. While wrestling serves as the backdrop to the storyline, the series is all about the relationships between the family and their small community.
“This is about hardworking small-town people who want more out of life,” Ludwig concludes. “And so much of their life is determined by the external. The more they look within themselves, the closer they get to what they’re actually looking for, which I would say is real peace and happiness.”
A feeling everyone can relate to.
Heels premieres on Starz Sunday, Aug. 15, at 9pm ET/PT.