Life with Ellen Wong: Toronto's kick-ass actor on her new, female-filled show 'GLOW', and not playing a type
Ellen Wong had never watched a wrestling match — let alone stepped foot in the ring — when she first auditioned for GLOW (or Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), the new 80s-set comedy that drops on Netflix June 23rd.
"My first foray into it was watching the older GLOW clips of the original show," she recalls, referring to the professional wrestling promotion that shattered boundaries, bringing the glitter and blood-stained world of female wrestling into living rooms across North America back in 1986. "I just went 'Alright, this world seems pretty rad and crazy, I'm just going to go for it!'"
Just going for it, wholeheartedly, feet first, has been a theme for Wong. The 32-year-old Scarborough native — who immediately reveals herself to be a human ray of sunshine — never went looking for action-heavy roles that demanded such physical prowess, but they found her nonetheless. She's played the formidable, sword-toting Commander Misaki Han-Shireikan on SyFy's Dark Matter and got her first big break as Knives Chau, a sugary sweet teenager who turns her heartbreak into dropkicks, in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
So when she tells me she has a black belt in taekwondo, an achievement she spent five years training for, it's not really a surprise. Getting to flex those muscles on screen, for her, was simply icing on the proverbial cake. "I really loved martial arts and I'm a huge martial arts movie lover," Wong adds, "so it's always sort of been my dream to physically perform as well."
And while the boundless athleticism and razor sharp instincts she cultivated throughout her years of training undoubtedly shine through with every ass she kicks on the small screen, the mental aspects of taekwondo have perhaps had an even greater impact on her approach to acting and life.
"With martial arts I find there's a really great balance of philosophy, discipline and the physical aspects of it. It just melds together and it keeps you really focused," Wong explains exuberantly.
"When I see a move [in taekwondo] for the first time, I get this feeling that 'Oh there's no way I can do it… there's just no way,' but there's always the practice, and the practice, and the practice. And then before you know... you're doing it," Wong says, the amazement of that discovery washing over her again as she recounts it.
"That always has just been a big parallel in my life for me where, whenever I think that I can't do things, I always remind myself of... the tangible, physical example of 'well you couldn't do that but you were persevering, you just kept at it, and you eventually did.'"
Throughout the start of her career, Wong persevered through countless auditions, often reading for roles that didn't challenge her, while facing the narrow portrayals of women and people of colour that are still too often the norm in film and television. "I think I was really spoiled by having [Scott Pilgrim] as my first, you know, major project," she explains. "I'm so grateful that I got to play a character like Knives Chau because she has such a great arc. She has such a full storyline… So I think that for me, after playing her, I was disappointed a little bit that not all of the roles I was going out for felt that full."
And then came GLOW. And with it, a unique opportunity for Wong to exercise her comedic chops while once again showing just how easily she can put someone in a headlock. But the fear of being forced to play to type persisted.
"When I first got the role, I was really scared about playing another Asian stereotype, but I was really amazed at how the creators [Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch] wanted to talk about the role… they just made the process that much easier because they were open to hearing what my story was," she explains. "They really cared about how we felt."
Once you've had the pleasure of watching any of GLOW's 10 episode debut season, you'll clearly see the care put into every element of the process. Executive produced by Jenji Kohan, of Orange is the New Black and Weeds fame, and starring Alison Brie (Community) and Marc Maron (WTF with Marc Maron), the show provides a neon-filled, nostalgia-laced peek behind the making of the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling show, exploring the humanity behind the larger-than-life personas while still dishing out jokes at a breakneck speed.
The series has already received high praise for not only casting a diverse group of women of different races, sizes and backgrounds and giving them textured material to play with, but also addressing the ways in which women, minorities and LGBTQ people are often reduced to stereotypes, all while using the world of professional wrestling as a microcosm of society at large.
"You're putting 14 women together and you have this white man [Marc Maron's character Sam, the director and stand-in coach] essentially telling them what they need to do and who their characters are going to be... and it's like, how do these 14 women navigate this world and find their own place within it, for themselves in that kind of hierarchy?"
In many ways, just as GLOW seems to be a 'stars-aligned' project for Wong, the world of female professional wrestling, at a time in the 80s when the sport was so dominated by men, feels uniquely able and ready to explore larger struggles related to racial and gender equality.
"[The show being set in the 80s] gives us a more fun era to play with these big issues that I think we still struggle with today as a society," Wong explains. "And then also being able to play within the wrestling world, it gives us a place to be able to look at these stereotypes in a very big way because these characters are facing their stereotypes literally in the ring. And fighting it."
Of course, it's impossible to look at the strides GLOW makes onscreen without acknowledging the strong female voices crafting these stories behind the scenes. Women being trusted or deemed able to executive produce, as well write and direct many of a show's episodes is still extraordinarily rare on television. So it makes sense that the presence of creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch on set had such a profound impact on Wong.
Seeing them behind the monitors every day, "it just makes everything feel even more possible, you know?" she says. "Just knowing that there were women taking care of you. It's just a different kind of feeling that you get."
That feeling undoubtedly trickled down to the cast of 14 women, who, with their trailers all facing each other, created an alleyway they deigned 'GLOW Alley.' "We had a huge sign that was flashing and it would just say GLOW ALLEY," Wong explains. "And we would have all of our doors open and hang out and like just scream and laugh at all of our [80s] outfits... It was really, really fun."
Amidst all the laughs, Wong found something deeper in those friendships, too.
"[While working on the show,] I really was able to see the power behind the female bond," she says. "Like when there's no ego or competition in there… we're all just there supporting one another, raising each other up and just believing in each person's uniqueness... That was the most encouraging and rewarding experience."
"You don't want to mess with the GLOW girls," she adds with a laugh.
For even more from Ellen Wong, check out our rapid fire round with her below.
Life with Ellen Wong:
If you were a wrestler IRL, what would your wrestling name be? Glitter Fairy Jawbreaker (laughs).
What drives you? My family.
What time of day are you most inspired? 8:30 a.m. — if I'm awake!
If you could come back as the child of anyone alive right now, who would it be? Ang Lee.
Greatest hero? My parents.
Favourite 80s fashion trend that still holds up? I think that leg warmers are still really cool.
What posters did you have in your childhood or teenage bedroom? The Moffatts. I'm so Canadian!
Fanny packs, yay or nay? Yay!
What's your secret for good health right now? Happiness. Starting with that.
Favourite place to eat in Toronto? Pomegranate on College and Bathurst. It's so good. I love it.
Favourite family recipe? My mom's wontons.
What's your number one physical way to de-stress? Spinning class.
What's your desert island beauty product? A good sunscreen. A good high-end sunscreen. Gotta start there or nothing else will work.
Describe your look in one word. Relaxed.
Favourite swear word? I always say 'f*cking shiznit.'
Secret Internet obsession? I like going onto this website called Mystic Mamma... I just find it really calming.
Where is your favourite place on earth? At home on the couch with takeout on a Friday night.
You have an entire weekend to binge watch stuff — what's it gonna be? Right now I'm watching The Handmaid's Tale. So it would be great to have the time to finish that show. Though I'm not sure if that's a good binge-watch show.
With The Carrie Diaries and now GLOW you've spent a lot of time in the 80s. If you could travel back to any decade, what would it be? I would go into the 40s. For the fashion in Shanghai.
What's your secret talent? I can break wood with my hands.