The new Starz series centers on tempestuous sibling rivalry.
No, you don’t need to know a thing about wrestling to enjoy what Starz’s Heels is cooking.
“What I think the audience needs to know is, what is it like to be someone who doesn’t want to work a regular 9-to-5 job and has a dream to pursue fame and, in a way, fortune?” showrunner Mike O’Malley tells EW.
Set and shot in Georgia, Heels is a dark small-town drama with a Esau and Jacob story at its core. Arrow‘s Stephen Amell and Vikings‘ Alexander Ludwig star as Jack and Ace Spade, two brothers with big pro-wrestling dreams who clash over leading their family’s Duffy Wrestling League after their father’s death. The duo’s tempestuous relationship mirrors their dynamic in the ring — where the controlling Jack, who also scripts each fight, plays the heel (i.e., the villain) while self-involved Ace is the face, or hero, and is supposed to win each match.
“Ace is the movie star, if you will, of the wrestling world, whereas Jack is the writer,” Ludwig says. “So already the power dynamic is kind of set up for conflict because Jack has say over what’s going to happen.”
The series is created by Loki head writer Michael Waldron. Even though Heels takes place in a completely different world than the timey-wimey Marvel drama, Waldron sees a thematic crossover between his two projects.
“Ultimately, they’re stories about people just trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be — while wearing leather and different forms of tights,” Waldron says with a laugh.
Heels marks both Amell and Ludwig’s returns to television following the conclusions of their long-running series. After playing Oliver Queen, a.k.a. the Green Arrow, on the CW for eight years, Amell wasn’t necessarily looking to jump into another TV project, but he couldn’t say no when this opportunity presented itself in late summer 2019, as production began on the final season of Arrow.
“I loved the scripts. I spoke with Mike O’Malley and really got along well with him, and [there was] the natural fit of professional wrestling, which is something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time,” says Amell, who turned to Arrow co-creator Greg Berlanti for advice as he considered the project. “I said, ‘Greg, this great project has come about.’ And he said, ‘Stephen, don’t don’t kiss the first girl that winks at you at the bar.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I know, but it just feels right.’ And he said, ‘Well, in that case, do it.’ And the rest is history. It took a little while longer to get it started, but it’s been an incredible experience.”
For Ludwig, who was coming off of a six-year run on History’s Vikings, saying yes to Ace made sense because the character offered him a chance to explore something new and checked all his boxes.
“I’m just always looking for really interesting, kind of eccentric and different characters,” Ludwig says. “To me, Ace Spade is very, very different from Bjorn Ironside, and I just love taking chances. For me, it really comes down to material. I just really love being able to experience life in other people’s shoes, and especially in really interesting worlds that I feel like a lot of people don’t know about.”
That’s especially true for Heels, which goes behind the scenes of professional wrestling, a sport that many people are at least somewhat aware of given the success of wrestlers-turned-entertainers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena.
“It’s a really fascinating world, comprised of a lot of men and women who are just using and abusing themselves for something that they love,” says Ludwig. “It’s incredible, the amount of effort and energy these guys put into their craft on a daily basis. For 300-and-something days a year, these people are on the road, just killing themselves for their dream. It’s actually blown my mind. It’s why I love what I do. It’s just getting to experience this whole new world and this whole new way of life.”
Though the roles are physically draining, both actors loved playing wrestlers. “When we actually do mix it up physically, there’s a real authenticity to it because [Ludwig] brings a lot of intensity,” Amell says. “When we fill up the Duffy Dome and do matches there, that’s pretty special.”
Heels premieres Sunday, Aug. 15, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz. Before then, you can catch the cast and executive producers in their [email protected] panel Friday, July 23, at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT.