The Canadian actor (left) is flexing his muscles in the wrestling drama (Picture: Quantrell Colbert)
The bell has dinged and, like any savvy grappler, I go for a quick pin. ‘How deep did the discussion go to persuade you to sport those thigh-hugging red tights for your new wrestling drama Heels?’
‘Discussion… is an understatement!’ roars back Alexander Ludwig with a laugh that puts Zoom into a backbreaker and makes me wonder what the costume alternatives were before the tights got the thumbs-up. He won’t be pinned down on details.
Canadian Ludwig, 29, rose to fame as bad boy Cato in The Hunger Games before putting his imposing six-foot, two-inch frame to good use as Björn Ironside in much-loved Nordic saga Vikings.
In Heels, he’s flexing those muscles as wrestler Ace Spade.
Alexander Ludwig plays indie wrestler Ace Spade (Picture: Quantrell Colbert)
It’s a gritty saga set in the sweat and sawdust world of US indie wrestling and while the tights might be sparkly, this is a world away from the glitz and glamour of WWE.
‘I watched wrestling as a kid but it wasn’t something I followed religiously,’ says Ludwig. ‘When I read the part of Ace though, I was like, man, I’ve been waiting to play this guy my whole life. He’s such a paradox, such an explosive personality, you really don’t know what he’s going to do next and I just love that about him.’
The central thread of Heels (named after the term used for the bad guys in wrestling, the good are known as babyfaces) sees Ludwig’s Ace butt heads, both in and out of the ring, with his elder brother Jack, who takes charge of the struggling Duffy Wrestling League in Georgia after their father’s death.
Ace dreams of the bright lights – and gut-wrenching violence – of the big league promotions while Jack, played by Stephen Amell, wants to keep things real. Well, as real as wrestling gets. It’s all fake, isn’t it?
Wrestling is an ‘incredible stunt performance’, says Ludwig (Picture: Quantrell Colbert)
‘Listen, what I realised is that there’s nothing fake about wrestling,’ says Ludwig in a tone that feels like a headlock. ‘It’s an incredible stunt performance and the only thing that’s faked is the storyline. It’s like theatre in that way.
‘These guys use and abuse their bodies day in and day out, there is no time off for them. It’s remarkable that they are able to sustain such high-velocity performances.
‘We knew that we had to do justice to them. We want the show to be entertaining but we want the wrestling community to watch and think, “Holy s***, those guys put in the work!” Even after months of training in the ring, after five minutes of doing a match I was gassed man… I mean heaving. Heaving!’
And Ludwig learned from the best, his in-ring prep overseen by Chavo Guerrero, part of the legendary Mexican Guerrero family dynasty.
He’s got form with wrestlers on-screen, too, having co-starred with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in Return To Witch Mountain, but it was another WWE legend whose tips proved invaluable. He’d worked with Adam Copeland, better known as Edge, on Vikings.
Ludwig could have asked The Rock for restling tips, but worried he was too ‘busy’ (Picture: WWE)
‘I could have asked Dwayne for advice, I’d done that for Bad Boys For Life, but he’s just such a busy guy. I needed someone I could call on a dime and Adam is a Hall of Fame wrestler, one of the greatest heels of all time.
‘I was calling him up on set and asking like, “Shoot, man, do I have to shave my armpits? Like is that a choice or is that something wrestlers have to do?’ And he’s like, “‘Man, no, you’re totally good. That’s a choice thing!”’
Armpit dilemmas aside, Heels has plenty of ring craft when it comes to portraying the kind of small-town Americana that made Friday Night Lights so engrossing, a show it bears noble comparison to.
What Friday Night Lights did, through the prism of a small-town football team, was hold up a mirror to the wider world.
In the same way, Heels shines an unstinting light on the struggles of a community for whom the weekly drama of wrestling rivalries provides a vital escape. But the homespun thrills of the Spade brothers’ rivalry is threatened by the rise of the wildly violent Florida Wrestling Dystopia.
Is this Heels holding up a mirror to society? ‘Yes, I think it is. I think wrestling shows the two ways the world can go on a big scale,’ says Ludwig.
‘The Florida Wrestling Dystopia believe that shock, blood and guts is what’s going to attract people, but what the Duffy League believes is that people are smarter than we give them credit for. I truly believe that.
‘So often on film and TV you see a bunch of explosions and that’s supposed to be enough. But people need characters they can truly care about.’
Episode one of Heels is on Starzplay (via Amazon) now. New episodes on Sundays