Stephen Amell starring in a TV drama about wrestling is, I suggest to him, a perfect fit of actor and material – he may be best known for playing Oliver Queen on superhero series Arrow but Amell has never made any secret of his lifelong obsession with professional wrestling, having actively campaigned for an appearance on WWE's Raw and making his debut in the ring back in 2015, returning for further bouts at Ring of Honor's Survival of the Fittest in 2017, pay-per-view event All In in 2018 and, most recently, All Elite Wrestling's Revolution in 2020.
His new show Heels, then, was impossible to resist. Charting the relationship between two brothers – Amell's Jack Spade, a villain character or "heel" in the Duffy Wrestling League, and Alexander Ludwig's Ace Space, the DWL's hero or "face" – it scuppered Amell's plans to take a longer break after eight years as the lead on an ongoing television series.
"I was filming the final season of Arrow – I think we were on the second or third episode – and I got a note from my manager which said, ‘You’ve got two scripts coming that I want you to read – we think that there's going to be an offer from Starz.’ And I was like, ‘What for? For a series?’ – because we hadn't discussed anything about a potential next move."
Amell read the scripts for Heels and "loved it" but admits he was cautioned against jumping back into the fray so soon. “Even my managers and agents were all kind of like, you know, 'It’s your first night [being] single… be wary of the first girl that winks at you at the bar!'."
Ultimately though his passion for the material and a meeting with Heels showrunner Mike O'Malley convinced him to sign on. A break, he tells RadioTimes.com, "is always a good idea on paper" but in practice he admits to getting "a little squirrely" without a project to work on. He suspects he's not alone in that, recalling a conversation with actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, whose show Supernatural shared a network with Arrow in the US.
"They were on, gosh, maybe like season 11 or 12. I asked them both what they thought they were gonna do afterwards and they were like, ‘Well, that'll be it for TV, for sure – we're not going to go back and do a leading role’ – and of course both of them step into these high profile projects [Ackles joining Amazon Prime Video's The Boys and Padalecki playing the lead in the series Walker]."
Arrow ended up wrapping filming on its final season in late 2019, with Amell jumping into training and later filming for Heels just a few months later. “I did take, like, November and December off though," he says.
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Heels was devised by man-of-the-moment Michael Waldron – having written the pilot episode several years ago, back when he was still an intern on the first season of Rick & Morty, Waldron's since found huge success as showrunner on Marvel's Loki. "Those questions about your purpose and mortality and your place in life, all that great stuff that you saw so beautifully illustrated on Loki, he weaves a lot of that into Heels as well," Amell insists, adding that Waldron's own life-long obsession with wrestling (including his ability to "pull up photos of himself as a young kid with Sting at a WCW show” on demand) makes him the perfect candidate to craft a TV drama about the sport.
Their show, though, isn't aimed purely at the wrestling fan hardcore – Heels is about wrestling in the same way that Friday Night Lights was about football, with unspoken tensions and resentments often being exorcised through physical clashes taking place inside the Duffy dome.
Getting the details right and being "as true to the business as possible" was "really important" to Amell, with figures from the wrestling world consulting on the series – including WWE veteran CM Punk, who also appears on the series as Ricky Rabies. "Ricky's sort of a legend on the indie scene that is getting up there in years and I bring him in to sell some tickets," Amell explains. "And he and I have a pretty wild and crazy match that involves a possum and lots of blood."
Still, the show's wrestling bouts are "very much the icing, not the cake", he says, with a number of episodes not featuring any ring action at all. "I mean, the second episode, we don't get into the ring, I don't think we get in the ring in the fourth episode, either. It actually sort of alternates, up and down kind of, for the rest of the season.
"So I do think that people that aren't wrestling fans…. I think that they'll enjoy the wrestling because it's shot really coolly, but hopefully people are going to come back for the family dynamics and the relationships on the show, because that's what gives the colour and depth."
Happily, his on-screen sibling dynamic with former Vikings star Ludwig came easily – in part thanks to a month of pre-production where the cast were isolating and “weren’t really allowed to see anybody else", with Amell throwing "a couple of cast dinners" to get to know his new co-stars. "I'm a little older than he is but he's wise beyond his years," he says of Ludwig. "Very mature, there’s no ego involved. Jack says [of a wrestling match] in the first episode: “the outcome will be in the best interest of the overall narrative” and for him, the best outcome of any scene, especially [between] the two of us, where we try to out-alpha each other, the outcome was always in the best interest of the of the show, whether we were wrestling or doing an emotional scene in the office. I love that guy."
- Heels is available to watch on Starz US now.
Having the time to build relationships with his cast-mates was one of the few positive impacts that COVID had on Heels – otherwise, the pandemic caused nothing but difficulties, including a number of delays to filming. Abiding by safety protocols – described by Amell as "very much a moving target" throughout the different phases of the pandemic – meant that "everything was just slower" and that a certain amount of on-camera trickery had to be employed to give the impression of a packed-out Duffy dome, with the smaller number of extras being moved around the set for different shots.
"In a normal year, by the time we got halfway through the penultimate episode, I started to think about the season being done," Amell says. "On Heels, I didn't think about the season being done until after lunch on the last day. Because there's no guarantee.
"I think in the last four or five weeks of the production, we had two false positives that shut down production for a day. And they were both people that were in the A-zone of casting. So if they go down with contact tracing, I probably have to isolate for two weeks. Right? And then we're just… we’re just not done.
"It was touch and go in that way. But we made it out the other side."
Having combined his passions for acting and wrestling, one might suspect that Heels has scratched a particular itch for Amell – but he assures me that he remains in talks about getting back into the ring for real. "I really want to do something," he enthuses. "We've been dancing around doing something with Cody [Rhodes] and the boys at AEW [All Elite Wrestling]."
If his new show is a success, Amell hopes too that it might give him "a little heat, a little recognition" from wrestling fans who might not previously have been aware of him. Heels might not be designed purely with those fans in mind, but to Amell at least, it's clear that their approval matters.