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‘GLOW’ Star Sydelle Noel On The Scene That Had Her Holding Back Real Tears

Culture
Photo By Erica Parise/Netflix.

“I really had to fight against [it]”

A former pro athlete, GLOW's Sydelle Noel spent a good portion of her acting career being told she was too muscular and too strong to book most roles. And when she was approached to read for parts, it was always for something like "the mom" role. But that all changed with Netflix's GLOW, a show Noel sees GLOW as a personal godsend for finally giving her the opportunity to showcase her abilities as a versatile and immensely talented actor, who has a lot more to offer than just her muscles.

If you watched the show's last season, you'll know that Noel plays the inimitable Cherry Bang, a former stuntwoman with big dreams of stardom. And in Season 2, we see her finally catch a big break after she's offered a starring role in another project called Chambers & Gold. However, what soon becomes clear is this new work environment is toxic, and Cherry soon returns to the GLOW fold—only this time its on new terms, and she proceeds to set about kicking ass.

This deep dive into Cherry's backstory is one of many that GLOW offers for its rag-tag cast, and, according to Noel, this type of story-telling made for some of the most rewarding on-set experiences of her career. We recently spoke with her about this, as well as her feelings on last season's polarizing KKK episode, and how she basically willed Cherry's new character, Black Magic, into existence. Read our Q&A, below.

Season 2 is all about delving deeper into various characters and their backstories. Was there a particular character whose narrative arc was particularly interesting in the second season?
Actually... Betty! You literally get to see her whole life fall apart, and she's turning it around. She was an out-of-work actress, and now she's acting, wrestling, and is one of the producers of the show. 

Totally, and a similar thing happens with Ruth, who starts directing. It's interesting because this new season is a lot more focused on the agency of the female characters, but it also explores the ways in which they're still held back by glass ceilings and fragile male egos. What were your thoughts on that narrative arc?
I enjoyed that a lot, especially with the [women’s] movements we have going on. We have so many very special women working [on this show]. Our producers, Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch], actually show different dynamics of the show, and they're not scared to write certain things. Like, the fact that the show’s pilot opened with Ruth literally reading for a male role… They're not afraid to actually put that out there, to show us that the world is dominated by men. Especially in the entertainment business. I'm glad that they do show these parts, because people do need to be aware. 

Right. I think what's interesting also is the fact that this show is set in the 1980s, but it touches on issues that still resonate with a lot of women. Why do you think progress has been so slow?
Two things: I feel people are just accustomed to it, and then people are afraid of change. People are just accustomed to the way things are, and sometimes we have to step out of the box… to open people’s eyes. But, I think the reason why we've been held back for so long is because we haven't seen it [in media]. People always try to duplicate TV, and that's why I feel like GLOW is so special, because when I read it, I was like, There's no other wrestling show streaming—not on Netflix, not on Hulu, nothing on the premiere channels. There was nothing about a wrestling show. So, that was totally out of the box. And when people step out of the box, that's when you have something brilliant. 

How do you try and step out of the box? 
The reason why I have the new representation that I have now was because I was being told that I have to change the way I look. Like, “I'm too muscular, I'm too toned, all these things, I'm too strong.” So I had to change my whole thing, because they just didn't believe in how I wanted to be represented. 

I always said that I wanted to have strong dynamic roles, very physical roles. I was like, "I'm not even opposed to reading for a man's role," because I felt like some male roles were more suited for me, because I was so athletic and so strong. When I started in this business a decade ago, they weren't writing strong dynamic roles for women like that. And I was just going for these roles that were not me. I was going out for "the mom," and the crying role, but I just wanted to be somebody kicking ass.

I'm just so blessed to have this show, because literally the description for Cherry's character is that she's a badass.... and I was like, "This is what I'm talking about.” I always went against the norm, but when you start off in this business, most actors and actresses are living the broke life. And because of that, I didn't want to go out on auditions for roles I knew I didn't necessarily want. Like, if I book it, I'm going to take it, because I'm broke, you know? So, I didn't even want to give myself that opportunity to go out for those roles… So, I would actually audition less.

As you said, most actors feel like they can't afford to turn down roles, especially when they're starting out. Was there ever a moment where you felt like you really had to reckon between your artistic integrity and a stable paycheck? 
Yeah. I was a hostess, I was an Uber driver, I was a babysitter… I did so many things just to keep myself afloat, because I knew since I was broke, if I booked a job, I would accept it. But if it’s not the direction I wanted to go, [that would be the opposite of what I wanted to do in the long run]. Sometimes in this business, if you end up booking a role, it can be a recurring character who turns into a series regular, which turns into 10 years later, and you're still playing the same character and that's not even what you wanted to do originally. I just didn't want that to happen to me. 

I’m glad you held out for a role like Cherry! What would you say is maybe the biggest difference for Cherry between Seasons 1 and 2?
Season 1, Cherry was the mother figure, the badass, the coach, the girl in charge. Season 2, she is more vulnerable. You get to see that she leaves GLOW to do Chambers & Gold, and things don't go the way that she thought they would… You have girls making fun of her hair now because she has a perm. She goes through this emotional roller coaster because when she goes back, she doesn't know where she even fits with the GLOW girls anymore... [But then] we introduce this new wrestling character [Black Magic, and I'm so glad] because, truthfully, that's what I actually wanted to be. When I first started GLOW, I was like, "Please, I wanna be, like, a voodoo priestess or something.” I don't know if they heard me, but now I have Black Magic, which is great. I'm so grateful, and I can't wait to see what happens as we go on with this new wrestling character, because I just feel so free. And, I feel like Cherry loves Black Magic as well, because it's a character that she chose herself. Sam's character, he pretty much developed all of these very stereotypical characters for the girls. But now Cherry made this wrestling character her own.

Race and sexual harassment also start to become really big talking points this season, too. What was it like preparing for these heftier conversations within the show?
You know, sometimes it can be awkward when you have those conversations. I had one when I was on a panel and they brought up the KKK episode. But we have really smart producers and writers that just know how to write… and we tackle these things in a smart, funny way. It could be awkward at times, but we live in a day and a time where race is an issue, gender is an issue, and we have all these different things that come up. I support our writers and directors 100 percent, because they always seem to get it right. 

Right. And obviously a lot of shows now are kind of trying to deal with these big issues, but unfortunately it's not always done well. That said, I think GLOW is an exception to this. What do you think is the key difference between GLOW and these other shows that sometimes feel like they’re just trying to capitalize upon a larger cultural phenomenon? 
First of all, GLOW is in the '80s, and I feel like these things that are happening were heightened in the '80s. So other shows are maybe going about it the wrong way, like, instead of naturally [weaving these conversations within the narrative], they're forcing it in. It’s like, "Oh, this is a big topic right now, let's write about that," instead of really writing from an organic [place]. With GLOW, we really have these issues, and we really had those same issues in the '80s. [All these things] definitely happened then. So, we're not forcing it, we're writing the truth. 

Are you ever hesitant to be tackling really serious issues in what is perceived to be a comedic setting?
No, not at all! I mean, I would say I was hesitant in the first season when that KKK episode came up, because it's the KKK. It's a big deal. But Liz and Carly, they had their door wide open for me. We had our one-on-one sit-down, and we talked about my issues. And, they had so much backstory and so much information that they pulled from—they even had YouTube clips ready for me to look at to show me that this happened... a KKK wrestling match.

Wait, that really happened?
Yeah, with men, though. Not on GLOW, but it did happen, and it wasn't a very funny issue at all… I'm just grateful that we have writers that do their research, and they're letting people know things like this really happened. 

What was the hardest scene for you to do this season?
Definitely the third episode, when they were perming my hair. That was a huge issue, because the thing is, I mean, again, I went to Liz and Carly. Coming up in this industry—and I know my other African-American, female friends have this issue too—where we go on set the makeup artists or the hairstylists don’t know how to deal with us… it still happens to this day. I walk on set terrified that they don't know how to do my makeup. Thankfully, it's not like that on GLOW... But, unfortunately, on other shows I've been on, I've had to literally redo my makeup in my trailer because the person didn't get it right. Or I’d need to come to set hair-ready, because they don't know what to do with my hair. So, that part when they were literally perming my hair because they didn't know what to do with me, it hit me on a personal level.

We, as African-American women, we hold onto our hair dearly. I mean, I was even nervous when I booked Black Panther and I had to shave my head. So [doing that scene], a lot of things were going through my head… But they told me they really wanted me to be strong for that scene and try not to cry. But I was like, "I feel this," and it [hit even harder], because I feel like Cherry is the type of person who won't let people see her under pressure. If anything, she'll go and cry to herself, and she won't let other people see her cry. And that’s why it was something that I really had to fight against and hold back tears in that moment.

GLOW Season 2 is streaming on Netflix now.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.