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.