Ever since CM Punk put pro wrestling in the rear-view in 2014, fans wondered if he would ever return to the ring. Now the “Best in the World” has put those questions to rest, lacing up the boots again for the new Starz drama Heels, which premieres on Sunday, August 15.
In the series, Punk plays wrester Ricky Rabies, who is booked by Duffy Wrestling League to bring star power to a small-town Georgia promotion with a match against Stephen Amell’s Jack Spade.
Prior to the spot on the show Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, dipped his foot back in the familiar waters as a panelist for FS1’s studio show WWE Backstage. After exploring other interests after wrestling including MMA, writing Marvel comic books, and acting, the multi-time champ has come full circle with this role on Heels. Here the popular performer opens up about the time spent on set and the landscape of pro wrestling today through his eyes.
Was there any trepidation about playing a pro wrestler as you look to build your acting career?
CM Punk: I looked at it like I had this wealth of experience and knowledge to draw from. So why wouldn’t I play this role? Ricky Rabies is your perennial Southern mid-card journeyman. The guy has been everywhere with a cup of coffee in the big time. A little bit older, a little bit banged up. This is kind of my love letter to a lot of people who helped me out in the business. The biggest one is Tracy Smothers. It was all second nature. I did a couple of nuanced things to the character that everyone loved, but it was really about drawing from my wealth of experience in a past life. I jumped at the chance.
What was it like to get back in the ring again at this stage of the game?
I think I did that stuff for so long that it’s cliche, but it was like riding a bike. I was a little bit worried about how I would feel the next morning, especially running the ropes. Bumps I think are easier because I have built calluses in my body to a point where I can. I haven’t taken a bump in seven or eight years. Then also the other training I do is akin to throwing yourself to the ground. When I’m doing jujitsu, any kind of grappling and MMA training. It’s super physical. It’s similar but different. I hit the ground running. I was like, “You’re good here. You still got it.” [Wrestling coordinator] Luke Hawx was a big help and a great dude to have around.
Your dance partner in these match scenes is Stephen Amell. How was it working with him?
It was a joy. I have a lot of respect for Stephen on the acting side because of him carrying the Arrow show for so long. I think he had that mutual respect for me for being a pro wrestler for so long. It was a mutual appreciation society. We’d hit the gym and work out together and get in the ring. He was very generous not only with his time but in letting me know, “Hey man, you can help out. When I have action scenes and matches, I want your input.”
Heels feels like an amalgamation of a number of pro wrestling journeys. What does it mean for you to have this story told?
It makes my heart glow a little bit. We’ve seen a lot of programming dedicated to professional wrestling. You have Dark Side of the Ring on Vice, A&E is doing their revisionist histories for most of their biographies that I saw. It’s out in the zeitgeist. It almost seems like pro wrestling shows on television don’t get as much attention as some of the other stuff because people are more into the behind-the-scenes stuff. I thought Dark Side of the Ring was a great television show because it’s honest and real. And that is what Heels is. It’s honest and it’s real, but it’s fictional television. It is a show about a family. The family business just happens to be professional wrestling.
How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor?
I just know that every time I do something people will tell me how pleasantly surprised they are. Following in the footsteps of some pretty heavy hitters: The Rock, John Cena, Dave Bautista. Bautista to me is number one with a bullet just because of the challenging roles he seeks. He truly loves acting. He wants to get better. It’s truly inspirational. I draw on a lot of what he has done when I choose my roles. You can say yes to everything then you are Jesse Ventura doing Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe. You don’t necessarily want that. I want to be somebody who takes even the smallest role and takes it very seriously and can learn from it. I think pro wrestlers are always better than what people give them credit for because what is pro wrestling if not doing live theater.
Everyone is talking on social media about whether CM Punk is going to come back to wrestling. Here you are on Heels. Are you catching the wrestling bug again?
Well, I’ve gotten the bug to act. Really, it makes me realize through a show heavily involved in the world of pro wrestling I can draw from my experiences and be a better actor because of it. There are other experiences in my life, whether it’s triumph or tragedy, and realizing how I can use it in future roles to be a better actor to make characters come to life. I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work in front of the camera. I got a couple of irons in the fire, but I never talk about it until it’s done. You’ll just have to wait and see.
What are your thoughts on the landscape of pro wrestling today?
I think the older the stuff is the better. I think it’s partly unfortunate that WWE owns the super good libraries in pro wrestling. I think that stuff is classic and they don’t even put it on their network. They are sitting on it. I want to watch Austin Idol versus Jerry Lawler in Memphis. I do think the landscape of pro wrestling in general really needs a kick in the d***. I think we are about there. I think there are people out there stirring the pot and causing trouble in a good way. It’s a fun world. There is nothing like it. Pro wrestling gets crapped on by a number of people. But when it’s done on a high level and it’s really good, there is nothing better.
If there is a season 2 of Heels, is there a particular story from wrestling you want to see told?
I think we can tap into different things about the wrestling business and do it in a tasteful way. How hard it is to be a wrestler. We can tap into the drugs, the family dynamic. A lot of guys can’t really keep their families together because they are in the business. As DWL grows on the show, I think you can definitely explore those things more.
What did the wife [AJ Mendez] think of the Ricky Rabies look?
Let’s just say she was less than thrilled when she found out that legitimately had an honest-to-god real-life mullet. I had a COVID mullet, to begin with, because I hadn’t gotten a haircut in a bit. That’s my real hair ladies and gentlemen.
Heels, Series Premiere, Sunday, August 15, 9/8c, Starz