Women in professional wrestling have fought to be taken seriously as more than eye candy. Progress was certainly made in recent years with lady grapplers headlining WrestleMania, but there is still much work to be done.
Actress Kelli Berglund can relate to the struggle working in Hollywood, putting that resilience into her portrayal of Crystal Tyler on the drama Heels. Berglund, who also turned heads in another Starz series, Now Apocalypse, plays a valet (manager) to Alexander Ludwig’s Ace Spade. Crystal wants to do more than stand at ringside and look pretty in the Duffy Wrestling League. She is constantly fighting for her voice to be heard by DWL’s booker and Ace’s brother, Jack (Stephen Amell).
We caught up with Berglund to chat about stepping in the ring, Crystal’s growth and evolution over the season, and more.
How much of a wrestling fan were you?
Kelli Berglund: I knew nothing. The same goes for my parents and friends. It was pretty much up to me to start from zero and research everything I could about wrestling to make Crystal an authentic character—a girl that loved wrestling and grew up watching it. It was definitely intimidating to take on, but I learned so much in this process.
Tell me about the experience of getting the crash course into this world.
I researched famous valets. Of course, Miss Elizabeth was one of the first to pop up. Just watching things that she did in the ring and her mannerisms and basically what a valet’s job was. I didn’t keep it specific to female matches. Stephen Amell is such a huge wrestling fan. He would invite all of us over to his house to watch classic matches. He’d walk up to the TV and say, “This is why they’re doing this.” That was fun to have someone so enthusiastic about it because it got all of us enthusiastic. Having that person was extremely helpful as well as working with a stunt team of wrestlers who do this for a living. There is only so far you can go from Google and YouTube.
How much of yourself do you see in Crystal? She’s someone fighting for the role she wants.
It hits very close to home. I was nine when I got into acting. I like to think she was that age when she started watching wrestling on TV and fell in love with it and wanted to pursue it as a career. These worlds are not easy. They are not necessarily equal. I have been Crystal in many situations. I have been the girl who has a dream, fighting so hard to find her place in this craft, and I’m surrounded by a lot of male figures. I’m fighting to make my voice heard for several reasons. It gets emotional in that way. I do think there is a long way to go. Watching her journey unfold is something very rewarding to me and to the people watching this show who feel similarly.
What has been the response from this often opinionated wrestling fanbase?
People are falling in love with these characters. Then as each episode comes out, it’s a wider audience that is saying Crystal is the MVP and the girl to look out for. In this journey, she is also learning to put herself first and be done with these people treating her like crap. To see people respond to her in a positive way and want to see her succeed so badly—you guys just wait.
What was preparing for the physical scenes like?
It was extensive and intense. I started wrestling training months before we went into production. I would do three hours of wrestling training a night a few times a week in Burbank, where I met some of the other cast members. We were all in the ring together learning the basics. I was right there with the guys running the ropes and doing forward rolls and locking up. Starting from ground zero. A lot of us were in the same boat, and that carried through when we started filming in Atlanta. This was all during the height of COVID, which was really crazy. They built us a gym on one of the soundstages and brought in this incredible stunt team and trainer to work with us every single day.
Five days a week, whether we were filming or not, we tried to get into the gym. I put my body through hell. I was not the girl who committed to gym life; it was totally new to me. It was about keeping our bodies consistent and super strong. I might be small and an agile person, but I still wanted to gain some muscle and weight because I think Crystal would do that. She probably worked out in her spare time in the yard of her trailer park. It really did wonders for me mentally and physically and emotionally. I don’t think I ever worked harder on any job in all areas. It made it that much more rewarding to watch the payoff. We all worked incredibly hard.
Do you want to see Ace end up with Crystal, or possibly fall for Bobby Pin [Trey Tucker] instead?
There is a very real passionate love between Ace and Crystal. They share this same love for the sport. I think there is a connection between them. I do think they care about each other. I think Ace is so caught up in his demons and the struggles he is going through mentally to be the best person he possibly can be. I think if anything, their partnership in the ring is extremely important to them and almost intimate in the same sense. I think Ace has good intentions, but he doesn’t know how to execute them.
Her relationship with Bobby is such a breath of fresh air. I love it so much. It’s one of my favorite things that happened to her. It really adds to her self-growth this season. It seems like a platonic friendship right now, that maybe could lead to something down the line. I think for each other, they are a support system and just friends. Who knows what could happen? I think when it’s Ace or Bobby, in the end, she chooses Crystal. The rest will fall into place and show itself and will probably be a lot more clear.
Getting into this world, are you a fan now? Have you gone to any live shows?
I’d love to go to live shows. I watched it on TV when it was a virtual audience, which was weird. It must have been strange for the wrestlers. I would love to go to something in person. I’m surprised Stephen hasn’t already arranged for a cast trip somewhere. Hopefully in the future.
Do you have a favorite to watch?
I think Alexa Bliss is super cool. I follow her on Twitter. I think her character is so interesting. I love that she is also this tiny blonde thing too. She is someone I’m drawn to and think is very awesome.
Heels, Sundays, 8:55/7:55c, Starz