This article contains Heels spoilers.
Stephen Amell is no stranger to big action roles. Having made a name for himself on Arrow as Oliver Queen, a part which required him to balance a conflicted, tortured performance with the physical demands of playing a superhero, Amell has continued to challenge himself with larger than life performances.
In 2015, at the height of Arrow’s popularity, Amell took his lifelong love of professional wrestling to the ring, wrestling several times in WWE, including at SummerSlam 2015. The time spent in choreographed, scripted fights on Arrow served him well, and Amell was far more than just a novelty celebrity in-ring performer. He followed this with appearances in Ring of Honor in 2017 and the independent All In wrestling event in 2018.
Which all makes his arrival as the lead on Heels, a drama about a fictional independent wrestling promotion which has just released its season finale on Starz, feel somewhat inevitable. Amell stars as Jack Spade, the top “heel” and head promoter of the Duffy Wrestling League. A combination of prestige cable character drama and convincing in-ring wrestling action, Heels has allowed Amell to bring his familiar intensity to the role of Jack Spade, as well as the athleticism that helped make his Oliver Queen one of the most memorable superhero performances of all time.
With the season finale of Heels now available on the STARZPLAY app, we spoke with Amell about creating the character of Jack Spade, the authenticity of the wrestling we see on Heels, and what went into creating that spectacular ladder match with closes out the finale.
The Wrestling History of Heels
Den of Geek: To say that you are a wrestling fan is kind of underselling things. What was your history like with the sport?
Stephen Amell: I got into wrestling in 1987 or 1988, and then became a big fan, I think, in between WrestleMania IV and WrestleMania V….I was just hooked and that was it.
It was my thing for young me…and then [my fandom] went away, but it came back in the Attitude Era, and then it went away [again]. But then it came back when I met Cody Rhodes at a WWE show at the Nassau Coliseum in May of 2015. I got a chance to get in the ring and then this relationship with professional wrestling has stuck around since then.
And then lo and behold, as Arrow ends…I get this call about the show called Heels about independent professional wrestling. Sometimes the universe gives you gifts, that’s it.
You came up [as a fan] in the years when the WWF, and of course when the WWE were already dominant. But Heels feels like it’s almost set in this alternate universe where these tiny little regional promotions still feud with each other. Were you familiar with that stuff?
In the late 1980s, early 90s, I remember picking up copies of Pro Wrestling Illustrated and just going, “Who the fuck is this Ric Flair? Who’s Ric Flair? Who’s Dusty Rhodes? Ricky Steamboat’s not in the WWF anymore. Why am I seeing photos of him wrestling somewhere like in Japan? What is happening?”
I never understood any of that. Van Vader, Lex Luger, Sting, all these WCW guys or independent guys, I never had a relationship with them because all I was getting was the WWF on local television and then the VHS tapes and stuff like that. I became a WWF loyalist just because it was the only thing that I ever had. In some ways I’m still a DC Comics loyalist, not because I played the Green Arrow, but because growing up the movies that I saw first were the Tim Burton Batman, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and that’s just how I interacted.
But the independent stuff, that just doesn’t exist as much anymore. I was at a dinner last night with Phil Brooks [CM Punk to wrestling fans…and Ricky Rabies on Heels]. And he was talking and telling a story about his time in OVW, which is Ohio Valley Wrestling… [which] doesn’t exist as much anymore.
Cody Rhodes leaving the WWE and doing what he did in 2017 and into 2018 when we did All In in Chicago. That stuff just doesn’t happen as much anymore because with WWE, but also with AEW, they’re kind of blocking out the sun for these smaller, independent promotions. But they certainly exist. When we were filming Heels I wanted to go and watch them. I just wasn’t allowed because of COVID, so I am aware and becoming more aware.
Bringing Jack Spade to Life on Heels
What was it like when you read that first Heels script? Did they come directly to you specifically because of your pro wrestling experience, or was this something that you had heard about and then wanted to go out and get?
So the show was originally pitched in, I think, 2016 or 2017, and they couldn’t cast the Spade Brothers which is where they want to start, They want to start with Jack Giddings. The old wives tale that I heard was [they were] trying to find Jack Spade and possibly had an offer out to somebody and multiple people said to them, “did Steven Amell pass on this?” So, they came to me and my manager said, “give this a read.”
I was in, five pages in. When Jack moved backstage after that first match, watching how he interacts, first with the wrestlers, then with Big Jim who he wrestled, getting a beer from Diego, going over stuff with Willie, then the back and forth with Jack and Ace, cut to Jack running. It’s just like, “let’s hope that they at least come to a reasonable, equitable term in terms of numbers and finances, because there’s no fucking way that I’m not doing this show. I can say this now, but man, I was in.”
Jack is an interesting character with a cool backstory on paper. But when you’re in the ring as Jack, how much freedom did you have to create things like his move set? Because all the wrestling stuff on Heels looks and feels so authentic. And as the one with in-ring experience, other than the guest stars, of course, how much of this is you being like, “Okay, this is the kind of stuff that I know that Jack Spade would do.” And do you have any influence on the choreography for some of the other wrestlers as well?
The other wrestlers, not as much. They did lean into me and Luke Hawx. I would talk with Cody Rhodes, Alexander would talk with Adam Copeland. They would lean into me for that, although there was a lot of stuff where I wasn’t even there.
When they’re taking three days to shoot the Battle Royale, as much as I want to be involved, I also want days off. But when it came to Jack, I wanted him to be very much the Ric Flair, the Curt Henning, the Hunter Hearst Helmsley, where those guys are real technicians. Triple H even calls himself “the cerebral assassin.” So I wanted Jack to be kind of gimmick-less, which is why when you see him and he’s got the basic trunks, the vest, there’s a little Stone Cold in there.
We had a lot of freedom when it came to the wrestling. We end the season with a three-way ladder match between Wild Bill, Ace, and Jack. And when it came to putting that match together, or putting it together for me personally, my match with Phil, it was just kind of like, “Okay, what do we do? What are the spots?” Which is, aside from a couple of guys who liked to write out absolutely everything that they were doing, Randy Savage being one that comes to mind. If you look at his match against Ricky Steamboat in WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome, it was like 170 beats and Randy wrote all of them out.
But most wrestlers talk about the big spots, this is the finish, this is a run-in, this is where you blade, this is the table spot… In between, you fill in the gaps based on what the crowd is feeling. So, that’s how we built the matches on Heels.
The Ricky Rabies match is a lot of fun to watch, but there also hadn’t been a televised Phil Brooks/CM Punk match in years. So you kind of got to be his first televised opponent in a long time. How did you get him? Are you the one who helped get him involved? How did this come about?
It’s one of those lucky breaks where it was really difficult to hire guest cast while we were shooting during a pandemic. There was another actor, who I won’t name, it’s not necessary, that we brought on when Ricky Rabies was really supposed to be a journeyman, beaten down, indie pro wrestler.
We ended up losing this person because they went back to work on another show and because we had to move around and stuff because of COVID and just because of all the logistics that came with shooting during a pandemic. And [Heels creator and executive producer] Michael Waldron knows Phil. It was as simple as that.
So it’s one of those lucky breaks, because I mean, hindsight being what it is and all due respect to the actor that was in this before, who is a buddy of mine, how could we have possibly done better than Phil Brooks? Not knowing at the time, we didn’t have a premiere date. So the fact that his appearance coincided with his reemergence in AEW, it’s just one of those happy accidents.
I can’t help but notice the similarities between Jack Spade and Oliver Queen. You’re both the centers of these large surrogate families. You’re not afraid to manipulate other characters to get what you need. But how do you make sure you keep that distinction as separate as you possibly can with them?
We’ll start with the accent, that changes things. The amount of denim that Jack Spade wears opposed to Oliver Queen. I never really thought about it, frankly. There are those idiosyncratic elements of being an actor and then being critical of yourself when you’re watching yourself on screen, it’s like, “You’re doing that tick. You’re doing that thing. You’re doing that.” But that’s any artist, we’re vain. We need attention. That’s why we do what we do.
I didn’t really think about the similarities between the characters, but now that you put it that way, you’re right. Oliver’s in the center of Team Arrow. Jack’s the center of the DWL family…Jack could be more like the earlier version of Oliver, where he’s really, really reluctant to accept help.
We are starting to see that growth in the character. We see it when he gives Ace the opportunity to do the promo with Bobby Pin, which turns out great, it’s a big boon for the DWL. We see it in episode seven and eight, when he says as much to Willie, Wild Bill, and Ace, he says, “Now, normally I would lock myself in a room and try to figure out the outcome of this match and then tell everyone, and I’d piss Stacy off and I’d piss you guys off and I’d piss Willie off. I’m not going to do it this time. We have a discussion. We have a debate about who should win the last match. Should Jack Spade be the world champion? Should we give it back to Wild Bill?”
Now, Jack has final say, but at the very least, I think that we’re seeing the growth, even if it’s just from episode one to episode eight of the character.
The thing to remember, which I think is really important, is that Tom Spade is still casting a long shadow. It’s been less than a year since he shot himself in the head. You don’t just all of a sudden go to bed on a Monday and wake up on Tuesday morning, and get over that. I think that that can get lost a little bit.
I do want to talk about Jack’s father for a second. One of the interesting things about the show is that thread of dealing with mental health in this hyper-masculine environment. Ace is dealing with it in his own way. Whereas Jack, and I feel like this was kind of an Oliver Queen thing as well, tends to internalize things a lot more. What do you think the show really is saying about this? Because it’s very nuanced and it’s more subtle than I would have expected.
Well, we’re still peeling back the layers of the Tom “King” Spade story, but this show is set a couple of years before right now, without getting too specific. It has really just been over these past couple of years that mental health awareness is really coming to the forefront.
My buddy and I started a winery and on our advisory board is Brandon Marshall who is a retired receiver in the NFL. I remember 7, 8, 9 years ago, he was talking to me about mental health and was literally branded as a malcontent because he spoke about these things that everyone is speaking about now. Especially, and most importantly, I think in the world of professional sports, and I count professional wrestling amongst that … This is a hyper-masculine, hyper-athletic world.
It’s important for everyone to be discussing it, including and especially our show…It’s just something that people should talk about. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression and panic attacks. I spoke about it on my friend Michael Rosenbaum’s podcast because I had a panic attack in the middle of the podcast. Whenever I meet fans, one out of every four people will reference that specific interview as helping them in some way, shape, or form. So anything that we can do as a show, I think is the very least we can do.
How the Heels Season Finale Match Came to Be
Episode eight is the big one. The match itself is really impressive and feels like the most authentic of all the matches that we see in the show. But it’s also a big crowd scene. And you guys were shooting during COVID, so there’s two elements of this. How long did it take to shoot that ladder match? That really cool ending is just such a smart finish. And what was up with that crowd?
Well, I think in total, I think it was two days, possibly three. I think that the promo that Wild Bill cut at the beginning of the match may have taken place before we were there because neither Alexander nor I were in the ring.
It was my pitch to have Bobby Pin as the special guest referee, which I loved because the shot of him celebrating at the end is just sensational. I love Trey Tucker. He’s done such a wonderful job with that character.
So I think two days of basic wrestling… But the crowd, I think we’re looking at about 600 people that were strategically moved around the space, depending on where the camera was set up. And then a lot of plate shots, which we also did in the Duffy Dome, to then add the crowd in with the effects, which they did a masterful job of because you’re sitting here thinking that there were 10,000 people there. Well done, VFX team.
A couple of fun stories from that is I totally lost my voice at the end for reasons that escape me. Stealing that woman’s cotton candy on the way to the ring, that was an adlib, which I really enjoyed.
When Ace finds out that Jack was responsible for the tissues way back in episode three, and they start fighting for real, Alexander kicked the shit out of me during those takes. We did one take and our director, Pete Segal was like, “Yeah, that’s good.”
I turned to Alexander and I’m like, “Look, be safe, man. Don’t throw any punches that land for real, because you’ll break your knuckle, to say nothing of my head.” But you know, when it comes to that body check or getting me up in the corner, or frankly, even the shots to the gut, I went, “You’ve got to lean into that fucker. Let’s go.” They almost stopped the tape because they thought that we were actually fighting. Just in general, this gets back to the real element of pro-wrestling.
I love Bill shitting himself. That happens all the time. Ask Phil, he’s told that story, but if you’re a wrestler worth your salt, you shit yourself in the ring, from what I understand. But maybe not to the degree to which Wild Bill shit himself, or for the reasons that Wild Bill shit himself.
When we got Ace down and it’s just Jack and Bill arguing about who’s going to get the ladder. That’s how that actually goes down. But man, when I saw that for the first time, when Kelli Berglund’s Crystal gets in the ring and that music starts to hit, or when she’s about to suplex Jack and they cut to slow motion and she’s just got this look of jubilation on her face… I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it right now…I thought it ended very, very well.
Both Kelli and Alexander are so amazing in that match. What is her background like and what was her training like for this? How did these two prepare for this? Because you’re the experienced one in the ring.
I mean, we do not discriminate on the show. Everyone was in the gym. Everyone was doing wrestling training. We sent video of Kelli suplexing me multiple times to producers. I have it on my phone. Because again, that’s one of the tropes of professional wrestling…with Jack and Crystal, with her throwing a suplex on Jack, that’s because Jack … is a willing participant in this angle, which is a step forward for him.
But Kelli did the same training, same gym, same ring. I mean, she went from at the beginning of the season worried about getting a little muscle on her frame to flexing in front of the mirror by the end….She just did it. She did everything that we did.
Heels Season 2
What do you want to see from season two with these characters? I know you can’t tell us specifics, but what would be your dream for Heels season two?
I want the DWL to be in a better place so we can deal with the perils of success. Success. I’d like to live a little bit. I’d like the world to get bigger, to get outside of DWL and Florida Wrestling Dystopia, and just that general area of the south.
I’d like to learn more about all of the ancillary characters, supporting players. Lean into their strengths, which is not something that you can know until you see the way that an audience reacts to a show. Introduce new people. And, forgive me if I’ve said this already, I would really like to learn more about the lead up to the origins of the DWL, and to what took “King” Spade from proud father to killing himself. It’s heavy, but you’ve got to know.
The complete first season of Heels is now available to watch on Starz and STARZPLAY. We’ll have more from Stephen Amell about Heels and his time on Arrow very soon!