To prepare for her role on the Netflix series GLOW, which takes a fictionalized look at the very real Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, Gayle Rankin spent some time at a wolf sanctuary a few hours outside Los Angeles. Fitting, being that her character on the series is named Sheila The She Wolf. “I was looking to find out why I would feel more comfortable being a wolf than I would being a human,” Rankin tells Bustle over the phone. While Sheila knows she’s not actually a wolf, she prefers to encounter the world as one, which comes in handy as a wrestler. What Rankin discovered was that, as a woman there's also something powerful in Sheila's animal nature, which didn’t just change the way Rankin acted on-screen, but off-screen, too.
“Sheila wants to be able to use how she moves and how she interacts with the world in a different forum,” the actor says. “Wrestling is a pretty good outlet for an animal.” After spending quality time with a few wolves, Rankin understood why that was. “They’re extremely soulful and majestic animals,” she says. “They have kind of a ‘bad reputation,’ quote unquote, but they’re very strong, very insightful, and very wise.” Those are the same words Rankin uses to describe Sheila, who isn’t afraid to be herself, even if the rest of the world can't deal with authenticity.
Finding Sheila The She Wolf's truth began with finding her look, which Rankin says was inspired not only by her animal namesake, but also pulled from tough '80s idols like Joan Jett. From her feral-looking wig to her raccoon eyes, every single thing Sheila wears means something to her.
“It had to feel really personal,” Rankin says of her look, which she helped put together with costume designer Beth Morgan and the show’s creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. “Why does she wear, you know, ripped stockings? They’re not ripped by accident, they’re ripped on purpose. Nothing is by accident. For me, it’s a look that makes her feel the way she needs to feel to be Sheila.”
That distinction was important to Rankin because Sheila isn’t playing some character, she’s being her authentic self. Or, the version of herself that she’s authentically created. It’s something the audience learns in the opening of Episode 4, “The Dusty Spur,” where Sheila sits in front of a motel mirror and goes through her beauty routine. She applies her long, dark wig over her short platinum blond pixie, heats up her eyeliner to get those dark smudges, and yellows her teeth with liquid foundation.
It’s a look Sheila’s worn for five years and it makes her feel comfortable in her own skin. But, she struggles to find acceptance from others, who like Ruth (Alison Brie) assume her look is a “gimmick,” a part of the persona she’s created for GLOW. It’s why Sheila takes such pleasure in being called a “wolf,” even if it’s a slight, because it’s better than being called a “freak." It’s hurtful and insulting, yet, Sheila doesn’t change for those people. “I could kind of only hope to be as brave as she is because it’s really hard,” Rankin says. “It’s really hard to look at yourself and be who you are and be different.”
Like so many other women — especially the kind who show up to an open call for a mysterious new series about female wrestling — Sheila just wants to be seen and feel validated for who she is, not what others think she should be. As an actor, Rankin can relate to Sheila since so much of succeeding in Hollywood is figuring out how to fit in while also trying to stand out.
“You know I struggle like every woman does with feeling confident and good in my own skin,” Rankin admits. “And [GLOW’s] definitely given me a new way of looking at what my body can do and its use, and the power of bravery and strength and how it can make you feel. It’s liberating.”
Rankin chalks that liberated feeling up to working side-by-side with so many strong women, from the actors to the creators to the show’s executive producer, Jenji Kohan, who created Netflix's Orange Is The New Black. “It created an environment where it felt like we were the people in power,” she says. “We were made powerful because there were powerful women telling us we’re powerful.”
If GLOW gets a Season 2, and it likely will, Rankin would like to see Sheila show off more of her power in the ring. But she doesn't want her to lose her vulnerable side. It's that softness that makes her so relatable even while channeling her inner wolf. When I ask how she knows she's struck that perfect balance, Rankin simply says, “She needs to just feel like Sheila,” sounding as if she knows exactly what that means. Of course, if Rankin ever needs a refresher, she can just take another trip to the wolf sanctuary.