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How ‘Heels’ Star Kelli Berglund Became the Heart and Soul of the Wrestling Drama

[This story contains spoilers from Heels season two, episode two, “The Journey is the Obstacle.”]

In one fell swoop, Heels star Kelli Berglund stole the show and the championship belt. 

Created by Michael Waldron and run by Mike O’Malley, Heels is the professional wrestling world’s answer to Friday Night Lights, as Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) and his younger brother Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) are in a feud over their late father’s small-town Georgia wrestling promotion, Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). Considering that both brothers are equally to blame for their fractured relationship, Berglund’s character, Crystal Tyler, quickly became the sympathetic fan favorite in their stead. After all, she began the series in the thankless role of Ace’s valet, while also having an undefined toxic relationship with the younger Spade brother.

As season one progressed, it became clear that Crystal was not only a wrestling enthusiast, but also a highly skilled wrestler in her own right. And in the finale of the first season, Berglund’s character finally got to prove herself, completing a classic underdog story by becoming the DWL champ in truly unexpected fashion. Waldron pitched Crystal’s triumphant story way back when he sold the show to Starz. But as is the case in professional wrestling, the performer still has to sell the story so that the audience buys into it. And Berglund certainly pulled it off, despite not knowing ahead of time just how significant her arc would be.

“I had such a connection to Crystal as the storyline was progressing and as we were filming it, and I was really dialed into what she was feeling. When you see me crying tears up on that ladder [in the season one finale], those were real tears,” Berglund tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Understanding that season two would have many more wrestling scenes in store, the Ventura County native trained extensively before and during filming, and all of that preparation came to a head during season two’s second episode, “The Journey is the Obstacle.” After invalidating her previous title win over a technicality, Jack engineered a title match between himself and Crystal that would silence any and all critics, proving once and for all that Crystal is as skilled a wrestler as there is in the indie circuit.

When Crystal eventually put Jack to sleep with a triangle choke to win back the belt, Amell even told Berglund to hold nothing back.

“That’s a move that can really hurt someone and really knock them out, but  [Amell] 100 percent said, ‘Do not hold back. Put me in that chokehold,’” Berglund says. “There were a few moments after a few takes where he was like, ‘I really felt myself going there for a second.’ I don’t know if he was just trying to make me feel better, but that was a real chokehold and I did not hold back.”

Below, during a spoiler conversation with THR, Berglund also discusses Crystal’s mysterious backstory, as well as what’s ahead for the reigning DWL champ.

Season one was such a pleasant surprise. Heels was sold as these two wrestling brothers who can’t get out of their own way, but there came a point where the show just gravitated towards your character. How much did you know about your championship arc going into the early days of shooting season one?

Thinking back to season one, I didn’t really know much going into it. First and foremost, I had to learn about wrestling and just wrap my head around what a valet is. I knew that there was a side of her that wants to wrestle and can wrestle, but I don’t know that I ever saw that happening. And so I remember reading those later scripts, thinking, “Wow, what a turn of events. This is so exciting. Where do we go from here?”

I spoke to Heels creator Michael Waldron last year, and when I praised your storyline, he mentioned that Crystal’s heroic arc was part of his pitch to the network. So it sounds like the writers just didn’t want you to get ahead of yourself by knowing too much at first.

Yeah, [showrunner] Mike O’Malley had a big part in that as well. Scripts would come out as we were filming, and he loved to not tell us what was happening in the next episode. I think it was just to keep us in the mindset of what our current feelings were about our characters and what the storyline was at the time, and to not get too ahead of ourselves. I do think it was smart in a way. Most people tell me, “I didn’t see that eighth episode coming. It’s a total underdog story for Crystal.” And I thought the same exact thing while reading it. 

I had such a connection to Crystal as the storyline was progressing and as we were filming it, and I was really dialed into what she was feeling at that current time and place. When you see me crying tears up on that ladder [in the season one finale], those were real tears. That moment felt very real. I was so connected to her, and the moment felt so exciting and current to me that the emotions were very, very real. So there was a huge benefit in having it play out that way.

You finished shooting season two a while ago, and it’s been on the shelf for a bit. What was the holdup? 

I’ve seen this pattern with a few other networks and a few other shows, and a lot of it is timing. There is a lot of care and love with this show, and we wanted it to be done right. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that even I don’t know about, but it’s finally here. It felt like forever. I’ve been waiting to talk about this season and to get it out there finally, and I love that it’s now a summer show for Starz.

Kelli Berglund in Heels

Kelli Berglund in Heels Courtesy of Starz Media

How physically challenging has it been to become a professional wrestler on camera? 

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It’s a dream as an actor to be able to get a role that pushes you mentally and physically, and it pushed me to be a version of my best self, honestly. The physicality of it all was something really exciting to me, because I had a dance and gymnastics background. So it felt like I was reconnecting with that part of me that got me through my childhood and teenage years, but on a totally different level. I learned new things that I’ve never learned before, which is a lot scarier in your mid-twenties. When you’re told to fly off the top rope or take a bump, you’re not as fearless. (Laughs.)

I trained for five months going into season two, because Crystal is much more of a wrestler now. I wanted to bulk up and look more like a wrestler. So I was eating a pretty strict bulking diet of lots of protein, and then cutting closer to when we were filming the show, I was training for about three hours a day, five days a week. And that continued on as we started filming in Atlanta. They built us another gym like they did in season one, and we were in there on all of our off days with the stunt team. Even the cast that aren’t wrestlers were coming into the gym; it became this community. So it was extremely difficult, but I’m so proud of myself for getting through it. And in watching the second season, I’m grateful that it comes across. 

Kelli Berglund in Heels

Berglund in Heels Courtesy of Starz Media

Getting into the season two premiere, is it bad luck to drop one’s championship belt on the bathroom floor while flexing in the mirror? 

(Laughs.) I think it’s kind of endearing. Just knowing how the rest of things play out and the giddiness and innocence and excitement in that moment, I don’t think it’s bad luck. 

I desperately want to believe that you accidentally dropped it and everyone just kept rolling with it.

Gosh, we filmed this so long ago. I remember them saying, “Just hold the belt up and stand there in disbelief that this is even happening.” So I can’t remember if I decided to put the huge belt around me or if it was a suggestion of our director [Peter Segal], but I love that moment. It’s so sweet. 

So the premiere picks up right where the season one finale left off, but then it takes a trip to the past to show the aftermath of Tom Spade’s (David James Elliott) death. I actually can’t remember the last time a season premiere was mostly a flashback. That’s usually a late-season move. What did you think of that choice to revisit your younger selves so soon into the premiere?

I remember having that question when I first read that. I thought it was really interesting that we were kicking things off with a traumatic flashback. It’s a pretty sad episode. I do think it’s a nice contrast after coming off such a high with Crystal winning at the state fair, but I think it really ties up the last bit of establishing where these characters are mentally and what their past has done to them in the present. In season one, we needed to establish who these characters are and what their relationships are with each other and what traumas make them who they are. And I think this was the last bit that wrapped it up, so that we can propel the story into a new direction of giving life back into the Dome.

So it was really crucial, and it answered some questions about who Crystal was and how she got involved with the DWL. And while we still don’t know exactly how she got her place as Ace’s valet, it establishes her love of the Dome and wanting to be a part of it. We see a longing in her eyes, as the Ten-Bell Salute is going on and Debbie [Marcia DeBonis] is telling her that this place is gonna get shut down. She longs for a future and a place there, but her dreams are being crushed, which makes it that much more exciting when she’s later given an opportunity.

Crystal helps out at Tom’s memorial match of sorts, but she didn’t want to take any compensation until Willie (Mary McCormack) insisted that she recognize her value. Did Crystal’s refusal make sense to you based on who she was at that time? Did she sell herself short for a long time?

I think so. What she was doing in the premiere was strictly out of the goodness of her own heart and because she values that so much, there are certain opportunities where she will downplay herself or stay a little bit quieter to not ruffle any feathers. But we see her break out of that as the season goes on. Crystal has moments later on this season where it’s a question of, “Are you going to stick with your morals and do things out of the goodness of your heart? Or are you going to think about what’s best for your life and career, financially?” So the premiere is a perfect foreshadow to what happens later on, just on a much bigger scale. 

When you opened up episode two’s script, were you disappointed at first about Jack’s invalidation of her title win? 

At some point, I knew that this was coming because we wanted to stay very authentic to what the wrestling fans would likely criticize. And they had every right to, because a lot of people were saying Crystal was not a participant in the match and she cannot have the belt. So we wanted to address that as we try to keep this show as real as possible. So I can’t remember if it was told to me before or after I read the script, but because I have that close tie to Crystal, I felt that for her while reading that first moment where Jack invalidates it. Of course, I had a sense of frustration, but after being told that this is something we have to address, I was like, “Okay, that makes perfect sense. How are we gonna do that? How is Crystal going to claim her title? How is she going to rightfully fight for her place here?” And then reading that she gets to have a match with Jack Spade was the perfect and most exciting way to do it.

You have to side with your character in the moment but in hindsight, do you think Crystal was at fault for challenging Jack about his decision?

Oh, yeah. At the end of season one, we want to root for her so badly. But this side of her shows that she’s still human and still has flaws. She has very big dreams and now that the unimaginable has happened, her head might be in the clouds a little bit. Willie does it in her own Willie way, but I think she needed to be brought back down to Earth a little bit. She needed to be asked the real questions of, “Can you last in a 30-minute match? Have you ever done that before? I know that you have big dreams and you’ve been practicing on your trampoline, but this is the real deal and the stakes are very real.” So I think they had every right to question that with her, and you even see Crystal take a moment and say, “I’m listening to you. Let’s take a few steps back. You’re right.” At the end of the day, Crystal wants to do what’s best for everyone and what’s best for the Dome. So I think she needed that, and it’s good that we saw that.

Kelli Berglund in Heels

Berglund in Heels Courtesy of Starz Media

When Willie criticizes her response to Jack, she speculates that Crystal learned wrestling from more than just watching it and practicing on her trampoline. She floats the idea that Crystal may have had her own Mr. Miyagi. What do you think of that possibility?

That’s still a bit of a question mark. We don’t know a lot about Crystal’s backstory. We know that she doesn’t come from a lot and in season two, we learn a little bit more about her mom and what that whole situation is. But we don’t really know anything else about her. I think Crystal has had to fend for herself for most of her life, and be strong and independent to get by and survive. So I don’t know if it’s something that she watched on TV when she was a child and then felt like she could be a star in that world, but clearly there’s been a love there for a long time. We just don’t know exactly where it came from. So that would be a really interesting story to explore if we have the chance to do a season three.

Even in season one, she was giving pointers to Bobby about his elbow drop technique, which suggests that there’s more to her background.

I love that it’s still a mystery. 

She’s gone from one end of the spectrum with Ace (Alexander Ludwig) to the complete opposite end with Bobby (Trey Tucker): Bad guy to nice guy. And we’ve all seen enough TV shows and movies to know that the nice guy typically doesn’t fare well in these situations. So what do you make of her relationship with Bobby?

I initially had mixed feelings about the relationship with Bobby, but seeing it play out and filming the second season, I think it’s such a great storyline. He is such a great anchor for her. In season one, there was so much chaos around Crystal and what her place was, and how she was being treated by everyone. She didn’t really feel like a person amongst these people. She wanted them to just see her. And Bobby really saw her. And now that she has established more of a name for herself in the Dome, there’s still chaos, but in a whole new confusing way. There’s so much surrounding her now, and there’s five times as much pressure as there was in season one. 

So, with all the uncertainty in Crystal’s life, having Bobby as a grounding force is important, and it’s not strictly that she needs this romantic partner. It’s just the qualities that he brings to her life: affirmation, kindness, gentleness. It lines up perfectly with this side of Crystal that really wants to remain true. There’s a side of Crystal that is soft and loving and caring and has a lot of integrity, but then there’s this other side of Crystal that has to remain rock solid and put up a wall of defense. So their relationship is a place for her to be free and let loose, even if it doesn’t go beyond this.

Kelli Berglund in Heels

Berglund in Heels Courtesy of Starz Media

Episode two also has an amazing promo in the form of a press conference. Do you enjoy shooting those promos since you’re permitted to play things as big as possible?

Yeah, that’s just what promos are. It feels a little bit ridiculous. But we’re all going to that level. It’s so much fun when I push the boundaries of tiny Crystal and try to come off as a big intimidating person. It’s hilarious almost. I switch into this alter ego of Powerful Crystal who has a little bit of a lower voice and is way more aggressive. It’s so much fun.

As you touched on already, Jack still gives Crystal a proper title shot against him, and she went from losing the belt by technicality to reclaiming it in the most glorious fashion. What were the highlights of putting that match together?

It was really fun to be able to do it with Stephen, who has such a passion for this. Even if something is written, he always comes in with five new ideas that can make the match even better. He cares so much about the storyline and the characters, and the characters’ relationships and wrestling itself. This was my first real wrestling match, so he held my hand through it, and it was exhausting but exciting. It was just such a moment to have Crystal versus Jack Spade and to deliver her whole monologue going into the match and kicking Bill [Chris Bauer] out of the ring. There were just so many elements that made me say, “This is so badass.” 

I tried to do as many stunts as I could, and that chokehold was all me. When he’s pressing me over his head, I was really proud of myself for being able to do that. You just feel such adrenaline doing it in the Dome and in front of an actual audience. It pumps you up on the day, and having it be my first real wrestling match, that’s exactly what I needed. And that’s exactly what Crystal would be feeling. It’s like, “Holy shit, here we go. Can I do this?”

Kelli Berglund in Heels

Kelli Berglund in Heels Courtesy of Starz Media

When she had Jack in that triangle choke, did Stephen tell you not to hold back?

Yeah, that’s a move that can really hurt someone and really knock them out, but he 100 percent said, “Do not hold back. Put me in that chokehold.” There were a few moments after a few takes where he was like, “I really felt myself going there for a second.” I don’t know if he was just trying to make me feel better, but that was a real chokehold and I did not hold back. 

I just love that she’s now taken away any ammunition that the Charlie Gullys (Mike O’Malley) of the world thought they had. 

Yeah, having Gully as our big villain in the second season raises a lot of questions. You almost go back and forth between loving him and hating him. I mean, Mike O’Malley is so lovable as a person that maybe I’m just feeling that way. But when he’s trying to make a fool out of the results and Jack, he’s just so good at manipulating. At the end of the day, I’m glad that Crystal ended up on top.

Lastly, what’s ahead for both you and Crystal?

Wrestling has taken over my life in a way that I never thought it would, and there is lots of wrestling to be expected from Crystal this season. I had the chance to work with a lot of real women wrestlers, and it was an honor to be able to do that with them. I’m so grateful that they worked with me in the way that they did, and it resulted in some really amazing matches. And I’m just super grateful for anyone who watches this show. I think it has so much heart, and it’s something that would really resonate with a lot of people. And because of this job, I am now playing a wrestler in [Queen of the Ring, which was granted an exemption by SAG-AFTRA to finish shooting]. It looks like the training and everything paid off, as there’s more wrestling in my future.

Heels season two is now airing on Starz. This interview, conducted prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike, was edited for length and clarity.



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