CM Punk, one of the most popular wrestlers of the last two decades, is about to return to the ring, seven years after walking away from the business. It won’t be as CM Punk, though. And the ring in question is in a film production studio in Georgia, on a TV set made to look like an aging warehouse in the fictional town of Duffy.
After impressive turns in a few horror films, including the lead role in Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor, Punk has landed a role in a major premium cable TV series. Heels, a well-reviewed new drama about a family-run, independent wrestling promotion in south Georgia, premieres on Starz this weekend, on Sunday, Aug. 15. Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig star as two brothers and wrestlers trying to keep their dead father’s promotion alive, as both a rival indie from Florida and the big leagues up north threaten to take their stars and cut into their territory. Meanwhile, they also have to deal with their own personal problems and family issues, with a profound sibling rivalry that transcends the ring, and with the long shadow cast by the untimely death of the family patriarch and local wrestling legend.
Punk plays a relatively minor but unforgettable character ripped straight from the real-life world of pro wrestling. As Ricky Rabies, a once-popular star on the national stage whose best days are behind him, Punk channels a certain type of hard-traveling road warrior who’ll be recognizable to anybody who’s attended indie wrestling shows. Rabies may no longer be on national TV, but he’s still a star who’s still making towns, bringing out the fans as he travels with his family from one independent show to another. As a lifelong Southerner and fan of Southern wrestling, I see a little bit of so many great wrestlers from the ‘80s and ‘90s in Ricky Rabies, from Tommy Rich and Ricky Morton, to the recently departed Tracey Smothers—men who gave their lives to wrestling, and who hardcore wrestling fans love and respect to this day.
I recently talked to Punk about Heels, the inspiration for Ricky Rabies, and rumors about his possible return to pro wrestling—which, if the rumors are true, might be sooner than you think. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t able to answer that last question, but we had a great conversation about Heels and the world of independent wrestling, and if you’re at all interested in either, you should keep on reading.
Paste: So Heels: How did this come together? Did they reach out to you, or did your agent see that they were casting and get you an audition? What’s the story?
CM Punk: I auditioned for the lead role, Jack Spade. It feels like two lifetimes ago. I want to say it was 2016? Something like that. I hung out in L.A. with [Michael] Waldron [the creator of Heels] for about a week and talked about the show, read some scenes for some executives at Starz, and I apparently did so well that they wound up shelving the entire project for about three to four years. When they brought it back Waldron called me up, he sounded apologetic, “they’re bringing it back, I don’t really have much to do with it—it’s my baby, but…—and they’ve cast Stephen Amell.” And I was over the moon, because I know this is Waldron’s baby, he wrote all these episodes, he wrote the whole show, created this entire world, all these characters, and I was thrilled because Stephen Amell can carry a television show for multiple seasons. And he’s a wrestling fan, so I knew he would also want this to not only be good but also accurate and respectful of the pro wrestling world. But then another role popped up. Waldron just called me up and slotted me right in. I was honestly on a plane to Atlanta the day after he called me.
Paste: Tell me about Ricky Rabies. How many guys like him have you met in wrestling?
Punk: Ricky Rabies is kind of my love letter to a lot of guys that I have personally known in the business. If you’re a fan of wrestling and you’re a fan of southern wrestlers, you’ll get a real big kick out of Ricky Rabies. He’s a character who probably had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and he’s on the down side of his career, he’s a little bit older, a little bit more banged up than most guys, but that’s because he’s got a little bit more mileage on the body. He’s seen it all, done it all, loves wrestling, loves the business, and he’s like a utility guy. He’s like the five-tool player in baseball that’s a little bit older and can’t really go like he used to but he’s very, very important to the inner workings of wrestling. If you want to pack ‘em in you book Ricky Rabies.
Paste: He feels like a guy who would’ve been a regular on WCW Saturday Night in the late ‘90s.
Punk: You get it. 100%. And other people would look at it like, “oh man, you’re doing jobs.” But Ricky’s like [in a Southern accent] “hey man, it’s my job. Work is work.”
Paste: Teaming with The Gambler and stuff, losing to the name teams from Nitro.
Punk: Ice Train. Ice Train.
Paste: Have you watched the series yet?
Punk: I haven’t seen a lick of it. I’ll tell you the truth. I haven’t seen a single one. And I like it that way. I want to watch them in conjunction with my wife watching at the same time, nothing gets spoiled. I’ll probably wind up doing like a tweet-along thing, because it’s so fun to interact with fans that way. But I’m very much looking forward to watching the episodes.
Paste: Well, based on what you’ve read in the scripts and seen on set, how accurately do you think Heels captures the world of small-time indie wrestling?
Punk: It’s accurate. There are gonna be two or three things that real hardcore wrestling fans who have seen guys wrestle in barns in the middle of nowhere Indiana might be sticklers for, but listen, nobody’s perfect. This show, while being set in that world, is also a television show. There are a couple of things that I was kind of like—y’know, not the most accurate, like headphones backstage, and people being able to communicate like that at a smaller indie show. But also this is a town that… I look at it like Memphis. If you’re a wrestling fan and you understand the Memphis territory, Memphis was never a small operation. Memphis was bigger than that. And that’s what the Duffy Wrestling League is. So it’s not your tiny little indie, it’s a little bit bigger than that. But the long and the short of it is, this show is accurate. I already said my love letter to Southern wrestlers is Ricky Rabies, but Waldron wrote all these characters and he wrote this show and he’s a wrestling fan. This is his love letter to professional wrestling.
Paste: Yeah. Waldron’s had a big year, between this and Loki. He’s getting to make all the TV shows that when I was 10 I hoped I’d get to make some day, between comic books and pro wrestling.
Punk: I think he would 100% agree with you. Dude’s killing it right now and I couldn’t be happier for him.
Paste: How did it feel to be back in a wrestling ring?
Punk: It felt fine. I wasn’t nervous or anything. I jumped in the ring. They had a real sweet gym set up on the Areu Bros. lot [in Atlanta]. Everybody was always lifting their brains out, working out in the ring, planning stuff out, making sure that the show could be dialed in and as accurate as they could. I think it’s super important to have the same people do the stunts. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean “let’s try to be dangerous,” but I really want people to understand how dedicated every single member of this cast was about training in the ring and taking their own bumps and making everything as real as possible, and in turn probably gaining a newfound respect for professional wrestling. It didn’t feel strange, I wasn’t nervous, and honestly the best way I can describe it is like riding a bike. I jump in that ring and I just hit the ground running.
Paste: Obviously Stephen Amell has wrestling experience, but pretty much everybody else in the cast did their own wrestling, too? Their own moves and bumps and all that?
Punk: Oh yeah. I’m sure there are probably a few takes—I mean, I had a stunt double, you know what I mean? But it’s more there because it’s standard practice. They’d say “let’s get the stunt guy in there” and I’d say “no, I’m good, let’s shoot it again.” I was taking spinebusters from James Harrison left and right, and they kept wanting to put the stunt guy in there, and I was like “no man, James is safer than some of the guys I used to wrestle with, so this is great. Let’s keep doing it.” But there are stunt doubles, and stand-ins used for wide shots, and stuff like that. I mean, Kelli Berglund killed it. I can’t emphasize enough how she really just dove in headfirst and was so gnarly doing all her own stuff.
Paste: There’s that one scene in all the ads, I think it’s the second episode, where [Berglund] does a shoot hurricanrana on a guy during a brawl outside a bar, and I’ve always wondered if it’s actually physically possible to do a real-life hurricanrana without the other person cooperating with you.
Punk: It might be.
Paste: It apparently is in Duffy, Ga. So how long did it take them to cover up all your tattoos?
Punk: Gosh. Three, three and a half hours? It depended. Some days I had one makeup person. Other days I had two. Those days went a lot faster. I’m going to wait until episode three, when Ricky debuts, and I’ve got a timelapse video that I’m going to end up probably putting on social media, just to show people what all that entailed.
Paste: So you mentioned when Ricky Rabies first shows up in episode three. I haven’t watched the whole series yet; can we expect him to return down the line?
Punk: He does. Ricky comes back. I think Ricky’s too big of a character to not have around.
Paste: In addition to Heels, there are a lot of rumors swirling about your future in wrestling right now. Will fans see you wrestle somewhere in 2021?
Punk: They’ll see me in episode three of Heels.
Paste: And more episodes too, apparently.
Punk: Yes sir.
Paste: So does everybody just straight up ask you about AEW [the wrestling promotion that Punk is heavily rumored to start working for later this month], or do they just kind of dance around it?
Punk: Of course everybody asks me.
Paste: Is there anything you can say about that?
Punk: No, there’s nothing to say.
Paste: Well, you do a great job as Ricky Rabies. I was especially impressed by the Southern accent.
Punk: Thank you. That’s something I was worried about, so that’s good to hear.
Heels premieres on Stars on Sunday, August 15.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.