Britney Young ’06 takes some time on-set to talk with Jarrad Jinks and Matt Wilce about her budding career as an actress, her breakout role on the Netflix series Glow and what it’s like to wear sweats to work.
Think eighties wrestling and big hair, neon, lycra and soft rock spring to mind—and that was just the men. Netflix’s GLOW gives female wrestlers top billing in its hit show inspired by The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Fourteen women—including breakout star Britney Young ’06—feature in the comedic story of how women’s wrestling made it to the small screen in what Vice described as one of the network’s “best shows in years.” Since its debut on the streaming platform in June 2017, the show has won plaudits for the cast and received 18 award nominations including a tie for most nominations at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards. Britney’s portrayal of Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade has made her an overnight fan favorite and even landed her a brief spot on Katy Perry’s music video for Swish Swish in which Carmen and the other Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling played cheerleaders at an outlandish and star-studded basketball game. “That was such a weird, insane experience. Like if ever your cup runneth over, that was just too many celebrity cameos,” Britney says.
Born in Japan, Britney attended ASIJ from kindergarten in 1993 through part of fourth grade in 1997. Her mother, Debi, moved to Japan in 1984 on the Monbusho Scholarship and had anticipated staying for two years. Britney’s father, Fred Young (FF ’91-’00) followed closely behind, six months later, “I told Debi I was coming over with intentions of marrying her.” Until that point, Debi and Fred, both originally from Anchorage, Alaska, had been dating for three years. They married in April 1985 and as Debi took progressively better positions, ending up at nearby West Tokyo Preschool, Fred worked positions as an assistant English teacher in Japanese middle schools as well as some volunteer coaching at ASIJ. Those “two years” became seven and Fred was hired on at ASIJ as the Assistant Athletic Director and the head coach for football, as well as the basketball and baseball coach.
Britney says her interest in acting and performance was sparked at a young age, in the early years at school when singing and playing are a mainstay of the curriculum. She recalls that as a teacher, her mother greatly valued music and singing in early education, and would put on shows for parents at Tama’s Mitani Shrine. “I was the kid in class who knew all the words and dances to every song we sang, and I was the one telling all the kids if they got the words or moves wrong.” She even participated in school performances at ASIJ from kindergarten, “I definitely did try out for every single play that they had when I was there and was in the choir and everything like that.” One play, Peter Rabbit, stands out in her mind. After school she could be found at ballet as well as tap and jazz club. “I remember loving it because my idol was Shirley Temple and I was learning how to tap just like her.” Fred recalls, “Britney was very happy, energetic and coordinated at the time. She would always try to get the other girls in proper spots during the routine and she would try to teach them the correct steps and moves. She was full of spunk and she was a leader.”
After third grade, Britney moved to Eagle River, Alaska with her mother and two siblings—her first time living outside of Japan. Fred would follow after three more years with ASIJ. Britney attended Alpenglow Elementary School, Gruening Middle School and Chugiak High School and says during that time, her participation in performance waned, though she does mention an “eye-opening” drama class she took in seventh grade. The class focused on acting, specifically improv. “It was the first time I was ever introduced to this style of acting, just making up scenes and characters as you went, no prepared materials. I just remember the rush of being able to come up with things on the spot, and most importantly making your audience laugh.” In high school, Britney became more focused on sports, school clubs and her studies. Cheerleading often conflicted with fall plays and she was unable to balance both practice and performance rehearsals. “I never did any plays in high school or middle school. I often think back on it and wish I did. I always went to support my friends who performed in the plays, but I for sure wish I had participated myself.“
Britney matriculated to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where she attended the first two years of her undergraduate studies and began to rekindle that passion for the stage. She took a drama course and the professor recommended her to the director of the school play. “I remember being very touched...That was something that got my wheels moving thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I need to revisit my dream of becoming an actress and actually start taking it seriously and make some moves.’” Although the play never saw the stage, Britney sincerely believes that inspired her to realistically think about becoming an actress. She moved on to film school at the University of Southern California for her final two years of undergraduate studies. As part of the School for Cinematic Arts, she focused on Film and Television Critical Studies. “I remember my first day of classes and I sat through a one hour lecture about the early days of cinema, then got to watch The Bicycle Thief 1948 in a movie theater and discuss the movie with peers afterwards. I couldn't believe this was my education, watching movies and talking about them. I've been doing that my whole life! Just never got graded before.” USC also gave students the opportunity to make their own films, when Britney learned about how film sets work and all the different responsibilities that come along with getting a film written, produced and completed.
Having returned from one of few vacations she gets these days, Britney spoke with Matt Wilce and Jarrad Jinks during her lunch period on set to talk about school, her transition from set to stage and her breakout role in GLOW.
Once you got the part, how did you prepare for the role of Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade? How
did you get into that character?
Carmen is just a dream to play because she's the sweetest, kindest person. I didn't have to go that far to figure out how to play her because I feel that she and I have those similarities, I consider myself to be very kind and caring about others. So that wasn't too much of a preparation there, but the wrestling part of it was something I'd never done before.
We started a month before we started shooting the first season—we basically had wrestling camp. Our wrestling coordinator, Chavo Guerrero Jr and our stunt coordinator, Shauna Duggins, met with us every day for about three or four hours and just took us through baby-steps, you know, move by move, how to wrestle. And we did that for about a month and it was so much fun, so crazy. Then now, this last year going into season two, we did the exact same thing except it was just ramped up. We went bigger, we went harder and it was so much fun.
We understand that your dad worked in the Activities and Athletic Office here, did he give
you any advice?
You know, he didn't give me any specific wrestling advice. He just kind of did his coach thing where it was like, “You know what, go in there, practice hard, make sure you're, you know, paying attention to what Chavo has to say, make sure you're asking questions and make sure you're doing everything right and of course keeping everyone safe.” But he actually came to visit towards the end of the show and I brought him to a training session and I could just hear him in the background muttering little things like, "How you going to get there Brit?" And I was like, “Okay, you're not the coach here, dad!” But he had fun.
So how much input have you had into the character Carmen?
I mean, our writers are great. Our creators, Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, before each season they basically called us in and had a meeting with each one of us girls and just kind of laid out the bare bones of what is going to happen to our character as the season progresses. We discussed a lot about how we think our character would react to whatever situations are coming up or things we'd like to do or, you know, specific situations we'd like to deal with. So we actually have a lot of input. In the moment while we're shooting, if we're not comfortable with something or we just feel like maybe something isn't right, we can go up to the writer who's on set that and say, “Hey, I think Carmen would actually do this, can we try it that way a few times?” And they're really open to it. It really is a collaboration.
Do you think that the success of shows like GLOW and Orange is the New Black has changed how
network execs look at female-oriented material?
I definitely do. I think we still have a very long way to go. We're still kind of in that proving stage of showing not only the studios and networks that female- led shows can work and they can succeed, but also bringing audiences in. What I kind of heard at the beginning when the first season came out was like, “Oh, I don't really want to watch a show with 15 women,” and I thought, “Well why not? If you could stand in a room with 15 women in real life, why can't you watch a show with a few women on TV?” It kind of didn't make sense to me, but then those same people would go and watch the show and came back and were like, “Wow, I actually related to so many things that were happening.” So it's really cool to kind of see people realize that yes, we may be a female-led show, but we're talking about human issues, human problems and human successes. So anyone I think can relate regardless if they're male or female.
So I saw your interview with Buzzfeed where you talked a little bit more about this and spoke to how inclusive the casting was and how the publicity and the show itself celebrates different types of women in an authentic manner—an example being that it's not overly photoshopped and glamorized. Were you surprised by that approach? Did that desire to authentically represent these female roles carry over to the relationships on set?
I think, I was definitely surprised with, how you said, how authentically they wanted to portray these women. When we got the initial casting announcements, it said “Please do not wear makeup and wear gym clothes,” which is something you don't see on casting announcements in Hollywood. So that from the get-go really attracted me because here we are, you know, trying to show or trying to tell a story about women in their natural state. We're not like, we're not trying to glam them up where it's not necessary. I do really appreciate that and I think that it does carry over into our relationships, the 15 of us, because you know, we're out there and we're knocking our bodies together and we are sweating. We are, all up-on each other essentially. So for us to kind of not care to—how to say this in a nice way—for us to not care about being pretty while doing these things is so refreshing because even in Hollywood, I'll go to the gym just down the street from me and I'll see a girl on the treadmill in full-blown makeup and hair. I’ll think to myself, “Who are you trying to impress here? You're coming here to get sweaty and gross, let yourself get sweaty and gross.” And I think that was so freeing for us to hear.
You describe yourself as “Halfrican,” but your character Carmen is made to take on the “Machu Picchu” persona and play a Hispanic character. How
did you feel about it?
Well, originally the character was written as a Hispanic character and I came in and auditioned. That's kind of, you know, one of the things about acting is if you look like you can be an ethnicity, your managers and agents will probably send you out, regardless of if you are that ethnicity. And I really had a problem with that. I did not feel comfortable going in playing an ethnicity that I wasn't. Especially something where, you know, wrestling is very, very important in the Hispanic culture, is a part of their world and I didn't want to say I can speak to that when really I couldn't. So when I actually was cast, I let the writers know, like, “Hi, you know what? I'm not Hispanic. My mom is white, my dad is black. I love this role. I'd love to be a part of the show. If you guys could change Carmen's ethnicity to match my own, I'd appreciate it, but if not, then you know I'm going to have to graciously back away and you can go ahead and cast someone who is.” And they were all for it—”Yes! We want to authentically represent you the way you are. That's very important to us.”
But then we talked about changing Carmen’s wrestling persona, and it kind of falls in a little bit with the commentary on the stereotypes within wrestling. You know, we have the character of Arthie who wrestles as Beirut—she's playing an Arab character yet she's Indian. We have the character Tamee, wrestling under the persona Welfare Queen, and despite the fact that her son goes to Stanford, here she is talking about being on food stamps and the government paying all of her bills.
So many times people say, “Oh my God, it's so great to see a Peruvian finally on TV... so great to see a Hispanic, Latina“ but then I had to chime in and be like, I'm not any of those things. I'm sorry. So we talk about this a little bit more in season two. So I'm excited for us to kind of have that discussion on TV.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about more inclusion in the industry. What has your experience been as somebody from a mixed background
working in TV and film?
I think regardless of what your background is, there's always difficulties just because there's so many people going after this dream yet there's not enough parts to go around. But I will say, a lot of people are excited when they come out and they're like, “Yeah, I'm ethnically ambiguous. I can play any ethnicity.” And I think that's great for them. It's something I personally don't want to do because, again, I think representation is really important. Growing up I didn't really see a lot of, you know, not only mixed characters but also plus- sized characters on film and TV. So for me to come out here and say, “Yes, this is what my heritage is and yes, I happen to be a plus-sized woman in this role,” is something
that I do not take for granted.
I am very proud of that fact. But I don't know, I think that there's so many stories to tell—our world is diverse and our film and TV should be as well. So I'm really grateful that we have shows like GLOW and Orange is the New Black where we really are starting to bring in characters from all different points of life and telling their stories beyond the stereotypical stories have been told about them. Not every black story is a slave story, not every overweight story is a losing weight story. So I'm glad that we're getting past those and pushing past them. I still, again, think we have a long way to go. I know I've been told a lot of times going in rooms that I'm not black enough to play a character, that I'm not, you know, athletic looking enough to play a character and I don't know, I think that's a shame. We're overlooking talent to try to fit these molds, which I just don't think is very fair.
Were you surprised that Carmen was such a popular character when the show came out?
I definitely was. It's been overwhelming. Everyone has been so great and so sweet and very kind. And I said this before, I was nervous that people weren't really going to relate to Carmen or say that she was her favorite and it came from a place of insecurity because, you know, again, here we are, just going back into stereotype, I'm going to cast with these amazing women. They're gorgeous, they're beautiful, they're prancing around in leotards and I just was like, here's me, this little girl who's in men's gym shorts and sweating profusely. Nobody's going to like that. To hear how many people say that Carmen is their favorite, is just overwhelming to me. To see that, again, people want to see new stories. They want to see new characters. So I was just, ecstatic by the positive feedback from everyone.
Do you have any advice for students who are at ASIJ now who want to go into performing or the production side of things?
To take Nike's slogan, just do it. I think there's so many people who come to me and asked me the same question you are. And I ask them, “are you in classes? Are you making your own content? Are you writing? Are you shooting films? Are you trying to put yourself out there?” And a lot of them come back and say, “well, no,” and I just think that's the first step. Once you start really putting yourself into your craft and following your passion, that's when you're going to start getting people behind you and people will want to see your work and they'll want to support you. So yeah, my advice is, get in plays, start singing, record some demos, take classes, shoot movies with your friends, start really making your own content so you can build your skill and build your craft as well as build your portfolio. And then, you never know. You might end up falling in love with a different part of performing that you didn't even know you had an interest in.
Prior to GLOW, Britney played roles in television shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Better Things and Those Who Can’t, but none so successful, or quirky, as the persona of Carmen Wade. The cast of GLOW began training and shooting for the highly-anticipated second season in late 2017 and as the show wrapped mid-January, Britney reflects on her plans for the future, noting that she is dedicated to continuing acting. “This is only my second year full time acting. Normally, I would go back to an office and take on an assistant role, but since GLOW I have dedicated myself fully to acting, and am having a complete blast fulfilling and working hard for this dream.”
During the hiatus between seasons one and two of GLOW Britney shot a film which will premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival. Titled Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh, the film follows an LA couple who gets a killer deal on an amazing apartment but find out that it was so cheap because it used to be the headquarters of a cult. “It’s a very funny movie, with an amazing cast [which includes Kate Micucci and Taika Waititi].” She is also developing TV and film projects with writers in Los Angeles and hopes to soon open her own production company so that she can write, direct and produce her own content. As her father Fred told her, “Don't mold yourself into one type of actress. Play as many different characters as possible.”