|HALF NIELSEN: Thomas Toland is a Dallas lawyer turned wrestler turned reality TV spectacle.|
WHEN I FIRST SAW THE AD, I thought it was for a real job. “Lawyer needed for TV program,” it stated vaguely. Being a legal consultant for a TV show sounded like a good gig to me. My résumé in three sentences: I am 31, was born and raised in Dallas, where I worked as an attorney after graduating with a dual degree from the law and business schools at Tulane. A couple of years ago, I moved to New York to be the chief legal counsel for a start-up community development bank. In many ways, it was my dream job, but the deferred compensation I received while the company sought yet another round of financing finally had me looking for other opportunities.
I called the number in the ad and learned that the producers of the TV show weren’t looking for consultants; they wanted contestants. The show, called Faking It, is a reality program that plucks someone from his current career, gives him about a month of training in a vastly different profession, and then challenges him to convince a panel of judges that he’s legit. Hot dog vendors have become four-star chefs; priests have been turned into used-car salesmen. In this case, a lawyer would become a wrestler.
I thought, “Someone is actually going to pay me to move to LA and learn professional wrestling for a month. Cool.”
I don’t know how many people tried out for the show, but I don’t think there were too many lawyers willing to take a month off from their high-paying jobs to get the crap beat out of them daily. I got the nod.
AS SOON AS WE LANDED AT LAX, Guido the director prodded me to provide “good TV.” Guido (pronounced GEE-doh), a short, annoying German with curly hair, urged me to look out the car window as if I hadn’t lived in LA or visited about 20 times, which I had. “What do you think of LA?” he asked. “Isn’t it a lot different than New York? Isn’t it weird seeing all of those cars?”
His mission to find “good TV” actually started in New York, while a film crew shot “Work Thomas” coming out of the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan. Because I am a corporate attorney, I have never been to a courtroom for work in my life. During the first 30 minutes on the first day of filming, Guido actually coerced me into singing like Elvis in my bathroom mirror using my toothbrush as a microphone—another thing that “Work Thomas” never does. Trust me.
Instead of wasting energy refusing and arguing, I decided to give Guido footage that was so bad and awkward that there was no way he could use it. So as we drove away from the airport, I deadpanned, “Wow. Look at all of those cars. I’ve never seen so many cars. Palm trees, too? Who would have guessed?” I later escalated my war against “good TV” by spending a lot of time around my apartment naked. If there were hidden cameras, I was going to make sure the footage was unusable.
That first night in LA, I went to see my roommate and mentor, the Hardkore Kidd, wrestle. I had already met HKK at my going-away party in New York when he roughed me up and boxed my ears for not taking him and his profession seriously. (It turned out he ruptured my eardrum in the process, but a specialist said it was only temporary damage and allowed me to continue.) When I saw HKK in the ring, I gained a newfound respect for him and wrestlers in general. Yes, the sport is fake. But these guys were amazingly athletic and coordinated in the ring. As I watched him, knowing that I would be up there in less than a month, I began to worry.
Certainly, I thought, someone had devised a program to teach me wrestling in such a short time. No program existed. Not that I could have done it if there had been one. On the first day of training, I strained my lower back when HKK, who weighs 240 pounds, had me carry him across the mat at the end of a grueling workout. My body took such a beating during those first days that I could hardly spend more than a few hours a day in the gym for the first week and a half.
I was supposed to be training, but I was injured and so sore that I could barely walk. I was supposed to be learning how to wrestle, but no one was teaching me. And unless HKK yelling at me in our apartment like we were in the ring made for “good TV,” I doubt I was helping Guido much, either.
Finally, Tom Howard showed up. He was my real coach who missed the first 10 days or so because he was in Japan. Howard seemed to be the only guy who had a sense of what was going on with the show. He recognized that I wasn’t supposed to be a wrestler. I was supposed to be a guy who seemed like a wrestler, enough to fool the judges.
Howard taught me some basic moves, such as dives, back bumps, punches, and kicks, but we concentrated most of our time on developing my character. We began to knock around a few ideas. I suggested The Angry Business Man, entering the ring in a rip-away Velcro business suit with some hot secretaries at my side and then beating people with my briefcase. My friends at work wanted Little Napoleon, a small, angry, beret-wearing Frenchman who throws baguettes to the screaming crowd of silly Americans, drinks wine in the corner, and finishes people off with the guillotine, a scissor straddle from the top rope. We finally decided on Psycho T, an enraged, psychotic, redneck prison escapee.
PSYCHO T’S WARDROBE—an orange jumpsuit with the sleeves cut off Cobra Kai Dojo-style in homage to Karate Kid—turned out to be a lot easier to come up with than the character. Guido encouraged me to be intense and scary, but no matter how much I scowled and snarled, I wasn’t feeling it. I even worked with an acting coach who made me do ridiculous exercises like imitating monkeys at the zoo. But Psycho T’s secret weapon was the mullet I had the week leading up to the big day. Shaun, a celebrity hairdresser, spent four hours gluing hair extensions onto the back of my head. I was ready.
Except I wasn’t. My back was still killing me, and I was still having trouble with some of the moves. A week before my final test, the producers organized a surprise trial match behind a Mexican outdoor market, with an audience of 50 poor suckers who had actually paid to see it. There were a dozen matches that day, and in the middle of them, Psycho T debuted against Lil’ Nate, a 135-pound high school senior—one of the prodigies of the wrestling school. I was awful. A 7-year-old kid told me I sucked. An old lady said I looked anorexic. Lil’ Nate beat the crap out of me.
It hurt, but at least the Mexican market debacle gave me clues of what to work on for my final match. Right as I was gaining confidence that I might be able to pull this thing off, there was one last surprise. The guy I was supposed to wrestle—a guy about my size, maybe a little bigger—got injured. I would be wrestling a replacement opponent. I had to face The Predator, a monster of a man who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed about 310 pounds. His friends call him “Bear.”
Leading up to the final test, I was anxious but eager to get the show over with. For my big entrance, I ran in with a straightjacket, yelling out for my Ma and my Uncle Cletus, before sliding into the ring. The match started immediately, and so did the pain. Because small psychotic rednecks fight dirty, I unleashed a torrent of sucker punches, DDTs, low blows, and neck breakers. Unfortunately, for the rest of the match, The Predator treated my body like a rag doll, giving me the treatment with leg drops, pile drivers, clotheslines, and splashes in the corner. When he finally finished me off with a muscle buster from the top rope, I lay in the middle of the ring, thinking that even if the mat were on fire, I would be hard-pressed to get off the floor.
I won’t ruin the surprise about whether I fooled the judges on Faking It, but I can tell you that Psycho T has retired from the ring. He now kicks ass and takes names in New York City developing financial solutions for growth companies.
The “Briefcase to Body Slam” episode of Faking It airs June 6 on The Learning Channel.