Even the tiniest snippet of Betty Gilpin’s acting process sounds like a wild trip: “OK, now, in this line, a witch is reaching up through my throat and grabbing behind my eyeballs. And now it’s a kitten on helium.”
Gilpin is one of those actors whose looks suggest one type of person until she pulls the rug out from under you; her characters, self-described as “Barbie clowns,” have (at least) one screw loose—perhaps not unlike Gilpin herself. Explanations of her process are full of flowery mental images and metaphors that she acknowledges might make no sense to anyone else. And she says that coming up with bizarre line readings “helps me not think about the boom mic guy, and it just entertains me throughout the day.”
She’s just wrapped up a photo shoot at Beauty Bar on 14th Street in New York City, a nightclub outfitted like a retro beauty salon complete with old-fashioned hair dryers and mannequins in wigs. “Pretty amazing brows,” Gilpin notes, gesturing to a mannequin head—a long-haired, long-lashed gentleman staring at us from a table nearby. Then suddenly, it’s a scene partner: “This is my associate,” she deadpans in her masterfully droll manner.
Born and raised by actors Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough in New York City, Gilpin can’t remember a time she wasn’t enchanted by the magic of performance. “My upbringing was literally backstage,” she says. “It was a bunch of women in wig caps eating Werther’s candies and my mother saying, ‘Come in and shut the door,’ to anyone who wanted to gossip. I was sitting on the Equity cot, staring up at these people who in one minute would be eating grocery store sushi and crying about their afternoon, then putting on a wig and a gown. And [then] I’d hear them over the loudspeaker into the dressing room in a different accent, playing a queen.”
In other words, there was never a notion that she’d do anything else with her life.
So after high school in Connecticut and studying theater at Fordham University, Gilpin pounded the pavement Off- and Off-Off-Broadway (“I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” “We Live Here”), booking occasional TV work (“Nurse Jackie,” “Masters of Sex,” and plenty of “Law & Order”) to get by. “I basically cried and died on every cop and hospital show there was to cry and die on in New York for almost 10 years and did theater in between,” she remembers. “That was my life. And I loved it. Oh, my god, I loved it so much.”
But at this moment in her career, as she’s breaking into a much bigger scene with her Emmy-nominated work in Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s ’80s wrestling comedy “GLOW” on Netflix, Gilpin sometimes finds her passion for the process at odds with the demands of the biz.
“I think so many aspects of being in the public eye are made for a person who’s a little braver and a little more self-righteous than I am, and not in a bad way—just someone who’s a little more self-confident,” she admits. Photo shoots, for example, aren’t necessarily her forte; something about presenting a freeze-frame version of herself feels naggingly false. “A picture, to me, is ‘That’s who you are and there’s no interpretation or movement at all.’ ” And interviews often seem to be about boxing herself in. “There’s an aspect of it that’s like, ‘Who is your frozen, credits-rolling identity? Write down on paper who you are.’ My job is to sort of sound bite my personality for you and cutesify depression or whatever [to] make the article good.”
That’s why she’s adopted a coping mechanism that helps both in acting and in life: inventing and giving space to multiple personas inside her head.
“The way I can make sense of feeling alive is moving through different women throughout my day,” Gilpin explains. “[Doing press is] where I’m going to have to sort of ‘stage mom’ myself and take my 7-year-old self and put a little lip gloss and some tap shoes on her and trot her out so that we can sell this thing.” On film and TV sets, as much as time allows, she tries to toggle between states of being in each take—first witch behind the eyeballs, then helium kitten—to stay in touch with her creativity. “If I can find a way to kind of Trojan horse some theater homework into a day on set,” she says, “it kind of keeps me out of my head of getting depressed, and keeps me out of my head of being a bad actor.
“So, yeah,” she adds. “I am insane.”
Particularly on “GLOW,” where Gilpin plays both Debbie Eagan, a former soap opera actor and mom, and her wrestling alter ego, the sunnily deranged Liberty Belle, maintaining some semblance of sanity is key. “GLOW” films for months of 16-hour days, five days a week, and the eclectic ensemble of neon-clad women—including Alison Brie, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Kia Stevens, and others—are all working with Emmy-winning stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins to do their own stunts in the ring.
Teams of hair and costuming artists are relying on the cast, too. “You’re the parade float for various departments,” Gilpin explains. “For 16 hours a day, I’m balancing the canvases of many artists around me; I’m trying not to break your beautiful eye contour or these pants that someone stayed up all night sewing!” (“GLOW” Season 3 takes the story to Las Vegas and premieres in August; it had so many spinning plates that Gilpin barely remembers it. “I feel like the show keeps reinventing itself every season,” she says. “Season 3 feels like a fever dream.”)
The challenge for Gilpin is staying grounded amid the bizarre extremes of life as a performer. After recently wrapping “GLOW” and the film “Isn’t It Romantic,” she needed a month off in her New York apartment “in my pajamas and ChapStick, staring out the window.” It’s about more than just rest, she says. If you’re not tending to your life outside of acting, Gilpin believes, your acting will suffer.
“This time in my life has felt very front-footed and conducive to a person who has more ‘alpha’ energy than I do,” she says thoughtfully. “Working 80 hours a week for a year straight has been so incredible and I feel so lucky to do that. But doing that in a job that requires creativity and pulling from a well of more ‘beta’ energy, it feels like you then have to go, ‘I’m just going to stare out the window and fill that beta creative well so I’ll have something to pull from when I’ve got a 6 a.m. crying scene.’
“It’s a strange thing as an actor to treat yourself as the same person who deserves love and vitamins and intellectual food throughout your career when you could have months of sitting on the couch taking BuzzFeed quizzes and then months of working so hard that three weeks in you realize you haven’t called any of your best friends back or had a glass of water.” The task, says Gilpin, is to remind yourself you’re the same person in both instances. “It’s hard to teach yourself how to be an island of self-care when, sometimes, there are people with headsets telling me when I can pee.”
Which brings us to the phenomenon that befalls many actors: mistaking their role in the creative and production process for being the most important person on the planet. “The reason 10 people are surrounding you, adjusting your waistline and teasing your hair and asking if you need anything, isn’t because you’re Marie-Antoinette-Mick-Jagger,” says Gilpin, laughing. “It’s because you are just the parade float for that day for their artistry. Not that they don’t love you and respect you, maybe, and, happily, ‘GLOW’ is a very love-filled set...but I never want to get to a place where I can’t play other parts because I’ve been panicking about my own face and cucumber regimen or whatever. It’s important to stay connected to the earth. I think one has to constantly humble and remind oneself that, you know, you are replaceable!”
That mentality can be traced back to Gilpin’s theater roots. When, she says, “you are first and foremost a member of the ensemble and you don’t know when your next job is coming and it’s about working your ass off for $350 a week,” it’s impossible to become too bigheaded to function. Hollywood, more so than the world of theater, asks actors to “monetize a little bit of narcissism” to center and promote themselves in order to continue doing what they love. “It’s the blessing and the curse of making your business your passion.”
And the demands of on-camera stardom have further implications, especially for female actors. “I’m so grateful to [theater] in so many ways,” explains Gilpin. “It really taught me that I’m here to play the long game as an actor. I want to be acting when I’m 40, 50, 60—300. There’s an aspect of the social media world and the more Barbie-esque characters that I play that really place a value and necessity on youth. And I’m scared that my weepy, sensitive, malleable self will start to believe those big, scary things when [the industry] tells me what is valuable about myself. I don’t want to be indoctrinated by that. Then, all of a sudden, my tits are in my shoes and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I’m not allowed to be an actor anymore’.… I want to be throwing fake wine in people’s faces in the Berkshires onstage until I drop.”
Growing up, she adds, “You’re taught to sort of edit yourself to become the most neutral, inoffensive, sellable version of yourself. And then I went to theater school, where the loudest parts of people’s personalities were the things I had told myself to muffle my whole life.” She remembers almost crying from joy when, during her first year at Fordham, she joined a fellow theater student at Jamba Juice, where they tried each other’s smoothies “and in the same weird, gremlin voice, we said, ‘I like mine better!’
“I felt chills all over my body, because I was like, I found people who are a mirror version of someone who I thought was [supposed] to be executed. And then spending four years in my pajamas making weird work with those people and realizing I could make that a living, to find other people who were wearing the same internal, weird hats that my internal people were wearing was just the craziest thing.”
So, now, with an Emmy nomination under her belt, several buzzy movies on the horizon, and, perhaps, the expectation to keep fitting into the boxes Hollywood assigns her, Gilpin wants more than anything to stay grounded in what inspired this career in the first place. “All of a sudden, I feel like, as an actress, there’s a camp of people being like, ‘No, go back to the muffling part, go back to the sellable, small, cutesy part.’ [But] I’m like, No. The reason I got into this business is literally to do the opposite of that.” She’ll continue to play Hollywood’s game and “stage mom” herself during interviews and red-carpet appearances, but, as she puts it, gesturing to the glittering mannequins at her photo shoot, “I guess it’s finding the wink and the camp in there.”
It’s that same attitude, in fact, that informs her “Trojan horse” strategy of injecting a theatrical playfulness into filming. “I used to spend the first take doing what I did in the audition, the second take doing what I thought video village wanted, [and] then I would try my weird theater idea if I got a fourth take.”
And now? Gilpin grins. “Now that’s the first take.”
To stay grounded amid chaos, take up space without apology, and maintain the art amid the commerce, Gilpin’s compartmentalizing of personas makes sense. Feed the people in your head who love and support you, and don’t listen to the ones shaming you. “I think I wasted, career-wise, so much time hiding,” Gilpin says. “My first couple of years out of college, I associated ambition and rooting for yourself with vanity. But the moment things changed for me was when I added a person in my brain who was more of a stage mom, or just a person who believed in themself. I eliminated self-sabotage from my regimen and just tried to like myself a little more.”
She laughs again. “And now I have no personal problems!”
This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Emily Assiran on May 28 at Beauty Bar in NYC;
Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.