In Glow, the new 1980s-set Netflix series produced by Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, and Jenji Kohan, Betty Gilpin plays Debbie, a soap actor who has relinquished her career to start a family. “We meet Debbie when she thinks that the movie of her life is coming to a close and the credits are rolling,” Gilpin explains. Soon after, however, Debbie makes a discovery at home that forces her to reassess her identity and her future. She agrees to join a new women’s wrestling show as Liberty Bell, its all-American star.
Raised by two New York actors, Gilpin spent much of her childhood watching her parents perform. “I grew up in a lot of stage managers’ booths, memorizing the lines,” she says. “I’m sure I was the most annoying child in existence.” While getting her B.A. from Fordham, she made her New York stage debut. Since then, she’s appeared Off-Broadway in venues like the Roundabout Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Signature Theatre, and in smart television dramas such as Nurse Jackie and Masters of Sex. Glow, which comes out tomorrow on Netflix, follows quickly on the heels of another exciting job for Gilpin: playing Audrey the Starz adaptation of Neil Gamain’s American Gods.
HOMEBASE: Brooklyn, New York. I just re-watched Ghost, and Whoopi Goldberg mentions she lives in a rough neighborhood. She’s like, “I live in Prospect Heights!” Times have changed.
INTRO TO ACTING: I grew up going to the theater with my parents. It was a different world for New York actors [then]; you did theater and Law & Order, and you went to L.A. for everything else. My parents mainly did theater, and that is their first love. They worked in a lot of Off-Broadway theaters in New York and regional theaters throughout the Northeast.
My parents were not keen on me joining the industry. The rule was I had to go to college first and graduate, and I couldn’t go to a conservatory. I could major in theater, but I had to go somewhere where I had to take science and math and history as well. I think they were hoping that I’d fall in love with something else while I was there. I did not. I definitely was stoned through all my math classes and took theater of the absurd very seriously. I started doing plays in New York while I was at Fordham, but I did graduate by the skin of my teeth.
THAT NEW YORK RITE OF PASSAGE: I think I did four Law & Order episodes. I did two Criminal Intent, one mothership, and one SVU. I died on Criminal Intent, and then a year later they cast me again. I was a crack addict. On Law & Order: SVU, Dylan Minnette, the kid from 13 Reasons Why, and I played lovers. He was my 14-year-old student and I was his science teacher, and we were having an affair. I keep wanting to see him at a Netflix event to see if he remembers. It was profoundly creepy.
FILM DEBUT: My parents came into the city and took me out to lunch. They said, “We’re both on our way to audition for a little indie movie [Northern Kingdom], there’s actually a part for a 19-year-old.” They were joking around, “You should come with us.” I was like, “Give me five minutes. I’m putting on pants with a button.” I just came with them and put my name on the sign-in sheet, which I would never have the confidence to do—it’s the confidence of a stoner. I auditioned and got the part. They only had my parents’ number, so they called my parents to let them know. They were very excited. I got an agent from that, and the guy who played my brother in the movie is now my husband.
MOMENTS OF DOUBT: With theater, the time commitment and the demands on your body, your personal life, and your wallet are crazy. It’s four months of feeling like you’re running a marathon and getting paid in hugs. You’re telling your body there’s an emergency every night and then saying, “Just kidding, we’re doing it twice again tomorrow.” Then you’re unemployed, and you could be unemployed for months and months and months. You have to be this adrenaline junkie who cries on cue, and then all of a sudden the one thing you have to do that week is clean the bathroom. It is a rollercoaster and it’s hard to be a consistent island person throughout that. I, many times, have thought, “I’ll never get another job.” Or, “If I don’t get this job, this is it for me.” But then I’ll talk to very famous, very successful people who say that too. It’s apparently a never-ending business of neuroses and self-doubt, so here we go.
TYPE-CASTING: I have brown hair naturally, and when you have brown hair, you’re allowed to be sarcastic and smart and have life experience. When I had brown hair, I played a lot of lot crack addicts and lesbians and people who had lived hard lives. When I died my hair blonde, it was way more bimbos. I definitely feel like a craggy old character actress inside; I feel more connected to darker sardonic characters. A lot of people see blonde hair and big boobs, and they write characters that are either super confident or have lines like, “I said orchids!” They’re mean and one-dimensional, and leave at the beginning so the pixie dream girl can have the guy. I like the challenge of making the blonde with big boobs just as insane as the brunette.
AUDITIONING FOR AMERICAN GODS: I filmed American Gods last April. I had originally auditioned for Laura, the lead played by Emily Browning. I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I’m not good at being the tiny, minimalist lead. I made an audition tape for Lisbeth Salander and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and watched it back, and it looks like Elaine Stritch as Robert Sean Leonard trying to do Lisbeth Salander. [laughs] It’s just not my wheelhouse. So the casting director for American Gods said, “There’s a crazy drunk friend that you’d be perfect for.” I was like, “Yes! That’s what I want to do.”
THE ROAD TO GLOW: I had known Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch as playwrights first, and then I worked with them on Nurse Jackie. They had mentioned that they were developing something based on G.L.O.W. and I pretended to know what that was. I then casually plugged it into YouTube and was alarmed, amazed, inspired. I immediately stopped googling it, because I was like, “I want this too badly already,” and they hadn’t even written the script. Something clicked, and so I had to immediately start emotionally protecting myself.
[Liz and Carly] sort of said in passing, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could work together again?” But I think as an actor, you learn to immediately put that out of your head. As they discuss in the show, it’s a business of heartbreak, vulnerability, and shattered dreams. I’ve been trained now at the ripe-old actress age of 30 to take everything with a grain of salt. I cannot believe this worked out.
A BETTY PLAYING DEBBIE: There are so many takes that were ruined because people were calling me Betty and not Debbie. At first, Betty’s that self-righteous girlfriend that we all have—the friend who’s always giving advice without any perspective on the other person’s situation. Becoming a mother and having her best friend betray her pull the rug out from under her and completely shatter her identity, which is totally based on having the upper hand and being confident and settled. It makes her access her inner rage and realize that she has this entire well inside of her that she hasn’t been using at all, that wanted to be used this whole time.
In many ways, she’s at day one of figuring out who she is. As an actress, you’re made to think you’re a character in someone else’s story. Especially as a young actress in her 20s, you’re this ingénue whose job is to sit there and pose and react. It’s hard to become that person who starts to get wrinkles on their face and whose boobs start to drop. You’re like, “Wait, everyone else has been building an identity this entire time, while mine ends at 30?”
EMBRACING ATHLETICS: We did about a month of wrestling training before we started filming with Chavo Guerrero Jr., who was in the WWE and Lucha Libre, and then we trained throughout. Chavo’s uncle was the wrestling coach for the original G.L.O.W. ladies, and famously put one of them in a sleeper hold her first day of training. Chavo was, thankfully, kinder and gentler with us. Up until that point, I’d never had to do a sport before—you could do theater as a sport in my high school, so I did As You Like It while everybody else was playing soccer. I’d never had to use my body in a functional way. I was very grateful to be on Nurse Jackie for so many reasons, but I had to be naked, and for me, exercise was this bubble of shame and panic that had only to do with triceps and obliques. [With Glow,] there was no time to think about what we looked like; your body’s purpose for the day was protecting Alison [Brie]’s neck. It felt so liberating and powerful.
GLOW‘S LEGACY: I want to do the original G.L.O.W. ladies proud. I hope they like it. I re-watched some of the original show when I got cast, but once I realized how personal and imagination-based every wrestling character was—you could tell that actress came up with her character and worked hard on it. I didn’t want to poach any poetry. I want to make up my own thing.
IN THE CURRENT CONTEXT: I think Glow is really timely right now. I’m sure every project is saying they’re timely right now—I’m sure Sesame Street is saying there’s no better time for Sesame Street—but we filmed around the election, and it was just such an eye-opening, liberating, and powerful way to use my body in the name of being a woman. I was in the tiniest Jane Fonda-workout outfits lifting other females above my head. I think there’s something happening with women—especially in this country—where we’re all accessing our inner wrestling character. With the Women’s March on January 21st, it felt like everyone’s inner wrestling character came together to walk through the streets. There was some glitter there I guess, but you could also feel the invisible glitter in the air.
SEASON ONE OF GLOW WILL BE AVAILABLE VIA NETFLIX FROM TOMORROW, JUNE 23 2017.