National Treasure Betty Gilpin Is Ready for America's 'Gut Renovation'

Betty Gilpin has been folding paper cranes.

It’s a hobby the GLOW actress taught herself by watching YouTube tutorials around 10 years ago when she quit smoking. And now, in coronavirus quarantine times, it’s something to do. Her medium of choice? Cardboard New Yorker subscription tear-outs.

“It has a very Etsy feel to it,” Gilpin quipped during an interview last week—although she also made clear she has no interest in becoming an online entrepreneur. “I don’t have the patience for that,” she said. “It’s just gonna be piles.”

Debbie Eagan, Gilpin’s enterprising GLOW character, would certainly know how to turn these paper crane heaps into a flourishing e-commerce empire—and if she didn’t, she’d learn fast. A soap opera star-turned-wrestler-turned producer, Debbie is an unstoppable force whose ambition is matched only by her own self-doubt.

As it turns out, Debbie is also the perfect vessel for Gilpin’s transfixing weirdness as a performer. For three seasons in a row, GLOW’s most captivating moments have chipped away at Debbie’s glossy facade to reveal the quirks and insecurities that bubble beneath it.

That trick would have been impossible without Gilpin—more specifically, her ability to find hilarity in even the rawest moments. Gilpin is an expressive marvel who often mines her best comedy from the tension between her character’s outward responses and the barely-hidden feelings she illuminates beneath them. It takes a special sensitivity to play a neurotic person trying to act nonchalant—and Betty Gilpin has it.

The TV Academy has evidently taken notice; this year marks Gilpin’s third consecutive Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

But this year, things are obviously different. The pandemic has forced many of us into relative isolation. And in the wake of several deadly police encounters, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained unprecedented levels of support, with protests continuing across the country. Gilpin’s widely-covered reaction to her Emmy nomination this year called for the police who killed Breonna Taylor to be arrested.

“In March it sort of felt like, ‘Oh wow, we’re gonna pause and redo parts of the house—like, do some lipstick fixes,’” Gilpin told The Daily Beast of the past few months. “And then all of a sudden we were like, ‘You wouldn’t believe it. The house is covered in mold.’ And then so many people are like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been telling you that for 300 years.’ So I think we deserve this gut renovation.”

As that explanation might indicate, Gilpin loves a good metaphor. Read any interview with her, or listen to her speak for even just a few minutes, and it’s striking just how frequently and effortlessly she churns them out; the natural ease with which she compared quarantine to being “a coke addict-marathon runner that’s now been suddenly dropped off at a monastery” stuck in my brain for days. Another great one, said about her own acting: “I look like I’m going through something gastrointestinal while thinking about the Vietnam War.”

I look like I’m going through something gastrointestinal while thinking about the Vietnam War.

When asked where this strange aptitude comes from, Gilpin admitted even her therapist has taken notice. “She was like, ‘I’m sorry. Am I the pine tree or are you the pine tree?’” she said of a recent Zoom therapy session. “I was like, ‘Exactly, Melissa!’”

But metaphors are more than a conversational flourish for Gilpin. As her profile has risen and her audience has expanded, metaphors have become a way for her to maintain a mindset where it’s still safe to take risks without anxiety about whether or not the audience will “get” the end result.

“When I spent a decade, like, shouting into a grave of eight asleep people in a black box theater where no one saw the plays, it was easier to fail or take risks,” Gilpin said. “And now, where there’s almost like a score being kept, it feels a little scarier. And I feel like the things I love about being creative, and face-making—that can kind of shut down in my brain when I realize, ‘Oh, this is for a product.’”

“For some reason, thinking in weird imagery and metaphors, it’s like a little cat toy for my brain to be like, ‘Think about oak trees and spaghetti!’” Gilpin said. “Don’t think about magazines.”

Gilpin’s theater ties run deep. Both of her parents—Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough—are theater actors who have also taken screen roles. And for those wondering why, specifically, Gilpin’s Emmys reaction referenced Nathan Lane, you can blame the Guys and Dolls Broadway cast recording she listened to every day on the way to school.

“I’ve been listening to it a lot in quarantine,” Gilpin said. “Just walking up and down the streets of New York, sobbing to [‘Fugue for Tinhorns’]. My brand right now.”

Having her star rise at a time when being an actor also requires being a red carpet entity, Gilpin views Nathan Lane and her family’s theatrical roots as a guiding light of sorts. “I just want to always keep, like, a hand on the Nathan Lane railing—and that’s gonna be there for me whenever, when all the Barbie stuff expires,” Gilpin said. “You can be a Nathan Lane fan and impersonator until the day you die and when you’re not invited to the Vanity Fair party anymore.”

GLOW’s third season gave Gilpin some of her meatiest material yet. The drama between her and Ruth has quieted down, but now Debbie is more at war with herself than ever. This season, instead of sparring with Ruth, she’s fighting a judgmental flight attendant, moving her toddler to Vegas, and demanding that her ex-husband replace the camcorder she hawked last season. She meets and betrays a new beau, and she’s fixated on pivoting from acting to producing full-time.

All the while, Gilpin plays Debbie as both unstoppable and, at times, devastatingly fragile.

That tension leads Debbie back to self-destructive concerns about her body. In one episode, insecure after comparing her body to those of Las Vegas dancers, Debbie forces herself to vomit—recalling earlier episodes when she’s casually mentioned calculating how many hours of Jane Fonda workout videos she’d need to burn off a slice of wedding cake.

Gilpin, who has written about her own issues with body confidence, appreciates that the show never goes the “very special episode” route with Debbie’s distressing behaviors.

“It’s something that is a quiet part of your life,” she said, noting that although her own struggles with body image have waxed and waned, they have not disappeared, either. “We never touched on it again because it’s going to be something she struggles with her whole life.”

But working on GLOW, where the cast does all of their own stunts, has changed how Gilpin relates to her own body. Even as the cast first started learning basic, “somersault-level” wrestling stunts, she said, “it was kind of embarrassingly emotional because it really felt like I’ve been treating this Lamborghini like a tricycle this whole time.”

“I’ve had all these capabilities and powers and functions that I’d just been sort of suppressing and ignoring because it didn’t check Bratz doll boxes,” Gilpin said. “I just had no societal or personal context to have a reason to think about my knees or my hips or my core.”

Nonetheless, every show must end eventually, and GLOW’s upcoming fourth season will be its last. Production on the final season had already started when the pandemic hit, and has since been delayed.

As for what direction the final installment will take, Gilpin noted that each character has used their wrestling experience to ask themselves what kind of person they would be if they could be anyone.

“I think Season 4 is kind of, in each of their own weird ways, being like, ‘OK, what if I let that id that I found in the ring out into the world? What if I let it bleed into my life and take the reins for a second? Will I explode? What does that look like?’” Gilpin said.

OK, what if I let that id that I found in the ring out into the world? What if I let it bleed into my life and take the reins for a second? Will I explode? What does that look like?

In Debbie’s case, that will mean buying the TV network she helped Bash buy out from under her boyfriend, Tex (Toby Huss)—and coming into her own as a cutthroat business woman who might like high-rolling a little too much.

“I hope she lives until Bluetooths are invented,” Gilpin said. “Because she’s made for a Bluetooth. She’s made to scream into a Bluetooth. I hope that for her.”

When asked what she’d like to do next in her post-GLOW life, Gilpin got a little existential.

“Maybe this is true for every field—that there’s the version of your dream coming true, where it all only has to do with the externalization of whatever your weird, little, specific, varied pinprick of light is,” she said. “And hopefully that comes with appetizers and rent. And then there’s the parallel track of the version that whatever business you’re in tells you equals success. And I just hope that when this lifts, I’ll listen to the former and not the latter.”

“It’s really hard not to listen to the latter,” Gilpin said—the voice that says, “Oh, unless I make it to this one specific VIP room…then it’s failure.”

“I think that’s something that I really value, that 10 years of theater taught me,” Gilpin said. “It’s like, sometimes it’s 95 asleep people and then one weirdo in the alleyway behind the theater afterwards with their hands over their hearts.”

“I don’t know,” Gilpin said. “I hope that we can take this as an opportunity to gut renovate all our values and, you know, government. But, you know, faces for money. That’s what I want to do.”

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