2017 – GQ
July 17, 2017
Betty Gilpin is doing something right. After a number of appearances on Dick Wolf vehicles like Law & Order and SVU and Criminal Intent—the apparent ritual hazing of every young actor coming out of New York—Gilpin has found herself firmly in the upper echelon of prestige television.
That was her at the tail-end of Nurse Jackie. And again, butting heads with Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex. And again, on American Gods, where she doesn’t actually play a god and yet manages to steal every scene she’s in. But where she’s really captivated us is on Netflix’s GLOW, as soap opera star-turned-stay-at-home mom-turned-wrestler Debbie Eagan, a.k.a. Liberty Belle. How’s she feeling now that her first foray into the world of pro wrestling is now available to the masses? Pretty sore, actually.
GQ: I was very, very excited when I first heard that GLOW was going to be coming to Netflix in this capacity.
Betty Gilpin: I’m so glad!
One of my favorite things about the show is just how meta it is. You’re an actress who had to learn how to be a wrestler to play a part in a television show where you play an actress who has to learn how to be a wrestler.
Yeah, it all felt very meta, especially because none of us were wrestlers with the exception of Kia Stevens, who plays Tammé. She wrestles as Awesome Kong. We trained for about a month and a half before we started shooting and that was our first introduction to each other. Us, sort of stumbling around, gripping each other’s thighs in our pajamas. It was totally meta. It also feels really meta that Ali [co-star Alison Brie] and I were both playing actresses. A lot of the things that Debbie says are things that I have really struggled with personally as an actor, you know? Sort of feeling like female roles were not representing what I felt and were sort of a prettier, smaller version of my actual capacity for feeling. Wrestling sort of provides this vehicle of rage and empowerment that finally matches the stakes of what Debbie feels inside, and I felt that way about GLOW itself.
The wrestling industry as a whole doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to empowering women. That’s starting to change, but the original GLOW always stood out to me as a great place for female actors.
Right. Totally! I mean, I think GLOW was so insane, and it was like they let their imaginations be totally free-range. Like, as actresses, perhaps they were used to having their imaginations be limited to their close-up, and it was like imagination on crack.
Your character, Debbie, goes to a wrestling show for the first time and has this epiphany that pro wrestling is really just a soap opera. Was that an epiphany you had yourself at some point?
I had a similar experience to Debbie. I sort of came into this experience thinking wrestling was sort of a macho, ego-driven circus, and it is completely the opposite. It has so much to do with story and character and vulnerability and teamwork. It really lends itself to a feminist show because you’re really putting your trust completely in the other person. For the other person in the ring to look powerful, you have to sell their power. You have to react to their touch like you’re in the most excruciating pain of your life. There’s not a lot of room for narcissism when you’re selling someone else’s power and they’re selling yours.
That reminds me of a part of the essay you wrote for Glamour that I found especially poignant: “When my bicep I spent my entire twenties hating circled her neck, she screamed to the sky in faux-pain, as if I were the most powerful being who had ever touched her. I pressed my huge boobs into her back to ‘worsen’ the pain, and she begged for mercy between death-gasps. For the first time in my life, I could feel my whole body listening.” Can we talk about that feeling a little bit more?
Yeah. You know, I had never done a sport before and I had never used my body in a functional way before. I would do musicals in high school where there was dancing and I would sing my verse and then they would choreograph it so when I would take an eight count to back up to the back of the stage while the other dancers covered me up because my body was totally… I was always in newborn-deer mode. I looked like a pile of water balloons and broomsticks. I didn’t understand how to use my body in a role or in daily life. And I didn’t understand sports. I really didn’t.
When you’re an actress—or just a woman—a lot of the exercise classes that are offered are so sort of male gaze-skewed. It’s all working out for the beach and not for function at all. I was taking exercise classes six times a week and then I would go on a hike with my brothers, who only exercise when they feel like it, and they would be schooling me. I would be so winded because I was doing nothing for my heart or my lungs. Wrestling introduced me to the idea that my body has a purpose besides trying to look five years younger for the first time. Being able to, from my scalp to my toes, talk and listen and be a character and be an athlete… And Debbie, her body has made a person! After a lifetime of thinking about her body as sort of like this chasm whose purpose is to pose and diet, now it’s this crazy powerful thing that can make people and body-slam opponents.
Definitely. When you were all going through the training process, what was your reaction the very first time you had to land flat on the mat and take a bump?
Well, we started with the big puffy mats. They would put down nice, pillowy, big, thick mats. We’d slip over and take a back bump and we’re like, “That’s not so bad!” Your job is to sort of level yourself out in the air so that your whole back hits the mat at the same time. So we used the fluffy mats to do that where it felt like you’re landing on a pillow. Then you go to a smaller mat that’s a little harder. And then you finally go to the mat itself, and it’s shocking the first time you do it. It hurts. It really hurts and you get the wind knocked out of you, and you inevitably hold your breath and snot flies out of your nose, or you make the craziest childbirth noise. There’s nothing fake about a bump. That is really happening. But the thing is, when we would do them, they’d hurt so much when the room was quiet. When you do it in front of a crowd you feel nothing because the adrenaline is going so crazy high.
I remember the first time I got to step inside an actual wrestling ring. I’d thought surely there must be some padding or something in this ring, right? Then I realized, “Oh, no, it’s basically a wood plank and these ropes are just like, steel cables with tape.”
Part of your character’s arc in the first season is getting to hit this big spot in a match, the cross-body from the top rope. You and Alison have a great training montage where you’re working on the move, and then finally in the season finale your character busts out the move successfully. How intense was trying to lock all of that down? Was that all you flying from the top rope?
Yeah. I mean, we had stunt coordinators, but we did all the moves. They would do some takes of it, but we would do it over and over and over again. One of the lessons—like, athletic lessons—that I learned was you have really good days on the field and really sad days.
There’s one move in the final fight called the sunset flip where I run at Ali and jump over her and flip over her and then pull her down onto the ground. My stunt coordinator, Shauna Duggins, was trying to do it. Chavo [Guerrero, ex-WWE star and GLOW fight coordinator] was teaching her, and she was, like, cerebralizing it too much. She was sort of overthinking it, even though she’s like, an Olympic athlete, basically. Because the athletic section of my brain is, like, an empty room with an old coffee cup in it, I was like, “I’ll try it!” I had no preconceived notions or anything, and I did it! I did it on the first try, and I high fived Chavo so hard that I saw water come to his eyes. I was so excited.
Then when I tried the cross body splash I could not do it. I just could not do it. And I cried like a kid in second grade who is about to throw a racket because they haven’t had their snack. I was sniffling and wiping my nose on my sleeve, like, “Don’t look at me!”
It’s almost like that fearless ignorance is a boon.
Exactly! Sometimes when you’re midair you’re like, “Oh, it’s nice, fearless ignorance making sure that my chin is tucked under so that I don’t break my neck right now.”
At what point did your body just start callusing over? Was there a moment where it was like, “Well, this is just a normal part of my day now?”
I think I had a four-month long adrenaline rush where I was getting up at 3:45 every morning to get in hair and makeup and go shoot a crying scene, then you do two hours of training, then you shoot a wrestling sequence. I think I was just in sort of an adrenaline high that my body was like, “Okay, we know the wrap date, we’ve signed on for this long.” And the day that I shot the final sequence, my body was like, “Okay, I’m done with wrestling and, just so you know, I’ve been hanging back and trying to stay quiet, but I’m in excruciating pain from the last four months.” Just stepping out of the ring, my knees were screaming at me. I had just shot a whole wrestling match for hours and hours and hours and felt fine, and then the second that was over I got letters of complaints from each one of my joints and ligaments and muscles.
It’s funny, that’s a thing that I’ve heard from real pro wrestlers who do this all year long. “I don’t want to take a week off or a month off because the minute I do, it all catches up with me.”
Right. And you know, that would happen to me when I would do a play. I would be in perfect health for the last performance and then my body would know it was the last performance and I would get a medieval death cold the very next day.
GLOW has a predominantly female cast with female writers and female producers. Was that something that appealed to you going into the show itself? To be able to tell the story not just through the TV show, but through the success of the show?
Absolutely. Like we said earlier, it was like, a meta layer cake. It was really interesting to be having these discussions as Debbie and inside my brain being like, “But that’s not this kind of experience.” It felt so freeing and empowering and it was so much fun to work in that environment. You know, sets can make me very nervous and afraid to share my ideas and try things. I did not feel that fear. I think that was sort of trickle-down bravery.
If the show returns for a second season, is there anything you’re particularly interested in exploring further with Debbie?
I have learned so much personally from wrestling and it has really bled into my daily life. I would love to see how wrestling bleeds into the rest of Debbie’s life. Does she speak up for herself more? Does she pursue a dream she’s always had secretly? Will she finally find the bravery to become the ice-climbing embroiderer that she’s always wanted to be? I don’t know!