2022 – The Guardian
May 20, 2022
Betty Gilpin has a succinct way of describing what she sees as an “overcorrection” to female characters on screen. “I used to be a bimbo with tits. Suddenly I’m a Magic 8 ball with tits,” she says, referring to the child’s toy that tells fortunes. She clarifies: “I’m 35. The roles that I played 10 years ago used to be the bimbo with no answers. Now, even though I’m playing the therapist wife, I have all the answers about my husband’s problems at his Nasa job. Which is not really realistic, either! It’s just making me one-dimensional in a different way.”
Perhaps more than most actors, Gilpin has spent a lot of time analysing her industry’s treatment of women. Before her thrice Emmy-nominated role in Netflix’s prematurely cancelled female wrestling dramedy Glow, she spent her early career mostly smiling, nodding, taking her top off and being zipped into body bags (including on one occasion being accidentally left zipped inside one after the director called cut on the set of Law & Order).
Much of this typecasting is down to the way she looks, and Gilpin is more than aware that her blonde bombshell exterior is what got her booked for certain jobs and discounted from others. “I work within the shell that I’ve been given,” she says, speaking from her bedroom at home in Brooklyn, New York. “But it doesn’t always square with how I feel inside. I think I’ve been trying to shake the world by the collar and say: ‘I’m a character actress! I am more than the sum of my cheekbones and areolas!’ But if that’s what gets me the job then sure, let’s put on a push-up bra and some contour if that means I get to make some weird faces and choices.”
It is likely these “weird choices” that have garnered Gilpin a reputation for making the most of lightweight roles: reviewers regularly cite her as “underused”. That might explain the appeal of her latest project, the TV series Gaslit, a sideways look at the Watergate scandal that focuses on people – and specifically women – who, Gilpin says, history has “tried to make invisible”. Chief among them was Martha Mitchell (played in the series by Julia Roberts), the outspoken wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general, who tried to draw attention to Nixon’s corruption, and paid a heavy price in the process.
Gilpin plays Maureen “Mo” Kane Dean, the liberal cabin attendant who falls for White House counsel John Dean, despite her politics. “Mo was known for being the pretty, silent wife in the background of the Watergate hearings,” says Gilpin. “As someone who has qualified for health insurance and paid for appetisers by being the curvy wife with no lines in the background, I really related to her. Fortunately, in our series, she now has lines!”
Although Dean is still alive, Gilpin didn’t contact her. “I composed the email in my mind,” she says. “And then I was like: ‘I don’t wanna bother this poor woman.’ I prepared more in trying to think about what it was like to be a woman in 1972 and less what Mo Dean’s left shoulder does when she’s tired.”
Perhaps it is surprising that Gilpin was willing to dive back into politics after her last outing on that front: starring in button-pushing horror movie The Hunt, in which a group of wealthy liberal “elites” hunt down poor, rightwing “deplorables”. Not only was the film’s initial 2019 release pulled in the wake of two mass shootings, but the rightwing media, missing the intended satire, labelled it “demented and evil”, prompting then President Trump to tweet about Hollywood being “very bad for our country”. The Hunt was finally released in 2020 just as the pandemic hit, and was marketed with the tagline “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen”. Gilpin concurs: “I really stand by that movie still. The controversy was sort of the most meta advertising campaign we could have asked for and America proved itself to be exactly the nation we said it was in the movie.”
More than anything, she now sees polarised debate as “almost part of the creative process”. She nods through the steps: “You make the outline, you find the right shoes in the costume fitting, you film the thing, Twitter explodes, then the actual reaction happens, the dust settles. It’s like getting your wisdom teeth out. It’s an inevitability.”
Gilpin steers clear of social media herself – she has no public profiles on any platform – and instead of the incessant babble of Twitter, there are plenty of other voices that she is tuned into. This autumn her first essay collection, All the Women in My Brain, will be published, its title referring to how she views her brain as “a room full of women who take turns at the wheel”. Talking to her – loquacious, witty and fond of a colourful metaphor – it is both evident how frustrating it must have been to have so few lines for so many years, and unsurprising that she’s turned to writing.
Prior to the book, she had well-received essays published in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny Letter and Glamour magazine (that one, true to form, was titled “What It’s Like to Have Pea-Sized Confidence With Watermelon-Sized Boobs”). She is clearly bursting to express herself. While her essay makes the case for the women living inside her head, they have already emerged via the women Gilpin has played. She describes acting as “the perfect allegory for being a woman in the world … cycling through selves to give whoever is in front of you the girl they want”.
Having grown up with two actor parents, who worked primarily on the New York stage, she was dismayed to emerge from her own drama training to find that being a young actor in the 2010s meant establishing a brand: “In theatre school, they taught you: ‘Just be this strange vessel,’ and I graduated and it was like: ‘Oh no – I have to convince people how inherently myself I am.’”
Those early roles – her IMDb credits include parts like “Young Model” and “Blonde Chick” – required Gilpin to distance herself, but gradually she found ways to subvert expectations. When she was cast on the Edie Falco-fronted comedy Nurse Jackie she played a sexed-up, incompetent doctor, but two of the writers, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, twigged that she could do more and fleshed out the character. It was Flahive and Mensch who later cast her in Glow as a washed-up soap actor who finds new purpose in her all-American wrestler alter ego, Liberty Bell. When it was abruptly cancelled towards the start of the pandemic (cruelly, while shooting for the fourth and final series was already under way), Gilpin penned a heartfelt ode to “the best job I’ll ever have” for Vanity Fair. She still speaks to co-star Alison Brie “every day” and thinks the fourth season should happen in 20 years; her eyes light up at the idea of playing an ageing Liberty Bell.
Most recently, she and Brie worked with the Glow creators again in the Apple TV+ series Roar, adapted from Cecelia Ahern’s book of feminist fables. Gilpin is perfectly cast as The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf, a wife placed on a literal pedestal by an adoring, controlling husband. For her it was a cautionary tale of what might happen if she gave in to eating “the candy of validation”, and it feels especially pertinent given that Gilpin considers herself at “a scary crossroads” regarding her looks. “That’s all gonna go away soon,” she says. “The more centrefold-friendly parts of my aesthetics will wither away and hopefully what will be left is a more Martha Mitchell type – a snarling, swirling human martini of a goblin person.”
Nevertheless, despite all that work on self-worth, it’s hard to completely cast aside that lingering doubt over why she gets hired: “Is it the internal ‘ocean of weird’ that conjured the character’s tears? Or is it the perky-for-now tits on which those tears plopped? Because one has an expiration date on it … It feels like a dangerous moment where I’m like, ‘I’m still allowed to keep doing this, right?’”
It seems likely that the bimbo roles are behind Gilpin. Her next two parts are as an AI-battling nun in Damon Lindelof’s new sci-fi show Mrs Davis, and as Lina, the mother-of-two embarking on a passionate affair in the TV adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s bestseller Three Women.
Both will be added to the gaggle of women that Gilpin carries with her – a Rolodex that she is constantly scrolling through and learning from. “It’s an exciting push and pull to play as a character – in terms of how far along in her deprogramming is she?” she says. “It’s almost like through these avatars of women who are further along in the empowerment journey than I am, I get a little closer to my own.” After too many years being flattened by an industry that told her she could only be one thing, Betty Gilpin is finally ready to reveal all the women she can be.
New episodes of Gaslit are available on Sundays on StarzPlay; Roar is available on Apple TV+; All the Women in My Brain is released in September.