2022 – W
April 26, 2022
Betty Gilpin is relieved to be chatting on the phone instead of over Zoom. Just a few minutes prior, she was panicking about her angles and the lighting inside her Brooklyn apartment—which side of the room made her laugh lines look deeper? “I feel liberated,” she says with a laugh. And she means it in more ways than one. The actress has decided to be more intentional than ever about the next steps in her career, leading to a newfound nurturing of her freewheeling spirit.
When the pandemic hit two years ago, Gilpin’s career was in overdrive. At that time, she was coming off of three seasons of the hit female wrestling dramedy GLOW; meanwhile, The Hunt—the controversial thriller in which she starred—finally got a release date following a cancellation fueled by former president Trump’s criticisms. For a self-described “sedated Beta” she was moving at a “pretty insane Alpha pace.” “I think the highest I had dreamed was a smattering of off-Broadway plays and to cry or die on a police or hospital procedural show once every three years,” she says. She needed to catch her breath. Two years and a pandemic later, she finally has—only to find she’s got a huge year ahead of her once again.
Her latest project is the much-buzzed-about political thriller Gaslit—a retelling of the Watergate scandal that focuses on untold stories and forgotten characters surrounding the events. The series sparked Gilpin’s interest because of her own fascination with Watergate. She loved the movie All the President’s Men; her dad had been “a huge Watergate head” in the 1970s. “[He] told me all about how they were so glued to the hearings every day and that it felt like this explosive soap opera,” she explains. However, when she rewatched the Watergate hearings on YouTube, she couldn’t help but become bored by the coverage—which she believes speaks to society’s leanings when it comes to consuming media today. “Now, we’re so used to the news being like a wrestling match, basically: insane, electrified, coked-up college essays being screamed at you, instead of calm people just telling you the facts,” she says.
With Gaslit, the 35-year-old actress was drawn to the candor of the script, which felt like a departure from other portrayals of Watergate. “I liked that this script was honest about the people who tried to be the heroes but were silenced, ignored, and erased,” she says.
In the Starz series, Gilpin portrays Maureen, a lefty flight attendant who falls for former White House counsel John Dean. Gilpin prioritized making her “smart, capable” alter-ego feel like a three-dimensional character—and that meant humanizing her. “She’s not some doormat girl-boss seizing the reins and taking over. She doesn’t become the president in episode eight. She has to use the resources available to her and that is convincing her husband to do the right thing,” she says.
While she only has one scene with the show’s lead, Julia Roberts—who portrays Martha Mitchell, the outspoken socialite wife of United States Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn) who became a Watergate whistleblower—Gilpin’s anxiety at the prospect of meeting the legendary actress was palpable. Specifically, Gilpin was preoccupied with how her hair might look during their first conversation. “I wear a platinum blonde wig, and I was like, ‘Please God, let me either be in my normal hair or fully in the wig,’” she recalls. “When it’s midway through the process, I look like an alien fetus doing a one-man show in Berlin.” Of course, that’s exactly when Gilpin met Roberts. While she says she looked “absolutely insane,” she was just grateful to be in her presence. “Similar to admiring Martha, I’ve admired Julia every way you can,” says Gilpin. “She’s a fucking legend.”
Gaslit, however, is undoubtedly a dramatic shift for the actress who had famously been the “It” girl of GLOW—Debbie Eagan, a soap opera star and stay-at-home mom who traded a life of domestication and daytime TV for big hair and bruises as the patriotic pro-wrestler Liberty Belle. The hit series fell to Covid-19 and its fourth and final season was canceled—much to the disappointment of the show’s fans. Gilpin, too, was heartbroken. “We loved each other so much and still do. But they don’t let the puppets make boardroom decisions, sadly,” she says, laughing.
Gilpin still hopes that GLOW will get a proper send-off one day. “My dream is we do season 4 in 20 years,” she says. Admittedly, her bones and joints might not still be on board for the wrestling moves. She does, however, know how the show would have ended. “In the rare case that someday we do it, I don’t want to give it away,” she says. While she remains tight-lipped, Gilpin can’t help but wax poetic about Debbie’s complicated friendship with Ruth (Alison Brie). “I always held out hope that they found their way back to each other,” she explains. At least, that’s how she would end the story.
If such a storyline never comes to fruition, she is grateful for the perspective shift she’s experienced from working on GLOW. Before starring in the series, Gilpin had a specific understanding of her body. “I’m an actor and a creative from the neck up; from the neck down, I am a posing person whose job is to suck it in for the wide shot and keep qualifying for health insurance and other jobs,” she says. But the level of training she endured for the wrestling role made her realize she hadn’t fully considered how powerful her body could be. Instead of trying to be smaller, wrestling—the pulsing, waving, and throwing—helped her realize how significant it was to take up space. “I will never go back to those exercise classes where your job is to make your triceps cement and you’re being mouselike,” she adds.
In addition to Gaslit, the actress is set to star in the series adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s bestseller, Three Women, later this year. Gilpin, who was “obsessed” with the book, will star as Lina, a Midwestern housewife in an unhappy marriage who has an affair. “Lina is a real person. She just had something so on the surface that while, at times hard to read, is so familiar. We all have a Lina within us,” she says. Gilpin wanted the part so badly that, during a Zoom call about the film, she realized she was only five minutes away from Taddeo in Connecticut; the actress contemplated making a Say Anything-type gesture and writing Lina’s name in the snow on Taddeo’s lawn. Luckily, she talked herself out of it. And at the 11th hour, Gilpin made a “Hail Mary audition tape” and got the job “very, very late in the game.”
Despite speaking in a comedic, self-deprecating manner that suggests she’s flying by the seat of her pants most of the time, Gilpin is “a very filtered person” who is careful with her words. “I second-guess everything,” she says. “I live in anxiety and panic about whether or not the sound of my voice is making the Starbucks person hate me.” Lina, however, is the antithesis of Gilpin in that regard—a quality the actress can’t help but admire. “She’s just so inherently herself,” she says.
Gilpin, however, has been leaning more into her own authenticity lately. In September, she’ll release a series of darkly funny, vulnerable essays with All the Women in My Brain: And Other Concerns. “I think that my experiences as a sometimes-working actor have been the perfect allegory for being a woman in the world,” she says of her literary debut. “Having to cycle through selves to give whoever is in front of you the girl that they want.”
And while the pandemic took GLOW from Gilpin, her costars, and the fans, her debut book might not have happened if the world didn’t grind to a halt in 2020. Before that time, Gilpin had been terrified to put a pen to paper—but still had feelings and fears about her experiences as an actor lingering in the back of her mind. “I had always wanted to write about them, but was always sort of like, ‘Writing is for grumbly auteurs who live in a log cabin or for out-of-touch, self-obsessed people who sit on a computer and press file-print,’” she says. “[But] I feel like I met a strange cross-section of being too tired to hate myself too much to not [execute] my ideas, and not so lost in narcissism that I don’t have the perspective that enables somewhat okay writing.” She finally wrote the book. And now, she can’t re-read it—if she does, she says she’ll probably delete it all. Still, she wakes up in the middle of the night panicking about a typo, finding some stray comma that accidentally made it into the middle of a word. But she’s accepted the possibility of grammatical errors in favor of a nonexistent book.
Despite her anxieties around her debut essay collection, Gilpin says she wants to do it again. “I am a little nervous that the only way that I would write a book [again] is for the world to stop and everyone to go inside and for society to be paused,” she says in a half-joking tone. But Gilpin’s still trying to cling tightly to the confidence she gained during the process, and let it inform her overall ethos: “I’m doing more things out loud, and pressing send on emails that would have stayed in drafts forever.”