2023 – Los Angeles Times
June 15, 2023
Leading an unhinged sci-fi/spiritual/philosophical action-comedy-drama-mystery as a nun named Simone? Betty Gilpin was all in.
“My agents were like, ‘You have to pretend to be cool and aloof, like you have other things going on,’ ” in approaching her pursuit of the role. I was like, ‘Guys, I will do whatever it takes. I wanna start filming tomorrow,’ ” Gilpin says of her hardball negotiating tactics when it came to Peacock’s “Mrs. Davis.”
The “GLOW” and “Nurse Jackie” star had previously scored big leading a project for “Lost” and “Watchmen” creator Damon Lindelof — her experience in the deliciously wicked (and controversial) film “The Hunt” made her keen to work with him again. When he told her, during the lockdown, he had “met this genius named Tara Hernandez, and we’re making this show called ‘Mrs. Davis,’ I quietly was like, ‘I wanna play Mrs. Davis,’ not knowing what it was,” she says, laughing. “Months later, he sent me the script. I had that stomach-turning moment of, ‘Oh, God, I want this so bad.’ I can’t be cool about it. I just want it.”
She is not Mrs. Davis; that’s the stateside name of the ubiquitous AI that Sister Simone is actively resisting. If “Nun vs. Skynet” sounds wacky enough, that’s just the tip of the hallucinogen-laced iceberg. First of all, how malevolent Mrs. Davis actually is will be debated among viewers, but also in the mix are Vegas magicians, rodeo cowboys, secret societies, a kind of numbskull-parade Resistance, moments of extreme(ly entertaining) violence and the Holy Grail.
Yep, that Holy Grail. That’s nowhere near all, but to say more would be to spoil this circus of the absurd — that actually ponders the nature of religion and the responsibilities of free will, among other light notions.
“Damon and Tara both brilliantly do the thing that’s so hard to do, which is joyfully ask important questions, kind of hide your vegetables and address themes of today and issues that people are maybe afraid to talk about or are risky, but in a demented and sometimes silly way,” Gilpin says with a smile.
Despite those potent ponderables, the show certainly enjoys its gonzo-ness. Episode 3, in particular, gets mileage out of Gilpin’s finely honed comic chops: Witness Simone’s verbal slips about her mother, which she forcefully insists aren’t Freudian, or the precision of her exasperated pantomime while communicating with her confederate. The series was initially to be submitted for awards consideration as a drama, but viewers may not be so sure. (It’s now in the limited-series category, as Peacock did not renew it.)
“Reading this script, I couldn’t put my finger on what character type [Simone] was and what type the show was, genre-wise. And I loved that,” the actor says. “That felt truer to who I am and how life is. I know the show is wacky and strange and ever-changing. But life is wacky and strange and ever-changing and changes genres every three seconds on you. I thought, ‘This is exactly how I see the world.’ ”
As she doesn’t identify as a person of faith, Gilpin was a bit “nervous” to play a nun. But as with most aspects of the show, Simone’s spirituality is complex.
“Simone was raised by magicians, who, in my research, are often atheists,” she says. “Her parents raised her to believe that there’s always a trick up someone’s sleeve: There’s nothing inexplicable about life.”
Then the character happens into a relationship (a spoiler to discuss here) that “upends her identity into thinking there are things about the world that are inexplicable and intangible, and maybe those are the most beautiful things about our world. Simone thinks that AI taking over society is messing with our access to the best parts of being alive, the portal to the intangible.”
The actor, who has what she calls “a complicated relationship with the Internet,” has long been wrestling with her relationship with technology — especially since recently becoming a mother.
“If we have all the answers in our pocket, do we stop asking the big questions? It’s something I worry about as an actor. If we’re just relying on screens and wish fulfillment and doom scrolling, are we taking for granted our ability to be existential or creative, or to access the inexplicable? I see my daughter have free access to that part of her brain as a toddler who isn’t addicted to her screen yet. But, you know … I’m sure, in due time ….
“That’s such a excruciating trade-off. [Simone’s] faith in the convent when we meet her [is sort of] loving with no risk and faith with no risk. She learns that she’s not immune to this thing that [Mrs. Davis] is wanting to provide for people: ‘I’ll give you all the answers with no risk. I’ll give you love and wish fulfillment with nothing required on your end,’ when actually that’s cutting out the purpose of being alive. To me, it’s just wandering, fumbling, existential messes. The free fall of loving somebody is, to me, the most beautiful part of being alive.”