2023 – Vanity Fair
May 2, 2023
Betty Gilpin is way too familiar with the acting jobs that are actually hard— the ones where, as she puts it, “you feel like you’re getting to do 10% of what you actually can and want to do.” So while her new series Mrs. Davis was undeniably a challenge, it was also the “Everest of red meat” she’d been waiting for.
Not that she could really explain it for a long while. When Mrs. Davis was announced as a new Peacock series from creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof (who cowrote the script for Gilpin’s only previous star vehicle, The Hunt), it came with a simple, cryptic logline: “Mrs. Davis” is the world’s most powerful Artificial Intelligence. Simone is the nun devoted to destroying Her. Who ya got?” Now that five episodes of Mrs. Davis have aired, Gilpin is free to get into a bit more detail on this week’s Little Gold Men podcast. Not that she can explain everything, of course. “I keep describing Mrs. Davis as No Country for Old Looney Tunes,” she says. “Every day that I showed up to work, we were doing a different genre. And for my jumping beans in a blender brain, that is great and a dream.”
Nominated twice for Emmys for her role on GLOW, Gilpin somehow shows even more range on Mrs. Davis, in which she is indeed a nun on a global quest to destroy an all-knowing Artificial Intelligence—but also a woman reuniting with her long-lost love (Jake McDorman) and in a new, intense relationship with the mysterious Jay (Andy McQueen). There’s a lot to untangle in Mrs. Davis, both in the constantly twisting plot and in Simone herself. In the podcast conversation, Gilpin gets a bit spoilery about Mrs. Davis thus far, but also dives deep on how motherhood changed her work— “It just made my ‘are you mad at me?’ metabolism quicker”— and how working on shows led by Alison Brie (GLOW) and Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) prepared her to be #1 on the call sheet.
Little Gold Men: I’m curious about how you sign on to something so wild and freewheeling and hard to explain. I’m assuming that you met with Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, the co-creators, and they sold you on this somehow. What was their pitch?
Betty Gilpin: I mean, I was in, one sentence in. And then as I learned more and more I was like, this is incredible. I think the jobs that are more—not excruciating, but the harder ones are the ones where you feel like you’re getting to do 10% of what you can and want to do. And I think that’s probably true for any field where you’re just sitting there being like, oh, I could do so much more and I wish I had more red meat to deal with. And this is like an Everest of red meat in terms of material.
I had worked with Damon Lindelof on The Hunt, which was sort of classic Damon hide your vegetables in weirdness. Ask big questions while sort of inventing a strange genre.
I think of the work that you did on GLOW and how much you were able to do there, but you’re at the center of this in a way that I don’t think you really have been in anything other than The Hunt. What’s the intimidation factor in being so central to this story?
Yeah, I had only been number one on the call sheet one other time, in The Hunt, and it was always a sort of daunting thing to me. But working my way up the call sheet, over 15 years, I’ve had the honor and privilege of watching so many incredible number ones— Alison Brie, Edie Falco, people who were so good at both being caretakers and bosses, I think I had always sort of told myself, I had assigned my identity to being a sidekick and, and I was sort of surprised to be really excited to helm this one.
These scripts [on Mrs. Davis] are not actor-proof. They had to be very specific people to carry this braid of insanity of text. And it felt like every day you’d show up and a different pro would just knock it out of the park.
Did you take some of that leadership guidance that you’d had from Edie Falco and Alison Brie? Did you play out those lessons you’d learned?
Totally. You know, I got my start mostly in theater and did really plays in New York for like, the first decade out of college and then episodes of stuff here and there to keep qualifying for health insurance. I was certainly trying to be in film and TV, and film and TV just didn’t really want me.
The model of a play where you have a month, maybe five weeks of rehearsal and then performances, it was really more conducive to the kind of person that I maybe was. I had all these ideas creatively, but I was pretty shy and nervous and second- guessed myself. And it really took me five weeks to be like, ‘I have an idea and I’d like to do it in the play.’ And then for TV and film, that process is condensed into 20 minutes. You better find the confidence and feeling comfortable and not worry that the sound guy hates you or get in your head about, whatever, the way your shoes feel. It was really intimidating to see people who were just comfortable with who they are and that highway from their brain out their mouth had far fewer obstacles than mine.
You know, when you’re standing across from a good actor in the scene, it’s much easier to find that tunnel vision that I could find much easier in a play than on set. And every single actor in this show just blew my mind. Even the people who hand a handful of lines. It was some sort of weird alignment where everybody was incredible and that just made my job insanely easy.
So when your book came out last fall, in interviews you talked a lot about your body as an actress and as a person, and how in your thirties you know your body is not going to be the same as you get older. So then you get to make the show where you’re in a nun’s habit the whole time, which seems like the greatest gift for an actor who has maybe shown more skin than they’ve wanted to. Was that part of your formula of saying yes, this is the role for me? Was that part of your formula of saying, this is the role for me?
First of all, I was never coerced into showing too much skin. It was sort of like an unknowing toll that I was in on to get the parts that I wanted. And probably a real picture of what things were like 15 years ago and how things are different now. I think 15 years ago I told myself, oh, my body and youth is this megaphone that speaks for me before I can speak for myself. And it’s sort of the necessary drugs that I have to bring to the party to be allowed into said party. And I can’t wait to just be at the party and not have to bring the drugs.
I think as I get a little older, I realize, oh, maybe I was relying on those things. Like, it’s okay that I’m here, right? I’m in a tight costume, so if I look good in the wide shot, can I do my weird ideas in the closeup? And I think I have to be honest with myself in learning the lesson that I don’t feel like I need to check those boxes in order to play a part. Like I have to kind of get to that conclusion and that epiphany before society does, because maybe society never will. It probably dates me that I’m sort of looking over my shoulder, like, ‘it’s okay that there’s not a scene where I’m like, slowmo washing a car, right?’ Like, I can just be the person trying to figure out the mystery. It doesn’t have to be like, mystery and areolas.