EXCLUSIVE: What 'GLOW' Taught Betty Gilpin About Being a Strong Woman

By
Photo: Getty Images

For an actress who has made a career out of acclaimed off-Broadway plays and parts on prestige TV shows such as Nurse Jackie, Masters of Sex and, more recently, American Gods, Starz’s stylized adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s cult novel, it comes as a surprise to see Betty Gilpin rocking spandex, glittery eye shadow and at least half a can of Aqua Net on Netflix’s female wrestling dramedy GLOW. In person, however, the self-described “theater geek” is decidedly less glamorous. “I have toothpaste on my face right now,” deadpans Gilpin, speaking to ET by phone from her Brooklyn apartment.

Last year was perhaps the busiest of Gilpin’s life, considering that she not only landed parts on two of the most talked-about new TV series, she also got married to Cosmo Pfeil, a former actor who now works at a nonprofit. (Ironically, the couple met while playing siblings in the 2009 movie The Northern Kingdom.) “While I was filming American Gods [in Toronto], they flew Ali to [screen] test with me,” Gilpin says, referring to her GLOW co-star, Alison Brie. The two play struggling actresses who become enticed by the women’s wrestling league. “And then we tested again in Los Angeles, like, five days before my wedding.” As it turns out, their chemistry together was undeniable, and they soon became co-workers as well as brides. “I got married the month before we started shooting, and she got married the month after. So we bookended the season with our weddings,” Gilpin says. (Her anniversary happens to be next month, and she was the only GLOW cast member to get invited to Brie’s intimate ceremony when she married actor Dave Franco in March.)

Gilpin’s seemingly sudden emergence as “summer TV’s It girl” -- as she has been hailed in the press -- has been a long time coming. What’s her secret? “Years of struggle and not getting parts, then drawing on that trauma in my auditions,” Gilpin jokes. “I’ve been making my living as an actor for 10 years, but there have been a lot of close calls that didn’t go my way. And hearing things from casting directors that I can never un-hear,” she continues. “I often felt like I was bringing around my 8-year-old self to try and fulfill her dreams -- and it was just not happening. That was a really heartbreaking process, and I learned a lot about myself.” 

One of the most powerful life lessons for Gilpin took place on the set of GLOW, the show she credits with redefining her concept of what it means to be a strong woman. “If I’m brought the wrong order at a restaurant, I don’t send it back because I don’t want the waiter to get mad at me,” admits the reformed people pleaser. “I fill my business emails with smiley faces and question marks so that I don’t sound too severe. And I have a very disorganized purse. So I had this myth in my mind that a ‘strong woman’ is one kind of organized alpha personality. And for me, this year -- with the help of GLOW and the election -- has been about finding my version of what a strong woman is. As me, as I am today, without having to change my personality. And that has so much to do with being around women who have other qualities and what strength I can outsource from them that I may be lacking in myself.” Gilpin likes to describe the close-knit cast and creators of GLOW as “a human centipede of female strength.”

While playing a former soap opera star-turned-professional wrestler allowed Gilpin the opportunity to strengthen her self-esteem, the physical challenges of the role transformed her body as well as her body image. (Co-star Marc Maron’s character summed up her look as “Grace Kelly on steroids.”) “In previous roles,” Gilpin recalls, “I have thought of my body as ‘Betty’s body,’ and I try not to eat too many dinner rolls -- please don’t fire me! I’ll make crazy choices from the neck up, but from the neck down it’s just me trying to suck it in,” Gilpin says. “And in GLOW, my whole body was required to do a function and not just to look as good as possible in a costume. No one ever cared about that; it was all about using my body to wrestle. And that functionality and sense of value of my body’s presence at work, that bled into my scenes that had nothing to do with wrestling. For the first time, I felt like I was completely in my body.” In other words, even though Gilpin has perhaps never worn less clothes on screen (her wrestling wardrobe can best be described as skintight and skimpy), she has simultaneously never felt more empowered.

As for the first time Gilpin realized that a television show could prove just as creatively fulfilling as doing theater, the actress credits her multiseason arc as ER vixen Dr. Carrie Roman on Nurse Jackie. “They did my makeup to the nines and tailored these costumes within an inch of my life and made everyone think that she was the Barbie,” Gilpin says of her seductive character, “but I was also allowed to be insane and make her insecure and sort of a monster. I felt like it was the first time I was able to be like, ‘Hi, I’m Betty. I’ve got a few weird things going on.’” Her Emmy-winning castmate provided ample inspiration on and off set: “Getting to work with Edie Falco and watching her be a quiet presence -- but a very powerful presence -- and so brilliant and free? That was the first person I saw where I was like, ‘I want to emulate that,’” Gilpin says. “That’s what I want to do.”

But what, exactly, does Gilpin want to do next? “I have no idea,” she says with a laugh. But one thing’s for sure -- she has no plans to play it safe: “I’m always interested in women who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown and how that manifests in their daily life. What happens when you turn into this half-Carol Burnett, half-Maleficent version of yourself …. [But] the biggest I ever dreamed was, like, being the sassy dry-cleaning worker on a WGN show,” Gilpin adds. “Maybe if Marvel did a mash-up of a Shakespearean Theater of the Absurd meets Jessica Rabbit robs a bank.” Look out, Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones -- you may have finally met your match.