Betty Gilpin Is a Vivid Talker
It was 2020, and like pretty much everyone else on planet Earth, the actress Betty Gilpin was having a strange year: Her first leading role in a movie, Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt,” had already stirred a manic level of controversy and drawn the ire of President Trump, before it came out on March 13.
Shortly after, filming for the fourth and final season of her television show, Netflix’s critically adored “GLOW,” was paused. That June, Ms. Gilpin received her third subsequent Emmy nomination for her performance as harried new mom turned wrestling warrior queen Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan. And yet, that October, Netflix announced the show was canceled, and the fourth season would be scrapped due to ongoing pandemic uncertainty.
Then in November 2020, Ms. Gilpin gave birth. And five weeks after her daughter Mary came into the world, Ms. Gilpin started writing what would become her first book, “All the Women in My Brain: And Other Concerns,” which will be released on Sept. 6.
“I became an actor because I felt like I was the strange girl with split ends on the sidelines in a saliva-soaked hoodie, taking notes on human behavior,” Ms. Gilpin said.Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times
“I wanted to use the fact that people probably don’t know who I am, and to have my book be a comedic allegory for what it feels like to be a woman in the world,” said Ms. Gilpin, 36, over a Zoom call from Los Angeles on a recent Saturday.
In a collection of 20 essays, Ms. Gilpin explores the sweeping questions of “Who am I?” “Who am I supposed to be?” and “How does the world see me?” showing how they ripple out into other arenas: the built-in identity crises of acting; the thunderdome of girlhood; her family life with charming, working-actor parents; female friendship; treading the boards off-off-Broadway; the love of a dog; and more.
The book felt like a natural progression for a woman known to her friends to be a vivid talker, though Ms. Gilpin is wary of how she comes across in print interviews, at least. (“When I read them, I’m like, ‘Oh, I said that in a funny accent with fake vocal fry and a shrug,’ but it’s in print. It looks like I’m saying it teary-eyed on the steps of Congress,” she said.) The book presented an opportunity to put her own voice on the page.
Theatricality is in Ms. Gilpin’s bones. As the oldest of three children, she lived in New York City until she was 9, when the family moved to rural Connecticut, but continued to live a “carny lifestyle,” as she writes in the book, thanks to her parents’ itinerant work lives. (Her father Jack Gilpin and mother Ann McDonough have had careers spanning stage, film and television; Mr. Gilpin plays Church the butler in “The Gilded Age” while Ms. McDonough was in “The Ferryman” on Broadway.)
Ms. Gilpin eventually attended the Loomis Chaffee School, a private boarding school in Windsor, Conn., before studying theater at Fordham University in Manhattan, a place she knew she could “harvest weirdness.”
“I became an actor because I felt like I was the strange girl with split ends on the sidelines in a saliva-soaked hoodie, taking notes on human behavior,” she said. “And now my job is to present said notes on human behavior while wearing a costume with ringlets.”
After graduation, Ms. Gilpin found rather steady work in theater (“That Face,” “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” and “We Live Here”) and eventually regular television roles (“Nurse Jackie,” “Masters of Sex,” “Elementary”) before landing her breakout role in “GLOW.” It was during this time that she started publishing essays, including in this newspaper.
For Ms. Gilpin, the process of writing this book began in the terrifying, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, which for her was also that psychedelic gulf of time after giving birth.
“I think that combination of society shutting down, and the hormones of feeling like there are no bad ideas, you just lifted a Mack truck and threw it across the universe,” she said, referring, of course, to childbirth, served as inspiration. “Now you can do your secret goal and write the damn book.”
Ms. Gilpin’s friends are not surprised by this development. As the actress Cristin Milioti described it, “She’s always excavating. She deep dives, and the way that she’s able to put things in perspective, there are metaphors that she’s using, that I still use to this day to navigate the way I approach things in the world.”
The book came out in one draft, writing on her computer, hunched in a “self-isolating gargoyle position” on the living room floor “between semi unsuccessful breastfeeding sessions, and whatever hours I could get between terrible naps,” Ms. Gilpin said. By the time the new baby high had worn off, the book was in motion.
“I knew she could write, having read her essays and having been the recipient of texts,” said the actress Zoe Kazan, also a friend of Ms. Gilpin’s. She describes the writing as “if David Rakoff and David Sedaris had a baby and that baby was Betty.”
It’s hard to quantify Ms. Gilpin’s inventiveness as a speaker in conversation and writing: She uses extravagant, original metaphors, dropping dense citations like a lost Gilmore Girl (“Michael Bay going to Wesleyan — that’s like Stanley Kowalski going to Montessori,” she said at one point in the interview), creating great, grand spindly images off the top of her head, and suddenly it’s perfectly clear that yes, a subject like giving birth is absolute witchcraft cauldron business, something that stood in stark difference to her expectations.
“I’d been told that my body was a Tamagotchi, and it’s a NASA supercomputer. And I could have been using it as a NASA supercomputer this entire time?” she said, using an expletive for emphasis. “What a heartbreak. What a waste.”
For people who first saw Ms. Gilpin in “GLOW,” the idea that she has never been a starry blonde bombshell is surprising (for one, in real life her hair is naturally brown), but in her book, she explains her self-perception as that of a beta woman, an outsider, on the sidelines. She even refers to her acting career as something that she deliberately pursued with beta expectations — not to be the leading ingénue, but the funny girl whose jokes hit.
Yet she crossed the line at some point, and she’s found that with some success, she now has “this alpha schedule for this beta marketing.”
There is something Sphinx-like about Ms. Gilpin, where she can tell you a great story but she knows the game of talking to a reporter. She muttered at some point that she was Zooming from a friend’s house, the sort of detail that means I can’t read too much into the interior design of the place. Her metaphors are splashy, but they serve as the comic guide to where she’s most honest as a writer, and the themes that come up through her book are dark, from depression to the absolute grind of Hollywood’s sexism.
Regarding the latter, she writes about auditioning for a high school student on the original “Gossip Girl” and being called back for a role of an older teacher; the fact that you have to smile and claim you were born under George W. Bush to be considered sexy and marketable; the whiplash of performing the right version of yourself at a meeting, especially when they’re expecting no insight, just a shiny and vacuous shape of a woman.
Ms. Gilpin’s self-deprecation can be credited to her mother. “My humor is just complete counterfeit from Ann McDonough,” she said. “Even in the most funereal list of circumstances, she was a winking elf, making fun of herself and you and everything and made every day so goddamn funny.”
It’s a quality, she clarified, of being both passionate and embarrassed. “I really only relate to people who are so passionate about what they love and want to do and how they see the world — and also are truly embarrassed to be alive.”
While “GLOW” is still mourned by its stars, Ms. Gilpin has been able to bring her specific, salty and surprising presence to new projects. In the past year, she appeared in Apple TV’s “Roar” and played Mo Dean on Starz’s “Gaslit.”
Last year, she filmed “Three Women” — set to premiere early next year on Showtime — an adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s best-selling nonfiction book, which “just totally changed me as a person,” Ms. Gilpin said. “And I chased that role so embarrassingly hard.”
Ms. Gilpin has been waking up at 5 a.m. every day this summer to begin another day of filming on her current project, “Mrs. Davis,” for Peacock, in which she plays “a nun who goes to battle against an all-powerful artificial intelligence.” She has been working 14-hour days, appearing in every scene — and doing this while wearing a wool habit.
Returning to acting after the nesting of new family life with her husband Cosmo, a nurse with whom she lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, has given her whiplash. “I went right from this bubble of terror, protecting my tiny baby, to a set, which sort of feels like a fake Orwellian society where the pandemic hasn’t touched anything. It’s a big corporation society, where I dance around in a habit, sometimes sob in a habit, or pratfall in a habit,” she said.
At one point in the book, Ms. Gilpin writes that with success comes loneliness. One year of work took her on 50 plane rides. But, when she’s done with “Mrs. Davis,” she is planning on a different approach.
“I’m trying to find the balance of working enough to still barrel toward this weird dream and passion while also seeing my daughter and touching a leaf and understanding that being an actor in the grand scheme of things is meaningless and silly,” she said, “while also loving the meaningless and silly thing.”