Actress Betty Gilpin, 31, was born in New York and raised in Roxbury, Connecticut. She graduated from Fordham College and has appeared extensively in theater and on television, notably as Carrie Roman on Nurse Jackie, Audrey on the Starz series American Gods and Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan on the Netflix series GLOW. She divides her time between Brooklyn and a home in the Berkshires.
Jonathan Soroff: Can you pinpoint the time you knew you’d be an actor?
Betty Gilpin: God, it was when I was a little, little kid. I went to see Crazy for You on Broadway. I think I was 7 years old or something, sitting in the center row, and I stood on my chair and danced and screamed and grabbed my hair like it was Beatlemania. During the curtain call, I got a bow. The whole cast extended their hands to me like I was the conductor, and everyone cheered for me, because I was acting like this banshee crazy person.
Your father’s an actor. Did that attract or repel you from pursuing it? My mother is an actor as well. That made me fall in love with it, and certainly, watching them do plays over and over and over again was sort of a platform for me to become a really annoying, note-giving little circus freak.
What playwright from history could have seduced you? Going to theater school, it’s like dating the guy who has the most in common with you, so the one you can gossip with, and you both love hair… So I would say Tennessee Williams is the one I’d try to date, and he’d be like, “No, no, honey. I don’t go there.”
Theater, TV or film? Well, TV is so different now. When I first started auditioning for TV, the female roles were either wear a badge and give a blowjob or hold a laundry basket and give a blowjob. Now, the blowjobs don’t come till like season four! You get to solve three cases before you give a blowjob! So I think it’s really exciting what’s happening. So many more playwrights are writing for TV now, and there are so many more outlets producing content.
Do you follow a specific school or method of acting? I would say because I’m such a people pleaser and live in fear of judgment, and the purpose of being an actor is to produce a result that’s going to be judged, I try to fill my brain with as much disturbing imagery and, on the other hand, mindless happy images. So it’s a cross between looking at photos of serious, historic events and watching Housewives, and having these things talk to each other in my brain, and we create a character together. It’s half Ramona Singer, half Joan of Arc.
Role you wanted and were up for but didn’t get? Ooh! I mean, I never auditioned for it, but I remember seeing the trailers for Juno, and Ellen Page in that movie made me so physically hot with jealousy, and angry that there was another sarcastic brunette in the world. I thought I was the only half Haley Joel Osment, half Daria person on the planet. And then I went to see it and was so overwhelmed by how amazing Ellen Page was in it. I think that’s such a gift in this business. You walk in with your arms folded, with jealousy and resentment, and someone’s performance just forces your heart open. I was forced to suck it up and enjoy her brilliance.
Which is more you: designer or vintage clothing? Vintage clothing, because I have what I lovingly refer to as a bovine mutant body. Modern clothes designed for tiny little bustless people are not for me. They look like a $3,000 mainsail wrapped around a whale. When you have boobs the size of Shaquille O’Neal’s yarmulkes, you can’t really work a sack dress. Vintage clothes were designed at a time when women had curves, so I wear NASA-engineered vintage clothing.
Any tattoos or piercings? No. I have none. I don’t even have my ears pierced. I am very much a tomboy at heart. Because I’ve played so many sort of Alpha Barbie characters, I’ve had to dye my hair and get spray tans a lot and nails and all that, and I feel like my ears are my final frontier where I’m still secretly myself. I feel like if I pierce my ears, then the terrorists win, and so I’m holding out for as long as I can.
Song you sing most often in the shower? I do a pretty damn good Cranberries impression. Especially when it sounds like she’s yodeling and falling down the stairs at the same time. So when they come on when I’m in the car, I can really let it rip. But I live in Brooklyn, so singing in the shower means it echoes throughout five neighbors’ showers, and I can’t be as brave as when I’m in the car.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be doing? Oh, I have no damn idea. I truly don’t have any other skills. As a waitress, I was a disaster. My waitressing days unfortunately coincided with my stoner days, so I was really bad. I literally once had a customer ask me for chopsticks, and I brought them ChapStick. I once went up to a table and said, “Hi, can I get you started with some appetizers?” And they were like, “You’ve been waiting on us all night long. We’re just waiting for our check.”
Is that the worst job you ever had? No, I worked for an artist who made sculpture out of little tiny clay tiles, basically big mosaics. My job was to cut tile in a room with no ventilation, and it was very Hades-esque, and there was a lot of mouse shit. I’m pretty sure there’s still mouse shit in my lungs.
Favorite shade of green? The colors of the entire Berkshires. It’s like green porn. It’s so overwhelming, especially when you’re coming from New York. You drive up to Massachusetts and you feel like your eyes are going to explode from all the green, and you wonder why the hell you live in New York City.
Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett? Lucille Burnett. You can’t choose.
If you were a wine varietal, what would it be? My husband is really into wine, and maybe it’s because of my years of marijuana and cigarettes, but I cannot taste anything. We went to a wine tasting, and I assumed we were supposed to just eat the plate of cheese they put in front of us, instead of pairing them with the wines. Then I just drank everything, with no real discernment. So you could hand me food coloring and milk, and I’d be like, “Oh! Oaky!”
How much did you learn about wrestling before doing GLOW? Really nothing. I thought everyone was going to have to lose 10 pounds, or something, but all we really had to do was learn the moves. It was really kind of “Come as you are and let’s throw everybody’s cellulite around.” It was really a very body-positive kind of experience.
Which major Hollywood star would you most like to wrestle? Maybe Jason Momoa [from Game of Thrones] but we wouldn’t wrestle; we’d just lie there and chat and maybe talk about wrestling, and maybe I’d cry. I’d tell him a long story about my own personal pain…
I had a fantasy that you were going to say Gwyneth Paltrow. Hulk Hogan or Jesse Ventura? Hulk Hogan. We’re both blonds.
Have you ever been badly cheated on, like your character on GLOW? I never have, crazily enough. Although I’m sure if any of the Guido firemen of yore, or my gay boyfriends from regional theaters past, are reading this, they’d say, “She was blind!” But I never knew about it.
American Gods—sexiest show on TV? It’s pretty sexy. It’s so hot, and I know they reshot the gay sex scene because it wasn’t gay enough. They had to turn it up. I’m so excited about it. When I first went in to shoot it, I didn’t know what we were doing. I came in and did a few scenes, and I was like, “Hope you guys are having fun on your project!” Then I watched it, and I was like, “This is the scariest, sexiest, most terrifying thing on TV!” It’s insanely cool.
Jenji Kohan. Biggest genius working in TV? Yes, she is 100 percent a TV genius. My theory about her is that all of the women on each of her shows [Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, The Stones] represent all the women who live in one woman’s brain, taking turns at the wheel. We all have an army of crazies, who say, “I’ll drive today,” depending upon how much coffee we’ve had. One day, it’s Laverne Cox; the next, it’s Uzo Aduba. To get really meta, I think that’s her secret agenda.
Of all the roles you’ve played, which one made you feel like you weren’t really acting? I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I was playing myself because I don’t feel like who I am on the inside is reflected by who I am on the outside. You never see an apologize-y curvy girl. The big, busty girls are never allowed to be “I’ll be over here in the corner, wearing a whimsical hat.” We’re always in the center, wearing a lace diaper. We never get the ukulele.
Role you felt was furthest from who you are? Maybe Carrie Roman on Nurse Jackie. I mean, let’s not forget Chopsticks-gate from my waitressing days. I certainly have my moments of being inept, but she’s just such a sleepy drag queen, and my neuroses keep my eyes open a little more than hers.
Best feature? I’m the kind of friend who might forget we have brunch plans. I might forget a gift at the baby shower. I’m not good at helping with table settings. But if you killed someone, I’d be there. Let’s sit up at the kitchen table and talk about the tragedies in our lives. I’m the best apocalyptic friend on the planet.
What would you say is your biggest shortcoming? I would say I have a pathological fear of mail, and the more important the mail, the further back it goes in the wicker basket. If it’s from the IRS, you go under the journals from middle school, and you will marinate there for maybe two years. Then I’ll eventually open the flap, scream at the sight of a folded paper and then it’s back in the wicker basket for another six months, until I hear my husband saying, “Honey, if you don’t respond to this, you’re going to jail.” And then, I’ll launch into “Some Enchanted Evening.” ◆
Photo: Douglass Mott; Styling: Taylor Greeley/ Ennis Inc.; Hair and Makeup: Liz Washer/ Ennis Inc.; Location: Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort in Lenox, MA; Wardrobe: Mother Jeans and Iro Sweater from La Mia Moda Boutique