Debbie Eagan’s got nothing on Betty Gilpin.
Debbie, Gilpin’s character on the Netflix female-wrestling comedy ‘Glow,’ has only one alter ego: Liberty Belle, an All-American blonde bombshell. But over the course of a recent hour-plus conversation at a boutique cafe near her home in Brooklyn, Gilpin revealed that multiple personae are packed inside her shiny public exterior.
Or, as she described that exterior, “the Barbie bus.”
“I sometimes feel like I’m a living, breathing production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ where I am Cyrano” — Persona No 1 alert! — “driving the Barbie bus, fooling the Roxanne of show business, getting into rooms and getting jobs,” said Gilpin, who has been open about her struggles with self-esteem. (She wrote a 2017 article for Glamour headlined ‘What It’s Like to Have Pea-Sized Confidence with Watermelon-Sized Boobs.’)
After toiling in semi-obscurity for nearly a decade, Gilpin is the recipient of back-to-back Emmy nominations for best supporting actress in a comedy for her heartbreakingly funny and layered portrayal of Debbie on ‘Glow’. If not quite a household name, she has nonetheless come a long way from the one-dimensional babe-of-the-week roles she felt obliged to take in the past.
“When I was playing the hot chick, it was clear my job was to wear a very small costume and suck it in for the wide shot, and let the boys make the jokes,” she said. “I’m never going to devalue myself again to keep a job. It makes me sad, thinking how many times I did that.”
Raised in New York City and Connecticut by parents who are both character actors, Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough, she was — Persona No 2 alert! — “a ham clown, with a spaghetti pot on my head, doing jazz hands at dinner parties, whether it was wanted or not,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this is what being an actor is!’”
Gilpin’s parents urged her to study more than just theatre where she attended college, at Fordham University, in the name of financial security, if nothing else. But she was determined to act. It gave her a chance to unleash her — Persona No 3 alert! — “internal Joan of Arc-Sylvia Plath-Alanis Morissette-Kraken monster.”
But after graduation, she struggled against typecasting. “We studied a lot of theatre of the absurd at Fordham and ‘building your inner ocean of weird’ was the thesis statement,” she said. “Then graduating and auditioning for things like ‘Gossip Girl,’ where the No 1 priority is muffling your ocean of weird and curling your hair, I didn’t work for a while because I was bad at both the muffling and the curling.”
Gilpin did the starving New York City actor thing for a while, appearing off-Broadway and in bit parts on ‘Law & Order’ (once), ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ (once) and ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ (twice, as different characters). She was frustrated in her attempts to find depth in limited roles — and by the internet’s response to her.
“Sometimes when I was playing a lawyer, I’d created all this identity for this person and done all this homework about what rage they were suppressing,” she said. “And the first Twitter comment was ‘Nice [expletive].’”
Things began to change when she was added to the cast of Showtime’s dark comedy ‘Nurse Jackie’ as Dr Carrie Roman in 2013. The character was “basically supposed to be a bimbo who slept with everyone,” Gilpin said, but two of the show’s writers, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, saw something in her. Something deeply odd.
“Liz and Carly were like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a weird Sylvia Plath ham clown in there; let’s start peppering that into the writing,’” Gilpin said.
When Flahive and Mensch went on to create ‘Glow,’ which debuted on Netflix in 2017, they gave Gilpin the meaty role of Debbie, a 1980s soap actress whose husband (Rich Sommer) sleeps with her best friend (Alison Brie) in the pilot. By joining forces with her frenemy in a campy women’s wrestling league, Debbie begins to declare her independence — in spandex.
“Liz and Carly are very meta in their writing,” Gilpin said. “They see where I am in my fear and empowerment journey, and they write it into the script like evil genius demons. As Debbie finds her self-worth, I’m doing that on our set, which is like a feminist Montessori bio-dome experiment.”
As Gilpin has dealt with newfound fame and acclaim, she has also developed — Personae Nos 4 and 5 alert! — “an inner social worker and an inner stage mom,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m invited to a party, and I’m some cocktail of too afraid and too cool to go,” she continued. “But sometimes I’ll go and think, ‘Thank God I listened to the stage mom side of me. I feel so good being here.’ Self-celebration is not vanity, up to a point.”
It doesn’t always work out that way, though. “Sometimes I show up and I’m like, ‘Why did you make me come here, stage mom?’” she said. “That’s my social worker, who just wants me to go home and take care of myself.”
What Gilpin is most thankful for is living and working in an era when women are increasingly showing their complex, contradictory sides, both on and off-screen.
“We owe it to generations of women sobbing into their hoop skirts and complicated bras of yore, who whispered and screamed, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore!’” she said. “So much of what’s happening in writing for women is you’re used to seeing a certain side of the embroidery, and now we’re writing for the flip side, with the knots and mistakes that we collectively made a pact years ago not to talk about.”
Don’t miss it!
Season three of ‘Glow’ is now streaming on Netflix.