Betty Gilpin Wants To Prove You Wrong
Catching up with the leading actress from Craig Zobel’s lastest action-horror project The Hunt.
She became known in the film and TV industry a few years ago, garnering two back-to-back Emmy nominations as a Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She came a long way from living the life of a starving NYC actor, appearing Off-Broadway and doing small parts on shows like Law & Order. She contended with being typecast and had to fight for roles for a few years, finally out of the metaphorical shell with her landmark appearance in the Netflix female-wrestling comedy series GLOW and further advancing her career with roles in comedy films like Isn’t It Romantic and A Dog’s Journey.
Betty Gilpin today is not the Betty Gilpin she was at the beginning of her career. Fed up with the male-gaze perspective often placed on young actresses in film and TV, she was determined to look for a ‘side door’ in the typical actress trajectory and find her own path in the industry. And she did — despite the loud external narrative of what it means to be a successful actress in entertainment, giving performances that are “grotesque” in the best way possible.
Leading up to the release of her new action-horror project The Hunt that came out on Friday, March 13, we spoke to Gilpin on what it takes to portray a multifaceted female character, intense physical training, her choice to stay away from social media and more. Read the full interview below:
V Magazine: How has your Sunday been so far, what are you up to today?
Betty Gilpin: Not much — I’m in Los Angeles and I live in New York City, so my husband and I are navigating the wilds of Los Angeles where everyone’s wearing $100 cashmere pajamas to have $17 lattes.
V: Are you there for work?
BG: Yeah, we’re about to start shooting the last season of GLOW, and we shoot that here in Los Angeles.
V: Let’s talk a little bit about your other project that’s about to come out, The Hunt. How did you come across this opportunity?
BG: I had worked with this director, Craig Zobel, years ago on an episode of American Gods, this TV show. I was on this one episode that he directed, and we did a couple of scenes together, shooting from one in the morning to six in the morning. It was one of my favorite experiences with a director, and if you can say that after working those crazy, insane, brain-shuts-down hours — then you know it’s been a positive experience.
Having started my career and training in theater, I was really spoiled by theater directors who have all the time in the world to talk through the ideas and process and know exactly the kind of strange-kid-glove-sorcery language to use when talking to actors about a scene. Directors in TV and film really don’t have that kind of time: talking to actors about acting is 10% of what their responsibilities on a given day on set include. But Craig Zobel just really sees exactly how actors’ brains work, and I just really appreciated that it made the experience that much easier and more exciting.
Craig called me when I was shooting A Dog’s Journey in Winnipeg (which I would describe as Soviet Cleveland), playing the drunk mom and feeling depressed in my hotel room. He called me and said, ‘There’s this script that I really want you to star in.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know, they don’t really let people who aren’t huge movie stars star in movies. That’s just not the way actor-movie math works.’ And he said, ‘Well, I think the way that this movie is, um, you know, without spoiling anything, we can front-load the movie with big stars and then kind of fake out the audience.’ I made a tape in my hotel room, by myself. I taped my phone to the window and recorded my voice doing the lines, sent in this tape and got the part! It was a crazy long shot, and I got it. And after all of that, the [shoot] dates overlapped with GLOW, and I spent three months writing sobbing-college-essay emails to the heads of Netflix, Blumhouse and Universal basically begging them to make the schedules work. And they did, thank god!
V: What did you do to prepare for this role?
BG: One of the things that are so appealing about this particular character is that you don’t really know what’s going on in her brain. I think a lot of times you, as an audience member, feel that towards male characters in films, while very often the female characters and their wants and needs are pretty much on their sleeve and very externalized in the writing and in the acting in order to move the story along. For me, this was sort of a rare opportunity to be a female character who had oceans inside her that you’re not really let in on. I wanted to make the distinction that I would be very clear on what those oceans were, but the audience can sort of decide for themselves who she is.
In my experience as an actor, I had seen that being on set sometimes feels conducive to one kind of personality where if you feel relaxed and comfortable, that does 90% of the work — because it’s basically like reading your journal aloud in the middle of a conference room, with a hundred people holding lights and mics up to you. It’s a really weird embarrassing thing to do. And I think that I’ve wasted a lot of time creatively on set just being so aware that I’m taking up too much time, or I’m doing it wrong, or there’s a weird sound over there, so I’m going to forget all the ideas that I came up with in my bedroom last night and just get through this day so no one gets mad.
I made a pact with myself to not do that on this project, to come in armored with homework and ideas and to not be afraid to implement those ideas. And I’m really glad I did. I think that the character and my take on her required me to be a little braver and calmer and more patient than I am in my life. It felt a little like a social experiment on myself, to try and execute that without second-guessing myself. There were definitely days, like the first day of filming, where I was definitely second-guessing myself and to me, it’s glaringly obvious in the movie. I’m like, there’s the scene where I thought I was terrible and I thought I was going to get fired and but hopefully it’s not apparent to the audience.
V: Could you kind of let us in on the oceans inside your character, Crystal? What were you thinking about while acting?
BG: I think that Crystal is the audience’s way into the movie because the movie is so this-side-versus-this side, and very tribal in that way. Crystal is the only character whose political allegiances are unclear. My political allegiances are very clear to me, Betty, but I wanted to be sure that I was not judging Crystal or putting my beliefs on her. I wanted to make sure that she was really a person who was rolling her eyes at both sides.
I thought more about who she was as a woman in the world. When you’re a kid, it’s very easy to dream big, important things for yourself and think, ‘Gosh, this warrior spirit in me, it’s so loud, I can’t wait to channel it into the exact perfect vessel when I get the chance!’ And then slowly as you get older, you realize, ‘Oh, maybe I’m never going to get that chance,’ and things like poverty and trauma make that chance all the more unrealistic. And I think Crystal, in particular, is somebody who had this sort of hum inside her saying, ‘I need to be funneled into something apocalyptic and important, and I could take the whole world by its throat and turn it upside down if I just got the chance.’ And I think she slowly convinced herself to muffle that part of herself because the circumstances of her life were not reflecting that feeling.
Strangely, even though what happens to her in this movie is so wild and everyone around her is freaking out because the circumstances are so horrific, for Crystal it’s the first time that the logistics of her day have reflected that feeling inside of her. We see her basically say, ‘I don’t want to be the star of this movie, I gave up the dream of greatness a long time ago. I just want to go home, follow somebody else — until she can’t deny it anymore. There’s a speech about the Jackrabbit and the Box Turtle in the movie, and to me, that speech is her saying, ‘There’s a part of me that fell asleep, and I woke up, and the world had passed me by, and now there’s a chance to wake up and, with blood in my teeth, storm into the room and take what’s mine again.’
V: Your character is from Mississippi and has a very particular accent. You’re from New York — how did you learn to do this sort of southern drawl?
BG: She’s from Whites Crossing, Mississippi, and there’s a hotel in Whites Crossing that I looked up, called and asked about the rooms, and talked to a lady there who had the most wonderful accent. And because it’s the South, she kept me on the phone and was so sweet and talk to me for a long time. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos of people from Mississippi, there was plenty online for me.
V: Where was the movie shot?
BG: We shot in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was an incredible place to shoot because to me, this movie is really for everybody and it feels like a movie that you can take your family members with opposing political views to, and you both can go together and laugh and wince each other and laugh and wince at yourself. The crew in Louisiana, [including] everybody making the movie was from very different political backgrounds, and I think that felt right in order to make a movie about the ever-decreasing not red, not blue but purple area of our country.
V: Did you use your previous experience with GLOW in the shooting and fighting scenes for The Hunt?
BG: I trained for about six months leading up to the movie. I was already in wrestling training for GLOW, so I had a three-years practice of stunt work (We do all our own stunts on GLOW.) I think the wrestling ring was really the perfect training grounds to do stunts. And to me, it was also kind of the best acting exercise I could have done because that has really been a missing component for me as an actor. I always thought of myself as an actor from the neck up, and from the neck down, I was steady — trying to suck it in for the wide shot and keep my job and look small in jeans. And GLOW has really opened my eyes to the idea that you can be a wholly different character from head to toe, and you can use your body in big, weird, powerful, functional ways, not just arching-your-back and sucking-it-in ways.
For this particular movie, I really tried to ramp up my training because I kind of roll my eyes when a person who looks like a toothpick is throwing grown men over her head in movies, and I wanted to look like I could really take somebody. So, I trained with Jason Walsh in Los Angeles, and I was deadlifting 200 lbs. by the end. It was crazy.
V: Can you recall any funny or memorable moments that happened on set?
BG: Craig Zobel and I, we wanted Crystal to have many different sides to her. If you look at her in one second, she seems like the most brilliant person in the room, and the next second you’re like, ‘Should we trust her with a gun?’ or ‘Should we trust her to be in charge?’ We would do one take where she’s Linda Hamilton in Terminator, and one take where she’s a brilliant scientist, and one take where she is the “right Crystal” and one where she’s the “wrong Crystal.” And then we’d do a take where we refer to it as the “baby dinosaur cake,” where it was just the weirdest side of this side of her that I call her “baby dinosaur” side. But just a few “baby dinosaur” takes made it into the movie, and I’m really excited.
V: The movie turned out to be pretty controversial — it was supposed to release in September and was then rescheduled to come out in March. Were you expecting this kind of response when you were shooting?
BG: We were definitely not expecting this, I don’t know how anybody can anticipate this particular series of events. What was frustrating to me was that people were thinking on behalf of a movie they’ve never seen before. The actual real content and tone of the movie was quite the opposite of this fictional movie they were talking about. It is the most meta thing that could have possibly happened: what happened to the movie is exactly what the movie is about, exactly. It’s pretty mind-blowing. When I saw the controversy starts to play out, I wanted to take the world by the lapels and scream, ‘You’ve got it all wrong! Exactly what you’re saying is what we talk about in this movie, you’re going to love this movie if these are the things that you care about!’
Another theme that our movie deals with is how fast and rampant falsehoods can spread on the Internet — that’s one of the thesis statements of our movie — and I knew more than anyone that being another voice screaming into the Twitter void would do nothing. We kind of had to wait for the world to calm down and move on to the next catastrophe, and then a couple of months later quietly knock on the world’s door and say, ‘Hey, remember that movie that you thought you knew what it was? You got it totally wrong. I think you’d really like it and I’d love for you to see it.’ I think it does the opposite of what the August Internet claims it wants to do. I think it’s a very unifying, hopeful movie, and it’s supposed to be silly more than anything.
V: Did this series of events affect you personally? Were you upset about it at first?
BG: Actually, yeah. I’ve been an actor now for 14 years professionally, and it’s really only been the last few years where the public eye, to whatever big or small degree, is involved in my career. When GLOW started, that was really the time where I realized that I’m too sensitive for the Internet. I’m too sensitive to have social media, and I’m kind of superstitious about that stuff because I’m afraid that the Internet commentary on my career or my face or my voice is going to close creative doors in my brain. I’m afraid that once you start reading stuff about yourself, however complimentary or negative, it starts to perpetuate the myth that you’re the only thing that exists, and if you think you’re the only thing that exists, playing a character different from yourself becomes that much more difficult. Listening to the world and having your arms open to the real world becomes almost impossible, at least for me. So when the controversy happened, I was already sort of like. ‘Oh well, I don’t look at the internet anyway, so I guess that I just have to wait for it to blow over if it does.’.
I was disappointed, too, because realistically as actors we get very few chances to do work that is important to us or personally cathartic, and this film to me was hands down the creative experience of my life with this character I felt so connected to. At first, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, is this the fork in the road of my life where it “almost happened” for me, and then didn’t?’ And I thought, ‘No, I still got the job, fought for and kept the job, and then I did the impossible brain trick that I have self-sabotaged before, where you have an idea in your brain and then you externalize it every day on set. And I still did that. And the Internet’s feedback on the results or the noise around the movie before it came out doesn’t cancel that out, that still happens.’ It was indicative that there are much more important things going on in the world than my IMDb star meter, so I do hope people see the movie because it’s pretty much exactly the opposite of what they thought it was.
V: What are you excited about at the moment?
BG: We’re doing the last season of GLOW, the fourth season. This show has really changed my life and change who I am, and I’m really sad to be leaving it. I’m also going to be on American Crime Story: Impeachment, playing Ann Coulter, so I’m very excited to sink my teeth into that character because what a character that is!
V: What do you hope to achieve in your personal life and career? What’s the “end goal?”
BG: Maybe it feels like this with any business, but I think that there’s the idea that you have in your head that would make you feel fulfilled and happy, and then the idea that the business you’re in has about what success looks like. And I think for the entertainment industry, particularly for actresses, that external narrative of what it is to be a successful actress is very loud. It’s easy to be convinced that that’s truer than your own dreams. I think that I want to not listen to that voice and continue to find the weird side door in the typical actress trajectory. It’s hard. I’m trying to eliminate the male-gaze representative in my brain that’s always telling me that the things that are valuable about me are the things that are going to expire, and that I’ll only get hired to emote for money while my, my tits are high and my skin is tight. And I don’t think that’s true at all!
I am continually inspired by the performances around me. Every time I turn on the TV, women are giving performances that are so guttural and terrifying and hilarious. And I use the word “grotesque” in the most complimentary way possible — I just wanted to give grotesque “clown” performances like the ones around me because that is what is so interesting to watch, and not the agreeing, blinking, quiet doll performances that a certain corner of the business tells us are interesting.