As Liberty Belle, the alter ego of her housewife turned female pro wrestler on GLOW, Betty Gilpin is a paragon of patriotism and pride; a woman who loves only one thing more than the good ol’ U.S. of A.: kickin’ Russian ass.
Outside of the fictional ring and away from the cameras, however, the 31-year-old actress says she’s often found herself paralyzed by insecurity—so much so that she’s having a hard time buying into the considerable good buzz surrounding her Netflix series.
But GLOW, which chronicles the early days of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) league, and tells the stories of the 15 bold, brash, badass women that do battle on its behalf, is a bona fide hit. And Gilpin is the show’s breakout star, bringing grace and fortitude to the character of Debbie Eagan, a soap opera actress turned housewife who turns to pro wrestling as an emotional outlet after learning that her best friend (Alison Brie) is having an affair with her husband.
“If this had been happening when I was 19, I would have either been inside of an unplugged refrigerator sobbing and hiding or I would be doing cocaine with Regis Philbin in Greece,” she says with a laugh. “But because I’m 31 and have a little sense of who I am, I feel like I’m Dorothy and I’m in Kansas and I know there’s no Wizard, so I’m just going to try to make sure not to become the friend who talks 80 percent of the time at lunch.”
A former “super-stoner-hippie person” (though she still loves Phish), Gilpin has been acting professionally for a dozen years, and while she’s had considerable story arcs on shows like Nurse Jackie and Masters of Sex, this is her first time in the lead. Though she hasn’t heard about a second season of the Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch-created show yet, it seems like a foregone conclusion.
I sat down with Gilpin at a hotel bar in New York to discuss the surprising success of GLOW and her long, hard journey to the ring.
So you’ve been at this for over a decade and now you’re in the lead. It must feel good.
I’ve been working professionally since I was 19 and I’m 31 now. So 12 years. I basically died on all the shows you could die on in New York.
What was the most elaborate way you died?
On Law & Order: Criminal Intent I was shot in the neck and found dead and naked in an oil drum—a barrel. I was Fran Drescher’s daughter and I was a soldier who was in the Army and my Army boyfriend killed me. Spoiler! And then Vincent D’Onofrio found me. And then a year later, I was back on Criminal Intent as someone else. I was like, “I died a year ago and no one cares!” Also, with the kid [Dylan Minnette] who stars in 13 Reasons Why, we did an SVU together—he was like 14 at the time—and I was his science teacher and we were having an affair. And then he murdered me in the lab. I’ve always wanted to see him at a Netflix party and be like, “So… do you remember when… we had that really weird time together?” [Laughs]
And I read that both of your parents appeared on Law & Order shows as well.
Yeah, both of my parents were New York actors and in the ‘80s and ‘90s you did plays and Law & Order, and that’s what being a New York actor was. But I did two Criminal Intents, a Law & Order, an SVU, and…that’s it.
Now you’re on GLOW, which I really enjoyed. When did you shoot it?
We shot this fall from September to December, and then trained with this amazing trainer, Chavo Guerrero, Jr., for about a month beforehand and then throughout shooting. He’s a professional wrestler who comes from a wrestling family, and his uncle, Mondo Guerrero, was the trainer for the original GLOW girls in the ‘80s and famously put one of the GLOW girls in a sleeper hold until she passed out. But Chavo was very caring and nurturing.
It’s nice that it was a full-season order and not just a pilot you all were shooting. I’m sure you’ve had to go through pilot season before. I hear it can be pretty brutal.
Oh my god, yes. Many times. I would do this thing where I’d stay at my godmother’s house in Brentwood ever January to April and audition for five things a day, and have in my rental car my lawyer outfit, my sexy cop outfit, my sexy/sad secretary outfit, and audition sides trash all over my car. One audition I went on, I tested for a CBS show where your test was you and five other girls, and you keep auditioning all day long for a room of 30 people who are silent and don’t life. It was the six of us, we were auditioning and auditioning and auditioning, and the they said, “OK, you can go.” We got in the elevator. Five of our phones rang in the elevator. I answer my phone and a voice says, “Stay in the elevator.” Suddenly, the elevator door opens and one girl gets off—the girl whose phone didn’t ring—and she looks back, and we were all just like [cringe], and then the elevator goes back up. They wanted us to do it to her. They couldn’t just say, “You can go home.” It was horrible.
With those costumes in your car, were the casting notices asking for things like a “sexy secretary” and a “sexy cop?”
Yeah. In your actor arsenal you have your outfit that you wear for a sexy cop audition, and it’s either a tight tank top or a cardigan over a tight tank top. You’re usually going first-in for a female casting director and your job is to make her think you’re very self-deprecating and hate yourself—but you can also act—to get to the next round, which is a room full of men, and you have to convince those men that even though you’re wearing glasses you’re very sexy, ten years younger than you are, and that you’ll be magically hot forever if the show goes on for ten years. It’s impossible. You’re having to be self-deprecating while selling yourself. It’s this incredible contradiction.
And I know casting notices can be pretty insane sometimes and ask for very specific things—offensively specific things.
Definitely. I’ve gotten very good at reading character descriptions where I’m like, “I know what they want me to wear.” Kathleen is tough as nails. Doesn’t take shit from anyone. Nudity required. OK, so you want me to wear a very tight black shirt, and at some point during the audition I should look over in just the right way so there’s a profile shot. It’s just…insane.
Returning to GLOW, you’re shooting from September to December of last year, which was a very chaotic time with the election. Was it cathartic to be surrounded by a group of women, beating each other up during that time?
It felt like empowerment boot camp. I feel like if I had experienced the election without GLOW, I wouldn’t have felt ready for it. It was great to show up to work every day with 14 other women and my body’s job for the day was to wrestle Alison Brie safely to the ground or protect Kimmy Gatewood’s neck, instead of my body’s job of trying to be as small and still as possible, which is how I feel sometimes as an actor—especially when a man is running for president where the way he speaks about women and their bodies is so degrading, I wonder if I hadn’t had GLOW, would I have been strong enough to take those things in? GLOW and the election completely changed how I exercise, how I nourish myself. I feel so much stronger and more powerful.
Pro wrestling is very different from a sport like boxing where you’re just pummeling the other person. It’s more of a dance where, like you said, you’re also tasked with protecting the other person.
Going into wrestling, I thought it was all ego and violence. And it’s the complete opposite. It’s all vulnerability, togetherness, and trust. You’re putting the safety of your body in someone else’s hands, and you’re also selling the other person’s strength—when they touch you, you’re acting like they’re the most powerful person to ever touch you. You’re swallowing your ego all day long because your job is to make the other person look powerful. Your bodies are talking to each other in a way that I’ve never experienced before. I loved it so much.
Back to the election—and Trump. Did the cast have an election night party?
No. I filmed during the election. I shot a Liberty Belle scene during the election. I was sobbing into Marc Maron’s sweater, and then we just had to suck it up and keep shooting. We shot very late that night, and then I went home and lied down on my face on the floor—like we all did.
President Trump also has a pro wrestling past. He’s appeared on the WWE numerous times, and even tweeted out a doctored clip of him bodyslamming CNN.
Wrestling helped me objectively understand a Trump rally. If you have a warrior spirit and your job for the day is to go to the pharmacy, that’s not a really good way to funnel your warrior spirit into something. At a wrestling match—or a Trump rally—you know when to cheer, when to boo, you can scream, you can pound your chest, you can be a hero, you can be a villain, and you feel like a warrior. And it makes sense in that arena.
It was also pretty prescient of GLOW to have it be Liberty Belle (or the U.S.) versus Zoya the Destroya (or Russia). Because this began shooting in September and I imagine was scripted way before then.
In the original GLOW, they had a Russian character and an American character who squared off, but so many things about this show are timely. You’re like, Oh yes, it’s a retrospective on U.S.-Russia relations and sexism. All those things we’ve grown out of. Oh wait…they’re still very much a part of our lives. But I came into GLOW with my shoulders shrugged and trying to grasp at any sense of sure footing—I never felt like I had that—and through wrestling, and working for [creators] Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, I felt my own power emerge. I felt calm and confident.
You elucidated that incredibly well in your Glamour essay, that the show helped you feel more comfortable in your own skin. You also mentioned bro-gargoyle producers that you had to put up with over the years. I’ve heard so many “casting couch” horror stories over the years. How bad did it get for you with the bro-gargoyles?
I used to have the social problem of—if I’m out to lunch with a female friend, I’ll spend my time getting her to like me and trying to not say the wrong thing. And in my later assessment of the lunch, sometimes I’ll be like, “Oh…she was being mean to me.” I’ve had similar experiences with men sometimes, especially those in positions of power in the business, where I’ll think, “Don’t say anything wrong…don’t get fired…what you just said was so stupid,” and two hours later being like, “Oh my god, I was being so sexually harassed! That guy’s hand was on the small of my back.” A certain kind of man can smell the self-shame on you. That quality drew me into being an actor, because I do feel like a very sensitive, vulnerable person who tries to have my arms open to the world, and sometimes I feel like that is taken advantage of.
In the past couple of years, you can either audition for something or you can have “a meeting” for something, and those can sometimes feel very confusing for an actress because it can feel like a date. You slowly realize, oh, I’m supposed to make this guy feel like I’ve existed forever as the manic pixie dream girl that he’s written, my job is to laugh really hard at what he says and be charmed by it, squint into the distance and tell a story about personal pain I’ve experienced—but make it sexy. So yes, there have been men who have sexually harassed me in this business where I didn’t even realize it was happening in the moment because, listen, the road to self-love is long and rocky, but these [producer] men are like…if Santa did heroin for four years. [Laughs] You’re like, Wait…what?
Ugh. Creepy producers. The worst.
You know, watching the original GLOW for the first time, it felt like how I feel as an actor sometimes, watching that. These women’s imaginations are running wild, they’re creating interesting characters, they’re doing really intense, difficult moves with their body, they’re giving everything they have, and you look in the audience and men are watching it like it’s porn. That can be how being an actress feels. I am using every part of me—who I was as a kid, the kind of woman I want to be, the kind of woman I feel like I’m turning into—and it feels like I’m showing you my organs, and sometimes the reaction is: “nice tits” or “lose five pounds.” It’s so painful because sometimes it can feel like soul church and sometimes it can feel like they just see you as a set of traits that will expire in two years. I think our job, as actors and writers, is to portray three-dimensional characters who will stay that way into their 70s and 80s, instead of perpetuating this myth that you’re either a Barbie or a shrew.
I, for one, would love to see GLOW go on until all of you are in your 70s, like a soap opera.
[Laughs] That sounds good! My tits will be in my shoes and I’ll be wrestling Alison Brie.