'GLOW': How Betty Gilpin Found Her Inner "Chest-Pounding Cavewoman"

"We should all be using 100 percent of that capacity — especially now," the actress tells THR of 'GLOW's' relevance in today's climate.
Courtesy of Netflix
Betty Gilpin on 'GLOW'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire first season of Netflix's GLOW.]

Before GLOW was released on Friday, the Netflix series about lady wrestling felt like a "glitter-covered secret" that Betty Gilpin was tasked with keeping.

"I’m on a billboard in Times Square, but my bathroom is still dirty and I have toothpaste on my face," she joked when The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the GLOW star ahead of the series' premiere. "Right now it feels like the emperor has no clothes because no one knows about it. It's a weird, strange, surreal time."

Gilpin, who stars alongside Alison Brie and plays soap star Debbie Egan on the 14-woman ensemble comedy about female wrestling in the 1980s, said she bonded with old college pal Taylor Schilling over the similar feeling she had before Orange Is the New Black came out with its first season: "We saw each other right after I wrapped GLOW and Taylor said, 'Oh, gosh. I remember that time when it’s still your baby and no one knows about it.' That we have this glitter-covered secret we’re about to make not-so-secret. There’s a lot of mass vulnerability involved."

GLOW, which hails from co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch along with Orange creator Jenji Kohan, has now dropped, and viewers have seen the two characters Gilpin has created on the series. Outside the ring, Debbie left Hollywood to start a family, but soon discovers her best friend Ruth Wilder (Brie) had an affair with her husband. Inside the ring, she forms her Liberty Bell wrestling character to take on Ruth's Russian supervillain — figuratively and metaphorically channeling their story into launching the first-ever TV show about women's wrestling. Though the pair ultimately find their lost voices, their friendship remains a broken one even in the first season's final moments.

In a chat with THR, Gilpin reveals the inspiration behind her patriotic wrestling alter ego, explains why this part was such a rare one ("There’s not a ton of roles out there for the insecure, loud Britney Spears type," she says) and opens up about how filming a show about female friendship and finding one's identity during the 2016 presidential election completely changed her life.

Co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch said you were perfect for this role because it let you show off your physical and comedic chops. Is that what attracted you to the character of Debbie Egan and to GLOW?

I often feel like a character actress trapped inside the mean, aging Barbie’s body. There’s not a ton of roles out there for the insecure, loud Britney Spears type. Either you’re the squinty, whispery girl at the beginning who leaves because she’s too mean so the pixie dream girl can get the guy, or you’re the bimbo who doesn’t understand a joke. I think from working with Liz and Carly on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, they knew I was this weird, vaudeville troll person trapped inside whatever it is I look like. They gave me this opportunity to be as big, broad and crazy as possible, and it was such an amazing gift.

Debbie goes through a lot in one season. When we first meet her, how would you describe her?

When we first meet Debbie, I think she has convinced herself that her life looks exactly how she wants it to. That if a TV show were to be made about her life, the credits would be rolling. She's convinced herself that she wanted to retire to Pasadena and have a baby, and that she didn’t want to be on the soap anymore. I think this life fissure that happens to her in the first episode cracks her open and makes her realize that she wasn’t happy at all. But when we first meet her, she’s the girlfriend who, when you go to lunch, talks 80 percent of the time and gives a lot of unwanted advice. She has a vague idea of what month your birthday is in, but for her birthday you have a very detailed plan. She’s walking around with her own righteous blinders on and only using 20 percent of her capacity as a chest-pounding cavewoman and we should all be using 100 percent of that capacity — especially now.

What was the defining moment or turning point, in your opinion, for Debbie during the season?

In the fifth episode when she goes and sees the male wrestlers and realizes that it’s a soap opera, character-driven and about the drama, and is not stupid and is actually exactly what she wants to do, I think that’s a turning point for her because she finds a vehicle for these crazy, primal and insane feelings she’s having. It’s the weirdest form of pantomime therapy for her and Ruth to go through. I also think that in the pilot when she gets in the ring to fight Ruth when she says, “I don’t want to talk to you, I want to —“ and searches for the words before saying, “I want to kick your ass.” Her voice sort of drops. Every episode, each woman is stripping away the layers of shame and apology that society has carefully laid on them and is getting back to the most basic form of who they are and going from there.

Were you thrilled by her decision in the finale to commit to this wrestling show and to leave her husband, Mark (Rich Sommer), in that moment? 

I was so excited. Every script I would open nervously and think, “Oh, God, is this the one where Debbie meets a guy and they go on a cute date? Or Ruth meets a guy and there’s a meet-cute?” That moment never came. I was so excited that the story never involved, “And then they met the guy and their life got better.” It was really about them finding their independence and their own power as a person. I turned 30 last year, and I feel like that has been part of my journey as a person. The more power you can find in yourself and your own surety and identity is actually the best output that you could give to your friends in relationships. That is a first-time lesson for Debbie. That she’s going to be a better mom if she gives her soul what it wants.

What is going through Debbie’s head at the very end in terms of her relationship with Ruth? They’ve come so far, but she’s still hesitant to forgive and move forward.

I don’t know if they can ever be normal friends again. There are female friendships that come and go as you get older, and then there are ones that become a part of your bones and blood, and try as you might, or if circumstances of your life change, you can’t really shake your love of this person. I think Ruth and Debbie’s friendship is one of those. Wrestling enabled them to see that blood and bones level of their friendship and being near each other and let them have hands on each other and to be connected in this soul-level way. You are connected in such a pure, raw form with wrestling. But in terms of getting a drink, gossiping or snuggling on the couch and watching a movie? I don’t know that that will ever happen. For Debbie, after the match, that little moment that we see with them together, I think she realized this part is over and no, I can’t be near [Ruth] because she really hurt me.

Debbie also doesn’t know that Ruth was pregnant with her husband’s baby and had an abortion.

Yes, there is a whole other level at play. But I think it’s so telling that the main betrayal and the most pain that Debbie felt was the loss of her friendship and not the loss of her marriage. That was the hardest thing for her, and that’s pretty telling about how powerful female friendship can be and how dumb men can be. (Laughs.) Ali and I at first thought it was great that there wasn't a "will-they-won’t-they, male-female relationship" and then we realized that there is one for Ruth and Debbie. That’s more interesting and layered than any romantic relationship would be. The show is about their friendship and female relationships. 

What was the process like behind the scenes as you formed your wrestling character, Liberty Bell?

We filmed during the election and I had pitched to Liz and Carly, “What if Liberty Bell, when she is happy, she is like a beauty queen and so polite and has a Southern drawl, and then when she gets angry she turns into the meth-lab, Trump’s America crazy girl and her accent slides into some deep Arkansas craziness and she gets a messy eye and goes insane?” They were, like, 'No.' (Laughs.) They said life is very gray but in wrestling it’s very black and white — you know who people are. The music never swells in your daily life. It’s never as clear as wrestling is. It’s usually just gray and uncomfortable. So I watched a lot of Emmy acceptance speeches in the 1980s from soap opera actresses and Miss America crownings from the ‘80s. The smile-to-eye juxtaposition of smile, smile, smile but still with a little bit of craziness in the eyes is what I wanted. I want her to look like a total beauty queen, but have a hive of crazy bees buzzing inside her at all times.

You trained so you could do your own stunts. Was there a favorite wrestling move you did or one that you were most proud to have pulled off?

There was a move called the Sunset Flip that is in the last match in the finale. Ali is sort of bent over and I run at her and jump over her, and then slam her to the ground and flip. Our stunt coordinators Shauna Duggins and Helena Barrett would learn the moves first and break it down for us, and then, along with our wrestling coach Chavo Guerrero Jr., they would present the move. Helena and Shauna were approaching it like the mathematical genius gymnasts that they are and their brains were just too full of body information to help me get this move. So I said, “What If I just tried it?” I felt like a drunken newborn deer through most of wrestling training and Shauna had to hold my hand through it, but with this move, I just ran at Chavo. He said, “Credit card my butt with your face when you flip over.” I ran at him and kept that in mind and I did it. I flipped him over and I felt like I could flip a house in the air like it was a feather. (Laughs.) I 'roided out. I screamed at the sky, I was so excited. Then when we brought Ali in to do it again, we totally messed it up and it was horrible. So you win some, you lose some.

As the characters get better and better with wrestling, would you continue to do your own stunts in future seasons, assuming the show gets renewed?

Wrestling has changed my life completely in the way that I go about my day. I merge on the highway more confidently. I sent back my dessert because they brought me vanilla instead of chocolate — and in the past, I would have apologized through eating my vanilla. It’s also changed the way I think about my body. After we wrapped, I started working with a trainer, and she asked me what my goals were and I said, “I want to jump higher. I want to be able to kick higher. I want to protect my ankles. I want to be able to fix this thing clicking in my knee that’s always been happening.” I listed 20 things. She said, “You’re the first client to not list anything involving the way you look.” Previously, as actresses, we’re trained to think that exercising is like a sexy car-accident class where Kesha is blasting and a girl is screaming at you about pie. I’m just not going to do that anymore. The election also pushed me in that direction where I said, “If you’re not going to think of me as a powerful, vocal body, then I guess I better start thinking of myself as that pretty quick.”

Are you still training, and what did your training entail?

During filming, the training was just learning the moves. It had nothing to do with your body, it was, “Come as you are and let’s see what your capable of, comfortable with and what makes you feel good.” We never did crunches or running or any form of conditioning. The girls who wanted to did that on our own. Now I work with this woman, Cadence Dubus, who owns this place, Brooklyn Strength. It’s the exercise I’ve been waiting for where I feel like a Gloria Steinem Amazon standing on top of a mountain. I feel like feminist forms of exercise have to become more popular. It’s like Pilates and kettlebell stuff. She’s incredible. 

GLOW has such a big female ensemble. Is TV more attractive than film for you because of how far its come in telling empowering female stories?

I am drawn to TV because coming from a theater background, you had so much time to swim inside a character’s brain and figure out who they are. You could try new things and go down different avenues of their persona. Film is so short and feels like, “This was prepared in my room and here it is and now we’ve wrapped.” I think over a seasons-long arc for a character, you can really longform dive into who a person is and what they’re capable of. That’s a really cool exercise. But if they make a movie about a clown with big boobs, I’m not going to not audition for that. I must!

What are you hoping to do more of if you do get a second season? [The original GLOW aired for four seasons.]

We have a WhatsApp chat of all 14 of us, and since I've been doing this interview I‘ve gotten 10 messages on that group chat. We all talk about how much we miss wrestling. I cannot wait to get back in the ring. But I also think it's an interesting thing when a character like Debbie, who is used to having status in a conversation — she’s used to being the youngest, prettiest, most successful person in the room — sees that now all of those things are starting to fade. So, what happens to someone whose identity is based on things that fade? What happens to them as they age? Power emerges, and so does inner crazy. The simultaneous emerging of power and inner crazy is an amazing thing, and I think that can make us all understand our mothers a little bit more.

So much of the marketing of the show was wrestling-focused, so I’ve been most excited for people to learn about these women’s lives. Maybe the butts on the billboards will trick the people who wouldn’t normally watch a female-narrative show. They’ll tune in for the butts and stay for the narrative — hopefully.

What did you think of Debbie, Liberty Bell and GLOW? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for full show coverage. 

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