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Betty Gilpin is a three-time Emmy-nominated actress, most known for GLOW and The Hunt, as well as this year’s Gaslit, but she’s also an accomplished writer who has penned columns for publications including The Hollywood Reporter (read her thoughts on her career following her first Emmy nomination here). Now, she’s releasing an essay collection that culls together her musings on feminism, the pitfalls of modern womanhood, her childhood experiences (like boarding school) and what it’s like to be totally — in her words — weird. All the Women in My Brain is on shelves now, but Gilpin is sharing a peek at one of her essays with THR first.
Advice to a Young Actress
Congratulations, young lady! Through a humbling cocktail of luck, groveling, and the troubling brain problem that enables you to emote for money, you are going to be an actress. Maybe you have just graduated from a theatre program where you mostly sobbed about your childhood in a teal movement pant for four years. You are known on campus for your moving performance in an all-vowel-no-consonants Antigone, but about corporations. As a kid, you belted Guys and Dolls into a shampoo-mic with your cousins, giving them harsh but necessary notes when they butchered your choreography for the big Easter performance that no one asked for. Later you morphed from vaudeville ham to turtle-necked depressive, your journal an addled Edgar Allan Bradshaw run-on sentence, desperate for the day when you could channel your darkness into a role and not a bad poem. Your girlhood has been your Mr. Miyagi training for your career—your jazz hands at bath time the wax-on for your Tony, your sobbing to the middle school mirror the wax-off for your Oscar. And now, finally, you’re an actress. All you have to do is claim your trophies.
Just a couple quick thoughts before you’re out the door to your first audition. Lucky for you, this is a different time from when this here old show pony was first out of school. Back in 2008, the entertainment industry hadn’t been guilted into performed feminism yet. Ten years ago, the misogyny requirements were in bold at the top of the email. Now they’re a size-two footnote under a Greta Thunberg GIF. Back then we knew outright that auditioning as an actress meant be hot and heartbreaking impossibly at once. Tap-dance in a transparent smock and beret, tears gushing out of one eye while the other winks for sexual whimsy.
You were allowed to try for Lip-Biting Binder Holder for about two years, until quickly graduating to Arms-Folded Sweater Woman. The audition scenes were the same: scene 1, talk fast to prove brain; scene 2, talk low to prove sexy; scene 3, talk through sobs to prove unstable. Inevitably, a rapey gargoyle in stained cashmere pajamas would graze your areolas with his elbow and thereby deem you worthy of playing Waiter With Question.
But it’s different now!
. . . Eh, kinda.
Now the secret’s out that we have organs and ambitions, and the world is slowly starting to adjust. We are now in a strange Frankenstein time where we’re trying to sell the merch of a feminist victory before having the victory itself. Being an actress now feels like a bizarre hybrid of 1952 and 2053. It’s nodding yes, everything’s fixed, on a “Women: We Did It!” panel while spending all of your still-smaller-than-the-boys’ paycheck on sheep-semen lotion to beg the world to believe you’re still twenty-three. It seems that as we are winning the war of getting some fart jokes and producer credits, just as quickly rise the smoke and mirrors demands. We are being handed the keys to the city, but with a contour brush attachment. When I hold a microphone and say things like “Now more than ever,” I mean it, but I’m simultaneously disguised as the porniest Saint Bart’s poodle version of myself. I’m usually wearing high heels, shoes designed to put calf muscles into a mini seizure so that one might entice a landowner to trade a wife for goats. My face is contoured—a makeup method the straight community has appropriated from drag queens. My lips are lined five inches from the actual mouth part, and my cheeks have a space bar of soil painted below them. Without this Houdini trickery, I now feel I am disgusting. We are told two opposing things: put on a blazer and scream fuck into a mug, but also arch your back for a selfie and whisper thanks into a teacup.
This is the contradiction tango I have danced for most of my career. And you, future actress, you will, too. From audition to talk show and everything in between.
The Audition: Be Both Her and Her but Definitely Not You
In an audition, often the first round is just you and, more times than not, a female casting director. She puts you on tape. That tape is then sent to, more times than not, a room full of men. (Or at least these were the usual demographics until recently.) The problem is, what wins her favor in wanting you for a part is different from what wins his. Or perhaps more fairly, what a “creative” wants in an actress versus what a producer wants. And they often contradict. It’s your job then, impossibly, to attempt both at once.
We are all in this business in part to enact some sort of high school revenge tableau. It is the actress’s job to convince you she is both the headgear-wearing, overlooked wallflower whom you can finally grant time in the sun and the sparkling flawless cheerleader you can finally control. You have to be both. The current trend of posting a soft-core selfie with a self-deprecating caption is the perfect encapsulation; I am perfect, but I promise, I have no idea.
Here’s a how-to guide to attempt to fulfill this impossibility.
Let’s say you’re auditioning for the lead role of Chloe. What are you going to wear? No, not your old teal movement pant. How will you prepare? No, not charting Chloe’s family tree in blood. You cannot megaphone that you are an actor.
You gotta apology-whisper that you’re . . . Chloe. You’ve just existed forever as Chloe. Wear tight clothes to show your measurements, but a baggy (open) sweater over it to show you have trauma and hate your measurements. Wear a lot of makeup to apologize for having an alive face, but not so much that people think you’re a rabid narcissist who likes their own alive face. As you are is disgusting, dolled up is unlikable. Find the middle. Tug at your sleeves in self-hate for the first scene, then scratch an itch on your back in the second so the sweater rides up, accidentally showing the spoils of the spin class you sobbed through. Uh-oh, we’re veering toward unlikable again, so make a self-deprecating joke between the first and second scenes. This way while you’re featuring that you’ll look great in the blow job ukulele montage, you’re also saying Look, I might kill myself at any second. And that? Is adorable.
The Meeting: Shiny and Abs or Gritty and Poem
In recent years I have experienced the confounding next level of casting, where there is no audition, but a meeting. It is a ritual I do not understand. If you were to hire a crane operator, would you hold interviews at a Blue Bottle to see which construction worker had the sexiest anecdote about their quote tattoo? No. You’d end up hiring an unstable bassist whom you didn’t know needs LASIK, mowing down pedestrians with a machine he’s never touched. This is how we get bad accents and fake crying in film, children. ’Cause someone was humble in cashmere and told a good Burning Man story over tuna rolls, and no one said, “But just checking, can you act?” #Abolishthemeeting
It will, of course, not be abolished, because though we are past certain aspects of troubling lunches, the entertainment business is still fueled by them. Even post–Me Too it’s still a date of sorts, maybe with less thigh-pawing. Even when someone’s not trying to fuck you, a meeting is still Mind Game Jenga. Let’s play!
You have to spend the first ten minutes guessing which version of a woman they think you are, then convince them that no, no, you are the other. When you arrive at the meeting, rapidly assess your matcha partner. Are they a crabby genius in a hat who makes a show of rolling their eyes at the menu font? OK, chances are he wants a French aerialist who thinks acting is stupid for the role and not you. In their eyes, you are a cheesy choice. You will ruin their art. Your eyeliner and posture and easy laugh are all evidence that you’re the vapid perfume cloud that ignored them in high school. Your job is now to spend this meeting convincing this person that that girl ignored you, too. That you hate yourself. That your life has been full of darkness. Sunlight? The VMAs? I don’t even know what those things are. I’m damaged, I’m broken. Mention every book you’ve ever read. Allude to maybe being a genius, but in a way where you’re a lost (French!) vessel who doesn’t even know it— but of course not smarter than them. You need them. Alone you are floating in space with all this pain but with their vision? You could finally channel it all into their script. Which like, really spoke to you by the way. It (hand over heart) I mean (shake head) . . . (close eyes and pause) . . . and honestly you can just kind of leave it there. They want to be complimented but will be offended by specifics.
There is the opposite kind of meeting, of course, so be prepared for that, too. There is nothing like the feeling of waving hi to your meeting companion and seeing immediately in their eyes that you’re not shiny enough. I have “met” with big scary people who were casting movies where they want women with purple eyes and no bowels. Movies that would turn pretentious college you’s stomach, the McDonald’s of films, but that would put you on billboards and buy your mom a house. Where even though the role is an abused gas station attendant in a town with no vegetables, you have to look like you’ve never not been to the gym and have only known greens. That when you turn your head, your neck skin doesn’t fold. That you have a self-taser installed in your tailbone that goes off when you furrow your brow or use four-syllable words, so you never do.
In these meetings, it’s your job to convince them that yes, I am that vapid perfume cloud. But now she’s not ignoring you in Bio, she’s here, needing you. Convince them that through you, they can go back in time and stop that girl in the hallway. And put her in a crate. There, they can tell her things like “You’re welcome” and “Only he can improvise.”
If it’s this kind of meeting, get there early to choose the seat with less sunlight so it doesn’t hit your face on the side where you have a big zit. Or reveal that you’re over seventeen. (Honestly, do this for both meetings. The auteur doesn’t want their French muse to have crow’s feet either.) Still tell a story about hating yourself, but make it fun and keep it short. Say the word “badass” a lot—it’s a fun buzzword that makes everyone feel like they’re checking feminism boxes, but really it just means Don’t worry, I have good triceps. Triceps that in a vacuum are just floating in space and tan, but with your vision? I could finally channel my triceps into a script. Which like . . . really spoke to me, by the way. It’s (hand over heart) badass!
There was a day where I had these two types of meetings back-to-back. The first was to play a “bookish, scrawny, troubled butch lesbian coder” in a gritty television show. On walking up to the jean-jacketed, braless writer, it was immediately clear that she had written the character based on herself. She was the epitome of cool. Within thirty seconds, it was further clear to me that she’d been forced to take our meeting and thought I was all wrong. I was wearing a tight black shirt, and she squinted at my body like she was trying to read a gross inscription. She greeted me with “Oy vey, your body, you’re like, ‘Oh, hi.’” She mimed me entering the room, I guess with a body, while shrugging a sort of ditsy “What? I don’t get it.” A brand of compliment that only exists woman to woman—one soaked in disdain disguised as self-deprecation. A sort of must be nice having lived your whole life getting out of jury duty by twirling your hair, the rest of us have been over here reading Kant and laughing at you. So, of course, I spent the meeting trying to convince her I had a library card and PTSD. I dished out traumatic stories like they were Bagel Bites I brought to throw at a zoo lion to please it. I acrobatted Gatsby puns into a story where I was the butt of every joke. SAT words and self-hate were my best bet to win this meeting. By the end we had both cried, and for a few strange minutes it felt like we were going to kiss, which was a twist. Now that we were soul mates, she offered to drive me to my next meeting. She put on a mix and lit a menthol. I closed my eyes pretending the unfamiliar song conjured a devastating memory.
The next meeting was at a studio where you basically have to give four pee samples to be allowed inside. There is intensely elaborate security for the kingdom of golf-carting, cashmere travel mugs that run Los Angeles. I was late. Late, because I had spent the morning convincing the Dylan-esque writer that I was a tobacco-y haiku. It would have been brand-suicide to do something as high-strung as check the time. Exiting her Volvo at the studio gates I . . . I saluted goodbye to my . . . new girlfriend? An actual salute, as if it were something I did regularly as a misunderstood poet person. I sauntered away until she was out of sight. Then I started sprinting. I ran the addled hamster route the guard had drawn me on the studio map, remembering now that my agent had emphasized what a big get this meeting was and that they had limited time.
The assistant’s face fell when I asked for the bathroom, seeing in her eyes that she was trying to communicate but they’re already pissed. I know, Kelsey, but fifteen minutes late with more eyeshadow is better than ten minutes late looking like myself. We both know that.
The Bluetoothed woman didn’t look up when I was shown in with my plastic water bottle the size of a Ping-Pong ball. She was typing furiously and sighing. I sat posing in a few minutes of wordless keyboard clacking that I knew was punishment for my tardiness, a sort of reclaiming the power of whose time was less important to whom. “OK, hi,” she eventually offered. She rubbed her eyes. She looked at me for four seconds and then refocused her eyes to the correct focal point—the middle distance between us where she could think about who might be actually right for this job. And lunch.
Whereas I had spent my morning trying to convince a wallflower vagabond system-fucker that I was one, too, I knew my afternoon’s job was to insist the opposite. That I’m a vanilla, hollowed-out Christmas ornament. I’m a gleaming mirror, reflecting whatever you want. I am the perfume cloud. I am a difficult but brief fortnight away from chiseled abs, I promise. The eighties? Not sure what you mean. I was born under Bush II. What is this irrelevant heavy square pile on your coffee table? Books? I like juice. I like crying on stationary bikes. I’m badass! Sorry, that was too loud. I’m badass.
I was too shiny this morning but now nowhere near enough. She interrupted every answer with another question, sprinting through it like we’re running lines for the script of the slower kinder meeting we’ll have later, but we of course will not, and suddenly I’m in the hall again and . . . OK I’m crying, that’s disappointing. I veer to the bathroom. On the toilet my mind offers a self-pity retrospective montage, replaying the day’s oof. I zone out and put a new toilet paper roll in the empty dispenser painted the colors of the franchise that bought Bluetoothwoman her third Lexus. I realize what I’m doing. I hate myself for completing a chore here that feels insurmountable in my own home. In an act of if-a-tree-falls defiance, I put the toilet paper back on the shelf. I look in the mirror. I try a smile. I have a leaf in my teeth. A leaf I’d eaten before both meetings. I’d given my body a leaf then spent the day throwing it under the bus.
I didn’t get either part.
So anyway this is what you do, OK?! It’s easy. There’s a little but wait voice in you that will be annoying, but it gets quieter. Soon you’ll barely hear it, and treating your identity like a Swiss Army knife of traits to perform and muffle will be as easy as lying to yourself. Sorry, as easy as sleeping. Night night.
In the last week of the last season of a certain trade-nudity-for-nuance job, I let myself cheat a little. It had been three years of devoting a large part of my brain and day to making sure I looked like the least gelatinous Playmate I could be. Three years of 5:00 a.m. exercise classes before work, the kind where Soviet chipmunk women screamed into a headset that your dysmorphia was actually codified law. If I had spent that time sleeping another hour, I would have been better at my job. For three years, I avoided any foods that would make a viewer think I lived in the world, foods that would have given me better energy to do the scenes after the soft-core interludes. If I had just had the hamburger, I would have been better at my job. Three years of avoiding eye contact with the dudes writing these pants-plummeting scenes, when maybe one uncomfortable conversation could have stopped them. If I had been a little braver, I would have been better at my job.
I’m not entirely blaming myself. I just mean . . . it is going to take centuries to stop the chorus of people telling you that your highest purpose as a woman is to minimize your waistline and being. Your realizing that that’s bullshit before they do will just be more efficient.
(She said to the mirror.)
The night before my very last day of filming this show, I had a culinary one-night stand. I ate a lamb curry and flourless chocolate cake and whiskey, the Holy Trinity of Not Allowed. But I was finally done with the naked scenes—all that remained was a long day of emoting in the background in a lab coat. The final morning I sat in the makeup chair for one last two-hour car wash of disguise. Mink lashes were glued to the eyelids that twenty years before I wiped fake tears from in a sandbox, pretending in OshKosh that I was Barbara Stanwyck in distress. I tried to keep my head as still as possible as my hair was teased into something so far from the limp brown strings I’d once tucked into a skull-cap to play Tiny Tim. I felt sick thinking that achieving my dream meant being cruel to myself along the way. That visibility meant invisibility.
I also felt sick because I . . . felt . . . sick. My stomach suddenly started making noises like a colossal demon waking up hungover in a cave it doesn’t recognize. This demon started to turn over. Suddenly the dynamics of digestion were a tidal wave that I could not control.
Something within me was angry.
You forgot me. You pushed me down. You treated me unfairly. You forgot that the ugly is what got you here, the rare thing you like about yourself. You sold me and ran from me. And now, I’m back, shaking you and screaming that you can’t kill me, don’t you dare.
I walked into the hallway and shat my pants.
Excerpted from ALL THE WOMEN IN MY BRAIN Copyright © 2022 by Betty Gilpin. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.
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