'GLOW' Star Betty Gilpin: Why Acting Is "A Seesaw of Death" (Guest Column)
The actress, hot off her first Emmy nom, reflects on her craft's ego-boosting, princess-making highs and soul-crushing, debilitating lows: "Being an actor feels like your ego is on a violent pendulum swing between a field of cashmere and a casual tub of knives."
So here's why all the actors you know are — I say this in a loving Montessori indoor voice — insane. Being an actor feels like your ego is on a violent pendulum swing between a field of cashmere and a casual tub of knives. Depending on how the industry is treating you that hour, you either feel like a Mariah Carey sultan or a near-dead irrelevant possum, flashing people for change on the 405. Spend too long on either side, and you're a terrible lunch partner.
If you are working, it can be easy to start to confuse the concept of being a replaceable flesh puppet with being a member of the royal family. When 10 PAs are whisper-panicking that you haven't gotten your oatmeal yet and have to pee, you forget that it's because you're the deranged toddler they're supposed to keep alive. Instead, perhaps they are concerned about you not because if you wandered into traffic it would be expensive, but because you are... extremely important. You are a movie star. Sure, you're doing one episode of The Mysteries of Laura, but someone just announced on his earpiece that you're walking. Her majesty is walking. Because a film set is designed to make sure the actor doesn't put his or her fingers in an electrical socket, we often mistake it for status.
And forget the ego fellatio on a Ferris wheel that is doing press. When you say what you thought was the world's stupidest joke, the reporter visiting from www.ihateyourmovie.com catapults his or her head back in laughter as if you are Wanda Sykes. You are asked about your morning routine as if you are a matcha-sipping mogul millionaire. You lie and say you drink kefir and meditate. (You've been meaning to start!) Award-winning artists Renaissance-paint your face until you're a stranger. You're gorgeous!
Then there is the ever-rare, ghost-in-the-room feeling when a scene is going well. For a few perfect moments, you are Meryl Brando, holding time by the throat, transporting you and your scene partner to the exact dream bubble you furiously journaled about the night before. After work, you get into your car and maniacally punch the air like you're Jerry Maguire. You own the universe.
And then there's the next day.
Because things felt so great yesterday, you decide you're feeling brave enough to watch that interview you did. In search of a compliment to feed your already rampant ego, you scroll down to the comments — like a child in footie pajamas sliding down a bannister who then transforms into a naked adult. And the bannister is a razor blade. You are made aware of the sad truth that the sound of your voice and shape of your face have rendered you deserving of the death penalty. You catch your reflection in the mirror. Since there is no longer a team of people to make you look like a preteen perfume ad, you remember what you really look like: a serial-killer toll worker, age 67. Your agent calls and you dive for the phone. Looks like you're too fat for the superhero movie, but they are pushing to get you in for the grandmother in Farts 2.
You go to the going-away party for the girl who got the superhero movie, where you spill red wine on a novelty sweater you bought when you thought that one pilot was going to get picked up. (It didn't.) You go agonizing months without a job, and come to the obvious realization that you will never, ever work again. You panic that you've aged out of your earning years and that at your next birthday SAG-AFTRA is going to demand you live out your days in a supply closet in Warsaw. You try to self-tape for that space movie and fear jail time for the acting atrocities you commit, gesturing with your hands in a way no human has ever done. You finally understand that you are the world's worst, ugliest living actor. Congratulations.
And then you receive word that you're in the mix for the Vin Diesel-Noah Baumbach collaboration. Text your mom!
This seesaw of death is unhealthy and stupid. When I or an actor friend is too mired in Mariah-sultan-ville or self-loathing-possum-land, a stable friend must gently lead us back into reality, reminding us of things like Christmas with family and nuclear weapons.
Strangely, I do think briefly dipping a toe in each world is important. The devastated-possum self gives you a creative window into darkness and a slap in the face of reality. Then Jerry Mariah Maguire confidently pushes you into rooms and risks, insisting no one can be you better. Just make sure one is always waiting in the wings to give the vaudeville hook to the other when the act is getting stale. We wouldn't want to give actors a bad name.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.