“Get Out” scene-stealer Betty Gabriel may have had her breakout moment as the film’s creepy housekeeper Georgina, but she’s been toiling away in the haunted horror Blumhouse for years now. “I guess I have an affinity towards darkness, the dark side,” she said. “The movies are very on the fringe. They live in a very dark place.”
It’s a far different life for herself than Gabriel had first imagined. Although she recalls acting in a church play and putting on skits as a child growing up on the East Coast, she never thought of herself as a performer. Instead, she envisioned working with animals and even earned a Bachelor’s degree in animal science at the Iowa State University.
“You think of the animals, the puppies and kittens. Of course, it sounds like a good idea, but how you actually get there, it’s not as romantic,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work. It’s like becoming a doctor. Not to say that I wasn’t cut out for it, but I recognized that it was not how I imagined it would be.”
Gabriel’s first inkling that she wanted a life in front of an audience occurred while still an undergrad. “I took a [dance] class just for fun, then took many more classes. Joined the dance club. That was my first detour off of the veterinarian path — in Iowa, of all places.”
She pursued her new passion in Chicago, where she studied modern dance. “The dancers and the actors at the school I went to were pretty interwoven and incestuous. A lot of the actors were dancers and also directors,” she said. “All the colleges in the area had a theater festival, and this person came around and he was saying, ‘You should apply for this scholarship. We pick people from different schools.’ He picked me off of one line. I’m like, ‘What? Okay, I should probably take an acting class then.’”
The play was obscure, but it set a tone for the roles she’d take later. “It was very post-apocalyptic,” she said. “I played this little girl who was victimized and they want to save her, but then can’t because I’m too damaged. That’s sort of typecasting, you know? I played a lot of damaged individuals.”
Becoming involved in the Chicago theater community was a revelation for Gabriel: “Theater actually took time to pique my interest. It just wasn’t a part of my upbringing. I don’t have anyone in the arts in my family. I wasn’t brought up particularly cultured. It was always TV and film for me.”
While she’s dome her time with Shakespeare and Chekhov, she credits being the understudy on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” for opening her eyes to “really make me see myself fully on a stage,” she said. “Just the language, the contemporary nature of it. I didn’t feel the theater was for me, but he made me realize that it was.”
While she didn’t come from an artistic background, Gabriel packed in arts training with a vengeance. She graduated from the Conservatory at Act One, from The School at Steppenwolf, and received a degree in drama from Juilliard. But when she set her sights on Hollywood, she had tempered expectations about the available roles for women of color.
“Honestly, I had a very realistic, probably pessimistic outlook at the beginning of my career post-graduation of drama school,” she said. “In general, I would see black women, usually older, playing a certain archetype on procedural shows. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s what I have to look forward to.’ I would thank my lucky stars to get that kind of a job on that kind of a show.”
Her big break came with Blumhouse casting director Terri Taylor, who tapped her for “The Purge: Election Year.” That put her on the path to “Get Out,” in addition to four other Blumhouse projects including “12 Deadly Days,” “Upgrade,” “Unfriended: Dark Web,” and “Adopt a Highway.”
These were not the stately procedural roles that Gabriel anticipated. Instead, she was played the badass, whether it’s survivor Laney Rucker in “Purge” or a determined cop in “Upgrade.”
But it was as Georgina, a housekeeper whose employers took advantage of her in the worst way in “Get Out,” that proved the most memorable. For the role, Gabriel watched Elsa Lanchester in “Bride of Frankenstein” and the Martin Pistorus TED Talk to get insight into feeling trapped inside one’s own body. Georgina’s struggle came to a head in a closeup that’s so horrifying and iconic that it’s become a meme:
Gabriel received some Oscar buzz for “Get Out,” and TV took notice. HBO hired her to play the gun-toting Maling on the second season of “Westworld,” while she won the role of mysterious agent Naya Temple, on Starz series “Counterpart.” On the sci-fi espionage series, two parallel worlds sit side by side with agents crossing back and forth at a nexus point in an embassy in Berlin.
Gabriel was unfamiliar with “Counterpart” beyond knowing that Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons starred in it. “I heard through the grapevine that he was a fan of mine,” she said. “I’m definitely a fan of his.”
For Gabriel, this was a completely different acting challenge. “I was pretty intimidated, to be honest,” she said. “It’s very intricate and it’s very sophisticated. How much dialogue I was responsible for, and stepping into this world that is really, really complicated. It’s two worlds. That’s more complicated than just worrying about one.”
She also plays one of the more religious characters on the show, as Naya is a practicing Muslim. “I had to really do a lot of research of the Islam world, the Islam religion,” she said. “I wanted to portray her with authenticity. I wanted that to be very real. I had to learn Arabic. That was intense. I had to learn a lot of the Salah prayers.”
Looking forward, Gabriel wants to bring some of her training into her next role.
“II would love to play, perhaps not exactly Mimi in ‘Rent,’ but someone like her. Perhaps not on Broadway, but I think I feel like a musical is in my future,” she said. “I sing, although I’m not Whitney Houston up in here. I’m a little bit shy about my singing, but I did it in school at Juilliard. I hesitate to say this [and put it out in] the universe, because it means that I actually have to do it.”