Two-time Emmy nominee Betty Gilpin’s first thought upon hearing that her hit Netflix series “GLOW” was heading to Las Vegas for its third season: “Oh, no!” While the glitzy, fun-loving wrestling-centric show seems like a natural fit for the over-the-top desert hot spot, Gilpin was worried about how exactly she would fit into the casino wonderland.
“As a person who has left her wild past behind and whose spring break self has been hung up in the closet, now I’m really an indoor depressive who likes Postmates and YouTube. The thought of Las Vegas concerned me,” Gilpin said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Los Angeles is already at a shock to my, I would say, Emily Dickinson side, so I was nervous about the Charo-ness of Las Vegas.”
Like her character, unexpected wrestling superstar Debbie Eagan, Gilpin was able to transcend those initial concerns with a little more rumination. (One worry quickly allayed: They still filmed this season in L.A.)
“It is a good fit, because the show is so over-the-top and fantastical and circus-y, and sometimes the hair, the makeup, the setting, it kind of gives us the excuse to make those circus-y, fantastical choices in our acting,” she said. “So I also felt calmed by it being in Vegas, I was like, ‘OK, we can continue to be insane.’ I think if they went to like, Sarah Lawrence for a season, I would be nervous for how our stakes would play there.”
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If there’s one lesson “GLOW” has always handily delivered, it’s that there’s more than one way to be a woman. There’s certainly more than one way to make your way in Las Vegas (“insane” is probably the best one). For Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s show, that kind of evolution, paired with a continued interest in embracing their characters in all their messy glory, added up to a cosmically great way to move the show (and its wrestling ladies) into literally new spaces.
As has been the case over the course of the previous two seasons, the third season of “GLOW” pushes its leading ladies, particularly Gilpin’s Debbie and Alison Brie’s Ruth, into sometimes uncomfortable arcs. While moving their wrestling act to Las Vegas opens up plenty of new opportunities for the gals, it also further shows the divide between the lives they used to have and the choices that have brought them to this stage in their personal and professional existence.
For Gilpin, it’s a canny continuation of a path set out from the show’s earliest episodes, when struggling actresses (and one-time BFFs) Debbie and Ruth endured a terrible falling out, only to be pushed back together by the professional opportunities afforded by the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.”
“I think that when we met Debbie, she thought that the credits were rolling and that her story was basically over and that she was gonna live out her life as a housewife in Pasadena,” Gilpin said. “This life explosion that happens to her in the pilot, it sort of sets her off on this path of realizing, ‘Oh, I was pretending to be a person that I actually didn’t want to be, and that there has been this dormant monster inside me that could be really powerful and complicated and the most beautiful part of being alive.'”
The actress hails creators Flahive and Mensch, plus a talented writers’ room, for not taking the easy way out on Debbie’s arc. “It would be easy for them to write feminist propaganda, in a way of ‘this happened and then she’s empowered and now everything’s fine!,'” Gilpin said with a laugh. “In some ways, Debbie has really found her power, and then in other ways, she’s still a woman in 1985 who’s being told that things that are valuable about her are the smallest parts that have expiration dates. And I think she still believes some of that.”
As the show has evolved, so has Debbie, moving from shy wrestling wannabe to an empowered businesswoman able to make opportunities happen for herself. In the third season, that side of Debbie only grows, as she uses her natural business acumen to move from producer and performer to an even bigger (and unique) position of power.
“She really wants to have power at work and have her voice be heard and she wants to value herself as more than expirable arm candy,” Gilpin said. “I think that she believed the world when it told her that’s what she was. And I think watching her try to learn those lessons and having trouble on learning them has been really interesting and refreshing.”
The girl power-fueled nature of the show is evident off-screen, too. Over three seasons, “GLOW” has consistently stayed true to its female-centric storylines — the series’ two leading male characters, played by Marc Maron and Chris Lowell, have also evolved in service to the success of the ladies’ wrestling show — and that interest in centering women has impacted Gilpin’s career in spades.
“I realized after working on ‘GLOW’ how many times and jobs of yore I had really stood in my own way or let circumstances or fears of mine take over the creative parts of my brain,” Gilpin said. “Second-guessing myself and not wanting to take up space really shut down the brave idea section of my brain, and working in an environment where I feel safe and supported and inspired, it’s as if all those creative brain chambers were opened.”
She added, “I think it’s a result of the environment that Liz and Carly created on set. I also think has been a result of the feminist climate that we’re living in. You know, the femme-pocalypse is here. … It’s been completely life-changing.”
Also life-changing: a pair of Emmy nominations for her work on the show. For Gilpin, who spent the early part of her career zinging through guest parts on big series (including two appearances on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” playing different characters each time) and hustling gigs off-Broadway, that kind of recognition is still wild.
“There is a beauty and the terror to your dream coming true, things like a nomination or people even watching your show, it’s literal proof that you’re not invisible,” Gilpin said. “It’s like, ‘OK, you talked a big game that if the world ever turned and looked at you, that perhaps your life could be magnificent or you could do something special, now’s your chance.’ I am afraid that the world’s gonna look over at me and I’ll just like throw up in my shoes and then it’ll move on. So I’m trying to not do that.”
If “GLOW” has helped readjust her thinking, so have other relationships with women in Hollywood, including actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan. “So much of this business, it’s still saturated — especially for women — in competition and ‘there’s only x amount of spots,'” Gilpin said. “It’s really been people like Zoe that, watching their success in the way they conduct themselves in the world, it’s completely changed me as a person.”
Their friendship didn’t always seem so fated (shades of Debbie and Ruth, anyone?). While Gilpin is now the godmother to Zoe and partner Paul Dano’s baby girl, it almost panned out very differently. “I first heard of Zoe because she was a person who was getting every part in New York City that I wanted, and I was cursing her name,” Gilpin remembered with a laugh. “When my agents would call and say, ‘OK, it’s not going our way,’ I’d be like, ‘Don’t say it, don’t say her name!’ I would like, scream at my cracked ceiling, ‘Noooo! I hate her!'”
Then, of course, inevitably, they met in person. “I didn’t know her at all, and then once I met her I realized, oh, she has a thousand-miles deep brain and soul and is the smartest, most talented person I know,” she said. “And also is my greatest champion. This person has become my sister and has become a person that I model my way of living after, in terms of supporting other women and swallowing my pride and celebrating someone and their achievements.”
One achievement that’s been put on pause: her first starring role in a film. Later this month, Gilpin was set to make her leading lady debut in Craig Zobel’s twist on a “Most Dangerous Game”-type thriller, “The Hunt.” After outcry from no less than President Donald Trump, Universal canceled the film’s release over the weekend. It’s unclear what will happen to the film, which allegedly pitted “deplorables” against “elites” in a battle to the death.
IndieWire spoke to Gilpin before the news hit, and the actress was enthused about the part, particularly because of how it stretched her talents in new ways. While she’s spent three seasons on “GLOW” hacking through tough stunts, she said Zobel’s film combined that kind of physicality with an emotionally ambitious part for Gilpin, and early marketing set her up as the film’s hero.
“I play a lot of women who are like the women whose books I carried in high school, I play a lot of girlie alpha women, and I’m sort of presenting my field notes on that person in my performance,” Gilpin said of the film. “I feel like I am playing a character that is closer to my innermost gremlin, monster self. I feel more exposed than I have ever been. The days where I was flipping over and landing on wooden tables, that was easy. Peeling the curtain back and being like, ‘okay, gremlin, starts talking!,’ and the gremlin is like, ‘but I’ve been in the shadows all this time!,’ that was the greatest stunt of all.”
Still, Gilpin has plenty more potential projects up her glittery sleeves. In 2017, she wrote a well-regarded (and funny and honest and true) essay for Glamour about self-confidence and body image (perfect headline: “What It’s Like to Have Pea-Sized Confidence With Watermelon-Sized Boobs”). She’s still hoping to write more.
“I definitely have a computer full of like essay eggs, basically of ideas that could be turned into something. I really, really want to, but I sometimes panic that I don’t have enough of an outline brain to write a book or a script,” Gilpin said. “I guess I just have to fake an outline brain and hope for the best. I feel, like Debbie, I have found this strong self in many ways. But you know, I would say shame and fear are not dead. It’s something I definitely still battle when it comes to my own work and to what I put out there. It’s a daily struggle.”
Debbie can do it. So can Gilpin.
“GLOW” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.