Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Betty Gilpin is wrestling her way to stardom

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    Though she’s lately moved into television, Betty Gilpin (left, pictured with J. Smith-Cameron) is best known for stage work in such plays as ‘Good Boys and True.’

    Sara Krulwich

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    Betty Gilpin and Ricky Whittle co-star in a ‘American Gods,’ the Starz series adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman.

    Jan Thijs/Starz

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Betty Gilpin made her name in the theater, so some of her fans may be surprised to hear that she’s working on a new television series in which she plays a professional wrestler.

Gilpin herself isn’t apologizing. Far from it.

“Nothing is more theater-based than wrestling,” the actress said. “It’s Greek-tragedy-level theater. GLOW is the first time I feel like I’ve been able to have a theatrical experience on the small screen, to really be able to marry the two. And I love it.”

GLOW is the latest Netflix series, set to drop on Fiday, and it could very well tap into the zeitgeist a la Stranger Things. It’s set in 1980s Los Angeles and, from the opening credits, with their Day-Glo graphics flashing as Scandal’s awesomely cheesy The Warrior (1984) plays, it’s a nostalgia fest replete with big hair, gas-guzzling cars, colorful Capezios, and brutal body slams.

Gilpin portrays Debbie Eagan, a former soap star who left show business to raise a family. The kid’s a chore, though, and her husband, as it turns out, has had an affair with her best friend, Ruth (Alison Brie), a would-be serious actress who can’t land a job. Desperate, Ruth gets involved with GLOW — it stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — an in-the-works syndicated television show meant to cash in on the professional-wrestling craze that has made major stars of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and other male wrestlers.

When Debbie discovers that Ruth is the “other woman” in her husband’s life, she tracks down her former friend at her GLOW audition and beats the tar out of her. The show’s slimy director, Sam (Marc Maron), has dismissed Ruth but immediately sees massive ratings and dollar signs if he can cast Debbie as the hero of his new show and Ruth as the villain.

“Debbie, when we first meet her, thinks that she’s in a good place and has gotten what she wanted,” said Gilpin, who lives in Brooklyn. “She has convinced herself that retiring to Pasadena with a baby and a bread-winning hus

with a baby and a bread-winning husband is what she wanted, and it takes the rug getting pulled out from under her to make her realize that that’s maybe not fulfilling her.

“I think both motherhood and this intense betrayal that happens in Episode 1 unlock this deeper self that she’s been suppressing and unable to access in soap operas and by being a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Strangely, wrestling comes to the rescue and is a way of finding new layers within herself.”

Brie is actually the leading lady of GLOW, but Gilpin is the yin to Brie’s yang. The tension between their characters will drive much of the drama, in and out of the ring, across the show’s 10-episode first season.

“They have a long, long, long road to becoming friends again,” Gilpin said. “I think that maybe they’ll never be friends again — but, because they are wrestling with each other, it enables them to have a tableau acting out their struggle with each other.

“While socially and circumstantially they’re not even talking, they have to touch each other and help each other and literally catch each other. It’s almost like a really out-of-the-box therapy retreat, learning how to wrestle with each other.”

Gilpin needed to learn how to wrestle for GLOW, of course, and — much like her character — she did so on the fly. It helped, Gilpin noted, that she grew up in a house of boys and also that, while majoring in theater at Fordham University, she and her class spent nearly a year studying Samuel Beckett’s uber-physical play Endgame (1957).

“There was a lot of rolling around on the floor and using your whole body as a character,” Gilpin recalled. “When we did Endgame, we were all hunched over and making the craziest sounds. Then I graduated and went right into auditioning for Gossip Girl and things like that, where, as an actress, you’re required to act from the neck up and, from the neck down, it’s a presentation of your birthday-suit self.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s my body. Hope it’s enough,’ ” she said. “You’re not really using it as an artist. GLOW was the first time that, from head to toe, I was asked to use my body in a functional, powerful way as an actor — and that felt amazing.”

By the time GLOW debuts, Gilpin also will have appeared on another much-talked-about show, namely the Starz series American Gods. Gilpin plays Audrey, the deeply troubled, vengeful best friend of Laura (Emily Browning). Laura is a dead and decomposing young woman determined to win back her husband, Shadow (Ricky Whittle), on whom she cheated with Robbie (Dane Cook), Audrey’s husband and Shadow’s closest friend. American Gods is based on the award-winning Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, published in 2001.

“That was totally out of left field, American Gods,” Gilpin said. “It was such an incredible gift. I was not aware of the book beforehand, so I sort of inhaled the book when I got the part. The book is like a noir Harry Potter, an insane piece of writing about our country and immigrants and the gods that they have accidentally brought with them to our country.

“I’d never worked in the fantasy genre before,” she said, “and it was so much fun. They let me make all the faces that I wanted. They never told me to make a smaller face, which is usually what people tell me to do. Audrey is either in the depth of Hades of her emotional brain or she’s screaming on a mountaintop, and there is really no in-between.

“As writers, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are really using the book as a starting place, and they’re getting inside the book, walking around and opening doors that you didn’t get to go through in the book,” Gilpin added. “Audrey really doesn’t have a ton to do in the book, and we’ve basically seen, on the show, everything she has to do in the book, but the show just got renewed for a second season, and Bryan and Michael say that in Season 2 we’re going to see a lot more of her, which is really exciting.”

Gilpin, who will turn 31 on July 21, is the daughter of actors Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough. She kicked off her career 11 years ago, and steadily climbed the ladder from Off-Broadway to guest shots and on to both recurring and series-regular roles on television. Her previous credits include New Amsterdam (2008), The Good Wife (2010), Nurse Jackie (2013-2015), The Walker (2015), and Masters of Sex (2016).

Now here she is, appearing in two high-profile shows. Gilpin appreciates the moment, but quickly and self-deprecatingly downplayed her achievement.

“You’re catching me on the day I’m up in Massachusetts, where my husband and I have a little farmhouse, and we’ve just realized that our oven is soaked in mouse urine,” Gilpin said. “So I don’t really feel like Julia Roberts today.

“I have, up until now, been in a sweet spot of making my living as an actor without having to be famous,” she continued, “but also having a ton of heartbreaks on the way of not getting parts that I really, really wanted.

“It’s bittersweet and sort of terrifying right now,” Gilpin concluded. “My life could really change in a crazy way or it could stay the same, except that I have health insurance and one person in the grocery story recognizing me every once in a while, probably when I have toothpaste on my face. It’s really exciting, but it is also a bit surreal.

“It feels a little Eliza Doolittle-y, particularly on days with mouse-urine-soaked stove insulation.”

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