Betty Gilpin has been folding paper cranes.
It’s a hobby the GLOW actress taught herself by watching YouTube tutorials around 10 years ago when she quit smoking. And now, in coronavirus quarantine times, it’s something to do. Her medium of choice? Cardboard New Yorker subscription tear-outs.
“It has a very Etsy feel to it,” Gilpin quipped during an interview last week—although she also made clear she has no interest in becoming an online entrepreneur. “I don’t have the patience for that,” she said. “It’s just gonna be piles.”
Debbie Eagan, Gilpin’s enterprising GLOW character, would certainly know how to turn these paper crane heaps into a flourishing e-commerce empire—and if she didn’t, she’d learn fast. A soap opera star-turned-wrestler-turned producer, Debbie is an unstoppable force whose ambition is matched only by her own self-doubt.
As it turns out, Debbie is also the perfect vessel for Gilpin’s transfixing weirdness as a performer. For three seasons in a row, GLOW’s most captivating moments have chipped away at Debbie’s glossy facade to reveal the quirks and insecurities that bubble beneath it.
That trick would have been impossible without Gilpin—more specifically, her ability to find hilarity in even the rawest moments. Gilpin is an expressive marvel who often mines her best comedy from the tension between her character’s outward responses and the barely-hidden feelings she illuminates beneath them. It takes a special sensitivity to play a neurotic person trying to act nonchalant—and Betty Gilpin has it.
The Rowdy Queer and Trans Wrestling League BLOWW-ing Stereotypes Away
Think the Pandemic Sucks? Now Imagine You Have a Disability.
The TV Academy has evidently taken notice; this year marks Gilpin’s third consecutive Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
But this year, things are obviously different. The pandemic has forced many of us into relative isolation. And in the wake of several deadly police encounters, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained unprecedented levels of support, with protests continuing across the country. Gilpin’s widely-covered reaction to her Emmy nomination this year called for the police who killed Breonna Taylor to be arrested.
“In March it sort of felt like, ‘Oh wow, we’re gonna pause and redo parts of the house—like, do some lipstick fixes,’” Gilpin told The Daily Beast of the past few months. “And then all of a sudden we were like, ‘You wouldn’t believe it. The house is covered in mold.’ And then so many people are like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been telling you that for 300 years.’ So I think we deserve this gut renovation.”
As that explanation might indicate, Gilpin loves a good metaphor. Read any interview with her, or listen to her speak for even just a few minutes, and it’s striking just how frequently and effortlessly she churns them out; the natural ease with which she compared quarantine to being “a coke addict-marathon runner that’s now been suddenly dropped off at a monastery” stuck in my brain for days. Another great one, said about her own acting: “I look like I’m going through something gastrointestinal while thinking about the Vietnam War.”
When asked where this strange aptitude comes from, Gilpin admitted even her therapist has taken notice. “She was like, ‘I’m sorry. Am I the pine tree or are you the pine tree?’” she said of a recent Zoom therapy session. “I was like, ‘Exactly, Melissa!’”
But metaphors are more than a conversational flourish for Gilpin. As her profile has risen and her audience has expanded, metaphors have become a way for her to maintain a mindset where it’s still safe to take risks without anxiety about whether or not the audience will “get” the end result.
“When I spent a decade, like, shouting into a grave of eight asleep people in a black box theater where no one saw the plays, it was easier to fail or take risks,” Gilpin said. “And now, where there’s almost like a score being kept, it feels a little scarier. And I feel like the things I love about being creative, and face-making—that can kind of shut down in my brain when I realize, ‘Oh, this is for a product.’”
“For some reason, thinking in weird imagery and metaphors, it’s like a little cat toy for my brain to be like, ‘Think about oak trees and spaghetti!’” Gilpin said. “Don’t think about magazines.”
Gilpin’s theater ties run deep. Both of her parents—Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough—are theater actors who have also taken screen roles. And for those wondering why, specifically, Gilpin’s Emmys reaction referenced Nathan Lane, you can blame the Guys and Dolls Broadway cast recording she listened to every day on the way to school.