Betty Gilpin Is Finding Herself, One Chapter At A Time
If there’s one thing Betty Gilpin loves, it’s a metaphor. Take, for instance, a moment in her new collection of essays, All The Women In My Brain: And Other Concerns, in which the actress – best known for her work on the gone-too-soon Netflix favourite Glow – describes a sexual partner as a “blind boar on ketamine, who loved cocaine in a room full of it”.
“I do think and talk in metaphor a lot, much to the chagrin of my husband, therapist, and people I love who wish to understand me,” she says over Zoom. “I know that it can be roundabout and confusing, but it has always helped me make things make more sense in my brain. Thinking about things in a surreal, mystical, allegorical way makes them more understandable to me.”
That thinking is in line with what fans love her for in the first place: over the past decade, Gilpin has become one of the most exciting portrayers of layered women on screens big and small. In Glow, her stressed-out former soap star cakes her face in makeup, teases her hair and transforms into a catchphrase-spouting Southern Miss America facsimile on the wrestling mat. Now, with All The Women In My Brain, Gilpin offers up a glimpse of how she tussles with the various personas that live inside her – the manicured, Instagram-ready Barbie that goes to war against the daughter of Salem who is messy and feral. She announces at the start that this won’t be your typical “actor memoir”, but the book does dive into the philosophical nature of acting and what it means to slip in and out of identities as a profession. Gilpin has carved out a career that is uniquely suited to her – a Shakespeare-loving nerd who can play badass and bombshell – but has along the way suffered the indignities of the casting office that wants women to fit into easy boxes.
Guiding Gilpin through her journey is a group of “brain women”, a collection of selves, among them the colourfully named Joni McLamb (the sensitive one) and Blanche VonFuckery (the poised and glamorous one). These figures are birthed from Gilpin’s assumption that while other people must have strong senses of self, she’s stuck trying on different identities. “When I’m not one of these cycled selves, or a character in someone else’s story, who am I in a vacuum?” she explains. “Is it no one? Am I just a collection of different people? And then I made a career of being a collection of different people.”
Her next onscreen project is an adaptation of another book examining the messiness of women’s inner lives. In the upcoming Showtime series based on Lisa Taddeo’s intimate non-fiction Three Women, Gilpin plays Lina, a woman gang-raped in her teens, who later begins an affair outside her unhappy marriage. It’s a continuation of the self-deconstructing Gilpin does in her own writing. As Lina, she’s unleashing her “character actress monster id authentic person”. It’s what she calls the “Mare Of Easttown-ification of Shirley Temple”, which I interpret as a deliberate rejection of a shiny people-pleasing persona for something rawer. It’s another metaphor she leaves me to untangle before logging off.
Esther Zuckerman is an entertainment journalist whose work has been published by Thrillist, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and Refinery29