Before she dived into writing her new memoir, All the Women in My Brain: And Other Concerns, actress Betty Gilpin had already exhibited a knack for tart-tongued, metaphor-rich essays in publications like the New York Times and Glamour. Back in late 2020, she decided that roughly five weeks was enough time to complete a collection of personal essays, most of them composed on her living-room floor.
Why the rush? Having recently given birth to her and husband Cosmo Pfeil's first child, Mary, Gilpin wanted to harness the high-flying, post-baby hormones surging through her body. "It felt like I was drunk on this lie that there were no bad ideas," Gilpin says. "I was also aware the hormones would change soon. So I was like, 'Quick! Write as fast as possible.'"
What she discovered in the process was that her journey to selfactualization — she calls it "my field notes on human behavior" — might have resonance.
"As an actress, I was starting to think about the juxtaposition of being in college and studying theater and thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to make a career out of being a sort of human dark poem who also [does] pratfalls,'" she says. "And then I graduated into a world where I realized very quickly my job as an actress is to be the smallest, squintiest, sexual exposition line to the A story, which is the male role, and to try and tamp down all those pratfall feelings. Then I realized that's how a lot of people feel in the world, whether they're an actor or not."
If you're familiar with Gilpin's singular late-night talk-show appearances, her writing is what you'd expect: smart and full of laughs, with plenty of cringe-worthy moments, too. She explains how she can come off as glossily formidable while being filled inside with churning, self-doubting emotions.
She also displays a clear-eyed grasp of show biz, some of which she learned as the daughter of two hard-working pros: character actor Jack Gilpin (The Gilded Age) and Broadway veteran Ann McDonough.
Though a dedicated feminist, Gilpin doesn't overlook the ways she's objectified herself. She wonders what it means for her to be railing against misogyny "while I'm wearing five-inch heels to make my calves go into a seizure so that I look good for the comments section.
"I tried to be really honest about it — it being a real conversation in my head and feeling ashamed of that. Like, 'Okay, my goal for my body is to look good in the wide shot. The interesting parts of me I can shoehorn into a part are from the neck up.' It's not a humorless memoir about what needs to be changed in the world. The person who gets roasted most is myself."
Early on, she squeezed the unexpected into a TV role — a micro-second dance move, an out-of-context grimace — while playing beautiful, work-averse Dr. Carrie Roman on Nurse Jackie. Though Gilpin writes about the Showtime series at length, sometimes critically, she never identifies it by name. Given that she shares intimate details about depression and body dysmorphia and swigging vodka as a boarding-school student at the Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut, her coyness about naming the show warrants an explanation.
She frames it as a matter of knowing her place in the entertainment industry firmament. "I didn't want people to think I was the kind of actor who assumes you know my IMDb page," she says. "I find that so embarrassing. So I thought, if I don't name [the series] then they won't think this is a book where I think I'm sitting on a mountaintop holding a ten-inch-long cigarette holder and saying, [in a grand voice] 'This is how I did it.' I recognize that I'm still selling souvenirs at base camp."
She's more open about why she signed on for another in a long line of voluptuous object-of-male-desire roles when she longed to be taken seriously.
"My character was sort of written — and I don't want to slut-shame — as a doctor who was free with her sexual dance card in the workspace, wore tiny costumes, had vocal fry and was a bad doctor and a ditz," she says. "I'd been doing plays that no one saw for two pennies about cousins having sex with each other in the tundras of Canada in a black-box theater. I was desperate to get work in film and TV to pay my rent. This job had so many legends in it I'd worshipped. Honestly, I was totally fine taking off my top to get scenes with them."
She wanted to write about the experience because she thought audiences often don't understand the bargains that actors are forced to make. "That job felt like an exact representation of the tango that we all do as actresses," she adds. "Sort of feeding this notion of, 'I promise I can look like a fantasy version of myself, a version of me that I do not look anything like when I wake up in the morning, but I will be this fantasy doll.
"If I check those boxes, can I also be the cross-eyed character actress that I swore I'd be true to when I was practicing my Oscar speech alone in my bathroom at ten?' I tried to do both on that show."
As it happens, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who were writer-producers on Nurse Jackie, went on to create GLOW, Netflix's '80s-era wrestling dramedy. As playwrights, they knew Gilpin from the theater world and had no trouble imagining her as Debbie "Liberty Belle" Eagan, a former soap star and spandexed lady wrestler — a role that ultimately brought Gilpin three Emmy nominations, as supporting actress in a comedy series, 2018–20.
"We always knew how much Betty had to give," Flahive once told The Hollywood Reporter. "And because she is a weirdo trapped inside the body of a bombshell, people aren't always looking at her the way we are — which is that she's a strange monster chameleon who can do absolutely anything."
GLOW was a career-maker for Gilpin. Even so, Netflix pulled the plug on the critically praised series just before its fourth season. In true Gilpinian fashion, she gloriously eulogized the show in Vanity Fair. "Apparently numbers-wise, GLOW really only appealed to men in kimonos and women in cat hair, who, as far as I'm concerned, are the beating heart of the arts and the reason to keep waking up," she wrote.
Since then, life has been hectic. Last year, she appeared in Mensch and Flahive's Apple TV+ anthology series, Roar, and as Maureen "Mo" Dean in Starz's Watergate drama, Gaslit. Early this year she'll appear as Lina, a frustrated suburban housewife in a deteriorating marriage, in Showtime's adaptation of Lisa Taddeo's best-seller, Three Women.
Playing Lina, she says, put her desire for glitzless parts to the test. "I was given the opportunity to be pure, raw, with a character who is a mother, looks like a mother and doesn't need to look like she's from the Playboy Mansion — and it was a real boot camp of self-acceptance," she says. "I was like, 'Oh, I kind of llove the purple lighting and three hours of copper mist body paint. I guess I like looking like the cartoon me.'
"But what I was so pleased with was how much easier it was to do my job as an actor when I wasn't feeling like, first and foremost, I needed to be a prettier, shinier version of myself. This is certainly the rawest I've been onscreen."
Though it's been leaked that she plays a nun who battles Artificial Intelligence in Peacock's upcoming Mrs. Davis, she can't share much more about her character. The drama is cowritten and produced by the legendarily secretive Damon Lindelof (Lost, Watchmen).
"I think I'm allowed to say I wear a habit and that Margo Martindale is Mother Superior," is how she begins. If that leaves you scratching your head, imagine how day players felt when they came onto the Mrs. Davis set for a single episode and were given only their pages — not the entire script. "My favorite part is that they'd say, 'It's a Western, right?' or 'It's an indie?' or 'It's a thing about a computer?' And it's all of those things. I'm using every tool in my Swiss Army knife of insanity. Without giving anything away, it might be my favorite job I've ever had."
These days, Gilpin has been reflecting a lot about goals she once set for herself and how maybe it's time to put some of those expectations to rest. "Something I talk about in the book is that I assigned a brass-ring level of my career," she says. "It was like, 'Okay, if I get to that place, I'll outrun depression or a darker version of myself that's just waiting to catch up with me and eat me alive.' But now I'm at a place where I've realized that's not true."
Lately, she's been thinking about finding a balance between motherhood and the opportunities presented by her rising star. Her idea is to schedule regular three-month breaks so she can spend more time with her husband and child. "Stillness doesn't equal defeat," she says. "I think we all learned that in the pandemic."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "Field Trip."