Betty Gilpin has what perhaps could be called character dysmorphia: the feeling that, as an actress, her body isn’t right for the roles she wants to play. That’s not exactly a groundbreaking notion in Hollywood; actresses have complained for decades about looks-based typecasting and its correlation to the glut of two-dimensional women onscreen. But Gilpin—the 35-year-old actress known for Netflix’s GLOW and, most recently, the Starz drama Gaslit, which just aired its finale Sunday night—is one of the relative few airing her confusion over this industry pigeon-holing in real time. At every possible opportunity, whether in interviews or her own personal writing, she seems bent on flashing her audience an SOS: I know I’m hot. I’d really like a shot at being ugly.
That, perhaps, is an interesting notion in Hollywood, where actresses are—to pull one example—directed not to reveal their forehead wrinkles during crying scenes. Back in 2021, Gilpin told Collider, “I have all these ideas that I wanna do and all this grotesque, layered, clown-y, mezzanine-hitting depths of despair, touching stuff that I wanna do, but role-wise, I’ve played a lot of women who are, like…orchids and have organized purses and none of that stuff going on.” In April of this year, she told W Magazine, “I’m an actor and a creative from the neck up; from the neck down, I am a posing person whose job is to suck it in for the wide shot and keep qualifying for health insurance and other jobs.” Then, to The Guardian in May: “I’m a character actress! I am more than the sum of my cheekbones and areolas!” Finally, to me—also in April—she says, “The things that I love about being an actor have nothing to do with the comment sections thinking that I’m hot for now.”
It’d be tempting to interpret these interviews as calculated PR, a Hail-Mary plan to land herself roles in Oscar bait or maybe Broadway revivals. But Gilpin’s identity crisis is a bit too raw to ring hollow. As she writes in the introduction of her upcoming essay collection, All the Women in My Brain: “I feel like a million selves. With a raised eyebrow and a soul-scalpel, I’d like to tell you how I got this way. Because maybe you feel this way too.”
Regardless of whether fans can empathize with her particular experience, there’s certainly something they recognize in Gilpin’s characters, and the industry is catching on to her magnetism. The actress is enjoying a record year, albeit quietly. In April, she led an episode of the Apple TV+ anthology Roar, about a trophy wife whose husband (Daniel Dae Kim) builds a literal shelf from which he can admire her. Numerous critics praised Gilpin’s turn alongside Julia Roberts in the Watergate drama Gaslit, with one calling her role as Mo Dean “the most exciting character on screens right now.” In September, her debut essay collection is hitting shelves, and the buzzy Showtime adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s novel Three Women, in which Gilpin plays one of the aforementioned women, will arrive this fall. Finally, she’s barreling into her first lead role, heading up the Peacock drama Mrs. Davis, about a nun fighting an omnipotent artificial intelligence. (“Most of my roles have my Catholic ancestors on a permanent rotisserie grave spin and not being able to watch it because I absolutely am sobbing and naked in everything I do,” Gilpin jokes. “So finally, I’m playing a nun who keeps the habit zipped to the chin.”)
Gilpin sees it, too: There’s a powerful shift stirring through her career. She’s not quite “on the rise” anymore, though she’s yet to acquire full A-list credentials. But does she even want A-list credentials? Doesn’t that have to come with a skincare line?
“I think that, [at] this strange moment where I’m way more successful than I ever thought I would be, there’s so much more involvement in thinking about presented self than I ever thought there would be,” she says. “I think that I’m not a woman who has all the right serums and potions and lotions and products and has moisturized hands and jewelry just so. I have one necklace that I keep losing that’s caked in Tylenol, liquid Tylenol, for no reason.” But back to the point: “Part of getting jobs and keeping the career train going is I’m having to craft this illusion with the help of professional hair and makeup and styling people that I am a woman who’s good at all the things that I’m not, aesthetically.”
But Gilpin would be lying if she said she weren’t tempted by the same affirmations as her Roar character, Amelia, or even by Mo Dean’s desire to seem “strong” when she’s suffering. (In a later episode of Gaslit, the character experiences a miscarriage and hides it from her husband so as not to distract him before an important hearing.) Part of the addiction of Hollywood is the promise of admiration and applause should you play appropriately to the audience. And Gilpin senses she’s coming up on what she calls “a fork in the road” in her career. Should she write a soul-baring memoir or a keto-friendly cookbook? She’s getting older; the new stars are all 18. Should she be an Instagram influencer or move to Paris and become a street mime? Who’s finally going to clean that Tylenol-caked necklace?
“You can go down one way where there’s this vague dream of who you could be and your most powerful self and aging into your most authentic self, but there’s not a whole lot of validation guaranteed with that,” she says. “Or you could just pull over and grab as many compliments as possible and capitalize on the qualities that are going to expire now and just cash in now.”
It doesn’t help, Gilpin says, that Hollywood isn’t suddenly a post-#MeToo feminist utopia. When I point out that a Washington Post article about Mo Dean in 1987 began with the lede, “Her ample breast strained under the taut, delicate emerald silk of her blouse,” Gilpin releases a quiet, strained laugh. “Ten years ago, I feel like the breakdown for this role would’ve had that wording in all caps in the email to make an audition tape,” she says. “And now it’s just quietly implied. We haven’t fixed it all. Now it’s just like a size-five footnote under a Greta Thunberg GIF. It’s like, ‘And please still be hot, but also empowered! But have an ample bosom. But only if you want to. But do, or else you won’t get the part.’”
Understandably, that mixed messaging might lead to some confusion, and Gilpin falls into it just as easily as her peers. The so-called “women in her brain” keep overcomplicating her path toward brand ambassador or holistic goddess. Maybe that was always inevitable: Her parents worked in theater; she was raised to adore character acting and camp, arguably corners of drama less concerned with clear skin. And as a woman who’s always relished a “side-piece love affair” with writing, when it came time to draft a book she realized she’d be forced to…well, censor her self-censoring.
As an actress now well-known for zingy one-liners and expansive anecdotes, Gilpin thrives on throwing herself under fire, criticizing both her laugh lines and the ludicrous frivolity of being an actor in a suffering universe. “I recognize that my role in society—if someone is running a marathon with glass in their shoes, I’m not even the person standing on the sidelines with an optional banana for electrolyte or potassium. I’m, like, the person behind that person offering to moon them if it would make them laugh,” she says. “And if not, totally fine! You can just keep running. But I think that’s important. I think sometimes you got to look at someone’s butt.”
Frankly, Gilpin is still sorting through the women in her brain, but at least she can call them each by name. She knows she might be hot, she knows she might be funny, she knows she’s a wicked-good character actress, and she can write a book! That’s worth something, isn’t it? Whoever this person is—she’s messy but she’s extraordinary, right? Can she say that last part out loud?
Besides, post-girlboss feminism is supposed to be about loving women in all their ugliness, even if no one has quite figured out how just yet. When asked if she’d ever return for a final season of GLOW, the beloved Netflix series canceled too soon, Gilpin makes her enthusiasm—and her struggling self-awareness—obvious. “I would do it if it was, yeah, the squatty potty streaming service. My fantasy is to do it in 20 years,” she says. “Although probably my ass in Capezio tights would look differently. But maybe that’s what Susan B. Anthony’s ghost wants.”
Photography by Stephanie Diani, styling by Chloe Hartstein, hair by Jillian Halouska, makeup by Misha Shahzada.
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