The ‘GLOW’ and ‘American Gods’ actor on leaving New York, coming back, and her relationship with ‘Law & Order.’
In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it’s actor Betty Gilpin, who appears in Netflix’s sensational wrestling dramedy GLOW as well as the first season of Starz’s Neil Gaiman adaptation American Gods.
I grew up in the South Street Seaport—the only occupied building on the block. I remember at four years old, eating my Cheerios and watching a couple gangsters coming out of the building across the street after gambling all night long. My memory has illustrated that they were dressed as Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit—in a purple pinstripe suit—but it could’ve been two homeless guys. At the time, though, I was like, It’s Frank Sinatra!
We moved to Roxbury, Connecticut—80 miles north of the city—when I was nine years old. I was furious with my parents. I was like, “How am I supposed to become an actress on a dirt road?” But I fell in love with the woods and the country, and I became a weird girl who looks at bugs. The bugs that I encounter living in an apartment in Brooklyn are different. One morning, I woke up with a bug crawling across my face that had about 2 million legs. I enjoy the wildlife of New England but not the wildlife of New York.
My parents are both actors who did primarily stage work in New York and then regional theater throughout New England. I’d go with them to rehearsals and performances, sit in the stage manager’s booth, memorize their lines, and give other actors notes afterward. I thought I was being so helpful, but if I was doing a play now and an eight-year-old gave me a note, I would probably be put in jail for my response.
My first acting gig was on Law & Order: Criminal Intent when I was abot 18 or 19. I was alive for the first two seconds of the episode, and then I died. Fran Drescher played my mom, and I was found dead and naked in an oil drum. A year later, I was cast on Criminal Intent as a crack addict, and I was like, “You guys know I died a year ago, right?” They were like, “No one cares at all.”
Being on Law & Order was like fan fiction for me. I grew up watching it with my parents saying, “Oh, that’s so-and-so,” and, “Here’s a personal detail about their lives.” Those shows are full of amazing New York actors—and a lot of them are primarily theater actors, so seeing them on-screen is always a treat.
Ghost Town was one of my first movies. The hair and makeup was really complicated—I ‘d see the shot I was in that day, and I was a little white blur in the top corner of the frame. It was cool to film something in New York and to run around chasing Ricky Gervais. The difference between film and TV is that, with film, it feels like you have less time to stretch and find your character. Working on season of TV, you have four months to explore the character, and the pressure is off a little bit more.
I’ve been very lucky to have gotten two jobs—American Gods and GLOW—that let me go to the craziest places of my brain. They’re places that usually aren’t allowed to be shown on-screen—too big, too broad, or it doesn’t make sense. I’m often told to do another take and “just say the words this time.” No one told me to do that on either of these jobs.
For a lot of people, your 20s are about either learning to not have your arms constantly open or knowing when to fold your arms to protect yourself. If you’re a person who has your arms folded to the world, to know when to open them. For me, it was about finding the moments in life where it was OK to fold my arms or hold them up. Being more tired than I was at 19 helps with that. I don’t care as much about what people think of me because I’m just too tired.