For Betty Gilpin, the Netflix series “GLOW” came at a perfect time in her career, and in pop culture. Honing her skills on stage and screen over the years, she brings her biting wit and intelligence to the role of Debbie Eagan, aka Liberty Bell.
The first season introduced Debbie as a woman scorned who picks up the pieces of her failing marriage by joining the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and squaring off against Ruth, the former best friend who had an affair with her husband. In season two, the ladies are ready to make their television debut, and Debbie establishes herself not only as a star, but as a producer.
I had the opportunity to speak with Betty Gilpin about her work on the 80s-set series, why she loves playing Debbie, and what “GLOW” has to say in the Me Too era. Please enjoy our conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: We’ll talk about season 2 in a minute, but how did your journey to GLOW start?
Betty Gilpin: I know the creators of “GLOW,” Liz Flahive and Carly Mensh. I have known them for years and years, first as playwrights in New York and then we worked together on “Nurse Jackie,” also in New York. They had told me years ago that they were developing a show based on this show from the 80s, “GLOW.” I googled it and was like immediately, “Oh no! I want this job so badly.” I was very in my head. Were they talking to me about it because we’re friends? Or because they wanted me to be in it or were they thinking about me?
And then years later, I auditioned for it and then auditioned five more times. I had never wanted a job more than this. I have a theater background and I felt like as an actor I was going to be allowed to be the weirder, bigger, crazier, darker version of myself on stage and then for TV and film I would squint and agree and pose in a dress to qualify for health insurance. And this show was kind of one of those rare marriages of the two. They were going to let women be weird and loud and insane and have gravitas and also qualify for health insurance.
KP: Can you talk a little bit about your journey with Debbie and some things you have done to see her through her growth?
BG: I think a lot about who Debbie was before we meet her on this show, and I think she was one of those women who sort of based her personality on being an alpha and trying to be perfect and in control all the time. But also devaluing herself in certain ways. Believing the world when it told her that she should be arm candy and that the most valuable things about her were the things that were going to expire. I think that for me personally I went through a similar process that Debbie did in realizing, oh I feel very empowered in certain ways. And in other ways I didn’t realize that the male gaze representative in my brain was louder than I thought it was in telling me things that weren’t helpful or true about myself. And I think that Debbie kind of uses the wrestling ring to sort of audition a stronger version of herself.
Then in season two, I think, she uses the creation of this television show as a kind of safe space for her to empower herself and kind of play the part of a person who values themselves and asks for what she wants. To me, that’s the way that you become that person. You kind of fake it until you become it. That’s been very fun for me to experiment with Debbie.
KP: Season 1 happened before the Me Too movement really found its footing and then Season 2 came after. What were some of the conversations that happened while you were in production on season 2?
BG: And Season 2 was written before the Me Too movement really took off, so there are so many things that… Once we were filming, for instance, episode 5 where the KDTV producer comes onto [Ruth] in the hotel room, it felt so timely. That had been written before all the Harvey Weinstein stuff happened, but it felt like a direct mirror of what was happening. Yeah, I think it’s such a testament that it’s been going on for decades. I initially felt very disappointed in Debbie and the way she handled that situation. I think Debbie feels a certain level of self-confidence, but I think in self-worth she has a longer way to go. And I think that Ruth has higher self-worth than Debbie does. Seeing Ruth make a different decision than Debbie would have puts her on the defense and makes her lash out at Ruth and try to gain control where she feels she doesn’t have any.
KP: “GLOW” is set in the 80s, which was definitely a different time, so it feels of its time, but it also feels like it’s really relevant now. How do you manage to balance the two?
BG: I think part of us telling the story of how we got here is telling all sides of the story. Liz and Carly do a pretty excellent job of being honest. It wasn’t like there were anti-feminist people and feminists and the people who were anti-feminists were outwardly “Wahaha” villains. There were drops of it in everybody without knowing. People who you love say things that are pretty backward and feel so insane and tone deaf now. But I think we should all be grateful that our grandparents didn’t have Twitter accounts that lasted forever.
KP: So true!
BG: Yeah. I think [Liz and Carly] are not afraid to make their characters unlikable in some moments. And I realize that even I was upset with Debbie for not being likable to today’s ear, but it would have been a disservice to telling a true story about this moment in time.
KP: What is something about Debbie that you just really love?
BG: I love that it’s always pretty high stakes with Debbie. I’m never bored playing her because I think that she really veers between relishing in pageantry and falling down the depths of a dark spiral. It’s really fun to play those two things. I think she’s either in her mind on a parade float waving to her adoring public or deep in a dungeon of despair. There’s rarely a casual middle ground. That’s been really fun to play.
KP: Do you think that you, Betty, could be friends with Debbie?
BG: I certainly do. I feel like I was the girl who carried Debbie’s books in high school, so I’ve definitely been friends with many Debbies, and have loved them before and could again.
KP: She’s such a great character. But what is a little quirk about her that drives you crazy?
BG: A quirk about her that drives me crazy. Well, you know, does she need to wear teal eye shadow to an 8AM business meeting? Couldn’t she just throw on some chapstick and sweat pants like I’m wearing right now? Apparently not. I think she still has a long way to go in realizing, “I don’t need to look like I’m in a drag queen’s circus to go pick up my dry cleaning.”
KP: It was the 80s!
KP: What are some things you’ve heard from fans of “GLOW?”
BG: One of the benefits of Debbie wearing lashes and teal eye shadow to the dry cleaners is I don’t get recognized barely at all! And I don’t have social media, so I’m pretty good at shielding myself from the comments section, I guess. But yeah, people have been so kind and wonderful. It feels very good to feel seen as Debbie. That people respond to her theatrics. I’m glad it resonates.
KP: What is a scene or an episode that you loved filming?
BG: The episode where Debbie sells all her furniture was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a set. I mean, for her to just completely lose her mind and to have fun losing her mind and kind of respond to every instinct that she spent her life suffocating was so enjoyable.
And the hospital scene in episode 7 when Ruth and Debbie finally have it out. That felt so cathartic because we’ve spent a year and a half doing scenes where we couldn’t make eye contact. To really stand there and scream at each other felt so good and so disturbingly fun.
KP: And for the audience, watching that felt really good too. It was like, finally!
BG: Exactly, yes.
KP: You’ve done television quite a bit. What is something you love about it. Besides the paycheck and the health insurance?
BG: I love that you get the opportunity to really crack open a character’s brain and swim around in it and see what’s in every weird, forgotten corner of it. Sometimes in movies or a one off episode or even a play where you’re doing the same thing over and over again, there’s just not the time and space to explore different sides of a character. I think I’ll never get bored of playing Debbie because just when I’ve got her figured out, there’s a new, weird person in her brain that pops up and wants to take the microphone for a little while. I think it’s just been so much fun trying to begin to understand her.
KP: It’s kind of like how we are as people.
BG: Totally, yes. I think that Jenji Kohan and Liz Flahive and Carly Mensh are really good at wanting to know every side of especially female characters. Not just the put together side. Throughout a given day we are ten different people. Whether Debbie is Liberty Bell or put together at the dry cleaners and then sobbing on the floor of her house, that could be one day.
KP: What is it like on set? Does everyone hang out together or do you all kind of do your own thing?
BG: We definitely all hang out. It’s sixteen chairs pushed together. It feels like summer camp in the craziest way. And it also feels like if you took a kindergarten classroom and the World Cup and a women’s retreat in upstate New York and put them all together. That’s what our set feels like. We are holding each other and crying between takes or pumping our fists in the air, cheering each other on. It couldn’t be more intimate and insane. And then Marc Maron hides from us.
KP: Not just looking at the next season but at the end of this journey, where would you like to see Debbie end up?
BG: If I were Debbie’s friend, I would want her to just find happiness and learn to like herself as much as she pretends to. And just find a calm, lovely, grateful version of her life that also involves empowerment and love. Whether that’s romantic love or just love for herself. But as an actress, I want her to be struggling forever because that’s the funnest thing to play!