Debbie, Gilpin’s character on the Netflix female-wrestling comedy “GLOW,” has only one alter ego: Liberty Belle, an All-American blonde bombshell. But over the course of a recent hour-plus conversation at a boutique cafe near her home in Brooklyn, Gilpin revealed that multiple personae are packed inside her shiny public exterior.
Or, as she described that exterior, “the Barbie bus.”
“I sometimes feel like I’m a living, breathing production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ where I am Cyrano” — Persona No. 1 alert! — “driving the Barbie bus, fooling the Roxanne of show business, getting into rooms and getting jobs,” said Gilpin, who has been open about her struggles with self-esteem. (She wrote a 2017 article for Glamour headlined “What It’s Like to Have Pea-Sized Confidence with Watermelon-Sized Boobs.”)
After toiling in semi-obscurity for nearly a decade, Gilpin is the recipient of back-to-back Emmy nominations for best supporting actress in a comedy for her heartbreakingly funny and layered portrayal of Debbie on “GLOW.” (The third season debuts Friday.) If not quite a household name, she has nonetheless come a long way from the one-dimensional babe-of-the-week roles she felt obliged to take in the past.
“When I was playing the hot chick, it was clear my job was to wear a very small costume and suck it in for the wide shot, and let the boys make the jokes,” she said. “I’m never going to devalue myself again to keep a job. It makes me sad, thinking how many times I did that.”
Today, she is dressed down, hiding her naturally brown locks under a nondescript baseball cap. But she is conversationally flamboyant, given to vivid, discursive word-jazz riffs that veer from poignant memories of growing up in the pre-commercialized South Street Seaport area of Manhattan (“Our ceiling was built out of old ship parts — it felt like our own secret little fort”) to a trenchant explanation of why she quit Twitter. (“Having that much simultaneous validation and rejection coming at me all day long was not good for my brain.”)
Raised in New York City and Connecticut by parents who are both character actors, Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough, she was — Persona No. 2 alert! — “a ham clown, with a spaghetti pot on my head, doing jazz hands at dinner parties, whether it was wanted or not,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this is what being an actor is!’”
Gilpin’s parents urged her to study more than just theater where she attended college, at Fordham University, in the name of financial security, if nothing else. But she was determined to act. It gave her a chance to unleash her — Persona No. 3 alert! — “internal Joan of Arc-Sylvia Plath-Alanis Morissette-Kraken monster.”
But after graduation, she struggled against typecasting. “We studied a lot of theater of the absurd at Fordham and ‘building your inner ocean of weird’ was the thesis statement,” she said. “Then graduating and auditioning for things like ‘Gossip Girl,’ where the No. 1 priority is muffling your ocean of weird and curling your hair, I didn’t work for a while because I was bad at both the muffling and the curling.”
Gilpin did the starving New York City actor thing for a while, appearing off-Broadway and in bit parts on “Law & Order” (once), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (once) and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (twice, as different characters). She was frustrated in her attempts to find depth in limited roles — and by the internet’s response to her.
“Sometimes when I was playing a lawyer, I’d created all this identity for this person and done all this homework about what rage they were suppressing,” she said. “And the first Twitter comment was ‘Nice (expletive).’”
Things began to change when she was added to the cast of Showtime’s dark comedy “Nurse Jackie” as Dr. Carrie Roman in 2013. The character was “basically supposed to be a bimbo who slept with everyone,” Gilpin said, but two of the show’s writers, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, saw something in her. Something deeply odd.
“Liz and Carly were like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a weird Sylvia Plath ham clown in there; let’s start peppering that into the writing,’” Gilpin said.
Over the final three seasons of “Nurse Jackie,” Flahive and Mensch helped to flesh out Dr. Roman into an idiosyncratic eccentric whose promiscuity was her least provocative personality trait.
“On the outside, Betty is this 1940s blond bombshell, but the closer to you get to her, you realize she’s so strange, theatrical and smart,” Flahive said in a telephone interview. “You can’t pin her down as a performer, and that’s exciting.”
If Flahive and Mensch hadn’t freed Gilpin’s inner weirdo, “I really don’t know what would’ve happened to me,” Gilpin said. “The Roxanne of the business told me if you’re in your 20s, you’re supposed to be the naked girlfriend or the supportive young mother, and then you expire and we put you in a freezer for the rest of time.”
Finally, she was getting to play Cyrano instead of Barbie. “One of them is much more interesting and has way more stories to tell,” she said. “The Barbie doll is fun, but ticktock! I have Irish genes. I’m supposed to write a poem in a field and die at 40. I’m not made for HD.”
“But that’s for me to decide and not the business,” she added. “I feel that intensely right now.”
When Flahive and Mensch went on to create “GLOW,” which debuted on Netflix in 2017, they gave Gilpin the meaty role of Debbie, a 1980s soap actress whose husband (Rich Sommer) sleeps with her best friend (Alison Brie) in the pilot. By joining forces with her frenemy in a campy women’s wrestling league, Debbie begins to declare her independence — in spandex.
“Liz and Carly are very meta in their writing,” Gilpin said. “They see where I am in my fear and empowerment journey, and they write it into the script like evil genius demons. As Debbie finds her self-worth, I’m doing that on our set, which is like a feminist Montessori bio-dome experiment.”
The approach seems to be working. “Betty’s body has been so objectified in the past,” Mensch said. “To watch her step into a role where she gets to fully act with her body in a new way to tell stories about both her strength and her vulnerability is thrilling.”
While it’s hard to gauge its true popularity (Netflix rarely releases viewing numbers), “GLOW” has become one of the service’s most talked-about series, earning sparkling reviews and awards and boosting the profiles of stars like Gilpin, Brie and Marc Maron, who plays a producer on the titular wrestling show. As Gilpin has dealt with newfound fame and acclaim, she has also developed — Personae Nos. 4 and 5 alert! — “an inner social worker and an inner stage mom,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m invited to a party, and I’m some cocktail of too afraid and too cool to go,” she continued. “But sometimes I’ll go and think, ‘Thank God I listened to the stage mom side of me. I feel so good being here.’ Self-celebration is not vanity, up to a point.”
It doesn’t always work out that way, though. “Sometimes I show up and I’m like, ‘Why did you make me come here, stage mom?’” she said. “That’s my social worker, who just wants me to go home and take care of myself.”
She plans to have the stage mom drive the Barbie bus to the Emmys on Sept. 20, and it will be fully tricked out.
“You have award-winning artists painting your face, shaping your hair and tailoring your clothes so suddenly you’re like” — Persona No. 6 alert! — “a Versailles porn version of yourself,” she said. “And you think, ‘Wow, I look amazing! I don’t look like myself, but after feeling invisible for so long, this feels really good.’”
She knows that feeling won’t last, and she’s OK with that. “It’s this happy balance of, ‘Put on this really beautiful gown that someone’s lending you that they may not lend you in five years, and have fun at this party,’” she said. “‘But don’t place too much value on it, because this is an ice sculpture of deceit.’”
Besides, what Gilpin is most thankful for is living and working in an era when women are increasingly showing their complex, contradictory sides, both on and off-screen.
“We owe it to generations of women sobbing into their hoop skirts and complicated bras of yore, who whispered and screamed, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore!’” she said. “So much of what’s happening in writing for women is you’re used to seeing a certain side of the embroidery, and now we’re writing for the flip side, with the knots and mistakes that we collectively made a pact years ago not to talk about.”
And if there’s one thing Gilpin loves, it’s the messiness of real life.
“Someone defecated on my stoop yesterday, and that’s one of the many reasons I love living in New York,” she said, with all seriousness. “As actors, we’re supposed to have one foot in the river of humanity and break out of that bubble. And that gentleman helped me do that yesterday. So I thank him, and I will use his work in mine.”
As for what comes after the life-altering experience of “GLOW” — what will define her next persona — Gilpin doesn’t know, but she has a hunch. “It feels like I’m in this room that I didn’t know existed, and there are all these things I ever wanted,” she said. “There’s still one more little locked box that I’m not quite sure what’s in there.”
“But honestly,” she added slyly. “I think it’s a tuba career.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.