Betty Gilpin on being part of female-driven projects, building her career, and playing Gloria in A Dog’s Journey.
About a week and a half ago, I had a chance to chat with Betty Gilpin about her role as Gloria in Universal’s A Dog’s Journey. Gilpin is best known for HBO’s Nurse Jackie and Netflix’s GLOW. As a fan of Gilpin’s work for the past decade, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to talk with Gilpin. I wanted to chat about a lot of things from being part of A Dog’s Journey to her career as a whole, but with only a 15-minute interview, we got to chat about her career as an actress as well as her inspiring story of taking risks thanks to being part of Nurse Jackie.
Betty Gilpin: Hi Scott, how are you?
Scott Menzel: I’m good. Thank you for taking some of your time to speak with me.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, thanks to you as well.
Scott Menzel: I want to say congratulations not only on this film but your career over the last couple of years, as it continues to skyrocket. I’m sure you’ve heard this a dozen times, but I love GLOW. I think it’s one of the best new series that has come out in the last five to ten years. And I really enjoyed this movie. It’s such a nice change of pace from the typical summertime blockbuster spectacle.
Betty Gilpin: Thank you, oddly enough haven’t seen it yet. I’m up in Vancouver filming a movie, and I’m terrified to see it because I’m going to sob through the whole thing.
Scott Menzel: Oh, you definitely will, especially the last 10 to 15 minutes. I am not going to like; I was literally crying like a baby through it.
Betty Gilpin: Oh, no, I’m so sorry. It’s ok, it’s good to feel some emotion from time to time.
Scott Menzel: Well, you’re up in Vancouver, are you filming GLOW, or are you filming something else?
Betty Gilpin: No, I’m filming this movie called Coffee & Kareem. It’s a Netflix movie with Ed Helms and Taraji P. Henson, and it’s an action comedy, like a campy Lethal Weapon.
Scott Menzel: Oh, interesting. I know it was not a big role, but I saw Stuber already, which I saw at SXSW, and you had a small role in that.
Betty Gilpin: Oh, great. Yeah, I haven’t seen that either.
Scott Menzel: You make them, and I’ll watch em (laughs)
Betty Gilpin: Yeah (laughs), this Netflix movie is the same director as Stuber, Michael Dowse.
Scott Menzel: Oh, great. Do they have a date for its release yet?
Betty Gilpin: No, I don’t think it does, but I just wrapped this movie called The Hunt for Blumhouse, and that’s going to come out in October.
Scott Menzel: Okay, yes, I heard of that one, but I did not see that one yet.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, that one is still in editing.
Scott Menzel: Cool. So, I just want to talk briefly with you about something that I’ve noticed about your career over the last couple of years, and then it ties directly in with A Dog’s Journey. You’ve been working on very female-centric projects even going back to Nurse Jackie. And GLOW, of course, is very female-centric. And then A Dog’s Journey, which I believe the reason why it works so much better than the first movie is because of all the female characters and the story of a girl and her dog as opposed to a boy and his dog, which I feel like we’ve seen so many times over before.
What has it been like to be so actively involved in so many projects where women are not only front and center, but very active behind the scenes as well?
Betty Gilpin: Right, yeah, I mean, it’s been such an honor to work on so many female-led projects. I think it happened by luck. I spent a decade trying to get literally any job possible, so I was auditioning for amazing female-driven projects. I was also auditioning to basically play in a cardboard box. Having a thesis statement and a career is a luxury I would say. So, it just happens that way, Nurse Jackie was my real and first big job.
And I think that being my first job with Edie Falco at the helm and female creators and female writers were no accident that my career went the way it did. Because I, as a person, have a lot of fear, and I second guess myself and think there’s a definite part of me that was very comfortable saying, “Oh, no, never mind.” Trying for the things, trying to achieve the thing I wanted is going to make too much noise and take up too much room, so maybe I just won’t do it.
And I think being in a female-driven workplace allowed me the bravery to make bigger, weirder, more out of the box choices, that usually I would chicken out of on the day, when on a set. And I think that was the arrow that pointed me towards the characters that I really wanted to play, instead of just playing safer, more middle of the road, supportive wife characters, to qualify for health insurance, which I was very happy to do, because very few actors get to do the exact thing they want to do. Most of it is doing your job.
So I think that being in an environment where it was okay to be a character actor and not just Barbie #4, let me become the version of myself and become the actor that I wanted to be and to have the career I wanted to, but I definitely was too afraid to do that on my own, and was definitely on track to just play it safe and be nervous in the wings and kicking myself for never trying.
Scott Menzel: Wow…thank you for sharing that story with me and congratulations on being able to be the actress that you wanted to be. I co-founded a critics group, and our big push for this critics group was to be about diversity, inclusion, and equality. I listen to everyone’s stories, and everyone is put in this box. And this seems to be a universal thing within this industry regardless of actors, or journalists of color. It’s just like you’re put into a certain box, and it’s like you are sort of told to stay there. And to hear you break out of that is so empowering.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, it’s also, if you are a female or if you are a minority, you know that traditionally there have only been X number of spots for someone like you. And playing it safe, or doing whatever the script exactly asks for, instead of doing a weird idea in your audition, or bringing your own spin things, is a risk. Certainly, you want to fulfill the exact dream that your eight-year-old self had, but then there’s also the reality of having to get past eight tiers of people criticizing your eyelashes and ankles. There’s so much that’s out of your control.
So, I also think that if Nurse Jackie never happened I from day one would have been like, “Hey, I’m a character actress, and this is how it’s going to go.” I do think that me showing up on time and crying on cue for 10 years of Law & Order and failed pilot auditions, I do think it helped but you got to also earn your keep. I basically cried in traffic for 10 years and made my living as an actor, not a fancy living, but I was working actor and was so happy, and did theater, and felt so fulfilled, but also knew that certain things in this business are a luxury.
And that 10 years also taught me that it’s such a luxury that when you get it, that’s not permanent. So I’m very much enjoying myself because I’ll be holding a folder Albuquerque M.D. in no time.
Scott Menzel: Again, that’s just a fascinating story, and kudos for you to … and for being able to be part of a female-driven project, where you were able to get roles you actually wanted to play. I think that’s the bottom line is that you were able to break out from the actor comfort zone and actually play something that you would want to play.
Betty Gilpin: Yes, totally. I think if you were to ask your immediate family to describe you, they might describe you in a way that it would be like, “What? Oh, God, I’m not like that at all. I’m much more fearful, or I’m much more hesitant.” However, in a safe enclosed environment, you can be like a family, where you can be the stronger and braver version of yourself. And then out in the world, it’s easier to feel like you have to ask permission at every turn, at least that was my experience.
And so, working in an environment that felt like a family, I was like, “Okay, what if this once I auditioned a version of myself as a person, as a professional, and as an actor, that was braver and stronger and weirder and had a little more confidence?” And I realized that it just opened so many more doors in brain creativity-wise. And I thought, “Oh, wow, I’ll change if I’m not an insecure person.”
And I realized I don’t have to feed that part of my personality. It’s always going to be there, so I may as well make my bed and put my shoulders back and raise my hands when I have a question because I’m still going to wake up and hate the shape of my face and sound of my voice on certain days. That’s not going to go away.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I think we all do at some point in time in our lives, so you’re not alone there. I do have to ask you a few questions about the movie even though I really did love hearing your story.
Your character Gloria is a very complicated character with so many layers to her, as she is dealing with loss, not sure what she wants to do with her career and being a mom. How was that for you to embrace this character, and where did you have to go mentally to envision all those little details that made up Gloria?
Betty Gilpin: I really like playing characters who are living in a different genre than the reality that they’re in. I think there’s a little bit of Blanche DuBois in Gloria. She’s the kind of person who you’d be talking to and wants to say, “You know there’s no mezzanine around us, right? We’re not onstage right now. You’re at the same Starbucks that I am”
She’s just a little over the top, and once thought her life was going to be a little more magical and that she was going to be selected as a special person in this world. And I think she feels like the world has passed her by and forgotten her. So, she takes it out on the people around her, which are unfortunately her daughter and puppies which is very unfortunate.
But it was important to me that she’s not a one-dimensional and evil character. I wanted her to be real. And I think we see that. I think that she’s just the kind of person who says to herself, “I just have to get through this one hard day, and then tomorrow will be different.” And then she looks up and it’s been 20 years. And I don’t think she meant to turn into the person that she did, but she did.
Thankfully, she eventually turns a corner. Unfortunately, it’s when the actress playing her is covered in old age prosthetics. (laughs)
Scott Menzel: It was interesting because the film itself deals with a lot of heavy topics, which you just don’t normally see in a PG family film. Sure, it has the cute dogs, but it is sort of this complicated character study in a lot of ways, not only with your character but C.J, Gloria’s daughter. There’s a lot of things that go on with that character too, and it’s a very empowering movie for females in a lot of ways. As I said to you at the beginning of our conversation, we’ve seen so many movies about a man and his dog, or a boy and his dog, that this is like the breath of fresh air, because it is a female-led dog movie with depth. It’s very grounded in reality. And I mean, I thought some of the stuff that C.J. goes through was very raw and honest.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, I think it would’ve been a very different story if C.J. was a boy. I think that one of the things that drives them apart, Gloria and C.J. Gloria thinks it’s hard to see her daughter grow up to be someone who values herself and values her talent above her sexuality. I think that Gloria was under the impression that what was valuable about her as a woman and an artist were physical, and had to do with youth, and it was all gone when she got older and having to mute the darker parts of herself to be successful.
And seeing C.J. uses her feelings, her darkness, and her whole identity, and put that into her music, and to be a whole person who has self-worth, I think that’s very hard for Gloria to see, and very vulnerable for her to see, and can’t really look at her daughter in the eye, because that’s not how she treats herself.
I think that is certainly a generational thing that is happening. I see actresses who are 19 and 20 now, starting their career in a totally different way than I would. I definitely was so under the impression that my job as an actress was to be as small and agreeable as possible and pose in tight clothes for the wide shot. And then maybe, on the third take of the close-up, I could do something strange and just weirdly myself.
And I’m seeing that younger girls now are starting with that version of themselves, and not feeling like they have to be interchangeable Barbie dolls. It’s very inspiring, and it feels like we’re getting closer and closer to the version of a woman that’s not completely encased in shame.
So, yeah, I think that’s all in this family dog movie.
Scott Menzel: It’s very true, this family dog movie has a lot to say. So, I know we are close to having to wrap up our time together so I’m just going to tie this last question together as two. Were you familiar with the books before doing the movie, and then do you have dogs, and if so, can you tell me about your dog or dogs?
Betty Gilpin: I was not familiar with the books before the film. And I do have a dog. His name is Babe. He’s a half pit bull and half Spaniel. He’s almost 11 and a rescue. And I’m trying not to cry talking about him. I love him so much. His back legs are going, and he’s in wheels right now, and we live in New York. And the way that New York City has welcomed and celebrated my old silly dog in his wheels has made me fall in love with New York all over again, and my dog all over again, and my husband all over again. There is so much sadness, hate and terrifying things that feel so out of control in this world, but my dog popping in his wheels, and some stranger in New York standing and putting their hand on my shoulder and laughing with me as it happens, and saying something so heartbreaking like …
God, so this happened last week, I was putting my dog into his wheels, and I was telling him he was brave and a good boy. And a woman pulled her car over, and got out of her car, and with tears streaming down her face, screamed across the street to me, “It’s a love story.” I almost passed out.
So it canceled out the news for at least an hour.
Scott Menzel: That’s a great story. I have two dogs, and both are rescues. But there is nothing like a dog because even when you’re having the worst day, and you walk in the door, no matter what, they’re always happy to see you.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, and they’re like, “Where is my kibble?”
Scott Menzel: That’s right, that’s right. But there’s something so heartbreaking to know that they rely so heavily on you and that their life would not be as fulfilling without you in it.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, exactly. Thank you so much for this lovely chat.
Scott Menzel: Thank you for sharing your story.
A Dog’s Journey is now playing in theaters nationwide.