Almost a decade ago Betty Gilpin and Natasha Lyonne were both performing in plays in the same theater in New York. To hear Lyonne tell it, she was in the black box, indie project that only had 20 seats to fill per show, while Gilpin was on the main stage. The East Coast performers were in each other’s orbits then, but now, their worlds are colliding much more, as they are both identify as “Jenji’s girls.” (Gilpin stars as Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan on “GLOW,” which sees Jenji Kohan as an executive producer; Lyonne appeared for seven seasons on Kohan’s first streaming series, “Orange is the New Black.”)
They ended up shooting at the same studio in Astoria, Queens when Gilpin was on “Nurse Jackie” and Lyonne on “Orange is the New Black.” Now, both women also see Netflix as their homes: “GLOW” just launched its third season on the platform on Aug. 9, while Lyonne co-created, writes, produces, directs and stars in “Russian Doll,” which was recently renewed for a second season.
Because they have such a shared history (and because they share a stylist), the Emmy-nominated duo collaborated on a “To Be or Not To Be”-inspired Emmy shoot for Variety. Lyonne, who is nominated in the lead comedy actress and comedy writing categories, along with seeing a series nod for “Russian Doll,” took the lead in directing the idea and cast herself in the Mel Brooks role, wanting supporting comedy actress nominee Gilpin to take on Anne Bancroft.
How does the intense stylization of the worlds of your shows affect your performances?
Betty Gilpin: To me, the stylization of the show is a little permission slip at the door to my brain to say, “You can be your weirdest possible self.” Your hair is three feet off your head, and there’s teal eyeshadow up to your eyebrow, and there’s a neon gynecological situation, so if you make a weird acting choice, it’s going to be the least weird thing on the screen. So I kind of feel like it’s permission to be a freak — which I’m excited about. As the popularity of mumblecore has soared, my tape for “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” was truly Elaine Stritch on a galloping horse. When I’m asked to be subtle, that’s when I turn into Blanche DuBois on top of the Rockefeller Christmas tree. I like stylized worlds and strange things happening around me.
Gilpin: I really thought I’d crushed the tape! I watched it back after I sent it in and was like, “Oh, no.”
Gilpin: But you guys were sold out, extending, extending, extending, and we were shouting into a grave.
Lyonne: Yeah, because we were like 20 seats. It’s a relative scale. That’s why you’ve got to keep it indie and then you’re always a hit. We sold all 20 tickets every night, and you were trying to sell 400. But we would spend days together outside in the roundabout, both going through what Frank Langella would call the “demon see-saw” of the actors’ ride. There was a certain intimacy of that, where a bunch of us found whatever that moment was in New York, it was almost like a punk rock oral history, “Please Kill Me” style, of a cast of characters who all moved on to make moves at Netflix. There was a bit of a bitches’ brew happening, a bubbling of New York, where we were all trying to tell our story and in this weird way, telling it together. And I think to my years back at the film forum, and I do think that Betty and I share a kind of screwball sentiment, which is leaning into performance, rather than a backing off. My most-loathed thing is whisper acting.
Gilpin: Yes, yes.
Lyonne: I just don’t get it, I don’t understand it, I don’t think it’s a real thing.
Gilpin: Or sleepy status acting where you’re sleepy and you’re better than.
Lyonne: But I will say that the joy of being the architect of “Russian Doll” — the writer, the overseer of its aesthetic and point of view — is you really get to build your own world, and you know exactly the size and the range you can do. So in other ways I’ve been often typecast into things that may seem like a sister adjacent to my role in “Russian Doll,” but because here I was doing the writing and the world-building, I was able to make much bigger swings and know what would or wouldn’t land because I knew where I was coming from and had control of the edit.
“My job is to be as curious as possible and sink my teeth into every aspect of this business.”
Gilpin: I feel like there’s a fork in the road when you start to work more, and more eyes are on you. I guess the choices are extreme solipsism where I’m trapped in this part of my brain where I only have myself reflected back at me, or this Nic Cage curiosity about the whole world and whatever the opposite of solipsism is — the lifting up the rug and looking at the whole underneath, be it magic or maggots. Now my job is to be as curious as possible and sink my teeth into every aspect of this business. I think it’s so inspiring what you do. I think I always thought my job as the flesh puppet was just to show up off-book and cast my eyes down and not ask any questions. And seeing my peers around me, like Natasha Lyonne, not only ask questions but answer questions that are being asked for her, it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that puppets were allowed to do that.” And it makes me want to press “file, print” on my deepest, darkest shame ideas.
Lyonne: But it’s also probably because I was a baby puppet. I have this sort of bizarre benefit that I think can get lost in the sauce of “what” and “why now” and “zeitgeist,” but the reality is, it’s 35 years of laying groundwork. I’m a woman and sort of other and an oddball in the first place, which can feel like a bizarre swing, but actually I’ve been feet on the ground, working the field for a solid 35 years, and it’s really only been in the past two that this is all happening. And I would say that that’s where the years are a benefit — because at a certain point there’s nothing left to lose because you realize the slice of pie is just going to be what it is. So why not go all-in on the big swing?
Gilpin: Yes, I wish I had just started with that knowledge. I feel like I’m only just now realizing that. I think I told myself, “You’ve got to Trojan Horse your weird self in, cross the moat, and then break open and be like, ‘I’m weird, and I have ideas!’” And I could have just started with that.
Gilpin: Natasha’s a much better boss than I am! While I have won many internal battles, there are still male gaze and shame representatives standing sentry in my brain, for sure, who are convincing me that doing things like making an outline and having Type A goals is not for me. So I feel like that’s the next step for me — now that I’m almost at the mountaintop realizing the emperor’s balls are showing, I would like to teach myself to dream in a way that I thought wasn’t for me, and I think that does involve outlines and clipboards and confidently addressing a room full of people, but I do operate in fear.
Lyonne: I have to say, it wasn’t until I started directing that it really crystallized for me the importance of what an actor does and why it’s such a big deal. And I think we’re in this moment where we’re putting all of this expectation on every actor to suddenly also be writing and also be doing this, and I think they’re all their own things and major events. And I think it’s awesome, but I also think it’s very important to keep respect for each of the things, as their own things because when they’re done well they’re f—ing extreme sports that deserve massive respect. But we find ourselves in this insane moment, where it’s like, “Why not?” And I would say, in my ancient person experience, everybody is operating right on time. This business wants to create the illusion of a compare and despair nightmare, in which I’m always falling short or late to my own party, or I’m kind of arriving overdone in someway. But the deeper wisdom is, of course, that competition is an illusion; we’re all in this together, and we’re all riding this streaming wave or whatever the f— it is, and we just can’t see it because we’re in the middle of it. But there is no competition; we’re like an outfit. We’re Jenji’s girls! And it’s so fun to see it in other people and other generations: “Cool, that whole gang worked together a bunch.” And you know there was a part for you in “Russian Doll” that never came up.
Gilpin: Oh, wow.
Lyonne: Gilpin came up multiple times in the room, and the part ended up being too small for her, frankly. It ended up being just one scene in one episode, but it started bigger, and it was Gilpin on the board.
Gilpin: I would have done one scene!
Lyonne: But we are all each other’s team players in this run, and I should be so lucky, when Gilpin decides to put pen to paper, that she remembers I’m a text message away.
Lyonne: I think it was assembly line propaganda. I think when Betty speaks so eloquently to the experience of shame, I think that that’s really wound up in the experience. A woman with a brain is seen as a deficit; a woman who can keep her mouth shut is seen as an asset. And I do think that that is a sea change that’s happening. We are beginning to see a time where there is so much quote-unquote content that we need more literal diversity in the storytelling, so we need original stories and therefore these people who were previously silenced can maybe help us monetize into a new point of view that might feel fresher.
Gilpin: Yeah and monetizing the vocalization. I think the world has been really good in convincing women that the parts of you that are dark and interesting and scars and trauma are your own scarlet letter tumor that only you alone have and make you disgusting, and it’s a good reason to keep your life small and mouth closed. But I think what’s happening now is that after literal centuries of women whispering into hoop skirts and screaming at the sky and burning their bras and knocking down their walls and realizing, “Oh, my journal says the same thing as your journal; I thought the thesis statement of my journal was that only I was experiencing this.” I think seeing other women’s work, it’s no longer competition; it’s contagious. Watching “Russian Doll,” I was standing up in my living room, yelling at my TV that I wanted to do that — not in a jealousy way but in a Thanksgiving meal of adrenaline way: Let’s keep this going, let’s do more of that.
Lyonne: I really love that we have a community, and the bottom line is America, the world, et cetera, it’s all greed — and that’s why there’s so much societal disease all over the place. So for me, a very healthy antidote is to really believe in the arts and to believe in us as a team and as a community. But I do think that idea of this shift happening is palpable but it is different. I was in this business in the ’80s, and it was different. There was only room for three of us, but like Betty has an experience with “GLOW,” the experience of “Orange is the New Black” was, “Wait a minute, there’s enough space for 40 of us to each have lines?” For you guys the great equalizer is the extreme, and for us it was the stripped-down, but it’s two sides of the same coin of relief.
But before you got to these points where you feel the community and you’re seeing success, what kept you going through feeling like it was competitive or not getting the roles you felt were really right?
Gilpin: I think that I knew from an early age that it seemed to be my job as a girl going into a woman to run at this Grace Kelly smoke and mirrors version of myself. But I knew I was going to have this haggard witch, Emily Dickinson monster snapping at my ankles all the while, and if I stopped for one second, that person’s going to eat me and take over and I’ll eat Special K inside forever and stop running at whatever it is I’m running at. And I think I’m realizing that I found a profession where I can stop and let that Emily Dickinson monster drive or take the microphone or channel her into something, and it’s so much more interesting than the porny Grace Kelly person that I’d been told I had to try to pretend to be. And I think for a long time, female roles were — and sometimes still — live in smoke and mirrors, and we have to muffle our inner haggardness and witchiness. But stories are just so much richer and more interesting when we’re giving that part of ourselves the microphone and pen and paper. I think in the pursuit of my career and health insurance and running from that demon snapping at my ankles, I forgot that the reason I became an actor was communion and to crack open my ribs and have the scariest, smallest, weirdest part of my soul maybe find a mirror in someone else’s. And that requires stopping and not running and hiding.
Lyonne: Yeah, I guess my experience of it has been that it’s these horror and dark nights of the soul that really create the space to really try and touch the truth. I think that’s what we begin to figure out as players in the arts. Sometimes so-and-so’s chips are up and sometimes so-and-so’s chips are down, and the whole thing is an optical illusion. I’ve been to the other side of the mountain multiple times only to discover it’s an “Emperor’s New Clothes” routine.
Gilpin: That’s exactly how I feel right now.
Lyonne: Yeah, but it’s like that that’s part of it — that feeling that it’s a bit of a dirty deed helps the work a little bit. But for me, I don’t know that I was always having that experience of female-dom; I think early on when I was starting the process, even though I was in love with Gena Rowlands and I was in love with Jessica Lange in “Frances” and Bette Davis, at the same time I was seeing other things. “Mikey and Nicky” — I could be Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, or I could be Elaine May, but how do I get to be all three? That’s where the party is. Seeing versions of what it can be — and whereas you were eating Special K, I was doing Special K, and in my case, I think it was helping create an internal compass that was a little cracked, but it was probably to my benefit because I was so uncomfortable in my own skin and in my own mind, and I was seeing it with a little bit of a surrealist bent. The surrealist trip was helping me to understand there are multiple points of views and ways in. And it was also about how I fit into the world and not bending the world to meet my ego trip.
Lyonne: Now there’s a language for processing me as me that I’ve helped to inform by laying it all out, but it has not translated into now the phone is ringing off the hook about acting jobs. So I will have to keep doing my own world-building.
Gilpin: Exactly, there is no model; you’re going to have to be the one to create that model.
Lyonne: And how fun is that? I have a choice in that moment and I can see it in one of two ways: I can see it as my teenage self, “This is a crime against my soul,” or I can see it as this buoying revelation of, “Well, holy s—, I guess I’m on the right track of starting my own production company, writing more, directing more.”
Gilpin: There’s this internal black needle water that we filled with Special K — cereal and hallucinogenic, respectively — and realized, “OK, this almost killed me, but now I can safely and with love and vitamins channel this into work or story.” But also at the same time I’m realizing there’s no wizard — there’s no man behind the curtain and the emperor has no clothes on. I’m at the top of the mountain and there’s nothing on the other side but maybe some Voldemort vocal fry people.
Gilpin: Yeah, there’s freedom in that realization.
How do you feel most changed by your seasons?
Lyonne: I feel very much like I’m overwhelmed by the fact that this was received with so much positivity and attention to detail — all the places that got notice from our production design to our costume design to the music. Around the same time that Betty and I met, I was also doing this play with Nora Ephron, and so I became very close and played poker with Nora, and I remember her talking about this idea that a woman isn’t allowed a flop — that for her as a director, it was a very different standard than her peers. So I do think that for me as a creator, there was a sense of, “I better get it all in this one shot because I’m never going to be allowed to do this again.” And now, I’m so blown away that this has been received so generously that it makes me want to, perhaps irresponsibly, double down and continue, on a more spiritual level, frankly, continue to ask big questions.
Gilpin: For me, spending a decade trying to get work and not really seeing it, it was really easy for me to say, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe the centimeter-tall Vaudeville ghost that’s in here; if only some day she could get a chance,” but now I feel like suddenly the centimeter-tall door is open and she’s standing outside, and there’s a pressure to that, but I feel that the combination of Kim Jong-un and global warming and s—-y television and no wizard, “OK, let’s just hear what she has to say.” And I think for Debbie, she’s a stronger, braver version of herself on the show-within-the-show, and that’s certainly how I feel on our show — just using it as a safe, feminist ropes course to trot out a version of myself that takes up a little more space, and realizing that when I do that, no one dies and that when my friends do it they get nominated for 13 Emmys, so I should maybe just do it.