“The Hunt” should have been Betty Gilpin’s big Hollywood breakthrough, but then a lot of things were different a year ago, a month ago and even last week. With it the actress stars in her meatiest film role to date, in a career that took off three years ago when she began playing soap actress-turned-pro wrestler Debbie Eagan on the Netflix series “GLOW.”
Instead, the R-rated action-satire about Americans being hunted by other Americans saw its September theatrical opening canceled in a climate of tragedy and controversy. Last month it was uncanceled and reset for release. Right as it opened nationwide, America’s coronavirus pandemic escalated.
By the time Betty Gilpin reads this, everything will have changed — again. (She may not be on social media, but she certainly has the internet. “I mean, I am alive!” she said one afternoon not long ago, in what now feels like distant, preapocalyptic times.)
The vast majority of movie theaters are now shuttered as U.S. cities face an unprecedented health crisis, and it goes without saying that at a time like this there are far more pressing issues at hand than talking about the movies. (Wash your hands! And stop touching your face. Practice social distancing and be safe.)
Everything including the immediate future of moviegoing has changed, except the fact that Betty Gilpin is a movie star masquerading as a character actor who deserves to be a bona fide movie star. And now audiences can discover that in the comfort and safety of their own homes, because Universal has taken the unprecedented step of making “The Hunt” (along with the recent releases “Emma” and “The Invisible Man,” which were both strong box office performers) available today via VOD.
If anyone can ride out the unpredictable roller coaster of Hollywood destiny, maybe it’s Gilpin, whose journey with “The Hunt” endured more twists and turns even before the cameras rolled.
The 33-year-old New Yorker had spent the last several weeks in Los Angeles in wrestling training for the upcoming final season of “GLOW,” the show on which she earned two Emmy nominations and inspired legions of spandex-clad cosplaying fans, when we met to chat in a bright and bustling women-only co-working space in West Hollywood.
Even then, she and the filmmakers of “The Hunt” acknowledged the strangeness of proceeding with everything as normal considering the mounting health and financial crises around the globe.
“The Hunt” shows film audiences more of her range, in a dexterous turn filled with deliciously controlled comic choices and bone-crushing fight scenes. She’s a cipher for the audience to unlock, seeding enigma and depth beneath every glance. Critics have praised her performance as a highlight of the film, which should only add to the surreal contradictions Gilpin uses to describe her work life at this point in time.
“So far this phase of being an actor feels like you’re either depressed on the couch taking Buzzfeed quizzes and wondering what to do with your existence, or it’s 17-hour days where you’re just sobbing into a steering wheel,” she said with a laugh, offering the first of many vivid glimpses into her brain. “It’s like we’re bears with validation issues and poor nutrition.”
In casual wear with no makeup, her blond hair pulled back, she glanced around at the pastel walls and Instagram-chic decor with a sheepish smile, noting the irony of talking about a hot-button movie like “The Hunt” within an “avocado toast bubble” such as this.
“The way this particular movie has gone, there’s been so much noise in the wrong direction,” she said of the controversy that led to Universal pulling “The Hunt” last August, referring to how conservative media took aim at the film’s “deplorables vs. elites” premise. Even President Trump issued disapproving Tweets that were widely read as slamming “The Hunt.”
The thing was, nobody had yet seen the film, which is about the dangers of making assumptions about others. But as the mounting criticism unfolded in the context of several mass shooting tragedies last year, Universal hit pause on the film and pulled marketing materials.
“It’s the most meta series of events that could have transpired,” said Gilpin. “In some ways the movie theater is the last place we’re going together. And in a red and blue world, I think we made a purple movie.”
The idea for the film originated as “Watchmen” showrunner Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse were working on the HBO drama series “The Leftovers,” fascinated by the topics of belief, magical thinking and certain internet conspiracy theorists. “We thought, ‘Is it possible that it’s easier for people to believe that there’s some sort of cabal of secret individuals running the world with malevolent intent than the reality, which is that really, sometimes bad things happen and there’s no controlling it?’” said Lindelof.
“I am a liberal elite living in a coastal bubble and I think the one thing that differentiates me from perhaps people’s image of a liberal elite is, I think the most dangerous thing in our culture right now is finger-wagging,” said Lindelof, who wrote “The Hunt” with Cuse. “I have a real curiosity about why our differences are so profound right now, and I am a little bit more hopeful than most. I do believe this idea that we have more in common than the things that separate us.”
“We’ve shown the movie to people on all sides of the political divide, and they agree that it was much ado about nothing,” he added.
That’s not to say that landing in the middle of a heated media firestorm was easy for anyone, including Gilpin. In the name of self-care she avoids social media, because she knows even the “likes” and validations of strangers online can be a double-edged sword.
“You can get trapped in the Vanity Fair party inside your brain, and then the door gets walled over and you can’t ever get back to the ghost portal that got you into the room in the first place,” she said. “And then you’re just an empty Evian bottle at a crafty table.”
For all the self-described neuroses she reveals in our conversation in charmingly specific turns of phrase, Gilpin also primed herself for a high-stress career in Hollywood with grounded expectations. Raised in New York by character actor parents Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough, she grew up immersed in a working actor lifestyle that was less Brad and Angelina, more stage plays and guest spots on “Law & Order.”
She fell in love with acting early on, hanging backstage at her parents’ plays, offering unsolicited notes as a precocious 8-year-old. But she was forbidden from fully pursuing the profession until after college, despite sneaking in a few TV guest turns and a production of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Good Boys and True” with Christopher Abbott, for which she missed her own graduation.
“I grew up watching every classic movie with my dad standing in the center of the living room with his arms folded, saying, ‘Now, watch his face! Watch what he does here!’” she said. “The whole, ‘Deadline-dot-com’ aspect of being an actor was never a part of it. And I think now that that has entered my life in this weird, gonna-go-away-in-a-second phase, I’m so grateful to have started as a Shakespeare nerd.”
“You can get trapped in the Vanity Fair party inside your brain... and then you’re just an empty Evian bottle at a crafty table.”
She’d been in a handful of indie films and landed supporting turns in bigger ones, playing Rebel Wilson’s BFF-turned-frenemy in the rom-com “Isn’t It Romantic” and Kumail Nanjiani’s crush in “Stuber.” But the more steady work came in TV, highlighted by runs on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and “Masters of Sex.”
Gilpin had found her biggest success yet on “GLOW” as Debbie, the single mom actress who discovers newfound strength wrestling as the all-American alter ego Liberty Belle, when director Craig Zobel, with whom she had worked briefly on the Starz show “American Gods,” called about his next film, a contemporary take on “The Most Dangerous Game.”
In it, a group of Americans wake up in a clearing and realize they’re being hunted. One is a loner named Crystal who reveals surprising survival skills.
“We needed someone special in that role,” said Zobel. “There’s a way to play that character as a cipher, or a strong, silent type, which wouldn’t be wrong … but I felt like there was even more to be mined there. And I knew the movie also had to be funny and that Crystal was the key to that. Betty was the first person I reached out to.”
That call took Gilpin by surprise. “I was like, ‘Craig — I’m a TV actor who nobody knows!’ Without being self-deprecating, just by the math of our business, movie stars get movie star parts,” she said. At the time she was filming “A Dog’s Journey,” the second film in the series about reincarnated pooches. “Movie star” wasn’t a role she saw in her future.
“I was playing the drunk mom in a dog sequel … and I can’t believe I got that part. Which,” she added, “I was happy to do.” Gilpin read the script for “The Hunt” and sent in an audition tape from Winnipeg, where she was making the dog movie (“I would lovingly describe it as Soviet Cleveland,” she deadpanned), playing both roles in a scene between Crystal and an older male veteran named Don.
Gilpin is quick to note that she relishes any acting roles, with the self-awareness of a working actress in a highly competitive industry. But Crystal was a part unlike most that came her way. One “made of pure id.” The kind that holds myriad mysteries for a performer to reveal to the audience. The kind of part that men get.
“As an actress, so much of the time in scenes everything has to be all on the table and you’re turned inside out, where all your needs and wants are on your sleeve — and usually the answer is in your male scene partner that you’re trying to get it from,” she said.
“The Hunt” was a different beast. Gilpin trained for six months, adding combat and technical skills to the physicality that she says has given her a sense of empowerment on her wrestling show. Instead of gazing around pensively worrying about the male lead’s emotional journey while standing in a kitchen, Gilpin smashes her way through one with costar Hilary Swank in a bruising showdown fight.
“I’ve done a lot of kitchen scenes, but it’s a lot of, ‘Close the cardigan, fold your arms and worry, push your sleeves up and worry, look out the window of the kitchen and worry,’” she said. “It was an exercise in reversing those lessons.”
But “The Hunt” almost didn’t happen for Gilpin. After being cast, her celebration was interrupted by the first of several loop-de-loops she’d ride out on her roller coaster with the film: The production’s shooting dates conflicted with her “GLOW” schedule. The once-in-a-lifetime shot suddenly felt like it was going to slip through her fingers.
There had been plenty of times she’d listened to the self-doubt in her head, let opportunities go, stood in her own way, or self-sabotaged by talking herself out of going after what she really wanted, she remembered. “And I thought, no one’s going to wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me, ‘Now’s the time to fight for yourself.’”
So she spent months emailing execs on both projects, pleading with them to come to an agreement. At the 11th hour, by some miracle, it worked. Rereading those emails now, she said, she doesn’t recognize the Betty who’s asserting herself and asking for what she wants.
I thought, no one’s going to wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me, ‘Now’s the time to fight for yourself.’
“I think that just turned off a part of my brain that is most detrimental to my creative process: the part that’s still asking permission for the part I already have, or auditioning for the part I already have, or worried that the boom guy’s mad at me so I shouldn’t do the weirdest choice that I have in my head,” she said. “And it bled into the shooting of the movie, where I felt so insanely weird and free in a way that I never feel.”
To prepare to play Crystal, Gilpin watched documentaries, episodes of “Intervention,” and videos of national parks “to fill my brain with what I think would be in her brain.” Listen closely to her Southern accent and you might hear a sprinkling of Hannah Brown of “The Bachelor,” which she watched during filming. “There are some scenes where I see, ooh, I definitely watched an episode the night before ... I’m sounding a little too Hannah B.”
The freedom she felt building her “weird, dark, specific” performance gives her a particular sense of pride — a victory that helped her through the film’s tumultuous release. “When the movie was canceled I was like, ‘That all still happened,’” she said. “That doesn’t erase that my life changed in that way and that I fought to be in the movie and then fought the demons in my own brain to do the work that I wanted to do.”
“And I think that’s all we can do,” she said with a smile. “Because if the apocalypse is happening, maybe the one benefit is that our own neuroses are dwarfed in comparison. So we may as well try for our opuses, because everything’s on fire.”