"Mrs. Davis" star Betty Gilpin on her risk-taking acting style: "I like playing high stakes"

The actor discusses sci-fi comedy "Mrs. Davis," complicated feelings about AI and the role that changed her life

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 2, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Betty Gilpin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Betty Gilpin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"It is scary," admits Betty Gilpin. "It freaks me out." The Emmy-nominated actor and author ("All the Women in My Brain") is talking about the real-world inspiration for her critically acclaimed — and strikingly relevant — new Peacock series "Mrs. Davis."

"I definitely saw OpenAI or ChatGPT as just a corner of the world and news that I don't understand and I don't want to engage with," she said on "Salon Talks." But now, "I'm rapidly realizing we may not have a choice."

And while she's not as zealous about the threat of technology as her fictional counterpart Sister Simone, the former "GLOW" star does admit that "I can't pee without watching a YouTube video. I'm completely addicted to that poison." During our conversation, Gilpin (who appears next in the Starz series "Three Women") talks about why she was never a mumblecore heroine, how "GLOW" changed her career trajectory, and why she's still figuring out her own relationship with AI. "Are you our savior," she asks, "or are you our downfall?" 

Watch Betty Gilpin on "Salon Talks" here, or read our conversation below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me who Mrs. Davis is.

"Mrs. Davis," the show, takes place in a world not unlike our own. It's present day, but it's a society where a Siri or Alexa-type algorithm called Mrs. Davis has taken over and purports to be benevolent, is in everyone's ear in a fancy-looking AirPod thing and seemingly has all the answers and has fixed all the problems in the world. But, there's a small faction of society, myself, Simone the nun included, that believe she is evil and don't trust her. 

I like how you're just casually, "Simone the nun." 

"This is 100% of what I want to do. It's like the ultimate acting cat toy."

Simone the nun. 

You get to go through a lot of different versions of yourself in this as well. I know this character was basically conceived with you in mind.

I don't know that that's true.

I've read interviews with Damon Lindelof where he said it was! And then you were, very early on, brought in on the collaboration of creating this show and talking about the character. 

I wonder if that's a kid glove, "You're a very special poodle" thing that they tell actors to sedate them when they enter a job. To be like, "This was conceived with you in mind. We offered it to 10 other people before you." That'd be so nice if it was. I had worked with Damon Lindelof on "The Hunt" prior to this. He and the genius Tara Hernandez wrote this insane script, and I read the pilot and had never read anything like it.

In true Damon fashion and Tara Hernandez fashion, it really hides your vegetables in a hundred different genres. I feel like oftentimes, when we're faced with what to watch at the end of the day, it's either joyful and mindless or important and depressing. They have a way of writing something that's important and joyful. I had never really read anything like this, obviously, so it was a dream.

Watching this character made me think about the title of your book.

"All the Women in My Brain." 

Simone is all these women, all these different characters. I'm wondering if that's something that you drew on when you were playing her, knowing that she has so many sides to her?

Yeah, she has so many different sides. Also, the script has so many different tones. I find that more like life than when you're doing a script or a character where you have to keep it one genre, one feeling, one color. I also think I oftentimes play or read characters that are either sarcastic, wry, arms folded, eyebrow raised, have all the answers before you do, or super vulnerable, arms open, hopeful, gullible types.

Maybe not gullible, but I think that Simone is both of those things. We see that she maybe started as the former and then her faith has really exploded her into this other side, where maybe she does love aspects of the world and have childlike hope. I relate to that as a mom. I feel like I was an eye-rolling, middle-finger-in-the-air person until I had a baby. Then suddenly I'm crying at a butterfly, like, "Ugh." Never done that before.

One of the descriptions I read of the show was that it's about AI versus faith, but I feel like it's about AI and faith. It's about the ways in which we put our trust into something.

And even when we were filming it six months ago, we didn't know how prescient and of-the-time our show would be. ChatGPT wasn't as much a part of the headlines, at least as it is right this second and OpenAI. I think, even though our show is super out there and bonkers sometimes, it is very of this exact moment where we're going to OpenAI, "Are you our savior or are you our downfall?"

"I was an eye-rolling, middle-finger-in-the-air person until I had a baby. Then suddenly I'm crying at a butterfly."

I think a lot of the questions that my character is asking of this thing is a question I'm asking, which is, "What do we lose when we have all the answers in our pocket? Do we stop asking the big questions? Are we gambling with access to the intangible and inexplicable, which are the things that make us human and shape us as individuals?" If we have a robot puppy telling us who we are and what to do at all times, do we stop becoming interesting, well-rounded, good people?

I wonder what it must have been like for you as an actor, going from where this was much more speculative to being in this moment in our reality now. One of the reviews called it "the eerily timely 'Mrs. Davis.'"

It is scary, it freaks me out. I definitely saw OpenAI or ChatGPT when I first started reading about it, as just a corner of the world and news that I don't understand and I don't want to engage with. I'm rapidly realizing we may not have a choice. Also, my daughter, her generation, will be far more interactive and have a different language with it than I do, so I can't shut it out totally.

But it is nice to be doing something that asks big questions. I don't want to give away any spoilers, because part of the joy of the show is the twists and turns and shocking things that you can't believe you didn't figure out an episode before, and going back and seeing Easter eggs you may have missed. There are so many aspects to this show that it was a joy to play, even if OpenAI is absolutely terrifying.

You've been very public about your journey as an actor, starting as someone who may have been typecast because of the way you look. Then you have "GLOW," which is this enormous breakthrough role for you. How did Debbie change your career and you as a person?

In so many ways. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who created "GLOW" were writers and producers on "Nurse Jackie," which was my big first TV job. Really, up until then I had done mostly off-Broadway theater and episodes of cop and hospital shows here and there.

Died on "Criminal Intent" and then came back within the same year as an alive person. I went to the producers and was like, "People are going to be taken out of it." They're like, "It happens all the time, no one cares." 

"There are so many aspects to this show that it was a joy to play — even if OpenAI is absolutely terrifying."

I got this job on "Nurse Jackie."  I came on in Season 5 and the character's purpose was, "Let's have a ditzy doctor who takes off all her clothes all the time to get viewers back in there." I think Liz and Carly were the writers that realized, "Oh, that's a weird person, that's a character actor," and started shaping the character to my strangeness. 

[With] Debbie, the character on "GLOW,"  they wrote about that experience a little bit, of playing a certain thing aesthetically and then wanting to do these other things or Trojan Horse those things into characters. Debbie finds that through wrestling.

Liz and Carly literally wrote out that map for me and gave me the opportunity to do all the things that I wanted to do on screen, which is such a gift. So many actors, or maybe any creative person, feels like, "Oh, I'm only being asked to do 10% of what I can do. This is so frustrating. It's not that I'm not good, it's that I'm not given the opportunity." "GLOW," in so many ways, gave me that opportunity and totally changed my life. "Mrs. Davis," even though it's a thousand different genres per episode, this is 100% of what I want to do, completely. It's like the ultimate acting cat toy, and it's the jobs that ask you to do 5% that are the ones that you lose sleep over.

It's not like the industry has completely changed. It's not like everything's all better now for females in Hollywood. Both of your parents are actors. Did they give you advice? 

My dad is an actor and an Episcopalian priest, so we talked more about nuns and religion in preparation for this part. It's funny, my parents are two very different actors. My dad, I call him Atticus Finch, he's gravitas incarnate, plays solemn butlers and the lawyer you can trust . . . or can you? My mom is farce incarnate, is like Lucille Ball basically. 

"It's the jobs that ask you to do 5% that are the ones that you lose sleep over."

This part is very much a love letter to both of them. Simone can be very serious, she's both a gravitas butler and Lucille Ball, or that's what I'm striving for. It was very strange trying to categorize this show as a comedy or drama. I think they landed on drama just because it's hour-long. I'm like, "I fall on a lot of banana peels for a drama." Some of the hardest laughs of my life were on this set. We just had so much fun together.

Now you have a daughter. What do you want to tell her, if in a few years she's got her 1.2 million followers on whatever version of TikTok there is?

I'm hoping that we're the generation just driving without seat belts. I just worry, really approaching this part, thinking about the internet and the church, two very different things. It made me think, "OK, these are both institutions that we created as a reaction to the human need for connection and asking big questions, so we made the internet and church." 

"I like playing high stakes, playing to the mezzanine, making a thousand choices."

I often think that we sometimes misuse those institutions to do the opposite of connecting and asking. It's like tunnel vision and disconnecting and echo chamber. Maybe, hopefully, we're the generation using this thing to disconnect and make us dumber when maybe my daughter Mary's generation can figure out how to use it to actually connect us and make us smarter. Some people are using the internet for that. I am using it to make me dumber.

She's two and a half. I'm snatching screens away from her like they're poison and then I can't pee without watching a YouTube video. I'm completely addicted to that poison, so I better get right with my relationship with it before I try to preach to her about what her relationship with it should be.

Is that part of why you left social media? 

I had Twitter for a second and then ran away. I have a private Instagram. I'm addicted like everybody else is. I'm sending people falling down videos to my various group chats. I need to get un-addicted to my private Instagram.

You're playing all these interesting, complicated women, so I have to ask about another complicated role you have coming up, in "Three Women." 

I was obsessed with that book by Lisa Taddeo. For those who don't know, she is an author who followed three real women in their lives, and it's about their personal lives, their sex lives, their relationship to desire. I play Lina, who is a woman who lives in Indiana, has two kids and has an affair with her high school flame.

Maybe part of the reason that I didn't work a lot in my 20s is mumblecore was king and being cool and having low stakes and minimalism – and I've never been good at that. I like playing high stakes, playing to the mezzanine, making a thousand choices. Whether it helps or hurts the piece, I don't know. Lina is such a character who, even though she's in a minivan in Indiana, is playing to the mezzanine. The stakes are so high for her. One of my favorite characters I've ever played. I adored that experience, and I'm so happy it found a home in Starz.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Ai Artificial Intelligence Betty Gilpin Mrs. Davis Openai Peacock Salon Talks Tv