Betty Gilpin On Fighting A.I. In ‘Mrs. Davis’ (And Real Life)

In the season finale of Peacock’s Mrs. Davis, Betty Gilpin’s Nazi-fighting, AI-hating nun is thrown for a loop so dumb and so absurd – it might be the most genius twist we’ve ever seen on TV. The all-powerful algorithm that’s manipulated Gilpin’s Simon to undertake a quest for the Holy Grail originated as a beta app for Buffalo Wild Wings.

That’s right. The sports bar franchise with its signature 26 flavors of seasonings and sauces is creators’ Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez’s version of Skynet and suddenly the expiration dates (coupons) and wing-earning tasks all make sense.

The show’s final episode aired May 18th and fans are still processing how an omnipotent AI could wreak so much havoc while being so, so dumb. The revelation feels even more poignant considering the many ways in which AI is fascinating and threatening industries in the real world. Is there something to learn from the pointlessness of Mrs. Davis? Absolutely. Will that lesson take? We’re still not sure.

But we asked Gilpin to spell it out for us anyway. Ahead, we chat with the actress about her thoughts on the AI Boom, the joy of working with Jake McDorman and finding her creative sweet spot.

First of all, what the fuck?

Yeah. That’s the tee shirt.

How did you interpret the Buffalo Wild Wings twist?

I think it’s a pretty brilliant turn — you find out that it’s not some ominous, evil, pulsing other in the sky that’s going to eat us. It’s this beta app for Buffalo Wild Wings that couldn’t be simpler or stupider, and, the ominous, evil, narcissistic calls are coming from inside the house.

Damon and Tara talked to me about how AI is not very smart. Our episode titles are named by an algorithm that they created, and they are ridiculous. They’re just trying to spit back simulated humanity. And luckily for creative people everywhere, they have a really hard time doing that. So I think that they wanted it to be this reflection of it having less to do with placing the blame on the algorithm and placing more responsibility on each human’s individual desires and quests.

Did working on this show change the way you think about AI and tech in general?

A lot of what Simone is concerned about interacting with Mrs. Davis … I share similar concerns about outsourcing things to AI. Simone worries that it’s going to mess with her connection to Falafel and this central relationship that she has in her life. While I don’t have a romantic relationship with Jesus Christ in a metaphysical falafel restaurant, I do worry that interacting with AI and the internet and finding these electronic workarounds to vulnerability and risk and questioning and original thoughts — that we’re gambling with our ability to do all of those things. I don’t think that we can just take for granted that those capabilities will always be there.

And I think that right now, this race to create, to perfect these AIs, without stopping and asking, ‘Why are we doing this? What is the goal?’ is terrifying to me. And I think what makes us human and what makes TV shows enjoyable are the connections and the relationships between people. If you are eliminating the ability to reach out to another person or to explore your own psyche within yourself, if you’re just having a robot puppy screen in your pocket do all of that for you, what’s even the purpose of existing as a human race?

Fake Popes. Exploding heads. Getting stuck in the belly of a whale. What was the wildest moment on set for you?

Jake McDorman and I would catch our reflection in a car window that we were walking by and just burst out laughing because we were like, ‘We look like rejected toys. We look ridiculous, a cowboy and a nun, walking around together.’ But honestly, we were so obsessed with the world that Damon and Tara had created that we were just so fully in it, and it didn’t seem bizarre at all.

Watching it now, I’m like, ‘How did that even happen?’ Watching it feels like watching CCTV footage of the wildest mushroom trip that I ever had.

How does this show rank in terms of projects that have challenged and stretched you as an actor?

I think that there’s this creative sweet spot that all of us strive for, that you’ve matured out of being so neurotic and self-hating that you are deleting all your good ideas, but you’re not too narcissistic and solipsistic to think that every idea is good. You’re somewhere on the island between self-hate and narcissism, where you can create what you want to.

And I think that I feel that right now. I feel that I’m not doing the self-sabotage creatively that I used to be doing, in terms of feeling nervous or like I didn’t deserve to be there. But I’m trying to not sway too far the other way, which is selectively reading only positive things about myself and deleting any negative feedback. I’m just trying to stay in that sweet spot. So this really felt like the first time where I was… I don’t know. I just felt unleashed in the best way.

What’s your read on Hollywood’s fascination with AI at the moment? Is it just laziness on the part of studios and executives?

I think that the corporations who are in this race towards outsourcing creativity to AI are perhaps misinterpreting what their audience is drawn to when they tune into something or read something; that it’s not about a perfectly simulated human experience. It’s human experience. And our culture is certainly very self-focused, and it’s easy to turn to one’s phone to be transported into your own echo chamber of wish fulfillment and doom-scrolling. But I think ultimately the why of why people are drawn to good writing and good acting and good lighting and painting is the work of somebody exploring their own internal gray area and presenting it in their art.

That sort of inexplicable process is hard to soundbite and hard to explain to a corporation, but it is the why. Watching my parents in plays, I did feel often like some sort of magic was happening. I remember envisioning it like in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Mike Teavee gets exploded into particles that float up in the ceiling. I remember when a scene was going well, when I would watch it on stage, it was like those particles were between the two actors, floating between them and over the whole audience. We were all connected by this thing that felt so impossible to describe.

That is what is conjured when you connect to something creative or someone else’s work, and I don’t think AI is capable of that. So I worry that these corporations if they’re going to build their business model on something incapable of creating magic, it’s going to hit their pockets sooner or later.