People Who Make NY Special

Acting Up a Storm With Gayle Rankin

The no-holds-barred stage actress talks about playing Ophelia in Hamlet and Sheila the She-Wolf in Netflix’s “Glow.”

On the New York stage, some performers make splashy debuts that have critics reaching for “a star is born” clichés. They get heaps of praise, a few awards, a TV gig or two—but eventually, they fade from sight. (I won’t name names.) Other actors build relationships with rising playwrights and directors, take risks on interesting projects, and grow. Gayle Rankin is the second type.

Over the past five years, she’s had five jobs on Broadway and off, and each one has been intense and fearless in its own way. From the aspiring opera singer in Nina Raine’s Tribes and a wildly spoiled, über girly Bianca in Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare in the Park to the Nazi-sympathizing, accordion-squeezing prostitute Fräulein Kost in the Roundabout’s 2014 revival of Cabaret, Rankin has showed her range. But within that versatility you see a constant: She’s always thrumming with inner life and bursting with physical energy.

She brings those fiercely coiled qualities to two current roles—one on stage and another streaming on Netflix. As a tough, take-no-bs Ophelia, Rankin costars opposite Oscar Isaac (Star Wars’s Poe Dameron) in a boldly stripped-down Hamlet at the Public Theater through September 3. You can also catch her on the insanely addictive series Glow, about female pro wrestlers in the 1980s. Her eyes circled in kohl and petite frame draped in animal pelts, Rankin imbues Sheila the She-Wolf with unexpected pathos and gravitas.

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What Should We Do?! caught up with the frank and open Rankin to talk about Ophelia, Sheila, and her dream stage role.

What Should We Do?!: So you’re from Scotland?
Gayle Rankin: Yes, from Glasgow. I moved here when I was 17 to go to Juilliard. I’ve been here ever since, moving back and forth between New York and L.A. for work.

WSWD: Coming to New York at age 17, what was that like?
Rankin: Crazy. I think when you’re 17 you don’t necessarily think that you’re going to be here forever on your own, and you don’t have a great concept of what that means in terms of your life. But homesickness and things like that started to hit me later on, like in my early 20s. And I started to realize, Wow, I made such a huge life decision when I was so young.

WSWD: You really popped in the 2014 Roundabout revival of Cabaret. Also, of course, you starred alongside your fellow Scot, Alan Cumming, as the Emcee. Did you guys hang out and talk about the old country?
Rankin: Oh, for sure. It was also kind of intense, since the British election and the Scottish independence referendum were happening when we were doing Cabaret. Alan and I definitely bonded. He came to see Hamlet the other week. He’s a really special friend, and he’s so supportive; he feels like family at this point.

WSWD: This Hamlet is really striking, even for people who know the play: It’s modern, minimalist, and stark. What was the process of rehearsing it like?
Rankin: We didn’t have a lot of time, ultimately. We’d done a workshop a year ago at the Public for a week, then reconvened [this past] May and rehearsed for four weeks. It was a very joyful process. People often ask, “Oh, God, was it hard to rehearse this really intense, dense, deep, upsetting material?” And actually, we played a lot of ping-pong and had a lot of laughs, and that allowed us to find the humor in the play. And when we did need to go to dark places, we had it available to us because we weren’t pushing it too hard. I think Sam [Gold; who directs Hamlet] helped us really strike a good balance.

WSWD: Ophelia seems like a hard character to pull off in 2017. Historically, she’s been portrayed as an ultra-feminine, almost passive girl who cracks under pressure. I feel your Ophelia is a tough, complex woman.
Rankin: I really tried to steer clear of creating a feminist version of her. I didn’t want to comment on her in any way. I do agree with you that in many interpretations of Ophelia she’s kind of waifish and can be viewed as weak. We’re not changing the text. It’s just that there’s a lot of me in her. And I found when reading her that there is kindness in what she’s doing, and I saw fight. I read fight in her, which I don’t think many people do.

WSWD: Speaking of fight, I just gobbled down your Netflix series about 1980s women wrestlers, Glow, in two days. I love Sheila the She-Wolf. I can’t wait for season two!
Rankin: Oh, I’m glad. We don’t have final word on what’s happening with the second season, if we’re having a second season or not, which is exciting and nerve-wracking. But I would love to go back to L.A.

WSWD: When you started Glow, did you realize she’d be drawn so deeply? She’s a woman who dresses like a wolf; that could have been a one-joke part.
Rankin: When I auditioned, I didn’t know a lot about her. And as I collaborated with Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch—our two amazing writers and showrunners—they wanted to take what’s going on with Sheila very seriously. She could easily be played as a gimmick or the butt of a joke. So Liz and Carly and I had some conversations before we started shooting about who this woman is. How important is it to her? I think feeling different and feeling uncomfortable in one’s skin is really universal.

WSWD: Well, researching your performance, I learned a new term, “species dysmorphia”—when you feel you weren’t born into the right species.
Rankin: Yeah. It’s a very real thing. It’s fascinating and moving and extremely brave. People still struggle with it.

WSWD: What sort of physical toll did the on-set wrestling take?
Rankin: We were tired. I mean, Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, who do the majority of the big stunts, were working every day on those fights. And it is really exhausting. We had to just eat really well and sleep. We had amazing coaches and trainers. It was ultimately really fun, too. I would recommend it to anybody.

WSWD: Back to theater: What Broadway musical would you drop everything to do right now?
Rankin: I think I would want to do a play. Can it be a play? I would want to do an unbelievable new adaptation of Anna Karenina by Annie Baker. I’d want Annie to translate it and rewrite it, and I’d want Sam to direct it. I love Annie. I cannot wait until we get to work together.

WSWD: If we planned your perfect day in New York, what would it include?
Rankin: I would have breakfast in Cobble Hill—which is my neighborhood—like a great croissant or something and coffee, and then hop on the ferry to Governors Island. I actually love being on boats and on the water. Then I would go to either the 84th Street AMC theater, because it has amazing, basically, beds, or Nitehawk, which also has bedlike seats, and you can order food. I love seeing movies, so I would probably go see a movie. And then I would have a really nice dinner, maybe sushi. Or I would go to Henry Public, which is also in my neighborhood and a great cocktail bar and hangout. That would probably be my perfect day.

Rapid Round!
Gayle Rankin’s Faves…in a NY Minute

New York–themed movie?
Manhattan, Woody Allen.

Place to get pizza?
Joe’s in the West Village.

Salon?
Regina’s Nails.

Museum?
The Frick Collection.

Restaurant for out-of-town friends or family?
Rucola or Prune.

Want to have a New York day, Gayle Rankin style? Hit us up!