Before audiences got a chance to see it, “The Hunt” entered theaters on Friday as one of the most polarizing and notorious films of the year. The movie is a dark satire in which a group of conservatives are kidnapped and hunted for sport by sadistic liberals, and it was originally scheduled to be released by Universal last September.
But the studio suspended advertising for “The Hunt” over the summer, after mass shootings in Ohio, California and Texas. And the film, written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Craig Zobel, drew criticism from political pundits and potential viewers who felt it was mocking red-state Americans. President Trump appeared to condemn the film in tweets that did not mention “The Hunt” by name but referred to a movie he said was “made in order to inflame and cause chaos.” In August, Universal canceled the film then, after reconsidering last month, decided to open it on March 13.
This unpredictable chain of events came as a shock to Betty Gilpin, who stars in “The Hunt” as Crystal, a resourceful Southerner determined to fight her way out of that mysterious battlefield. Gilpin, a star of the series “GLOW” and “Nurse Jackie,” never imagined “The Hunt” would be seen as divisive; she has variously found herself eagerly awaiting its opening and reconciling herself to the possibility it might never come out at all.
As Gilpin explained in a recent phone interview, “I wanted to take the internet by the lapels and say, ‘This is the exact opposite of the movie that you think it is. In fact, if these are the things you’re interested in, you would love this movie. You in particular — you there, screaming.’”
Gilpin spoke about why she wanted to make “The Hunt” and how she reacted to the vehement debate before its release. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How were you approached about “The Hunt”?
I had worked with Craig Zobel on “American Gods,” and when Craig said, “I want you to star in this studio movie,” I said, “That’s not really how actor-movie math works.” It’s like the first time you get a credit card and they ask, “What’s your credit score?” Well, I’ve never had a credit card before. And I read the script and completely fell in love with it.
What did you think the film was trying to say?
I would say it’s a satire of our present moment where, politically and culturally, we’re getting farther and farther away from each other, that the walls of our respective bubbles are suddenly turning to steel, and it’s harder and harder to penetrate either side. It’s supposed to be a movie that you can take your family member who you can’t make eye contact with at Thanksgiving and you sit next to each other and laugh at each other and laugh at yourselves.
What was your own political upbringing like?
I come from a liberal family. I also know that my particular avocado-toast world is hardly a reflection of the rest of the country. I think it’s important to make movies where you can just escape from it all. But I also think that if we avoid ever asking uncomfortable questions in the movies, that’s a misstep because movie theaters are the last place we’re all coming together and watching the same thing.
How did you feel when Universal decided to pause the film’s marketing campaign, when it was still planned for release last September?
I think if this had happened when I was 19, I would have had to be airlifted to the Blanche DuBois “it almost happened for me” hospital. But at 33, I already know you’re never going to be shown to a room where they’re going to Emerald-City away your problems and your ex-boyfriends are all lined up ready to apologize.
Metaphorically, it felt like I was a biology teacher who was doing the papier-mâché-baking-soda volcano experiment, and out the window behind me, a real volcano went off. So now more than ever, we should learn from these volcanoes, but maybe we’ll wait until the lava dries.
When you saw “The Hunt” become a political lightning rod, and being characterized in ways that didn’t fit with what you thought was its message, did you want to tell people that they were prejudging it unfairly?
Well, as a personal rule, I think a great way to decide if I like a movie is to see the movie, but I also didn’t know if adding my voice to the fray might deter that possibility. I didn’t know if, several years from now, our movie was going to be put on lampsandtirescleaningservice.com. We had no idea what was going to happen.
How did you feel when you learned that the movie was — for the time being — canceled?
The most evil cell in my brain is thinking, “Will I be 80 and coaxing the UPS delivery guy into my house to show him production photos of my canceled movie, sobbing into his sleeve?” But I’m not interested in that narrative.
A couple days after the movie was canceled, my dog died. That felt way more meaningful than any sort of dull sadness over my IMDb StarMeter.
Now that you have come full circle and “The Hunt” is getting released after all, do you still have the same enthusiasm for the project that you did at the outset?
I think the entertainment business flies on the idea that if you just keep running, right around the corner is Eden — a paradise where you just keep trying to be the thinnest, youngest, memoir-chapter-iest version of yourself, and the next role is going to open that door. The sooner we all agree that is a fallacy, I think the more interesting all of our work will be.
In some ways, this cancellation cut out five more years of me chasing a thing that doesn’t exist. I love what I do, and I want to continue to be an actor, and I want health insurance and appetizers and the fleeting moments of catharsis punctuated by moments of self-loathing. But I know that there’s nothing on the other side of the door, and actually, the hallway is where it’s at.
You’re going to play Ann Coulter in the new season of “American Crime Story” about Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Do people assume, because of your role in “The Hunt,” that you’re going to play her as a caricature?
I’m definitely not trying to mock her. I’m trying to play her authentically. Even though I have my set of opinions and feelings, I’m not interested as a viewer in watching echo-chamber propaganda where it’s a bunch of people who look like me agreeing with each other and complimenting each other’s yoga pants. I’m more interested in doing work that does the opposite of that.
Do you see any connections between Crystal, your character in “The Hunt,” and Debbie, the enterprising pro wrestler you play on “GLOW”?
A through-line with Debbie, Crystal and myself is that we’re being asked to do 10 percent of what we can do. But we tell ourselves, if I were just given the opportunity to do the full 100 percent, maybe it could be magnificent. Maybe I could feel like the superhero I tell myself at night that maybe I could be, if I were just given the chance.
So when the movie was canceled originally, I was like, “Oh, don’t worry — I already canceled it in my brain.” Sorry, Twitter, you’re no match for my inner self-saboteur.
You’re about to start filming what will be the last season of “GLOW.” How do you feel about that show coming to an end?
It’s bittersweet. Maybe people feel this way around their family, because you’re around people who know you — you’re the bravest, loudest, most comfortable version of yourself, and you’re able to audition a version of yourself that’s a little more turned up than who you are in the world.
That is how I feel on the “GLOW” set. It has been an experiment where we’ve all rehearsed our empowered selves, and I’m hoping that will last — that that sort of empowerment training can bleed into my work in the real world. If I don’t end every email I send with an apology, it would be a start.