Gayle Rankin makes me feel all the feels. As the misunderstood Sheila the She-Wolf in the Netflix wrestling comedy Glow, she had me laughing, then in tears, then laughing all over again. I felt pure joy watching her as Queen Victoria in The Greatest Showman. Her turn as Something She drummer Ali van der Wolff in the gritty indie Her Smell had me itching to join an all-girl punk band. And this summer, I have felt both deep empathy and frustration watching her award-worthy performance as grieving mother Emily Dodson in the new HBO series Perry Mason. (Note: The addictive detective drama only just hit the halfway mark, so there’s still plenty of time to catch up!)
But the feels don’t stop with Rankin’s on-screen performances. Last year, the Scottish actress had me swooning over the frothy nude-and-lime-green tulle Delpozo gown she wore to the Cannes Film Festival premiere of The Climb. And when I first interviewed her at Sundance back in January, I was engulfed with envy over her chic cold-weather ensemble: a cozy Elder Statesman cashmere sweater brilliantly paired with magenta iridescent pants by Area. Rankin is a chameleon performer and fashion darling in the making, and talking to her about both on a July afternoon made me feel, well, very happy.
Ahead, I chat with Rankin about everything from her love of complex characters to being an “emotional dresser” and the part of quarantine she wouldn’t mind continuing.
Perry Mason drew the largest premiere-night viewership for HBO in almost two years, which is huge! Did you have a hunch the show would be a hit when you were filming?
It's hard for me to harken back and think in those loose terms, but I knew that I was really excited about it and felt like its relevance was really becoming more and more prominent as time went on. I knew how excited I was when I was making it, so I had great hope that it was going to do really well and that people were going to really enjoy it. And ultimately, that's really what this is all about. It's for people to be able to watch, enjoy, and maybe learn something or be exposed to something. So I didn't have a hunch, but I knew I wanted that.
Perry Mason is a fictional character originating from detective fiction written by Stanley Gardner in the 1930s and has been adapted for film, radio, and television a few times over. Why do you think the Perry Mason character is so appealing to audiences?
That's a good question. I think because there's something inherent in him, especially from the very beginning, from the novels, he's a person who really is seeking out justice in such a thorough way. And he's very dedicated to it. I’ve always felt that the passion from the character comes through very clearly in different formats, in the books and in the TV shows, but the through line is the passion for justice. And I think people get really behind that and excited about it because it’s kind of what we’re all rooting for, hopefully.
What do you think stands out about HBO’s particular telling?
Well, I think that attention to detail and the fact that it's an origin story, first and foremost, that nobody's ever seen Perry Mason from this vantage point before. So it's like you're getting to know a new person. And I also think the specificities, every single department and piece of the production puzzle that HBO put together, the attention to detail they take and taking their time and investigating the story and perspective is totally unparalleled. I had such an amazing time working with them because they really dive in from a very specific angle at the story, and that's what makes it different.
You are fantastic in the role of Emily Dodson. She is such a vulnerable and emotional character who experiences great loss. How did you tap into her?
It’s interesting. I find when taking on another persona or person, I always have to kind of look at them 360. As much as Emily is going through the worst moment of her life, I also really wanted to explore where she was coming from and who she was before this moment because she’s not just a woman in grief, you know? It’s finding a character where you find them and understanding who they were before and who they might be after. It was really fun for me to explore who [Emily] was before this tragic event happened. And for better or for worse, the tragic event will then take care of everything else and inform how I play her from then on.
That’s interesting. I'm always curious about how actors get into the mindset of their characters, whether it’s putting together a playlist or journaling in their perspective. What is your approach?
For me, it's different from role to role. I usually start with the text. The text will always be my guide, and usually, something will come out of that, like whether it’s a piece of music that will then fire another piece of music or a piece of art or a photograph or if I have to work on a different accent or if I have an instinct about how a person looks or carries themselves or figuring out their family tree or a relationship. I allow the character to dictate how I build them, if that makes any sense. I definitely work off all of those things, like music and art and other references and films.
Most audiences were introduced to you via the Netflix series Glow and your character, Sheila the She-Wolf, who goes on a beautiful journey. What have you loved about playing this character?
I loved that I didn't really know where she was going, that I was on the journey with her. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about the meaning of television and the nature of how it’s written and also the collaboration I had with Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch], our amazing showrunners. They really worked with me. There were so many ways we could go with her, but the fun part was to try and find her, and the great irony is that she's kind of trying to find herself. I find that that meta aspect to acting and art making is the thing that attracts me most to all projects but specifically to Glow.
Speaking of attraction, you seem to gravitate toward dark, complicated characters. What has to be present in a script or narrative for you to really be interested in a role?
Always complexity. I'm always drawn to complexity because I just think it's the truth of the human experience. That can be—and this is going to sound maybe a bit pretentious—but like complexity and simplicity, you know what I mean? I also just really love a strong perspective. I love a piece of writing or a direction or a story that has a really bold, unique perspective because I appreciate that about life. And so I really look for that in the work I do, trying to expose the things that are hard to expose.
Your résumé contains, I believe, something like six short films. What do you love about short-form filmmaking?
I like it in that I come from a theatrical background. Number one, I don’t love to discriminate on the length of a story, and also, again, it comes from a theatrical background. In some ways, it feels like either a short story or a short play or a theme, depending on how it's shot and what the story is, there's something a bit more focused about it. I have also gotten to collaborate with some people who I really respect and appreciate, and I've had some lovely opportunities to work in that realm. I definitely entertain them because I'm always just looking for what the story is, and it doesn't really matter what format or length it’s in for me.
I noticed you have opted out of social media. Why? Do you ever think about getting into it?
I did try. I had a private account, and I had a public account, and then I didn’t have them, and then I maybe had them again, so I dabbled. I definitely dabbled in the social world. I find that it’s not the easiest medium for me to express myself in, you know? And I feel like my work… I hope that it can speak for itself. Truly, honestly, for my mental health, I was like, this is healthier for me, and it’s been really freeing. I've definitely reexamined it in the current climate because I do feel like it's important to kind of participate and have your voice out there at times, but I also feel really strongly that I can do that in other ways.
I want to talk about style. You shared that your hometown of Glasgow plays a big part in your perspective on fashion and your wardrobe. Can you touch on that a bit more?
I spent the first 17 years of my life in Glasgow, and it's a very historical and traditional town but also at the same time quite gritty, working-class, with a really vibrant music-and-art scene and a really big student population. So there's a lot of really eclectic stuff happening from the more athleisure sportswear [look] to like Oasis Noel Gallagher vibes. He’s not from Glasgow, but you can really understand the reference—that kind of vibe mixed with the more experimental and fun vintage coming from the student community. The Scottish people, and especially people in Glasgow, are quite expressive, passionate people and are quite loud and brash, and so a lot of my sensibilities about expressing yourself and kind of getting what’s inside out really came from there.
I love that. Now that you live in Los Angeles, do you feel the style here has rubbed off on you in a way?
Oh, yes! Actually, it's interesting. I think of myself as kind of like a sponge. It can feel like my style goes all over the place, but for me, there is a consistency there. The pieces that have come into my life or the things that I enjoy about California fashion or L.A. style feels like I got them in Glasgow, you know?
You also said you are an emotional dresser. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yeah, it's very intuitive for me, and it’s connected to my work. I think I have always, since I was like a little girl, tried to express myself and expose myself honestly through what I wear. I try to understand myself through what I wear because it doesn't always totally make sense, but I think that is what I understand what being a human being is, you know? You are just trying things and putting it out there. I haven't worked very hard to make or form a style or box myself in. I just try to work from my gut and try to express that kind of accidentally.
You started working with stylist Thomas Carter Phillips last year. What are some of your favorite moments working together?
I think he’s an incredible artist. [My publicist] Jenny brought him to me, and I just fell in love with him. We come from such a similar place and also a really different place, and much like in my work, I really find myself in collaboration. I think that when Thomas and I started collaborating, the first project we did was when I went to Cannes, and it was a big job. He really got to know me very quickly and was able to not only understand deep parts of me but then sculpt them. He pulled a Delpozo dress that I wore on the red carpet for the premiere of The Climb that I would have never found myself. But it was the most perfect dress. And I actually had a real emotional connection to it and the colors and the way it fell on my body. I could understand it, and it felt like a really special thing to wear for a really special moment. I think it's a really amazing thing when you meet someone and you can collaborate with them and it's art.
What has he shown you about your own style that you maybe didn’t realize prior to working with him?
That there’s a way to have some kind of structure around—I don’t do structure very well—and there's a way to kind of connect themes and looks and ideas and a vibe and create a style that is completely my own. Also, femininity, what it looks like. He has really helped me with that and my own version of it. So that has been huge.
What about off the red carpet? What do you find yourself wearing over and over again these days?
Anything oversize! I mean, I love a shape. I love a balloon sleeve. I love a really kind of structured large short, which makes no sense to anyone else. I love my little plastic white Birkenstocks, which are like wearing no shoes at all. I'm a huge fan of the coordinated Adidas tracksuit and a great pair of Ulla Johnson pajamas that I wear all the time.
Pajamas are like the new coordinated set we're all just trying to make appropriate for work.
Yes! And also doing Zooms with a blouse and sweatpants or boxer shorts.
What about the beauty side of things? Have you embraced any beauty rituals during quarantine?
Yeah. The one thing I've really enjoyed is actually the letting-go aspect, you know? I’ve let my hair grow and go back to its natural color. I’ve actually spoken a lot to Pamela Neal, who does my hair. She's an incredible artist, and she thinks about people's relationship to their hair and what’s artistic about that and what’s an expression about that. We talked about it a lot, and we came to the place certainly with my hair that it's about leaving it alone and letting it do what it wants to do and embracing that. That has been kind of the through line for my beauty apart from I do a lot of masks. It’s very comforting to be able to wear a mask around the house on a phone call or on the elliptical. Yeah, that's been great, a lot of deep conditioning, deep hydrating, all that stuff.
It's like a reset.
Yes, you have to. My nails have never been better. My hair, I didn’t know my hair looked like this. It’s great. I’m really excited. I hope we continue some parts of it.