It’s always fascinating to encounter someone like Lily Rabe, whose love for the horror genre has, in part, led to her nine-season tenure on American Horror Story, but readily admits that in actuality, even the slightest things freak her out. “Gosh, I’m up all night, I can’t sleep because of all the things I’m worrying about and scared of,” the actress says on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “So, it’s definitely a love-hate relationship.” While seemingly a contradiction, it reflects a woman who is in many ways motivated by fear but so grounded in reality that she also has a very human response to it.
It’s what makes Rabe so interesting to watch onscreen. That’s evident even in her wrenching performance as Doris on American Horror Story: Double Feature, a mother who is succumbed to an endless future as a vampire in New England because she had nothing to offer as a mortal interior designer. Even her freshly undead, self-proclaimed genius daughter and husband (Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Finn Wittrock) say so.
“[Doris] is dealing with incredibly identifiable human fears,” Rabe asserts. “The fears that she has of not having an identity or talent—whether her fear is about her relationship with her husband or daughter—are equally scary to the man with the sharp teeth chasing them down the streets of Provincetown.”
But with all her work this year—including AHS, The Underground Railroad, and Tell Me Your Secrets—she has thrown herself into worlds where she’s a desperate woman ringed by bloodsuckers, where she’s both enabling and horrified by the enslavement of Black people, and where she’s nearly paralyzed by an unimaginable trauma. And she brings a profound humanity to each one.
For the actress, that challenge is part of the thrill. “I love a roller coaster,” she says about her longtime flirtation with the genre and equally intimidating fare. “I was always someone who would crave that ride as a viewer.” She’s quick to add that that hankering also calls for her to collaborate with a leader who is just as game as she is. “You don’t want to do it alone,” she confesses. “Who is the person who starts and stops the roller coaster and pauses it if you get stuck and hanging upside down about to tumble to your death? I have to feel like that person is someone I want to walk towards.”
Ten years ago, she found that with AHS co-creator Ryan Murphy. Rabe thought she had already hit the jackpot with a thriving stage career. Fresh off a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, she had leapt right into another self-ruling role as Nora in A Doll’s House at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But when Murphy contacted her about being a part of the first season of his hotly anticipated anthology series, fate sent the New York native happily charging toward this new opportunity across the county.
That’s partly because, as it turned out, the woman Murphy wanted Rabe to play in Murder House was a ghost also named Nora, who is as unconventional a mother and wife as the matriarch in Henrik Ibsen’s play. “I think he had no idea that I was just [playing a Nora],” the actress recalls vividly. “Ryan is deeply psychic and connected to all things at all times that that made all the sense in the world that I was playing one Nora and he was calling about another.”
Diving headfirst into what would become an increasingly macabre and compelling AHS universe in Los Angeles—from playing a malevolent nun to a witch with a gift for resurrection—meant Rabe had to do a juggling act. She starred in two separate stage productions while simultaneously working on Murder House. “That first season, I was doing a play on Broadway, and I was flying out on Sunday,” she remembers with a gleeful laugh. “Ryan had them schedule all my scenes on a Monday, and then I would take the red-eye back and be onstage again on Tuesday.”
Though gratifying—“I love the work that I’m getting to do now in film and television,” she revels—the move was bittersweet for the thespian whose roots remain so firmly planted in the Manhattan theater scene that even the thought of the city today, years after making L.A. her adoptive home, makes her sentimental. “I miss it all the time,” she says plainly. “I ache for it.”
As the daughter of late actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright-screenwriter David Rabe, some of Rabe’s earliest memories are in the theater world. “I started going to the theater at such a young age with my parents, and they were always doing plays,” she says. “So, theater and New York to me are just inextricable from one another, whether I’m doing it or watching it. That’s a huge part of what I miss.”
Rabe reveals that, amid the pandemic especially, this is by far the longest time she’s been away from the theater and, by extension, the Big Apple. She pauses wistfully, before adding with a chuckle, “But there are all sorts of things. Walking is my favorite thing. I don’t love driving.”
The actress falls into a bit of a reverie of the days when as a tenacious child she was determined to carve her own unique journey, begging her parents to put her in ballet class. “I was a very determined toddler,” she laughs. Her parents—who were “so supportive,” as Rabe recalls—even bought season tickets to the ballet. “We would always go when we were living in Manhattan,” she remembers. “Then we moved out of Manhattan for a bit and would drive in and sit in the same seats in the balcony next to the same couple. The ballet was such a ritual. And I was rapt, just absolutely taken with it.”
Dance began as a way for Rabe to pave a unique path for herself, one that she fiercely loves, but, unknowingly for her at the time, became an outlet for her to delve into her own style of performance and acting, which was merely inspired by the joy her parents experienced in their careers. “If anything, they were pushing me against doing what they did, not funneling me into the family business,” she says. “That was not the way they felt about it. But certainly, I grew up watching two people loving what they were doing. That gets in there in a cellular way.”
Rabe can’t help but add here that she, along with her two small children with her partner, actor Hamish Linklater, are considering moving back to the East Coast. “We’ve got our eye on getting back to New York full time at some point,” she continues. “It’s in the cards.” Whether it was a longing to return to her roots or a reprieve from the usual pitter-patter around her, she says that she’d be calmed by the inevitable noise of construction on the other end of the line in New York. “It’ll just sound like a lullaby to me.”
Still, sometimes what you find comforting or promising means grappling with new and unexpected fears—as in the case of Doris in Double Feature, who makes the unsettling choice to abandon everything familiar to her. For Rabe, she finds that more thrillingly with the art of performance.
“We have to live in the fear of being an artist,” she says. “You have to fall in love with that part of it or walk alongside of it or integrate it in some way, because it is so constant and part of why we’re doing it. You don’t go in the direction of what feels comfortable, you go towards the thing that feels scary.”
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