Lily Rabe is perhaps best known for her multiple roles on the anthology horror series American Horror Story but she’s been acting regularly on stage and screen for the past twenty years. She was even nominated for a 2011 Tony Award for her role as Shylock opposite Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. But this fall, it’s her performance as Sylvia in the New York City-based murder mystery The Undoing (all six episodes are streaming now on HBO Max) that’s garnering our attention. Rabe plays a high-powered lawyer and best friend of Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), whose husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is accused of murdering a fellow mother from the elite private school their children attend. The 38-year-old actress is the daughter of the late, great actress Jill Clayburgh and the accomplished playwright and screenwriter David Rabe. She and her partner actor Hamish Linklater have a three-year-old daughter and recently welcomed another baby girl over the summer.
We Zoomed with Rabe from Los Angeles to get the scoop on life in lockdown and her theories on The Undoing.
Did you get to read all the scripts before filming started? Did you read the book on which it’s based, the 2014 novel You Should Have Known?
Yes. I read the first two episodes when they asked me to play the part and the rest when we started filming. I didn’t read the book before but I’d love to now. I’m usually a research nerd but I knew that it was a big departure from the plot points of the book. My character was a mix of several characters so it didn’t make sense in this case.
What were your theories on who did it?
I was definitely very suspicious of Jonathan from the beginning as I’m sure everyone was at a certain point. But, I definitely doubted myself over and over. For Sylvia, no husband was safe in her book.
Did you love all the feedback the show received?
The theories are amazing. It spoke to the brilliance of the show and Susanne [Bier, the director] and what incredible fans we had. I loved being on the receiving end of that. I was in Canada until recently so I was farther removed but they were watching there too!
You grew up in New York City until you moved to Connecticut. The series is so firmly rooted in the crazy Upper East Side world of private schools and wealth? Did you ever witness this first hand?
The New York in the series isn’t the city I know. I attended the Hotchkiss boarding school as a day student because we lived nearby. A lot of friends of mine at school were from New York City and attended all those tony schools (Brearley, Chapin and Collegiate) and I would go into the city on weekends with them and have that experience. I definitely was in some apartments like The Frasers’ in the series. For Sylvia though, as much as she is immersed in the Upper East side, she feels like an outsider. She’s really good at doing the dance but she’s sort of on the outside of it. Like Grace, they’re both outsiders even though they’ve grown up in it.
I start work tomorrow morning in Los Angeles on it! It’s going to be a great season. I’m really excited about this cast and it does feel like a reunion of sorts. It feels like family.
The psychological thriller Tell Me Your Secrets is premiering early next year on Amazon Prime Video and you’re starring opposite your partner Hamish Linklater. How has it been working with him on a series compared to working together on stage?
I love working with him in the theater. And he is my favorite scene partner. But recently, we’ve done more film and television together. Producer Bruna Papandrea [with whom Rabe worked on All Good Things and The Undoing] called me after I was cast and said ‘we really want to go to Hamish for this role’ but it was purely a coincidence. She didn’t know we were together in real life. It was a happy accident.
I read that you had your second child during quarantine. How has it been expanding your family during this time?
You know there are so many painful things about this time. But I’ve been so grateful to stay home with my family so much this year. I’m a real homebody. Isolation isn’t my worst match. There’s often a tradeoff with two working parents, especially actors, so having had this time together to be safe with my kids has been so nice.
How have you been managing in quarantine?
Lots of reading and reading with the kids. And coming up with fun ideas for imaginative play. So many dance parties and dressing up. I’ve been watching a lot of shows too. I May Destroy You [also streaming now on HBO Max] is one of the greatest things I’ve seen in my life. We mark the time by remembering what we watched in isolation.
Main photo credit: Tiziano Lugli