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Interview: Actress Lily Rabe on ‘The Undoing’

Courtesy of HBO

If you’re a frequent TV watcher, chances are you’ve seen actress Lily Rabe over the past few years. She has appeared in nearly all of the iterations of American Horror Story, had a starring role in the summer 2015 ABC drama The Whispers, and will be headlining Amazon Prime Video’s upcoming Tell Me Your Secrets. She also won a special jury award at SXSW in 2016 for her performance in the film Miss Stevens. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabe about being a part of HBO’s buzzy limited series The Undoing, which aired its intense finale this past Sunday.

Q: How did you come on board this project? Had you read the book?

A: I hadn’t read the book before being approached about it. I was initially sent the first two scripts, which I read in one sitting. That was followed up with some conversations with the director, Susanne Bier about the character and where it would go. She had all sorts of plans, and I was such a fan of her work. She’s such an incredible director. Having now had the experience of working with her, she’s someone I would work with over and over again. She’s amazing.

Q: What appealed to you about the character of Sylvia Steinetz?

A: You know, I think that she’s someone who has grown up in this world. The Upper East Side is unlike any other place in the world. It’s such a bubble. It’s such a specific thing in the way that you have to function to get by. It’s really intense. She’s really good at it. She’s very adept at that dance of the Upper East Side. But I also think she’s a little bit on the outside. She’s probably someone who thinks about moving, whereas a lot of people say, we will be here for generations to come. I loved playing someone who was so in the middle of everything and so good at functioning, and yet really was a little bit of an outsider, truthfully. She’s also a boundary pusher. She doesn’t take the easy way, and she’s not a wallflower. She likes to ruffle feathers and she likes a little bit of mess.

Q: There’s such a culture of judgment present on this show, first towards Elena and then towards Jonathan. Was there anything done to help create that division, and did Matilda and Hugh feel alienated from the rest of the cast?

A: I hope not. It didn’t feel that way. It was a very cohesive group. It was such a wonderful group. But I do think something the show does so brilliantly and specifically is that no one is safe. If you relax for a second or think that you’re on the inside, it’s a mistake. You probably won’t win doing that. It’s not a good way to go. You have to be on your guard at all times, and everyone is suspicious of everyone, both in the world and in watching the show – the audience had their eye on everyone, as well they should have.

Q: You got to sit next to Donald Sutherland in court and share a few scenes with him. What was the most memorable part of that experience, and do you have any stories you can share?

A: The one who has the great stories is Donald. Sitting in that courtroom, always in those assigned seats, we would have been shooting for hours and I probably wouldn’t have water or anything to eat. But when they were turning around, we wouldn’t get up. Nicole and I were on the edge of our seats listening to these incredibly thrilling and romantic stories Donald was telling about his experiences making some of the greatest movies ever made. The other thing is that Donald is an amazing e-mail writer, and he’s a night owl. I’m a night owl – I write all of my e-mails late. We would write these very lengthy e-mails to one another about the plays we were going to see. There’s nothing like a Donald Sutherland e-mail. I treasure them all.

Q: We don’t get to spend too much time with Sylvia aside from phone calls with Grace. Is there anything you’re eager to let fans known about who she was and her feelings on this whole affair?

A: She did not have a happy relationship, which led to much of her mistrust of people. People are so mistrustful of her, but actually her loyalty and her ultimate devotion, while she has made some missteps, to Grace is incredibly strong and deep. Her doubt about all husbands – all men across the board – is not only from things she’s seen in her work, but very personal. That was not a good situation with the dad of her daughter, who is the love of her life.

Q: I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowds every time Grace and Jonathan walked into the courthouse. What has it been like seeing this show released during a pandemic?

A: I know. And just the beauty of the city that I love more than any city in the world. The freedom and wonderful anonymity that you feel. That’s the wonderful thing about New York that just lights me is up, that you can walk down a street and be surrounded by so many people. But no one knows each other, so it’s this incredibly intimate experience, yet you’re a stranger. I love that city so much, and watching it today, there’s such a pang and pain, a longing for it. It made it all the more delicious to watch it. You just want to wrap yourself up in that feeling. We really were shooting on location, in Central Park and these insane Upper East Side houses.

Q: What can you share about your upcoming Amazon Prime Video series, Tell Me Your Secrets?

A: I’m so excited for people to see this show. Bruna Papandrea, who produced The Undoing, also produced Tell Me Your Secrets. I think she has an incredible eye for female-led stories. I want to say thrillers, but I mean that in the best sense of incredible storytelling where you can’t get ahead of it. As an audience member, you go on such a ride. Everything is brought into question. That was another one where I couldn’t get through the scripts fast enough because there were so many turns. You think you’re on one track and you’re surprised. The characters are amazing. The writer, Harriet Warner, is so brilliant, and I don’t think there’s anyone like her. The way she writes is so uniquely her, and her voice is one we haven’t heard before. I’m really excited for people to see this show.  

Q: Are there any teases you can give us for the next season of American Horror Story?

A: No [shakes head and smiles]. It’s going to be great!

Q: What else do you have coming up?

A: The Underground Railroad, that’s also Amazon. Barry Jenkins is just one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known and have ever worked with. I’m so grateful that I was a part of the show. It’s a book that I love so much and I can’t wait for the world to see what he’s done.

The Undoing is available on HBO now.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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