The actress Lily Rabe speaks the Bard’s tongue as though it were her native language. While most of her contemporaries do Shakespeare, she simply inhabits it with an uncanny ease and naturalism. This first became apparent when she starred as Portia in the Public Theater’s 2010 production of Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theater (it later transferred to Broadway and earned her a Tony award nomination). She also tackled Rosalind in the company’s As You Like It in 2012.
Rabe’s talents aren’t limited to Elizabethan texts. The 31-year-old is equally at home in more contemporary plays like Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan. She has also appeared in the past three seasons of American Horror Story on FX and will star in the upcoming ABC sci-fi series The Whispers and the Bobby Fisher biopic Pawn Sacrifice.
Through July 6th, she is back in her Shakespearean element as the strong-willed Beatrice opposite her real life beau Hamish Linklater’s Benedick in the Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing.
You have said that five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to play Beatrice. Why and what has changed since then? She’s a grown-up and I definitely feel like much more of a grown-up now than I did five years ago. I think I would have been reaching for a lot of things five years ago that feel very close now. She’s been through a lot and then she’s spent time on her own and, five years ago, I wasn’t very good at spending time with myself. I always had somebody, all of my relationships were so intense, from friendships to romantic relationships to work to being with my mother [the late actress Jill Clayburgh, who died in 2010] non-stop. People would say “I’m going out to dinner alone.” And “I’m going to the movies alone.” It just felt like “Why would you want to do that?” And now it’s the best thing in the world. Beatrice has a very strong sense of herself and she’s very independent.
You and Hamish have been together in Merchant of Venice and Theresa Rebeck’s play Seminar and now this. You have amazing chemistry.
We love acting together. It’s really one of the great, great joys playing opposite him. And I’ve been so lucky to have it over and over. It’s something we would like to continue. We used to joke that it’s just because we’re both tall, but I hope it’s more than that…
Has your real life romance informed your performance?
Oh my god, I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question. With Shakespeare, the way he writes these parts, it’s to bring everything of yourself as an actor. And I don’t mean to play yourself, but to bring your soul and life experience and put it on the effing stage and if you don’t you’re doing yourself a real disservice. That’s the ride. We were laughing yesterday about what it will be like when we’re 40 or 80 playing these parts.
Performing outdoors in the summer must be a challenge. How does the rain and heat affect your performance?
You sweat a lot. There’s nothing I love more than just peeling my costume off at the end of the night because you’ve sweat through it. I love it more when it’s not so comfortable. Having to put the show on hold for rain isn’t ideal, but it’s fine because the audience is so amazing—they stay with it and they don’t leave. And then they’re so happy when you’re back and you’re so excited to see them again. So I’m not saying I root for the show to be held, but I love the rain and the wind and the heat and the bugs in your mouth. We’re all there outside in the middle of the park and it shouldn’t be totally comfortable. I’m excited for a little bit of heat where you think you might pass out!
It’s impossible to be bored while talking with Lily Rabe. The ubiquitous actress, who has starred in productions on and Off-Broadway, as well as numerous roles on the small and big screen, has a unique and varied resume that ranges from modern-day horror to some of the most classic theatre.
Rabe, who is currently starring as Beatrice in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, is no stranger to the Bard’s works, having also starred in The Merchant of Venice (and earning a Tony nomination when the play moved to Broadway) and as Rosalind in As You Like It. Her Broadway credits also include Seminar, The American Plan, Heartbreak House and Steel Magnolias.
On the small screen, Rabe has three different roles on Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” under her belt — Nora Montgomery in “Murder House,” Sister Mary Eunice in “Asylum” and Misty Day in “Coven” — as well as “The Good Wife” and the films “Mona Lisa Smile” and “All Good Things.” She will also appear on the new TV show “The Whispers,” which will air on ABC.
Rabe took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with Playbill.com about Shakespeare, modern-day romance and why Stevie Nicks is like a fairy.
You’re returning to Shakespeare in the Park — and this time as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She’s such a wonderful character; tell me about playing her.
Lily Rabe: The play is so incredible. Working on these plays, I’ve found as I’m working on each one, you think, “Oh, this is really my favorite one.” I’m still having that experience with Much Ado, and I’m sure I’ll feel that way about many more of his plays, if I’m lucky enough to get to do them. It really is a great one. Everything is in it.
It’s such a privilege to get to play a woman like that — to get to say the words that she says. I felt that way about Portia and Rosalind. You think, “How did he dream her up?” She’s so amazingly contemporary in so many ways. It’s staggering. And their relationship is so contemporary. There’s just nothing about that relationship that doesn’t feel absolutely relevant and accessible and so truthful on every level. Nothing about it really feels old-fashioned. The way people sleep with each other or don’t sleep with each other is different, but other than that it’s kind of staggering.
She’s amazing. And she’s so independent. That’s the other thing about her that’s so incredible. At the start of the play, she’s been through it. She’s been in love. She’s had her heart broken and she’s come out on the other side of the thing, and she’s spent a lot of time alone, really getting to know herself. And that’s where the play starts, as opposed to a lot of the women in his plays who I’ve played — there’s such immense innocence about love, about relationships, about men. They haven’t had any experience at the top of the play. So it’s really different to start on the other side of something with another person and really having this sense of herself. It’s kind of amazing.
Your Benedick is played by Hamish Linklater. How are you two creating this couple, which never stops sparring, onstage?
LR: I just think it’s the most incredible relationship in a play ever, because they are so fully formed separately. There are so many relationships in those plays that are — as first love, young love can be so kind of co-dependent because you really have so many holes of who you are, and you’re just, “Oh, I guess this person will help me. Being with this person is who I am” — and they’re not like that. They’re just these two people who are better walking side by side ultimately than on their own. But they’re not sort of trying to become this one set of arms and one set of legs. They’re going to walk their own path. They’re just going to do it together.
Benedick and Beatrice will never be bored together! I’d love to hear their dinner table conversation.
LR: No, they’ll never be bored. [Director] Jack O’Brien was saying, “God, what would their kids be like?” And the truth is their relationship would be complicated, like great relationships are. There’s such an authenticity to that relationship, those two people. It is so amazing the way they both rail against marriage. And on the one hand we see so clearly: You can say that all you want, but it would be really good for you to be with this other person. But they’re not just saying it for laughs. They really feel like: I’m not going to do this. I’m okay on my own. And then to realize you are okay on your own, but you have this opportunity to be more than okay with this other person. It’s so fantastic.
I love the idea of the romance in Much Ado — the two brilliant minds and two lashing tongues.
LR: It’s so messy. It’s so human. It’s because they aren’t sort of untouched. They’ve had a certain amount of life experience. Beatrice and Benedick can be played at all sorts of ages, but I think it’s wonderful doing the play at the age that we are. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to do it again at 50, 60 and 70 — but for me, I’ve always been so interested in doing the play when it’s not as if they’re sort of towards the latter half of their life. He says, “The world must be peopled.” They still have so much life ahead of them to live together. Maybe it’s not their last chance for love ever. Maybe it’s their last chance for this love, very specific to this person — this Benedick, this Beatrice. This relationship isn’t going to get another chance, and that always felt like something I wanted to be a part of, a production that sort of embraced that.
You’ve collaborated with Hamish before onstage.
LR: It’s so wonderful. It’s such a lucky thing to be able to work with someone, when it’s a great working relationship, and when you love acting with them. You just want to keep doing it. It’s really so lucky. There’s no one I’d rather be onstage with.
You’ve been on “American Horror Story” for three seasons now, playing three different characters. Tell me about the range of work you’ve done on that show.
LR: Those characters were so great. It was so exciting to be able to be a part of something when you come back and are working with the same people but playing a different part. It’s a little bit like rep theatre. I’ve been lucky enough to have a little bit of that experience because I’ve been lucky enough to keep coming back to the Park. I’m a big fan of when it works, doing it more than once.
It’s interesting to hear you use the phrase “as it works” when you’re referring to how “American Horror Story” has had you locked in a coffin, living in a swamp…
LR: (laughing) Yeah, it totally works for me!
Your character was a swamp witch obsessed with Stevie Nicks, and then Stevie Nicks guest starred on the show. Can you tell me about meeting her?
LR: She’s incredible. She has that amazing ability to make you feel so incredibly special and seen. She’s so present. It’s sort of like being around a fairy or something. You can’t believe you’re standing next to her.
In order to star in Much Ado About Nothing this summer, you had to withdraw from appearing playing Commander Lyme in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2.” Can you tell me about making that decision?
LR: The plans were set for Much Ado and I was absolutely committed to it when I got the job, which was a while ago. And their schedule was still in flux and it was in two parts. It looked like it was going to work out for me to do both of them, but I had said to them, “Starting here, I’m going to do this play,” and they said, “We absolutely understand.” The dates ended up being a conflict, and it wasn’t even a question that I was going to do the play.
It was just playing this part at this moment in my life with this group of people is so, so incredibly important to me. I would have so loved to be a part of that movie. And the wonderful thing is they knew about it from go, and they were very understanding. There was no drama around it. I’m really excited to see the movies. They’re so incredible, full of really strong women all over the place. It’s really great.
You’re also acting in the TV show “The Whispers,” a sci-fi drama about aliens invading the earth. Can you tell me about that show?
LR: I’m the worst at talking about shows because with sci-fi and horror, it’s so tricky. I give the worst interviews about this because there are so many things you don’t want to give away. I play a woman who works for the FBI and I have a son and there is a case — I don’t even want to say it’s a case — there’s something happening. I have left work because I lost someone, and there’s something that brings me back to work.
It’s a wonderful script. I loved the part so much. There’s also an incredible amount about these characters and her personal life and her family life and her love life and her relationship with her son — the sort of intersection of all that. Reading it, it felt like I get to do all sorts of stuff. It’s not just where you have to do all the interviews and all the guest stars get to do all the fun stuff.
I’m sure everyone appreciates how careful you are about not giving away any spoilers.
LR: You can screw up where if you say the wrong thing you realize all these people who have been working so hard to protect something and then you just did an interview and slipped. I err on the overly cautious side and end up being sort of dull to interview. In [Much Ado About Nothing] we all know what happens!