Lily Rabe has long been known for keeping audiences at the edge of their seats. Whether captivating viewers with her various roles in the American Horror Story franchise or leaving onlookers second-guessing with her recent run on the mini-series The Undoing, Rabe has developed a unique knack for causing everyone watching to expect the unexpected.
Her most recent series for Amazon Prime Video, Tell Me Your Secrets, continues this trend. Rabe plays Emma Hall (née Karen Miller), a woman who has entered witness protection after it is revealed her partner was a serial killer. The show explores Emma as she regains memories of her life and her ex-partner’s murders — and potentially, realises her involvement within them. Schön! spoke to Rabe about the show, fan theories and what she has coming next.
It seems like you have one of the best problems to have right now, which is having a lot of projects to promote at once. How has it been for you this media cycle? Have you managed to keep them all straight?
That’s a great question! I am able to keep them all straight, but I do find that I often am doing jobs where I’m not allowed to talk about certain things. Also, I just want to preserve the audience’s experience, whether I’m allowed to or not. Often there are lots of twists and turns in the work I do, so I’m on high spoiler alert all the time.
Yeah, I don’t envy the amount of American Horror Story questions I’m sure you’ve gotten.
Listen, I admire the resilience and the determination. Because no matter what, people still ask, and the answer doesn’t ever really change. But I love that everyone still tries!
I personally want to focus on Tell Me Your Secrets, if that’s okay with you. Do you remember what first drew you to the role?
I do. I read the first episode, and I loved [creator] Harriet [Warner]’s writing. I loved her restraint. I loved that she treated the audience with such respect. There was no sentimentality. There was no spoon-feeding. There was no sugarcoating. There were so many things that were unanswered. But holding the space of unanswered questions is a very delicate thing, and she does it with such nuance and bravery. The lens that we experience this world through felt incredibly unique; I really couldn’t compare her voice to anyone else’s voice, and I couldn’t compare the role to any other role — certainly that I had played, but also like any other role really. She was remarkably unique to me.
That being said, at the time, I had a new baby. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to jump into shooting a series at the moment. Harriet and I met for what was supposed to be coffee and then spent hours and hours together. I knew within about two minutes of being with her that I was going to say yes. I was going to do the job because of her. I think with joining shows, you’re really sort of deciding whether or not you want to get on to the train with whoever is driving. It has to be someone who you feel you want to be led by, whose hand you want to take to help tell their story. And I felt that way so strongly about Harriet.
You referenced enjoying not knowing where the series was going. Do you have an idea of what the full story is now?
All of the episodes weren’t written when we started, but I wasn’t kept in the dark. I had a real sense of everything after we first talked. Then we spent time together in New Orleans before we started shooting the pilot really doing a deep, detailed dive into the story and into everything that had happened, where it was going. When I say Harriet had everything in her head, I don’t mean she was rigid in that way, because she was incredibly collaborative. I do think that things evolved as we were shooting and she tailored it to everything that was being brought to the roles by the actors who were playing them. But the calibration and detail of the story were things she held so solidly in her mind before we started. That was an incredibly appealing part of making the show and working with her.
I don’t really have a general rule about that, whether I want to know everything or not know anything. I really think it’s case-specific, depending on the part that you’re playing and the responsibility you have to the part that you’re playing. But in this case, I was in lockstep with her and the whole story. I think [Harriet] just has one of those brains that can hold a whole story and the story of every character within it. Even for the characters who come in for a few episodes, no one was there as a foil. No one was one-dimensional. Everyone was so cared for by her, and I really loved that.
The ending of the first season leaves us obviously with a lot of questions. If the show gets picked up for a second series, which of the stories are you most curious about? What do you think is next for Emma?
Well, I know some of them — this is where the ‘spoiler alert’ siren is going off in my mind. I can tell you that I know certain things about where the story could possibly go and ideas that Harriet had. But I think something that is so wonderful about the series, and I really appreciate this about the landscape right now for television, is that there is a beginning, middle and an end to this season. That can really just exist. But Harriet didn’t feel like she was done with everyone, I don’t think. It’s hard to imagine getting to the end, even in a limited series, and thinking, ‘okay, well there’s nothing more to learn about these people.’ You’ve already been on such a journey with these people. It’s like you’ve gotten into a relationship with them.
Shifting gears now, you’re also going to be on The Underground Railroad, which is another Amazon show. What can you tell us about your role in that?
I play Ethel Wells. It’s a book that I loved so tremendously when I read it, and Barry Jenkins is one of the greatest artists that we have right now. Making it was one of the most profound and wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. As someone who loves the book, I just can’t wait for the show to come into the world and for people to see it. Every frame, every breath of it is — from what I’ve seen, and I haven’t seen much, but I’ve seen a bit here and there — is unlike anything else that’s ever been made. I loved playing that part, and I can’t wait to talk about it more when the time comes.
You’re in a lot of projects that inspire online discourse and fan theories. What’s your social media experience like as it relates to things like that?
I’m limited in that department — it took me a while to even figure out how to get to the comments or the direct messages or whatever. My stepdaughter still helps me. However, I will say that I was exposed to the world of fan theories with The Undoing in a way that I hadn’t been before. I was already so blown away by the series, and I loved that I got to watch the show unfold on social media platforms as people watched it. I had a lot of people screenshotting things and sending me links to all of these theories, and then I was apologised to by a lot of social media when we found out who was actually guilty. It’s so great there’s now a wonderful communication we can have with fans, sharing the work we’ve done and having people experience it. American Horror Story has such incredible fans as well.
My last question for you is very simple: what are you looking forward to right now?
Whenever it’s safe to again, I’m really looking forward to going to see a play — or doing one. Both.
Tell Me Your Secrets is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.