For Lily Rabe, the devil was in the details as she braved the second chapter of FX’s macabre miniseries, American Horror Story: Asylum. As Sister Mary Eunice, she started off as a the dutiful No. 2 to Jessica Lange’s nuthouse overlord, but then something got into the nice nun. (Could it be… Satan?!) Here, Rabe reveals how creator Ryan Murphy afforded her the freedom to raise hell — and in doing so possibly scare up an Emmy nod for Supporting Actress in a TV Movie/Miniseries.
TVLINE | Did you go into Asylum knowing that the possession storyline was on tap?
You sort of get information in stages, and a lot of it is always unknown, of course, because I think as the show is shooting they’re also figuring things out. In the beginning, Ryan wasn’t sure whether it was going to be something she comes back from or not. But I think once it happened, he loved that sort of struggle [for her].
TVLINE | It was almost heartbreaking, because you’re like, “No. Not her. Not the normal one amidst all these crazies.”
When Ryan was first describing her, he said, “Her name is Sister Mary Eunice and she’s the only clean soul that there is in the show” — and I thought that was a beautiful way of describing her. But it made sense, then, that that’s where the devil would jump into. She’s an easy canvas.
TVLINE | Once you knew where things were going, did you revisit any famous possession movies?
I didn’t. It’s funny, because I love researching, but I also am careful because I think that sometimes there are certain things in your brain that, for me anyway, create a kind of clutter. I also felt the way they were writing the possession was so original and specific. It was unlike any other possession that I know about, from either film or television.
TVLINE | There was no gargling voice, no red eyeballs….
When Ryan and I talked about it with the writers and everything, it was felt that this possession that would really look different. It’s almost as if your id or your underbelly or your shadow, your darkness, was coming to the surface… so it’s not like all of a sudden I would speak with a different voice. We decided to have no voice whatsoever except my own.
TVLINE | Can you recall an instance where you elected to dial back or at least reconsidered a performance in a particular scene?
That was quite often, especially once the devil had come into the picture, because it was a constant negotiation. In all of the murder scenes and her most vicious scenes, we were doing very different kind of levels on the dial, to tell the right story.
TVLINE | Ryan affords his actors a great deal of freedom. Is that a boon or in some way a burden?
A boon, because I think that with Ryan, that kind of freedom is the most wonderful freedom you can have. When you’re working with someone who is either a great writer or director or creator, if they have a specific vision and a strong point of view, you can have all the freedom in the world and you’re not going to feel that you’re going to choke on your long leash. There’s ground for you to land on. A burden is when someone is giving you freedom because they don’t know what they want, because they don’t have a clear opinion or they don’t trust their opinion. Then you’re sort of running around.
TVLINE | Is that part of the reason why you, Jessica Lange and a couple of others are part of Horror Story‘s “three timers club”? Because it’s just such a good time for an actor?
I can definitely say that for myself. It really does have to do with Ryan. There are very few people I would come back for, knowing nothing. That kind of trust, it’s really a rare thing. I’m a big believer in repeats when something works, when you love working with someone.
TVLINE | I have to imagine there was an immense level of trust among the actors, too, whether you’re rubbing up against the estimable James Cromwell or getting caned by Jessica Lange.
There was. James and I had such a big story to tell together — it was kind of a love story! — that we developed a great deal of trust. We’re both big theater nerds, so in the beginning we bonded talking about Shakespeare or whatever….
TVLINE | Would there be times where you would tell each other, “No, you can go a little further in that scene.”
Absolutely. Not in a way of directing another person, but definitely in letting the other person know that they don’t have to worry about taking care of you. That was something that for me, playing someone who eventually had to do things that were so brutal to others, was hard. That was such a new challenge, and I really couldn’t do my job if I was worried about the other actor. In some of those scenes, I couldn’t even have compassion for my fellow actor or sort of even an awareness of them. But when you have a trust, it’s much easier with people like James and Jessica as opposed to when I would be brutally murdering a guest star we just met five minutes before.
TVLINE | What was one of your most favorite scenes from Asylum?
I loved working with the little girl Jenny, that whole storyline. It was so beautifully written, when we’re in the kitchen and I’m giving her this wonderful advice on how to follow your heart and to be an original and to not conform. It’s the advice that you absolutely should be giving to a young girl. The problem with it is that what I’m really talking about is to follow her instincts to murder people.
TVLINE | What has it meant to the cast as you saw Horror Story, both seasons, get awards recognition — despite being a little dicey?
Well, I just feel so grateful for the fans and the critics and everyone for watching it, because I think there’s a loyalty there. I also feel a lot of gratitude that, in the same way that we’re all willing to “go there”, people are willing to sit in their living room on a Wednesday night and “go there” as well.
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