Lily Rabe has worked nonstop—and at the highest professional level—in 2011, jumping from her Tony-nominated performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice to a summer run as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rather than take a fall vacation, she's gone on to juggle a juicy role as Alan Rickman’s writing student in Seminar and an equally juicy TV turn as ghost Nora Montgomery in the new FX creepfest American Horror Story. With her smoky voice and luminous stage presence, Rabe has transcended her background as the daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe. She’s a rarity: an under-30 actress who can carry a Broadway show—though she was too modest to admit it in a recent chat with Broadway.com.
Are you enjoying playing an aspiring novelist in Seminar?
We’re having such a great time! There’s something so special about this play. On the one hand, it’s just an absolute joy-ride comedy, but it’s full of complexities and nuances. Certainly for my character, Kate, a whole new world opens up by the end of the play, which is a wonderful thing to get to experience every night.
You grew up with an actress [mom Jill Clayburgh] and a writer [playwright David Rabe]. Which career do you think is harder to launch?
God, it’s all very difficult, isn’t it? [Laughs.] We [in the cast] sort of joke and say, “There’s nothing for us to draw on: In acting, there’s no competition, there’s no insecurity, there’s no rejection.” With writing, you can sit in a room by yourself and do it; you’re not as dependent on people giving you a stage. But it’s all wildly difficult.
Seminar is a new play. Is that more or less challenging than the classical dramas you’ve done this year?
There’s a different kind of pressure when you’re playing women who are sort of the titans of the theater, like Portia [in The Merchant of Venice] and Nora [in A Doll’s House]. Even before your first day of rehearsal it’s terrifying, but you have to let go of that because it’s going to be your Portia and your Nora and your Kate [in Seminar]. The wonderful thing about a new play is getting to put on shoes that no one else has worn, but there will be many, many actresses lucky enough get to play Kate in the future.
Here’s a random question: Have you always had your distinctive, very stageworthy voice?
You mean when I was little? When I was teeny tiny, I definitely had a voice that didn’t quite match the way I looked at five.
Another random question: Who is the most intimidating co-star—Alan Rickman (Seminar), Al Pacino (The Merchant of Venice), Philip Bosco (Heartbreak House) or Mercedes Ruehl (The American Plan)?
None of the above. [Laughs.] They’re all powerful, brilliant people and big, big, big stage presences, but I’ve had cozy relationships with all of them. I’m always intimidated by the job that I have to do onstage, but I was not intimidated by my companions; I just felt so lucky to be up there with them.
From your Broadway debut in Steel Magnolias six years ago to now, you have had a storybook stage career. What was your goal coming out of Northwestern?
My goal was just to get a job! [Laughs.] I come from the theater, so I knew I wanted to move to New York and work in the theater. I will say that I’ve been lucky enough never to have to do a job I didn’t want to do, or a play I wasn’t in love with. I felt very strongly about building a stage career. It’s also important to me to work in other mediums, and I’ve been thrilled to be part of a show like American Horror Story.
How were you able to juggle Seminar and the TV role?
I went back and forth once a week [to Los Angeles]. I would shoot on my days off; I just shot the season finale, and I had so much fun with this part. Not only is [AHS and Glee’s] Ryan Murphy a brilliant creator, but the feeling of family he creates on his shows is palpable the minute you walk on set. It was one of the greatest working experiences I’ve ever had.
Did American Horror Story make you want a TV series of your own?
Listen, a cable series is a beautiful thing because there’s such amazing writing happening on television, and it’s a schedule that allows you to do a play or two. There’s a reason everybody wants that job! It certainly whets my appetite to continue to work with someone like Ryan, who writes for his actors. It was like having [Seminar playwright] Theresa Rebeck writing new scenes based on what was happening in the rehearsal room with this particular group of people. That’s an exciting experience to have in the theater or on television.
Backing up a bit, is it fair to say that your parents never made their careers the focus of your family’s life?
They didn’t. The focus of our family life was homework and what was for dinner; getting to ballet rehearsal and getting my brother to soccer. They were tremendously great parents. Their love of their work was obvious, but they were just very, very present. I think a big part of it was that we lived where we did [in rural Connecticut]. We were sort of isolated from [fame] because we didn’t live in Los Angeles or New York. But when I think about my childhood, I don’t quite know how they did it all.
You’ve never had a chip on your shoulder about being the daughter of two famous people.
I’m so proud to be the daughter of my parents, but it was very important to me to feel like I was being seen as myself [as an actress]. When I was in college, that was a source of tremendous insecurity for me. I got my Equity card doing a play with my mother when I was a sophomore, but once I graduated, I felt strongly about not working with them until people saw me as a separate entity.
How did you summon the strength to go through with opening night of The Merchant of Venice the weekend your mother died?
People ask me that all the time. I missed a few shows leading up to her death because there was a moment at which point I just couldn’t leave her side. But she died on Friday, and I woke up on Saturday morning and told Dad that I was going to go back and do the show. And he said, “Of course you are.” To me, it wasn’t really a decision. If I couldn’t be with her, there was nowhere I would rather be than back onstage. It didn’t feel brave at the time, it felt like the absolute only choice to make for me.
You’re turning 30 next June. Is that a big deal for you?
Ughhhh. Do we have to talk about that? [Laughs]. I still feel like I’m 18 most of the time, and some days I feel 500. All these markers—I don’t want to do any of it without my mother. But I’m very excited about what I will be doing when I turn 30!
What’s on tap for next summer?
I can’t talk about it yet, but I have some really exciting things coming up. It’s an amazing privilege to be part of the theater community in New York.
See Lily Rabe in Seminar at the Golden Theatre.