Lily Rabe is an actress from a different era — or at least that’s how it feels in watching one of her textured, layered, surprising performances. Whether it’s playing an Upper East Side mother in HBO’s “The Undoing” or the mysterious Karen in Amazon Prime Video’s “Tell Me Your Secrets,” Rabe has shown that she’s a true chameleon.
But Rabe, 38, has an added sense of mystery that often feels at odds in the world of incessant Instagram openness. In a way, she’s like an actress of the 1940s, one who is very deliberate about what she reveals both on screen and off.
“I’m quite introverted,” Rabe told IndieWire. “I love being alone. Staying home for a long period of time [for me] is not [difficult]. My work has always been my way to be social.” Part of it comes from her parents, actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe — both were immensely private people.
The belief that, as a celebrity, there’s an expectation for Rabe to post extensively on social media is something that makes her feel ambivalent and confused. She enjoys the sense of collective community that comes from social media and communicating with fans — but she also wants privacy.
“With everything I do, whether it’s theater, or film, or television, playing a role is a wonderful way for me to feel less private,” she said. “That’s what I want to share, the roles that I’m playing, rather than myself.” Rabe jokes that it might feel old fashioned to want to keep things shadowy, but that’s an element of Old Hollywood she, herself, enjoys the most.
“The less we know about people, the more mysterious they are [and] the more wonderful it is to watch them,” she said. “We project our hopes and our desires on to what we’re watching on the screen. The less context I have for that person — I always personally enjoy that.”
Rabe’s name and face have been connected with Old Hollywood since she burst onto the scene with turns in features like the noir-y “All Good Things” and period piece “Pawn Sacrifice.” In 2012 it was announced she’d play silent film actress Mary Pickford in a biopic, though plans for that never came to fruition. “I do feel drawn to a timelessness, both in the material that I’m drawn to and the way people move through the world,” Rabe said.
Rabe points out the power of actress Katharine Hepburn as someone she enjoys, but who also illustrates how acting has changed for performers. “I feel like the rules have gotten stricter around things being comedic or dramatic,” she said. “If you watch so many of the great movies, you’re weeping one second and rolling on the floor laughing the next. I’ve very attracted to not feeling like storytelling has to fit into one of those categories.”
That’s certainly the case with her performances this year on “The Undoing” and “Tell Me Your Secrets.” In the case of the latter, Rabe plays Karen, the possible accomplice to a serial killer. For Rabe, what sticks out to her about the narrative is how it presents women as being held to a higher standard for the evil that men do. “It feels like a conversation we have to keep having,” she said.
Rabe wanted to approach the character by not indicating that Karen was evil. “She is someone who I think could easily be dismissed…as a monster. There’s something about her being potentially written off as someone who didn’t see clearly, didn’t see the world around her, that she was naïve.” But Rabe said that interpretation isn’t necessarily true. “[Naive]…is a word that’s tremendously overused and tremendously overused when we talk about women,” she said.
Rabe saw Karen as a woman who acts from a place of love and believes in the good in people. “She’s someone who just inherently saw beauty in other people,” she said. “She believed that the moral compass was always going to shift to a place of making good choices.” Rabe said Karen’s ability to love is certainly what makes her powerful, and she sees a similar sensibility in Nicole Kidman’s role of Grace in Rabe’s other project, “The Undoing.” In that series, Grace’s trajectory doesn’t make her blind to what’s happening around her.
But for all Rabe’s serious work — and her desire for privacy outside of working — the actress is still ready for her movie star moment. Rabe explained she was just talking to her four-year-old daughter about “Wonder Woman,” and the little asked, “Mom, why aren’t you doing that?” “I was like, ‘You know what, kid? I don’t have a great answer.’ I would love to,” Rabe said.