Yahoo! TV Q&A: Lily Rabe on 'American Horror Story' and playing possessed

Sarah D. Bunting
Yahoo! TV
"American Horror Story: Asylum" -- "The Origins of Monstrosity"
Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice and James Cromwell as Dr. Arthur Arden in the "American Horror Story: Asylum" episode, "The Origins of Monstrosity."

In a way, Lily Rabe got two roles on this season of "American Horror Story": The somewhat simple, easily cowed Sister Mary Eunice of the year's opening episodes and the more authoritative (and evil) Sister Mary Eunice inhabited by Satan. The daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late Jill Clayburgh ("Dirty Sexy Money"), Rabe played restless spirit Nora Montgomery on the first season of "AHS," and has also appeared on "Medium," "The Good Wife," and all the "Law & Order"s.

Rabe spoke with Yahoo! TV this week about the two Mary Eunices, her trust in Ryan Murphy, and her role in "The First" as America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford.

Did you have any trouble adjusting or upshifting to your role this season as Sister Mary Eunice from your role last season?

No -- it was a thrill; it was an absolute thrill. I loved my role last year and I love my role this year.

Other actors on the show have said that [creator] Ryan Murphy briefed them pretty well on how their characters' arcs would be laid out -- was that true for you as well this year?

Yes. Yes, it was.

So you knew that there would be this "transformation," shall we say?

I did, yes. I knew that that was gonna happen, and I knew that, you know, the outcome was gonna be what it was.

[Related: Mark Consuelos talks to Yahoo! TV about disappearing into his "AHS" role]

Did you have any input into how that was going to go?

Along the way there's always a tremendous amount of collaboration, and I think as the writers are writing and as Ryan is editing the show and watching the show -- you know, some of it is sort of, there are sort of landmarks that need to be there, and then there's also this kind of process that's going on, and I think that certain relationships take over for each of the characters and things like that, but there's definitely a feeling of collaboration. But it's also, you know, Ryan is so brilliant at sort of creating everyone's arc for the season.

Right. We take it that you had not played possessed before? (Laughs)

No, that was new for me. (Laughs)

We liked in your performance how you varied the percentages of Mary Eunice and the devil that the audience was seeing at any given time. Was that something that you were directed on, or something that you came to?

That was really something that was very important. It wasn't really a direction thing. It was more about, that was very important to me, when Ryan and I started talking about Mary Eunice and who she was before the possession, that was sort of the most important thing, to figure out who that girl was, and what her history was, and why she was the way she was. You know, she sort of has a, as Ryan said, a slight dropped-on-her-head quality.

She's been, you know, she's been stunted in some way, she's been suppressed in some way, and so to me so much of that possession was -- it was not like this other thing is taking her over and she's becoming what that thing is. She's sort of becoming -- all of these things that already exist in her are being brought to the surface and brought out, so I think that's what was so interesting to me about playing the possessed Mary Eunice, is that it wasn't one or the other. You're sort of living in, as you say, varying degrees, like on the scale of where she is, but it's not black and white; it's sort of living right in the middle between that lightness and that darkness, and fighting that fight, really at every moment.

We thought that was very successful, and also kind of a change -- usually it's a pretty straightforward portrayal of just snarling evil, but this was different.

Right, no -- because I think she is alive in there, and I think the trick is, the power gets the best of her and the evil, that dark side does get the best of her -- but I also think that there's a lot of it that she's enjoying, because she's set free by it. She's getting to have all these experiences, in her life, she's set free, she's not under the thumb of [Sister] Jude and of her own kind of repression. So it's not all bad; I think there's a part of Mary Eunice that's leaning right into that, and that is having this kind of exciting, very -- and then of course it goes way too far and becomes painful enough for her to really want to, you know, end her life, because there's so little of her left by the end.

[Related: The craziest "AHS" moments from Season 1]

You and James Cromwell [who plays Dr. Arden] have such an interesting chemistry of loathing between your two characters; how did you two develop that?

We both love to talk about acting! We talked about that relationship a lot, and they gave us so much to work with, the writers, and Ryan, gave that relationship so much, but I think it is, it was such an important relationship and such a complicated one [for her] to sort of to care about this man. But you know, in the beginning she just has no idea what she means to him, she can't see it because she doesn't even think of herself as a woman, really. I don't think she sees herself -- and then once she realizes, like, "Oh my God, I have this power of sexuality, and I have this, I can have power over this man," was like this brand-new experience for her, and of course she just totally exploits it, takes advantage of it.

But I think that dance between the two of them … I think it's a different kind of love that they have for one another? Even when they turn on each other, there is true affection there, for sure.

There seemed to be a few moments where it was like this mutual respect for one another's evil deeds, in some way.

Yes, it gets there, but I also think really there was this -- they did have a kind of real companionship at the beginning, and even if his was…but for her, she trusts him, she really, at the beginning, before the possession, he's one of the only people that she can trust.

You come from a -- we'll say a storytelling family; we don't know how else to encompass your parents.

I like that.

Like a narrative-creating family.

Yeah. Thank you.

What kind of insight and/or trust does that give you into Ryan Murphy's process -- or really, any other show creator's process, when you're telling the story yourself?

Well, with Ryan -- Ryan is someone, and it's a very rare and amazing thing that happens, and I think it probably only happens a few times in your career, that you find someone who you trust completely and who you feel seen by completely. And when you find those relationships, something I know, something I would say I probably was told by my parents, before my relationship with Ryan -- when you find those people, hold on, because it's so special, and you want to keep that feeling of safety, because it really is when you can do your best work or when you feel free to do things, safe to try things that, you know, are terrifying. And it's all about that, it's all about trust, it's the most important thing, and I trust Ryan and I love Ryan so much.

And I think as a creator of a show, he's steadfast; he has such a vision, and really that's what you need when you're doing something like this. It only works when someone has a specific vision. That's why all his shows are as successful as they are, is because they're each so specifically their own world. He creates these worlds, and then you wanna go live in them. Or maybe, I don't know if you want to go live in "American Horror Story"; certainly you do as an actor. I don't want to do it in my own life, but, I'm very happy to live there as an actor, it's a great great great place to go to work, and it's because of him.

Any idea what he has planned for you as part of the Ryan Murphy Repertory Theater next season?

I can't talk about any of that stuff.


I know!

Sometimes we feel like we have to wait until y'all are maybe drunk or just call you in the middle of the night...

I know, you should. You should get us all drunk. (Laughs)

We see that you have an upcoming role as Mary Pickford. Are you allowed to talk about that, because it sounds really cool.

Oh, it's so cool, I'm really excited. Now that I have a little time off, I've been able to spend -- there's so much out there for me to be diving into, and it's always so much fun to be reading and watching and talking to people, when you have an opportunity like that. So I'm really excited. She was such a fascinating, fascinating woman, and the more I learn, the more I just, I can't wait.

My God, and she was so ahead of her time, and she's just -- it's just like a bottomless well of wonderful things, and I'm having fun, thinking about that.

Watch a recap of Chapter 10:

"American Horror Story" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.