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Emmys: Lily Rabe’s Sympathy for the Devil

The "American Horror Story: Asylum" star on playing an innocent young nun who turns evil when she’s possessed by the devil

This story appears in TheWrap's EmmyWrap Miniseries Issue.

Lily Rabe’s parents didn’t exactly discourage her from becoming an actress, but they certainly knew how tough it could be. 

Her mother is the Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh, who died in 2010, and her father is playwright David Rabe — a lineage that helps explain why much of Rabe’s most notable work has taken place onstage, including her Tony-nominated turn as Portia opposite Al Pacino‘s Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park series.

But Rabe, 30, is also a TV star these days, playing two different roles in the first two seasons of Ryan Murphy‘s “American Horror Story” and prepping for another role in the third season.

She had a particularly meaty Season 2 storyline as an innocent young nun who turns evil when she’s possessed by the devil. The part involved killings, sex, a song-and-dance number and a gruesome death, and it landed her a Critics’ Choice Television Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Miniseries, where she’ll be competing against castmate and friend Sarah Paulson.                                     

When they told you about your character, did you think, “Oh, that’s going to be juicy”?
 I did. If you’re playing a very innocent and virginal nun who’s possessed by the devil, you know they’re going to be giving you some good stuff to do. [laughs] But so much of why I loved the part really had to do with who that girl was at the beginning — a very stunted, pure, naïve creature living under the thumb of Jude [Jessica Lange].

As much of a thrill and a challenge as it was to delve into the extremes, what was the most fascinating to me as an actress was tracking what was happening to that girl.

So when you’re playing the possession, are you still trying to keep track of the innocence underneath it?
Very much so. And of course there were these moments when you see her absolute pure self coming through and fighting. It gets darker and darker, and that girl recedes further and further into nonexistence — but I think so much of it was about what that possession brings out in her: her id. Putting on lipstick, drinking wine, having sex — it’s this kind of awakening of all these things that have been completely unrealized and untouched and undiscovered.

That innocent girl is there all along, and of course at the end it’s that girl who kills herself, really.

What were the biggest challenges for you this season?
The murders were very painful. I’m used to connecting — the thing that you’re very often searching for when you’re playing a scene with someone is connecting to them and engaging with them and responding to them and sharing with them. And this role was completely the opposite. 

There was not an ounce of empathy in those murders or their aftermath. They were absolutely cold-hearted, and I don’t think I anticipated just how difficult it would be to completely disconnect and shut off so much.

You’ll be back on "American Horror Story" next season, but in a new role. It’s like a theatrical repertory company.
It is. This show is actually the closest I’ve come to having the full rep experience of going back with the same gang and getting to play different parts. I never really did that onstage. With a couple of these theaters where I’ve worked, like the Public and the Roundabout and MCC, when you go there more than once It often has the feeling of family, and you’re working with the same crew and the same artistic director on the same stage.

It’s like rep light. But I never thought I’d get to do rep on television.

Do you feel a family legacy to live up to?
I try not to think about that, but yes. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know if I think of the word legacy, but I do think that my parents were incredible artists, and I think about their relationship to their work and how important it was to them. I share that with them, and I’m sure that their love for the arts is why I have such love for it.