Lily Rabe was a ghostly presence throughout the first season of American Horror Story, playing original home owner (and long dead person) Nora Montgomery. In American Horror Story: Asylum, she’s stepped out of the shadows. Her devil-possessed nun Sister Mary Eunice has been one of the show’s highlights, alternating between overwhelming innocence and pure malevolence. I spoke with Rabe about her transformation from good to evil, life as one of Ryan Murphy’s recurring players, and stepping into a 1960s asylum.
Warning: Spoilers through “The Name Game.” Read at your own discretion.
LP: Where do you begin when you’re playing the devil?
LR: The most important thing for me was to really, really, really see who she was before the possession. So the first couple of episodes where it’s just her, that was the most important part of then playing the devil. Because to me, what the possession was — it’s not like the way the devil possesses everyone is the same. It’s so unique to whoever the devil is inhabiting. It’s like their id is being brought to the surface. Whatever their other, their darkness is — it’s like their shadow. It’s not like it’s going to look the same in the boy that gets possessed before me. It’s going to look completely different in Mary Eunice, because she’s this completely different person. And I think that was almost the most important part, the pre-possession and figuring out the truth of her, so that when she does get possessed, it’s all about that person’s shadow taking over.
LP: So you saw Mary Eunice as having, if not a dark side, then at least something she was repressing?
LR: I think it’s, yes, a lot about the things you’re repressing. For her, definitely. As the devil takes over more and more, it gets darker and darker as she’s killing more and more people. I think there’s also — she’s having a sexual awakening. She sort of becomes a woman through this experience, and then of course, it takes over in another kind of way where there’s just evil coursing through her veins. But I don’t think it’s that this other thing comes and takes you over. I think that it’s unique to the person.
LP: It sounds like you had a lot of discussions about the character before filming. How much were you told when you signed on? How much of the arc do you know ahead of time?
LR: It’s like, you know a lot and you know very little. Well, when I first signed on I had no idea who I was playing. I just said yes, because of Ryan, really, and because I’d had such a great experience on the show before. And then, the way he described her to me, at least for the start of the season, it was that she’s sort of the purest character of the group. She has the cleanest soul of everyone, and these very good intentions. But there’s something off — she’s been stunted in some way. There was much more discussion of who that woman was, because the rest of it just kind of happened as we went along.
LP: Was there a discussion about where the character would end up? Did you know ahead of time that you would die, or is that something that just comes with the territory of doing American Horror Story? Like, “I’m going to die eventually.”
LR: Yes, yes, yes. You pretty much know that, yes. I didn’t quite know how or when exactly, but I knew that that was kind of the only way for her. Because the truth is, at that point it had been so much time and so much had happened, that even if they were able somehow do some sort of exorcism or something, what would be left of that girl? I saw that death as a suicide. I know Ryan did, too. A sort of assisted suicide.
LP: It definitely seemed like it was a consensual fall to her death.
LP: We talked about getting into the mindset of the character, but what about preparing for the time period? How did you step into the early ‘60s?
LR: Well, one thing — I’m a big researcher. I’m a big nerd. I love to do a lot of research, even if it ends up not being totally usable. I watched films from the period and read a lot of stuff. That was a fun part of doing research. For a while I was going to have a Massachusetts accent, like Jessica, before we started shooting. So I had been working on a Massachusetts accent, and then a couple days before shooting, it was really getting good, and Ryan said, “OK, never mind, I don’t want her to have it.” But now I have a Massachusetts accent!
LP: That’s a great skill to have for future roles.
LR: [laughs] Exactly.
LP: It seems like Ryan assembles a group of actors he likes to choose from for all his projects. What do you think he’s looking for in a performer he’s going to use again and again?
LR:That’s such a question for Ryan. I can tell you what it feels like to work for Ryan, which is just for me, it’s trust. I just trust him and I feel very seen by him. I think there’s probably a mutual feeling of, I know you’re gonna challenge me, and I would hope that he feels that I won’t shy away from a challenge. That’s something that is kind of there mutually, because there’s never fear with Ryan. It’s a unique thing to say yes to someone when you don’t even know what your part is, but that’s something I would do with Ryan over and over. I think that’s because I just trust him and I know that I’ll never be bored in his world. It’s a really special, rare thing, and when you have that with someone, for me it’s something you just treasure and go back to.
LP: I imagine there hasn’t been much talk about a third season yet.
LR: No, no, because we’ve only just kind of finished shooting this one.
LP: But it sounds like you’d be game to return if that were on the table.
LR: Absolutely. Absolutely.
LP: You’ve played a ghost and you’ve played a possessed nun. Have you thought about what supernatural entity you might want to tackle next?
LR: [laughs] I just want to have a romance. That’s what I want. I would do anything. But I do think it would be fun — that’s something that Nora and Mary Eunice didn’t get — they didn’t have very nice boyfriends or husbands.
LP: No, not at all.
LR: They really got the short end of the stick in that department. But no, I would do anything. And I also think that Ryan did such an amazing job with everyone he brought back this year of, really no one is doing anything remotely similar to what they had done before, and so I’m sure that that would continue. In the same way of having a repertory theater company or whatever it is, the joy of it is to not have anything you’re doing this year look like last year. The show was so completely different. But Ryan just has a way of — he brings it just so much bigger. There’s so many rooms in that brain to keep creating these things. So even if I tried to imagine what next season would look like, or a part I would love, I’ll fail, because he’ll be so many steps ahead of me.
LP: And how’s your singing voice? Will we see you on Glee any time soon?
LR: Well, I didn’t get to sing much, but even just singing that one song with Lesley Gore was one of the most fun — I love to sing. It scares the hell out of me, but I love doing it. So I don’t know.
LP: I’m starting the campaign for you on Glee with this article.
LR: All right, all right. [laughs] Thank you.