We Need to Talk About Lily Rabe

Miss Stevens (The Orchard)

My Sunday evenings haven’t included a specific television ritual since I was in middle school. If I get the opportunity, I’ll sometimes find myself streaming a movie on Netflix. Life can just get so busy. I always mean to make time to start a new series. I say that I’m going to, I’ll no longer avoid it or find something better to do. I will sit down, put my feet up, and allow myself a binge opportunity. 

Needless to say, it hardly ever goes like that. I’ve been waiting, somewhat impatiently, for a show to come along and knock some sense into me. A series so magnificent that I can’t help but tune in on a weekly basis. And finally, on one evening in late October, the aforementioned show finally landed on my DVR.

It’s not because The Undoing is particularly larger-than-life. Yes, it has a nice plot, solid cast of characters, and a stunning New York City backdrop. Obviously, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are great. You don’t become Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant without being great. But I’ve found that, my true affinity for this series, lies within Lily Rabe’s Sylvia Steineitz.

Sylvia is not the main character of the story. But, Rabe plays her so fantastically, that I really wish that she was. This is not Rabe’s first rodeo with this phenomenon, either. In fact, I’ve found that in most of her work, I’m often wishing that she had been utilised more. She is often cast as the best friend or sidekick, rarely being given the opportunity to showcase the star power that she so clearly possesses.

In 2016, she starred in Miss Stevens as the titular role. This film, for many reasons, is one of my favourites. I love movies that are just about people. When a plot doesn’t include anything particularly crazy or show-stopping, instead choosing to focus on the beauty and pain that can come from human connection. That is exactly what we get in this instance. Rabe, alongside the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Lili Reinhart, embarks on a journey of self discovery as she takes a group of students to an acting competition for the weekend. 

A Bad Feeling (Don’t Panic Films)

While the story has no unexpected twists or turns, you’re left breathless by the end. This stemming solely from the stellar performance you’ve just watched unfold. Rabe has the ability to sink into a character so completely, to feel every possible emotion that they could be experiencing in such an intense manner, that it is almost staggering. As I watch the movie, I know, subconsciously, that I’m seeing Lily Rabe, Hollywood actress, on the screen. But because her talent is that raw and uncanny, my brain absolutely believes that I’m watching an English teacher attempt to manage four teenagers on an overnight field trip.

For me, another career highlight, though lesser known, is Rabe’s appearance in the 2019 short, A Bad Feeling. The 13-minute-long film, directed by Charlotte Barrett and Sean Fallon, chronicles Rabe and her husband (Eric Ladin) as they attend a Star Wars fan convention, just a day after suffering a miscarriage. The plot is simple, leaving much to the audience and actors’ interpretation. This method of filmmaking can sometimes fall flat on its face, but Rabe’s stellar conviction and commitment to her characters makes it a gut-wrenching pursuit of love and loss.

As I watch her character grapple with the loss of a child, paired with a husband who is so infuriatingly insensitive that I may get hives from talking about it for too long, I feel as if I truly know this woman. That’s another thing Rabe is good at. Though she has never met a majority of the audience that will eventually watch her work, her characters feel like they could easily be your best friend, aunt, or neighbour. And that’s not to say that she doesn’t have a unique, star quality about her, because she does. 

I think what’s so wonderful about her, what sets her apart from other actors in the industry right now, is her ability to feel like any other person that you might know. It makes it easier to sympathise with her characters, and leaves you hungry for more when she’s offscreen.

Rabe is, perhaps, best known for her various roles on American Horror Story, a horror anthology series from FX. She is one of 3 cast members to appear in 8 of the show’s 9 seasons, Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson settling in comfortably alongside her. The show has been breaking television boundaries since it premiered in 2011, and while fans continuously come back for more, I feel that Rabe has yet to receive her due from producers.

The Undoing (HBO)

Time and time again, she has proven that she can (and should) do more than play a supporting character. Though her parts are generally intended to play a backseat role in the grand scheme of the story, she’s almost always a scene stealer. Even when the intended focus lies elsewhere, audiences can’t help but look to Rabe. She’s a polarising figure, commanding the attention of any camera that falls upon her.

The final instalment of The Undoing airs tonight, and I, yet again, feel that Rabe hasn’t been utilised to her full potential. The first episode started out strong, providing her with a fair amount of screen time and an interesting storyline to develop. After the third week in, I noticed this trend begin to fizzle out. As we’ve seen before, her character was pushed to the back, left behind to only reappear when Kidman needs to phone a friend. And even so, during her brief number of scenes, it’s impossible for your eyes to look anywhere else.

Rabe has quite a few projects lined up for 2021, specifically, a leading role in an Amazon series entitled Tell Me Your Secrets. She’ll star alongside her partner, Hamish Linklater, (another actor who faces terrible underappreciation in Hollywood) as well as Amy Brenneman and Enrique Murciano. While I’m bummed that we’ll have to wait a few more months before getting to watch the show, I’m beyond excited over the prospect of getting to see her carry a production on her own.

Regardless of what the role is, if you offer it to Lily Rabe, she’s going to nail it. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that she’s one of Tinseltown’s most versatile talents. I plan to consider myself a fan of hers for years to come. I hope within that time, more people will wake up to just how gifted she truly is.

by Emma Henault

Emma Henault (she/her) is an aspiring writer living in Vermont. In the fall, she’ll begin working towards an English Literature degree in upstate New York. You can find her on Twitter here.

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