Lily Rabe on 'The Undoing' and 'American Horror Story' Season 10

The Undoing is proof that HBO has perfected the art of the binge-worthy limited series. From writer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and director Susanne Bier (Bird Box), the drama is set in the world of New York City’s one-percenters — specifically, on wealthy therapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant) — and chips away at their picture-perfect veneer to expose the rot beneath. When a mother from their son’s elite private school is found murdered, the series twists and turns into a thrilling whodunit set against the backdrop of fundraising galas and million-dollar brownstones.

“They sent me the first two episodes, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll just read one of them,’ but definitely locked the door for two hours and couldn’t stop reading,” laughs co-star Lily Rabe. She knew immediately that wanted to be part of the world Bier and Kelley were creating,

Rabe plays Grace’s closest friend Sylvia, rounding out an ensemble that also includes Donald Sutherland, Edgar Ramírez and Noma Dumezweni. Sylvia is introduced in the first episode, swanning into a PTA meeting wearing a beautiful coat and aiming a cutting barb at another mom. That initial impression — of the WASP in a designer wardrobe, of the rich bitch, for lack of a better troupe — proves far less shaded than who Sylvia really is. She’s sharp and thoughtful and a true friend in Grace’s time of need.

“While the clothing would have been fun — and I love clothing — it wouldn’t have been enough to want to play the part. What I was interested in is all of these things are going on,” Rabe tells ET. “All those delicious things about who she is on the Upper East Side — and I do think there’s something about her where she’s at the center of a lot of the juice. She’s getting a lot of incoming phone calls — but even though she’s so adept at functioning in this world perfectly, it’s not actually her soul’s truest sweet spot.”

Rabe had not known Kidman, with whom she shares most of her scenes, before filming began. “But we were quite fast friends, and I felt a real kindred spirit with her immediately,” she says. “It was really wonderful to be in process with her. Because of how present she is, how curious she is, everything else disappears when you are in a scene with an actor like that.”

“Those are the moments that we’re chasing. When everything else falls away and all it is is who you’re sitting across the table from and what’s happening between these two people and how that story unfolds and can surprise you and should surprise you,” Rabe says. “[Nicole] is one of those women who comes into your life and changes it. Susanna, too, they’re two women that I carry with me in my heart now.”

The Undoing, adapted from the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is billed as a 6-part limited series — as it will inevitable be considered come next year’s Emmy Awards — though it’s hard to envision HBO not meeting a demand for further seasons. Call it the Big Little Lies effect. “At the end of the show, while audiences will be very satisfied with the experience, I definitely think we’ll want more time with these characters,” Rabe considers.

“Listen, I’ve been in the Ryan Murphy world,” she adds as a disclaimer, “where you’ve played a character who dies, and you think, ‘I’ll never get to play that character again.’ Then sometimes you do. So, all bets are off.”

Rabe will soon head off to shoot American Horror Story. Although she’s not been a regular since Roanoke — having appeared in one-offs or small arcs in the likes of Apocalypse and 1984 — Rabe seems to be one of the main players in the upcoming 10th season, alongside Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters. As for what the season is actually about — aliens, maybe? — Rabe won’t say.

As an aside, considering Rabe is a mainstay in the Murphy-verse and Kidman has now worked with the power director on Netflix’s The Prom, Rabe imagines all three will collaborate sooner or later. “We were even sitting around talking about a play, which feels a little bit further away in terms of the theater recovering from this time.”

American Horror Story won’t be Rabe’s first time back on set following shutdowns due to the coronavirus, having returned to director Barry Jenkins’ Amazon miniseries, The Underground Railroad, which had only a few days left to complete under new COVID-19 safety precautions. “It was really heartening,” she says of the experience. “It was surreal in a way, having our shields and masks.” 

“So much of what we do is about being close to one another and being with the crew, but what I really felt was even keeping distance from people, you don’t want to keep a distance from the work. It’s like this umbilical cord between everybody. It keeps you together even if you can’t physically be near anyone but your scene partner,” Rabe explains. “Between action and cut, all I felt was, we are going to get to continue to make things. We are going to get to do our work. It is going to be OK.”

The Undoing premieres Sunday, Oct. 25 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.

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