The actress Lily Rabe speaks the Bard’s tongue as though it were her native language. While most of her contemporaries do Shakespeare, she simply inhabits it with an uncanny ease and naturalism. This first became apparent when she starred as Portia in the Public Theater’s 2010 production of Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theater (it later transferred to Broadway and earned her a Tony award nomination). She also tackled Rosalind in the company’s As You Like It in 2012.
Rabe’s talents aren’t limited to Elizabethan texts. The 31-year-old is equally at home in more contemporary plays like Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan. She has also appeared in the past three seasons of American Horror Story on FX and will star in the upcoming ABC sci-fi series The Whispers and the Bobby Fisher biopic Pawn Sacrifice.
Through July 6th, she is back in her Shakespearean element as the strong-willed Beatrice opposite her real life beau Hamish Linklater’s Benedick in the Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing. **
You have said that five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to play Beatrice. Why and what has changed since then? She’s a grown-up and I definitely feel like much more of a grown-up now than I did five years ago. I think I would have been reaching for a lot of things five years ago that feel very close now. She’s been through a lot and then she’s spent time on her own and, five years ago, I wasn’t very good at spending time with myself. I always had somebody, all of my relationships were so intense, from friendships to romantic relationships to work to being with my mother [the late actress Jill Clayburgh, who died in 2010] non-stop. People would say “I’m going out to dinner alone.” And “I’m going to the movies alone.” It just felt like “Why would you want to do that?” And now it’s the best thing in the world. Beatrice has a very strong sense of herself and she’s very independent.
You and Hamish have been together in Merchant of Venice and Theresa Rebeck's play Seminar and now this. You have amazing chemistry.
We love acting together. It’s really one of the great, great joys playing opposite him. And I’ve been so lucky to have it over and over. It’s something we would like to continue. We used to joke that it’s just because we’re both tall, but I hope it’s more than that…
Has your real life romance informed your performance?
Oh my god, I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question. With Shakespeare, the way he writes these parts, it’s to bring everything of yourself as an actor. And I don’t mean to play yourself, but to bring your soul and life experience and put it on the effing stage and if you don’t you’re doing yourself a real disservice. That’s the ride. We were laughing yesterday about what it will be like when we’re 40 or 80 playing these parts.
Performing outdoors in the summer must be a challenge. How does the rain and heat affect your performance?
You sweat a lot. There’s nothing I love more than just peeling my costume off at the end of the night because you’ve sweat through it. I love it more when it’s not so comfortable. Having to put the show on hold for rain isn’t ideal, but it’s fine because the audience is so amazing—they stay with it and they don’t leave. And then they’re so happy when you’re back and you’re so excited to see them again. So I’m not saying I root for the show to be held, but I love the rain and the wind and the heat and the bugs in your mouth. We’re all there outside in the middle of the park and it shouldn’t be totally comfortable. I’m excited for a little bit of heat where you think you might pass out!