Lily Rabe became a household face when she first haunted us -- and Connie Britton -- with her portrayal of Nora Montgomery in the inaugural season, Murder House, of Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy's ever-popular FX anthology show, American Horror Story. Since then, she's played the not-quite-innocent Sister Mary Eunice in the second season, Asylum; Misty Day, who bitch-slapped Emma Roberts' character in Coven; and real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Hotel. It's radio silence, though, on whether she'll return for season six.
"I can't tell you anything," she smirks over Skype. Soon she'll be prepping for her next role -- and her first major leading lady role: Mary Pickford in The First. For now, she waxes poetic about her role of Rachel Stevens in the indie drama Miss Stevens, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 16 (and on Video on Demand Sept. 20), and how Murphy has played a seminal part in her acting career and her life.
"I think that it's actually nice to talk about Ryan when you're talking about a movie like Miss Stevens," she says. "In this film there is this strong, flawed, complicated female character that is driving the story, and you get to experience the story through her eyes. Ryan is someone who is such a champion of women. The roles that he creates for women across the board, from American Horror Story to his upcoming Feud [based on the legendary rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford] and in everything that he does, he has such an incredible sense of women. I think he's so important to film and television, but he's also so important to women. I'm so glad to be one of those women who gets to work with him time and time again."
In Miss Stevens, Rabe portrays an entirely different woman, one far outside the Murphy/Falchuk world. In the sophomore feature and directorial debut from screenwriter Julia Hart, she plays a high school teacher with a temporarily lost soul and a few questionable morals. The storyline sits comfortably in between right and wrong and allows her character the room to waft around in it as well, figuring out how to deal with past trauma over a weekend drama competition with three pithy students.
"There were so many things that I loved about the role," says Rabe, the New York-born-and-bred daughter of veteran actress Jill Clayburgh, who passed away in 2010 from leukemia, and playwright David Rabe, "but I think the thing I loved the most about her was this wonderful style of storytelling that lives in the grey. It wasn't, 'Is she a good teacher? Is she a bad teacher? Is she a good person? Is she a bad person?' Those were not the things we were interested in defining, or trying to solve or answer."
Rabe -- who is well-known on the New York theater scene and earned a Tony nomination for The Merchant of Venice in 2011 -- has played the gamut not only in AHS, but throughout her entire career. However, no one type of role has been her favorite.
"My hope is that my favorite character is the one that I'm playing at the time," she says. "If she's not, then I probably should be doing a different job. If I'm doing something and thinking about someone else, it's probably the wrong relationship that I've signed up for."
Perhaps not surprisingly -- since her struggles parallel Rabe's own with the loss of her mother six years ago -- Miss Stevens has been one of the most important roles that she's done thus far.
"I bet that no matter how many more things I do, she will remain so," posits Rabe, talking about both herself and her latest role. "The scale of what traumas or setbacks can be is so varied, but to me that's a human experience. If you get stuck, you can stay there forever if something doesn't happen to unlock you. I don't think we get over anything, we just find a way to cellularly incorporate it, so that our molecules are a little bit different, and we learn how to move forward carrying the thing that's happened to us, as opposed to just stopping."