Lily Rabe and Jesse Plemons on “The Big Alien in the Room”
Lily Rabe grew up surrounded by performance, with a playwright father and actress mother, so it was almost foretold that she would one day join the family business. A favorite of Ryan Murphy’s, she’s appeared in nine seasons of American Horror Story, and during the peak of the pandemic, when everyone was glued to their TV screens, she brought an air of stability—and suspicion—to Nicole Kidman’s unravelling life in HBO’s mega-popular whodunit The Undoing. Her latest role comes opposite Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in George Clooney’s adaptation of the J.R. Moehringer memoir The Tender Bar. Rabe plays a single mom to JR, the boy at the center of the story who is surrounded, and mentored, by his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) and the patrons of the Long Island Bar he works at. To mark the film’s release on Amazon Prime, Rabe connected with Jesse Plemons, her costar in the upcoming HBO Max series Love and Death, to talk about their love-hate relationship with the camera and why acting can be soul-crushing and rejuvenating all at once.
JESSE PLEMONS: How’s life?
LILY RABE: I’m just hanging out, icing my foot.
PLEMONS: Is it broken?
RABE: That’s what they’re telling me. I really tried to argue, but the doctor said he was certain, and he’s a medical professional.
PLEMONS: Arguing with doctors, classic. I watched The Tender Bar last night and you were incredible, as always, but I felt like it was a part I hadn’t seen you play. I texted you saying this, but I thought your character fit such a specific archetype—the supportive, sweet mother—that I love so much. How did you find her, and what was that project like?
RABE: Let me first say that I watched The Power of the Dog last night, and I want to talk to you about that after this—I’m going to call you. [Laughs] What I loved so much about that character was that daffiness. When I read the script, I had such a feeling about it. We’ve seen movies with single moms, and we’ve read books about them, and it’s always compelling, but I was so interested in how little self pity she shows. She has this wonderful default buoyancy that I was so attracted to. It’s something that my own mother had in such a remarkable way—that quality that’s so genuine, it’s like in her bone marrow to just have hope—so it felt very personal to me. She gets knocked down, but then she gets back up. George [Clooney], he has some of that in him. He’s a very optimistic person, and he’s also so funny. He gave me space to explore this role by saying, “You’re not playing for comedy in the movie, but there is wonderful room for it.” I felt like there was so much space to let both feelings coexist. I never felt George was trying to carve out a moment as one thing or the other. I’m so allergic to the question, “Is this sad or funny?” It’s both! It’s both every day, all the time.
PLEMONS: All of that comes across. I agree with what you’re saying. There’s a trope of the single mother with a stiff upper lip, or putting up a tough front. But what’s so endearing about her is that she seems so honest: she’s purely herself, too. Those little moments were what Kristen [Dunst, Plemons’ wife] and I loved so much. Like when you’re sending off the letter.
RABE: As we were filming the moment with the letter, I was like, “This will never be in the movie.” With George, we’d do two or three takes and I’d say to myself, “Well, it won’t be that one,” but it always was! Like when Ben [Affleck] yanks me aside at the graduation ceremony, it was a full Abbott and Costello moment. We were like, “That was so nice, but it won’t be in the movie.” And again, it was.
PLEMONS: And the dialects, too. Everyone was really dialed into that very specific, tricky Long Island accent. How did you pull that off?
RABE: I have this guy who I work with. When I was doing Shakespeare in the Park, there was always a dialect person or a voice person around. They’re wonderful, and sometimes I find it very helpful, and other times I do better work on my own. I met this guy, Tom Jones, working on one of the plays I did there, and something just clicked for me. He does these warm ups with me that are so grounding, where I have to cry and scream a lot, and my voice felt so strong through the whole run of the show. The thing about performing in the park is that it’s not a controlled environment, so it can be particularly hard on your voice. When it comes to dialects, he has this remarkable way of finding useful recordings. I auditioned for [The Tender Bar] with the accent, so I had to get it together pretty quickly.
PLEMONS: You have to teach me these exercises. You got your start in theater, and to me that feels like a completely different world. I’m curious whether you approach film work differently?
RABE: I did theater from a very young age, and I was so in love with it. What I love most about the theater is also the most painful thing about it: It goes away. You create it, and then it evaporates until it’s just living in memory. It’s like you’re in an intense love affair as you’re doing the play, and you’re falling in love every night with this group of people. And then, one day, it’s over—the marriage ends. Then these new strangers are going to come in and you’re going to have this incredibly intimate experience with them. I also love that in the theater there are no close-ups, because so many things can live in a wide shot. I’m constantly like, “Why are we zooming in? We know what’s happening here!” It’s my biggest allergy in acting—when actors are like, “Camera, help me indicate what my character is doing so that I can make the people watching feel a certain way!” Indicating is my least favorite thing to watch. If I ever do it in a scene with you, kick me.
PLEMONS: Some people are great at that, knowing where the camera is and how to play to it.
RABE Are you?
PLEMONS: No! I do everything I can to pretend that it’s not there. [Laughs]
RABE: It’s like this big alien in the room with us, and it’s going to be our container, but I never want to boss it around.
PLEMONS: At a certain point in my life, I had a dream of a camera cart Trojan horse: this big, domineering, scary thing. Since then, I never make love to the camera, as they say.
RABE: Does it ever relax you, though, to have the camera there with you?
PLEMONS: That’s always the game for me, taking everything that’s happening in your life that day, and finding a way to ground yourself and accept whatever the hell is happening. Have you seen The Tragedy of Macbeth yet?
RABE: No, but I can’t wait to see it.
PLEMONS: You’re lucky with kids to get through a full movie. We watched about half of it. Oh my gosh, it’s beautifully shot and there are some intense close-ups.
RABE: Are you going to finish it tonight?
PLEMONS: Yeah. I was talking with Kirsten about it, and she was like, “What is it about these plays that have been done so many times that keeps them interesting?” I couldn’t answer that, because my theater experience is limited, but there is something, I would imagine, about playing a role that’s been done a million times and finding your own voice within it that is electrifying.
RABE: With Shakespeare specifically, there’s always a little bit of an eye roll when you hear someone say, “Did you see his Hamlet? Did you see her Beatrice?” But there’s a real reason for saying that, because you really cannot create the same performance twice. Something in your soul gets unlocked by saying those lines and playing those parts. I understand why so many actors go back to those roles, because you’re never done.
PLEMONS: I did a Macbeth walking play at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh when I was 16, and as I was watching The Tragedy of Macbeth this week, I got all these flashbacks. I know what you mean about those words, there is something hypnotic in them. I’m curious how your relationship with work has changed since having kids. If it has, how so? Other than missing them terribly when you’re gone.
RABE: It has changed, and it’s better. It’s less agonizing. Do you feel that way?
PLEMONS: I do. I wouldn’t have expected that, but that was kind of the upshot.
RABE: It’s so hard not to take this work home with you, and that’s the incredible thing about having children. Also, because of breastfeeding, it wasn’t even about leaving home. They were on a set, in my trailer, and hungry.
PLEMONS: They don’t give a shit about your scene.
RABE: They don’t give a flying fuck what state of mind I’m in or what state of mind I’m about to be in. They’re like, “I’m hungry! Give me what I need!” What parenthood did for me was turn the joy dial up across the board, because there’s much less space for all the doubtful voices in my head anymore.
PLEMONS: At this point, do you suspect, given your daughters’ natures, whether they might be inclined to do this? Our oldest, I feel like he’s got the makings of a cliche actor. He’s so sweet, but I wouldn’t be surprised—he has the attitude already.
RABE: How do you feel about it? Does it make you nervous?
PLEMONS: I obviously wouldn’t stand in the way of him doing what he wants to do, but I would definitely let him know everything that I’ve learned up to this point—the good and the bad. You don’t have that same feeling?
RABE: I’m a total hypocrite, because when I look back at my own childhood, all I was doing was putting on plays and forcing my parents to watch, making my poor little brother dress up as whatever I needed. When I decided I wanted to take this on, my parents were like, “Don’t do it.” But I’m sure they were saying that because I was going to do it anyway. They tried to help and shelter us from Hollywood so that we felt like everything was possible. I’m sure I will do some version of that with my own children, where I sit for six-plus hours, captive, and watch them put on plays. I will encourage them to pursue other things, because I want the choice to be truly theirs. But if it genuinely gives them the joy that it has given me, then of course I’ll be in the front row. How do you grapple with this work day-to-day?
PLEMONS: It’s complicated, and it depends on the day you ask me. Some days I leave set and have never felt more alive. Other days my soul feels a little crushed. But I assume that’s true for a lot of occupations.
RABE: Often I feel both at the same time, and it took me a long time to say it. I was acting for a long time before I called myself an actor, and I’m sure that plays into how I think about the work now.
PLEMONS: In an alternate universe, what else could you have imagined yourself doing?
RABE: Well Jesse, sometimes I think I would have made a very good therapist. What do you think about that?
PLEMONS: I mean, given the way that you’re trying to turn all these questions on me, maybe you’re right. [Both laugh]
RABE: I was going say, “I have such romantic feelings about my therapist,” but that’s not what I mean at all. I’ve never had romantic feelings about my therapist! [Laughs]. I had one for a very long time in New York, and the walk to her office in the West Village, the smell of her furniture, everything about visiting her was so visceral. She was Freudian, like it took years before I knew a single thing about her. I never ultimately did. Then I’ve had other kinds of therapists, but I’m obsessed with it. There is something about it I just admire so much. Also, it’s interesting, again, it’s incredibly intimate, but it’s a very specific relationship and I’m very drawn to it.
PLEMONS: I think that makes sense. Okay, finally, if heaven exists, what would you like to hear god say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
RABE: Did you write this question?
PLEMONS: No! It’s James Lipton. I think it’s just the best way to end an interview.
RABE: Yeah, that’s pretty good.
PLEMONS: Well, it was a pleasure.
RABE: Thanks for doing this. Miss you, talk later!
PLEMONS: Talk later.