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Lily Rabe (‘The Great Lillian Hall’) on how working again with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates ‘deepened my relationship with them’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Lily Rabe had worked with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates before, in various seasons of the long-running FX hit “American Horror Story.” But when she got an opportunity to do it again in the HBO movie “The Great Lillian Hall,” she jumped at it. “I had such a tremendous experience working with them previously,” she says. “It just felt incredible to come back together for the telling of this particular story. Something I’m always chasing as an actor is a kind of shorthand, and the three of us already had it. So that was really lucky. I felt that it really deepened my relationship with both of them, doing this movie.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Lange portrays the Lillian of the title, a widowed legendary Broadway star fearfully facing the ticking clock of time and an uncertain future following a dementia diagnosis – experiencing wrenching memory lapses while rehearsing to play the lead in a new production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Bates portrays her loyal longtime assistant. Rabe plays Hall’s daughter Margaret, who grew up competing for her absentee parents’ attention. It might seem on the surface that there’s an autobiographical element to Rabe’s portrayal, as she was descended from show business royalty in real life. Her parents are the Tony-winning playwright and screenwriter David Rabe and the late great actress Jill Clayburgh, a two-time Oscar nominee for “An Unmarried Woman” (1979) and “Starting Over” (1980). But Rabe insists she had “quite, unusually present parents, particularly my mother.”

She continues, “My mother turned down parts that you just wouldn’t believe. People won Oscars (off of the roles she declined) and made a lot of money. But she never regretted it. At that time, me and my brother were little, and she wanted to be home. I came along, I think, kind of at the height of her fame (in 1982), but she was just really focused on being home. (Clayburgh died at 66 in 2010 following a long battle with leukemia.) So I don’t relate to (Margaret) in that way, but I did relate to her because the movie is incredibly personal.”

Pressed to reveal any of the prominent roles her mother was offered and ultimately turned down to stay home with the kids, Rabe finally replies, “I’m just going to say it. ‘Norma Rae’ was one of them.” The part ultimately went to Sally Field, who won the lead actress Academy Award for it in 1980 over Clayburgh. “Me and my father have a funny saying now,” she adds. “When I’m thinking about doing a job or not, we like to say, ‘Well, it’s not ‘Norma Rae”.”

Portraying Margaret is a particularly interesting role for Rabe in that despite having been shunted aside by her mother in favor of career glory, “She doesn’t have self-pity. She’s not aware of her situation, which I think is how we survive. Looking in, it’s so clear that she is suffering, and has been (for a long time). And certainly, it’s so clear to her husband. But she’s not in a constant state of evaluating (how she grew up) or comparing it to anything else. It was her childhood, and I don’t think she would trade it.”

The scene that so defines the character happens more than halfway into “The Great Lillian Hall” when several people, including Margaret, learn about Lillian’s dementia diagnosis and are understandably devastated. In Margaret’s case, the feelings are even more complicated, undercut with her residual abandonment issues and being constantly left on the outside looking in. Yet despite being so devastating to witness for the audience, playing it didn’t require a ton of emotional preparation because “I felt safe in that company,” Rabe reasons.

“So much of what happens in that scene is the surprise of not only getting the information, but then having to process it so quickly with all of these witnesses who know you so intimately – and with someone who is kind of the great love of her life, her mother. I think the three of us (Lange, Bates and Rabe) felt buoyed by one another, but there wasn’t much planning. It kind of just happened.”

Rabe also feels privileged to have been a part of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” anthology world for more than a decade, playing a variety of roles going back to the first season in 2011. “Ryan was saying to a bunch of actors, ‘Come into this world. You can come and go. You’ll get to play all of these different parts.’ It’s been like a repertory theater company, in a way. For an actor, it checks a lot of boxes.”

“The Great Lillian Rabe” streams on Max.

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