Lily Rabe is the queen of thrillers (American Horror Story and The Undoing, anyone?). She is also the queen of whimsical, romantic dresses. (The proof is in those The Vampire’s Wife and Batsheva numbers.) For these two reasons, we have long loved watching the actress on- and off-screen. Lucky for us, we get another generous helping of each this month with the premiere of Rabe’s latest project, Tell Me Your Secrets, and her corresponding press appearances—both of which, I can attest, do not disappoint.
If you devoured The Undoing—let’s be honest, who hasn’t?—you’re going to want to tune into Tell Me Your Secrets, an equally delicious suspense drama centered around a trio of questionable characters. The main players are Emma (Rabe), who once loved a dangerous killer, Mary (Amy Brenneman), a grieving mother who will stop at nothing to find her daughter’s murderer, and John (Hamish Linklater), a former serial rapist seeking redemption. How they relate to one another and the truth of their sordid pasts comes to light across 10 gripping episodes. In short: It’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride that will have you second-guessing who is actually good and bad all the way up to its final minutes.
I sat down with Rabe via Zoom to talk all about the show (no spoilers!), the makings of a superb thriller, the success of The Undoing, and how her character Sylvia’s own incredible coat moment came to be.
Tiziano Lugli; STYLING: Khaite dress
Here you are with two delicious back-to-back thrillers, The Undoing and now Tell Me Your Secrets. In your opinion, what makes for a great suspenseful TV series?
I think something that is so important for a great thriller is you really have to care about the characters, and you have to be invested in the relationships. And I think you have to have a great voice at the helm driving the show, whether that’s the director or the writer, or sometimes, it’s the same person doing both. But having a specific lense through which you are experiencing the story is so important.
So with The Undoing and Tell Me Your Secrets, what were those specific elements that really stood out to you?
With The Undoing, Susanne Bier was always someone I wanted to work with. I think she is such a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller, and I loved that she would be directing the whole piece and that it would be told with her at the helm. I was so interested in her investigation of that world of the Upper East Side and experiencing these characters through her eyes. And then with Tell Me Your Secrets, it was Harriet Warner who wrote and is the creator of the show, and I found her voice so unique, and the way that she takes care of her characters and takes care of the relationships, everything is meticulous. No one is ever a throwaway character or just a foil. I think Harriet also exercises great restraint in her writing, where the audience is handled with great respect, and you are never being spoon-fed anything. And same with The Undoing. That’s what I love as a viewer. I don’t love shows where there is a lot of hand-holding. I like to be trusted by the show. I felt that that was very true for both of these projects.
Photo:Skip Bolen/Amazon Studios
Another through line of The Undoing and Tell Me Your Secrets is executive producer Bruna Papandrea. You have personally worked with Papandrea on three projects now. What keeps you coming back?
I met Bruna doing a movie called All Good Things that Andrew Jarecki directed with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. I loved her then, and I am so grateful my path keeps leading me to her. I’m just a real fan of repeat business with the right person. I love having a creative shorthand with someone, and I love finding people who share a sensibility, and I’m so glad Bruna is one of those people who now is becoming someone who I hope to work with again and again. I feel like when you cross that threshold three times you are like, “Okay, this is someone I’m just going to keep going with because it’s such a satisfying thing to build that trust with someone and then continue to work together.” I think Bruna, specifically with these female-driven stories, is so fearless, and I just love the stories she wants to bring forward into the world, both as a viewer and as an actor. Also, as a producer, she is incredibly caring and supportive. It’s always about the work. It’s always about supporting the voices that she is giving space to and shining a light on.
There was so much hype around The Undoing at the end of last year. Who were you most surprised/excited to see was a fan of the show?
Oh, gosh. This is not a person in the public eye, but a lot of my girlfriends’ dads became obsessed with the show. Some of the dads I knew, and some of them I didn’t know, and I was getting email forwards and screenshots of texts from their dads who were all just deeply invested in their theories and wanted answers. That was something that happened enough times where I was like, “Oh, this is a little bit of a thing.”
Photo:Tiziano Lugli; STYLING: Brock Collection dress
Nicole Kidman’s coats were a big talking point of The Undoing, but Sylvia was not without her own chic fashion moments. Do you have a favorite look from the show?
She has the runner-up coat. I got a lot of texts about that coat like, “What is that coat? Which season is it? Did you keep it? Where can I get it? Would you be mad if I get one, too?” Signe Sejlund, who was the costume designer, is such a genius and so incredibly chic as a woman and so detailed, so collaborative, so specific, not cutting any corners. I just loved working with her. I remember the first day that I shot. We had to make a very quick decision because [the director] was getting a shot that I think initially maybe hadn’t been on the schedule, so we didn’t have time for a proper fitting. I landed in New York and ran to set to shoot. It was an outside shot, and we had to pick the coat, and there was this row of camel coats, and we both just immediately landed on the same one, pulled it, and put it on. I think I picked the sunglasses. I was like, “What are those sunglasses?” She handed them to me off of her head as I walked out the door. I think they were Celine. And my coat was Max Mara.
Let’s talk about Secrets. As a viewer, you want to like Emma but are constantly questioning her innocence throughout the entire 10 episodes. What about this character jumped off the page at you?
Well, that in a lot of ways. I am always interested in a sort of unreliable narrator. This is something that happened in The Undoing, too, where every single person is questioned. In Tell Me Your Secrets, it’s never clear with any of [the characters] along the way who can be trusted and who is sort of good, bad, in-between. It lives in the gray area of these moral questions of who is in the light and who is in the dark. I think everyone is in both places, and that is what is really compelling about it. It’s not about creating, in both shows, a bunch of likable characters. It’s about creating compelling characters. For Emma specifically, not only is she someone who perhaps shouldn’t be trusted, but she doesn’t trust herself. So [she’s] having to battle that. She’s trying to make decisions and trying to move forward and yet doesn’t trust anyone. And that’s so fraught and specific and a wonderful thing to get to play.
I want to go back to the wardrobe for a moment because it’s such a big part of character development. Are you someone who likes to be involved in those creative decisions?
In every possible way. It’s such an important part of it. Working with the costume designer and being a part of every decision in that way is so important because, as it is in our daily lives whether you care about clothes or not, it’s all a part of our self-expression. No matter what it means to you, you are putting it on your body. So that is such an integral part of building a character and expressing a character and moving through the world as that character. For Tell Me Your Secrets, the costume designer is actually someone I had worked with before. Her name is Elizabeth Warn. We had done a movie together called Miss Stevens. I loved her and recommended her for the job. I was like, “I just have a feeling that this is the right person for the job,” and [she and Harriet] had a huge connection, and she got it so completely. [The Undoing and Tell Me Your Secrets characters] couldn’t be more different—where Sylvia is, at any given moment, probably wearing thousands of dollars of clothes, Emma, in total, is probably wearing $3 on her body. But that’s such a part of it, too. In the same way that Sylvia is not going to be getting knockoffs of things, it’s the other side of the coin with Emma. This is not a person who has money, so I can’t be running around in a pair of jeans that cost $100. So finding the things that were authentic and digging through piles, that’s what Elizabeth was doing. Something with Emma that was also really challenging in wonderful ways is when I go to Pete’s cabin. A lot of the clothes that I’m wearing are his. [We had to] find clothes that didn’t fit me and that were men’s clothes. The difference between Emma and Karen, that was something we had to work so closely on together, and [Elizabeth] was just brilliant every step of the way.
Following Tell Me Your Secrets, you have the Barry Jenkins limited series The Underground Railroad coming later this spring. Can you tell me a little about working on that project and your character Ethel Wells?
Yes, that was such an incredible piece to shoot and to be a part of, and Barry is so brilliant. You know, that was a book that I had loved, and I was so excited to be a part of Barry’s telling of that story and his adaptation, and the role is incredible. I don’t know what is or isn’t under wraps about that show, but I can’t wait for it to be shared with the world. Working with Barry was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had in my life, truly.
Photo:Tiziano Lugli; STYLING: A.L.C. and Khaite
You don’t seem to let virtual press days deter you from a statement fashion moment. I loved your looks from The Undoing tour, which included a few whimsical The Vampire’s Wife numbers. How are you approaching the press for Tell Me Your Secrets?
Hamish [Linklater] was working on something in Canada, and we were there for a large part of The Undoing press, and listen, I love clothing, and I think the clothes are such a big part of doing press. I think Jess [Paster] and I felt like we should do what we would normally do and find things that we love. I guess, probably the first day, it did feel strange not leaving [the house], especially because I don’t think I wear shoes anymore, let alone heels. That piece of what it is to promote something and the fashion part of it is something that I really love. So that felt right to not be dressing for waist-up Zoom and just think, What would I wear? So we’ve been doing the same thing here [in Los Angeles]. Last week, we started, and there was beautiful The Row and Oscar de la Renta and Christian Dior and Sophie Buhai, who I love. I wore some of her stuff last week. And then, we’ll do a whole other bunch this weekend. But yeah, I have designers that I love and am still very loyal to. Again, I’m such a fan of repeat business in fashion as well. When you find something that works and that you love, I love going back for more. It’s always so great to discover new designers as well. That reminds me, on The Undoing, Jane Mayle is a designer that I’ve loved personally for years, and she has become a friend. She is someone I sent Signe, the costume designer. I said, “Hey, if you have time on a weekend, I think you personally will just fall in love with her pieces.” So she went to Jane’s shop on a weekend and bought some pieces for herself but then came back with some pieces for Sylvia as well. I’m definitely wearing some Jane Mayle in the trial, and my bag is Jane’s as well.
You mentioned your stylist Jessica Paster. What do you enjoy most about working with her?
There are so many things that I love about Jess, but my favorite thing I love about her is that I know she’ll always be honest with me, and I can be completely honest with her. I don’t have to mince words if I don’t like something. I always really appreciate that direct honesty. I also think she’s so supportive and so full of love. Jess has a really big heart, and that’s how she approaches fashion in my experience. And she loves what she does. But I do really love that there’s no skirting around anything. And she’ll say sometimes, “You know, just do it. Just try it and send me a picture. I know you are going to hate it.” And then, sometimes, I don’t. She can be really direct with me, and it’s a two-way street, and I really love that.
I can’t wait to see the looks that you put together. Hopefully, you will document it on Instagram.
I remember Hamish was taking some pictures for Jess of a Vampire's Wife dress when we were in Vancouver, and I think he said something like, “Well come on, this isn’t for Vogue. Just take the picture.” And the picture he took ended up in Vogue. But he actually is the greatest photographer. He just never likes to do it. I have to sweet-talk him into it because no one else is in the house!
Tell Me Your Secrets is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Photographer: Tiziano Lugli
Stylist: Jessica Paster
Hairstylist: Bradley Leake
Makeup Artist: Jenna Kristina