Set in 1964, the FX drama series American Horror Story: Asylum takes viewers into Briarcliff, a haven for the criminally insane, ruled with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun with a troubled past. Inside this locked down facility, danger lurks around every corner, whether it’s a doctor who loves to torture, flesh eating creatures in the forest, alien experimentation or the serial killer Bloody Face, and no one is safe. From co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the show also stars Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes and Lizzie Brochere.
During this recent interview, actress Lily Rabe talked about her reaction to her character’s fate this season, exploring the light and dark sides of Sister Mary Eunice, how much fun she found the stunts, how she approached playing a woman possessed by the devil, the toughest aspects of the role, her high points this season, working with this talented ensemble, her favorite storylines, what most surprised her about this season, working in such a dark environment, and her hope that she’ll return for future seasons. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
LILY RABE: I had some sense, yes. I knew that she probably wouldn’t have a very happy ending, so I did have a sense. And then, as we went along, the specifics of how that was all going to happen became clearer.
What was it like to explore the light and dark sides of a character like Sister Mary Eunice?
RABE: The way Ryan and I really talked about the death scene was that it’s really an assisted suicide. Her situation really wasn’t survivable, in the sense that, even if they had done some sort of exorcism or something, whatever might be left of that girl was so damaged and destroyed that death became her only way out. Playing that through, once the possession happened, was such a wonderful challenge. It was a dance to live between both the lightness and the darkness existing, at the same time, in that battle, and then losing that battle.
Were there any scenes that you just dreaded doing?
RABE: The cremation scene was very, very difficult for me. When I read it, I knew it was going to be tricky and a little tough, but it was much harder than I had even imagined it would be. But other than that, I really like when I read a scene and it scares me. That makes me excited. Even singing along with an ear bud was such a thrill. The director gave me the whole room. He had it set up so that they could just shoot the whole room, and I could really have total freedom to do whatever, and that’s really so much fun. So, for the most part, I really like when I read a scene that scares me and makes me sweat a little bit, thinking about doing it. That’s usually a good sign to me.
RABE: Well, they let me do the whole thing. I was on wires. My stunt double was someone I had worked with before. The throw and the fall was a lot of fun. I really like that kind of thing.
During the cremation, was there actually heat near you, or was that added later?
RABE: No, the fire wasn’t hot. That was added in. There was a lot of smoke. Truthfully, I don’t know how those special effects people do it. It was rather terrifying the situation, but I wasn’t worried about getting burned.
Why do you think Dr. Arden chose to kill himself with Sister Mary Eunice?
RABE: I always thought of it as the perfect ending for the two of them. It seemed so fitting. Of course, James Cromwell and I were always sitting around talking about Shakespeare, like big theater dorks, and we felt like we got a beautiful Shakespearian ending. It seemed like the completely perfect end to their very, very, very bizarre and complicated and dark love story. I think he really had loved her for so long, and had been so devoted to her, and that was maybe just the last straw for him. I think her death was her most heroic moment, and really her only choice, at that point. Taking Dr. Arden away with her is certainly not a bad thing for everybody else who is left alive, although there’s still a whole lot of stuff to work out and a lot of evil left around, that’s for sure.
RABE: The way that I approached it really was to figure out who Sister Mary Eunice was and not really worry about the possession or the devil because, to me, so much of what a possession is, is specific to the person. So, to play the dark side or underbelly of someone, or have their shadow taking over, it’s really about knowing who that person is before that event has taken place, or this dark thing has taken over. It was more about figuring out who she really was, through and through.
Did you study Catholicism or demon possession, for this role?
RABE: I did, yes. I was very interested in learning about that, and there’s so much information out there.
What was the toughest aspect of this role, for you?
RABE: Some of those moments where she was just absolutely, completely taken over by the devil, and throwing these actors around and slitting their throats and stabbing them ruthlessly. I’ve been the victim a lot, so I’ve often played the person who’s getting raped or murdered or abused. And so, to actually be raping and murdering and abusing people is a whole different kind of challenge, and one that was very difficult, at times. Sometimes I would go home from work and just stare at the wall for a couple of hours. But, I can’t complain. Whatever knocks you out working is the kind of work that I want to be doing because it’s always those challenges that are the most exciting, and the things I hope to get to keep doing in my work.
RABE: Oh gosh, it was one high point after another. I could never pick. I had so much fun with my relationship with Jessica [Lange]. All of the scenes were really an incredible thrill to play and figure out, especially the ones where Eunice is reached by Sister Jude, for a moment, and there are flashes of her still being inside there. The truth is that, in all of it, I felt her there, even when she was being completely overpowered. Those moments of release were really special to get to do, and a lot of fun. I don’t know if fun is the right word, but it was a wild thrill to play to do such horrible, horrible things to people.
What was it like to work with Joseph Fiennes?
RABE: Oh, I had such a wonderful time with Joseph. He’s such a wonderful guy, and so generous and so much fun to act with. We didn’t have so much to do together, at the beginning of the season, but we ended up having so much to do, in those last few episodes. I had a great time with him. I think he’s so special.
RABE: It’s incredibly appealing. It’s this wonderful opportunity to work with the same group of people – the same actors, the same crew, the same creators, the same writers – and be able to have this home that you get to come back to. But then, to be playing a different character is really an actor’s dream come true. You can go away for a season and come back, do a few episodes, or do the full season. There’s so many ways for it to exist, and it’s really a thrilling company to be a part of. Ryan thinks of it like using the model of a rep theatre company, and I think he’s such a genius to be doing that. I certainly don’t know of anything that’s been done like it before, in television. Ryan seems to constantly be pioneering so many things.
What was it like to work with someone as iconic as Jessica Lange?
RABE: I had an amazing time. She’s an incredible actress. She’s got an unbelievably amazing work ethic. She’s generous. She’s present. She’s everything you could want in a team partner, and she’s also a really great woman. She’s a lot of fun, and I felt very close to her, very quickly. I felt very comfortable with her and safe, and that’s always important, especially when you’re doing difficult things. To have that with Jessica, especially with what we had to go through together and put each other through, was invaluable.
RABE: My storyline with Jessica was perhaps the most powerful to me because it’s the most tragic. It’s actually the one that involved the most love, even though Jude was very cruel to Eunice, in the beginning. I always believed that that cruelty was coming out of a place of love and a place of seeing Mary Eunice’s potential and knowing that she wasn’t living it. So, where we started and where we ended up is probably the one that was the most powerful for me. But, I loved my relationship with James [Cromwell]. I even had a great side plot with Spivey. Mark Conseulos is so amazing. It’s such an abundance of amazing actors that you get the chance to work with while you’re doing the show.
Was there anything this season that really surprised you, when it all came together?
RABE: Well, there was a lot of mystery. You had to be constantly taking a tremendous leap of faith and just staying present, in the moment, of whatever the scene was because you don’t know exactly where that turn is going to end up, or what the next episode is going to bring. You have these landmark things that you know about, but within the nuance of the storylines, there was a certain amount of mystery. I didn’t watch the show while it was airing because it was too hard to be shooting Episode 7 and watching Episode 3, or however it worked out. My brain was getting really scrambled, so I had to wait until the season had wrapped, but we definitely gout our handful of surprises, too, that’s for sure.
What was the atmosphere like on set, working in an environment like this?
RABE: It is a dark world to live in, but the thing that made it so wonderful, and a place that I was excited to drive to every morning for work, was the people and the crew. It was a very close group of actors, and an amazing group of writers. When Ryan is at the helm, he’s one of those people who just creates a great work environment. The leader really has to set the tone for something and make everyone feel safe, and he does that in such an incredible way. Although we were working crazy hours and shooting crazy things, it was always a really nice place to go to work. I’ve never done a show as a regular before, and it reminded me a bit of doing a play, in the sense that you go to the theatre every day and you have your dressing room, the crew and the actors. I loved that feeling of actually having this family, every day, that was new for me and very special.
RABE: Sara Paulson is one of my best friends, and has been for years. We already have a bit of a laughing problem together, so I would say that that happened a lot. Zach [Quinto] was learning the banjo and I was learning the guitar, so there were also little musical breaks. Although he’s much better at the banjo than I am at the guitar, at this point.
Will you be back for Season 3, and is there anything you’d like to see happen with the show next?
RABE: I don’t know. I think Ryan’s ideas are usually better than mine, so I don’t know. You just want to do something different. That’s the joy of what the set-up is. I have no idea, if I’ll be back. I can’t say a word. I’m so sorry. I know it’s such a boring interview sometimes with us at American Horror Story, but I just can’t say a word. I would certainly love to be back, that’s for sure. It’s such a great job.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX.