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With the Tony Awards At Hand, Best Actress Nominee Lily Rabe Has Been Having a Good Year

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A couple of weeks ago, after the Drama Desk Awards ceremony wrapped and the hall was virtually deserted, nominee Lily Rabe and dad David -- the playwright/novelist -- were gabbing with fellow actor (and award winner) Bobby Canavale and a couple of other people. Present in support of his daughter, Rabe exuded the fatherly pride that such a nom would prompt in this family of artists. Younger brother Michael is studying acting and older step-brother Jason is leading a band and composing for films.

Actress Lily Rabe has been having a good year and it will culminate in next Sunday's Tony Awards broadcast, when she will find out how she fared with her Best Lead Actress nomination for playing Portia in the much acclaimed revival of The Merchant of Venice. (The run earned Al Pacino a Best Actor nom as well.) Previously, she had garnered praise for her performance in the recent Broadway revival of Steel Magnolias.

She also has had two films screening this year -- the earlier released All Good Things (starring Ryan Gosling), and Letters from the Big Man (it premiered at Sundance this year), which will screen at the third annual BAMcinemaFest, June 16-26, 2011.

All of that won't make up for having recently lost her mother late last year, the acclaimed actress Jill Clayburgh, who had a long-fought battle with leukemia.

Certainly, having such a genetic legacy hasn't hurt, but Rabe, with all of her success, is proving to be an equal to actors who have been around 10 times longer. Yet as hard working and humble as she is, it's great to witness a burgeoning talent at the cusp of a substantial career arc.

Q: Since the show closed a while ago in February, where were you when you heard you got this nomination and what did you do to celebrate?

LR: To be perfectly honest, the moment I found out, the first person I wanted to call was my mother. So it was very mixed and complicated, but a beautiful and wonderful moment for me too.

We were together so often that she probably would have been with me when I found out. But to not instantly pick up the phone and call her was... I don't know how to describe it. It was bittersweet, I suppose.

But I was so happy, and I am so happy, and if I close my eyes I can hear her jumping up and down and screaming. She was very good at that.

It's such an honor and wonderful thing to be recognized by this community. This is the community that means more in the world to me than anything; it's my second family.

And in a year filled with so many productions... Almost as much as I love doing plays, [I love] going to see them, and there are so many incredible productions and performances right now. So to have our production remembered and recognized in this way means the world to me.

Q: Are you going to out see your fellow nominees and some of the plays?

LR: I'll see everything. I've seen a lot of them. It's so important to me to support. I try to see everything I can.

Q: At the time Merchant was the toughest ticket on Broadway.

LR: It was a tough ticket to get to. It was tough in the Park and then it was also really tough on Broadway.

Q: And you got the nom by doing Shakespeare too.

LR: Shakespeare. The company was unbelievable. It's such an honor. The performances I've seen this year are just staggering, so it's really a great honor.

Q: Did the production evolve much from its Central Park run?

LR: I think it did. When you're doing Shakespeare and you're directed by Daniel Sullivan, playing opposite Al Pacino, and you have these amazing audiences coming every night, it can't help but continue to evolve.

For those of us who were with the production in the Park and then again on Broadway, we had this wonderful luxury of getting to rehearse it a second time. It was a much shorter rehearsal process. But to revisit it after a month away, I think you can't help but discover new things.

And when you're doing Shakespeare -- I remember even during our extension, Byron Jennings and I would be crossing backstage and say, "My god! That's what that is! That's what that means!"

Q: New things unveil themselves after a while.

LR: Yeah, and that's the luckiest thing in the world to get to play a part like that.

Q: To work opposite your fellow nominee Al Pacino and see the way he approaches the part, that must have been pretty inspiring.

LR: It was. Al is such an investigator and he's such a generous, generous, present actor. I love being on stage with him.

Q: Did you talk to each other about the nominations?

LR: We spoke the day it happened. And then I did some jumping up and down. We both did. We were both giddy.

Q: Who spoke first?

LR: Actually, it was like a jinx, because he picked up and we both screamed congratulations at exactly the same moment. He's thrilled and I am so thrilled. It's such an honor.

Q: It could have lasted another year to two easily. Unfortunately, you all had other commitments. It would be great if you could be brought back together just for this.

LR: Anything is possible. But it is so wonderful also to be remembered, since we closed a little while ago. I'm so grateful that the production is being remembered in the way that it has been.

Q: Does it amaze you that Shakespeare still has that power? It doesn't hurt to have Al Pacino as a driving force, but were you glad to see that audiences really got behind it? And that's a pretty controversial play on top of it all.

LR: It reinforced my belief in so many things. Daniel Sullivan is such a genius. It was incredible doing it in [Central Park], and it seemed like something very special was happening.

Then, to move the show and be received the way that we were received on Broadway, and to be sold out every night and having standing room tickets only -- and it's a Shakespeare play.

The thing about Shakespeare is the timelessness of his writing. It's why he's the greatest writer of all time. He's done something that is practically impossible: these plays break every rule and they'll never be [out of date].

As long as we're human beings and living and breathing and bleeding and having emotions and having controversy and struggling to live our lives and feel joy and pain and all of these things, any Shakespeare play will hold up.

But the fact that these New York audiences -- people were coming in from all over the world to sit through a three-hour Shakespeare play, and be on their feet night after night after night, that was really exhilarating and affirming.

It's tremendous affirmation -- not for me, but I think for the theater and people who want to do theater and keep doing productions like this one and do classical plays in New York, and know that it's far from dead.

Q: You'd think it would age, maybe be perceived as antiquated. What do you think is the power behind it?

LR: People are in general more afraid of this play than some of his other plays, certainly. To me, the only thing that could become antiquated about it is the production. It's never in the play. There's always the opportunity in any Shakespeare play to have it be completely accessible to whomever is watching it.

The magic of what Dan did with this particular production of this play, I would argue Dan could do with almost any Shakespeare play.

Q: Sullivan's success has to do with how he understands actors and allows them to do what they do.

LR: It's because you feel so safe in the world that Dan built. He builds the ground that you're going to stand on, and he builds it so well that you can take a step forward, a step back, and you know you're not going to fall through any cracks.

Dan's confidence and his intelligence is so vast and specific that what it does [for] an actor is completely set you free. Because he is operating from such a secure place, it actually gives the production incredible freedom. As an actor, it's bliss.

Q: You also got USA Network's Character Approved citation -- recognized not so much for one piece of work, but because you represent your generation as an actor. It's like winning one of those grants -- like the MacArthur, where they give you money for your body of work. I hope it doesn't make you feel old; it's not like you're over and it's a look back.

LR: Right. It was such an honor. When I got the letter telling me that and asking me if I would accept a few months ago, of course I was touched.

I really had no idea of just how extensive and thoughtful this project was going to be. I think what they've done -- and what I loved about actually watching it the other night -- was really how much I learned about the other 11 recipients of the award. They're all so astonishing, and to be in their company is very moving.

I also think in terms of the expanse of the group and the way that they tied the 12 people together. To me, [it] was very powerful. It really is such an honor to be included.

Q: You also were in the film All Good Things with Ryan Gosling but it got overshadowed by Blue Valentine. As a set piece about a few people, it could have been staged; without trappings, it could have been done starkly as a play with just Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella and you.

LR: I never thought about it like that. When I read that script, knowing that it is based very closely on such a harrowing true story, and knowing that it was going to be in the hands of the man who had done Capturing the Friedmans [Andrew Jarecki] -- a documentary I had been completely obsessed with -- I felt like that was a match made in heaven.

It was certainly no accident that this was the film that Andrew was directing. He was involved from the start and in the writing and everything, along with another writer, Marcus Hinchey. To be a part of something where you're working with someone who has this documentarian's brain in a lot of ways, but then he has this incredible creative eye -- it was really thrilling.

Andrew is another person who has incredible confidence. When he sees something he likes, he wants it and he doesn't question it. It's wonderful to work with someone like that.

Q: You played the woman that knows the secret and gets killed for it. I would never have known that was you.

LR: That's the best compliment in the world: when people tell me that they've seen the movie and didn't know it was me until the end, or [until] the credits.

It was a great process -- to be able to go through a transformation and age like that, and play someone that I think a lot of people wouldn't have had the nerve to cast me in.

[The late] Susan Berman, whom the character is based on, [was] amazing and it was so much fun researching for that movie and learning about her, and sitting down with her old roommates. I met all these incredible people.

Q: And at Sundance this year, Letters From the Big Man premiered. How did you come together with an interesting, eccentric filmmaker like director Christopher Munch?

LR: He had been working on the script for a long time, and it was very personal to him. We had a meeting. I was out in Los Angeles, and met at a diner. Then he offered me the part after that.

We shot it in Oregon last year. I was there for about six weeks. I basically went out into the woods with a small crew in these incredible locations. A lot of the time where we were living is very remote; you're changing in the back of a car, and sometimes we didn't have electricity where we were shooting.

Because of where the locations were, they were so authentic, and so much of it is around these forest fires that my character had gone to do research on.

The forest fires are based on these incredibly devastating forest fires that happened in Oregon. So it was very important to Chris to be shooting in those locations.

Q: What did you learn from making this film?

LR: The experience of shooting so much of the film alone, where there's nobody else in the scene with you, I think it was kind of great.

It was a very lonely experience shooting the movie. I think Sarah, the girl I play, is very solitary and rather hermetic, and has a very hard time moving through the world in the way that she feels she's supposed to. She really can't quite figure that out. So it was one of those things where a lot of it kind of happened very organically.

Q: Have you seen his other movies?

LR: Yeah. He is fascinating.

Q: It makes you appreciate being an actor and not the director, because these time lags to get movies made and get out there is an agonizing process. At least you get to inhabit a lot of different lives instead of having to struggle to find the money.

LR: You do your job and then you leave, and that's that. Whatever will be will be.

Q: Are you more as a theater or film actress? A lot of actors say it's the same, others say no, that it's a different experience. Which camp do you fall in?

LR: Acting is acting. I don't think I'm a different kind of actor when I'm doing a play versus when I'm doing a movie. You are the actor that you are.

I love both [mediums], and hope that I'm lucky enough to continue to go back and forth between both. I think they inform each other so beautifully.

Both require such different lifestyles when you're working on a movie versus when you're doing a play. And there are things I love and I hate -- more love than hate -- about both those schedules and how it affects your life.

It's nice to be able to go back and forth in every aspect -- not just because of the work, but also in terms of the rhythm of your life. It's a wonderful luxury, I think, to be able to do both. I'm not very good at consistency, so I really feed on the change.

But I think that [the two mediums] are wildly different. In shooting a movie, you're shooting out of sequence. And when you're doing a scene, you're [done with the] scene and not going to be shooting it again later on -- unless you're doing reshoots or something.

When you do a play, you're starting at the beginning and finishing at the end -- doing it over and over and over eight times a week.

Q: And TV falls in the middle.

LR: On television, it's different -- network or cable, or whatever the show is -- but you may have far fewer takes than you do in a movie, and of course that's completely different from having a six week rehearsal period before you do a play.

For me it's really exhilarating to be constantly shifting and having your environment change. All of it, going from one medium to the other, it keeps you on your toes. You can't repeat anything, and it's great. It doesn't allow you to get stuck in your ways -- that is a wonderful thing.

Q: What would your parents have done if you had not become an actor?

LR: I think they would have been thrilled.

Q: Did you have any other options?

LR: Your reality is your reality, so to me it was so normal. My parents were very focused on being my parents. So when I look at my childhood memories now, I'm sure there were things that were a bit heightened. But really, what I think about is that I had the most beautiful childhood in the world and the most wonderful parents who were always there. They were there.

They're very proud of me and thrilled that I did become an actor. But they never were pushing me in this direction -- in fact, quite the opposite for a long time, especially when I was younger. I was very focused on ballet, and  on writing. That's really where they thought I was going to go for awhile, and I probably did too.

But once I got hit, I fell fast and furiously into acting, and they were right behind me. They were never pushing me in that direction at all. They were very cautious of it. It's hard to subject someone you love to this business; it's a tricky business.

Q: Through them, did you have an insight into avoiding some of the pitfalls of the business?

LR: Sure, they gave me advice. They still do, on everything. But they were very good at letting me have my own experiences.

They wouldn't fill me up with millions of things to be afraid of or cautious of or think about before I would go into a job. They just let me go into the job, and feel that they had equipped me well as a human being, which was their focus.

Then if I called from set wondering how to deal with something, they were right there. And if I called because I was having a fight with a friend, they would be right there in the same way. Whatever it was.

Q: Does it ever make you leery to do one of your dad's play or something your mother had done? Or is there some desire to do something of theirs just to see what it would be like for you to inhabit a character that was so familiar to you and your family?

LR: You mean with my father's plays?

Q: Either with your father's plays or, say, a film like An Unmarried Woman that your mother had been in?

LR: No one can do that movie again. Of course, things are being remade and revisited.

[But] with theater we recycle these parts over and over and over again, more than with film. I am terrified of doing one of my father's plays, but also very, very eager to do it. He and I are collaborating on something right now -- a new and very wonderful [play].

It's absolutely terrifying, but it's also something that I want to do. I think that when you really feel sick thinking about doing something because it makes you nervous, then it's something you should probably do.

Q: You and your mom have both done Law & Order. You did some episodes.

LR: I've done the trifecta. When I was in college, before I graduated, my mother and I did two plays together. We were nervous to work together, because they wanted to make sure that I felt like I was standing on my own two feet. I wanted to make sure that I was standing on my own two feet, and getting hired because of my work and not because of anything else. So it can make you a little gun-shy. But my mother and I of course had all sorts of plans for the two of us.

Q: One thing you have had in your life, which is an incredible positive, has been two parents who understand the artistic process and what it is to be creative.

LR: Lucky me, right?

Q: Few people have that. You've been successful and not self-destructive. You made it work for you, and are getting acknowledged for it, which is great. And you sound almost frightfully un-neurotic about it.

LR: Thank you, thank you, thank you; that means so much to me. I do think that being able to share that with my parents -- and because it is such a specific world and language -- it was the luckiest thing in the world for me.

My mother and I would [go] to one another's previews and write notes on the program in the dark with the flashlight. We would joke that we're the only people that are going to be honest with one another, because when you really, really love someone, you will tell them the truth.

So to have that, and be so eager for their opinions to value them because they are these great, great artists -- but also because they're my parents -- I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had that, and to continue to have that.

Q: It's great but it could also make you crazy -- yet you have it as a cushion.

LR: It's the cushiest of cushions. It's a very, very wonderful thing.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: Filmfestivaltraveler.com