‘American Horror Story”s Lily Rabe talks dancing, the devil and getting burned

Poor Sister Mary Eunice. The unluckiest nun (and that’s saying something) of “American Horror Story” met an unhappy plot twist last week, which could be said of almost any plot twist on this FX show. Spoiler alert — if you haven’t caught up on the episodes in your DVR, stop reading now. 

As played by Tony-nominated actress Lily Rabe, Sister Mary Eunice was pushed from a staircase to her death by Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes), thus putting a tragic end to her possession by the devil. In the ultimate send off, she was cremated — with Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) clinging to her body as they went into the flames. Rabe spoke to reporters about her stint on the show, why she considered Sister Mary Eunice’s death an “assisted suicide,” and why she really loves wire work. 

How far in advance did you know your fate?

I had some sense, yes. I knew she probably wouldn’t have a very happy ending. And as we went along, the specifics of how that was going to happen became clearer as we went along.

Can you discuss exploring the light and dark of this character?

I think the death scene, Ryan and I talked about it, it’s almost an assisted suicide. Even if they had done an exorcism, whatever was left of that girl was so damaged and destroyed, [that] became her only way out. Playing that, once the possession happened, was such a wonderful challenge and such a dance really, to live with the lightness and the darkness existing at the same time in that losing battle.

Were there scenes with anyone else in the cast that were particularly tough?

The cremation scene was very very tough for me… it was much harder than I thought it would be. I like it when I read a scene and it scares me. Singing along, it was such a thrill and the director gave me the whole room so I had… total freedom to do whatever. I really like it when I read a scene that makes me sweat a little bit. That’s a good sign to me.

Was there any actual fire in the cremation scene?

No, no, there wasn’t real. The fire wasn’t hot. There was a lot of smoke. I don’t know how those special effects people do it. It’s terrifying, the situation, but no, I wasn’t worried about getting burned.

What was the most difficult thing for you to do with this character?

Some of the murders, in those moments when she was completely taken over by the devil and throwing these actors around and slitting their throats… I’ve often played the person getting raped or murdered or abused, so to actually be raping and murdering and abusing people was a challenge. A lot of times i’d go home from work and stare at the wall. But anything that knocks you out working is the kind of work I want to be doing. 

What’s next for you?

I will definitely be doing a play in the near future, for sure. 

How did you feel about Dr. Arden’s end? Was that a victory for the devil?

I always thought of it as the perfect ending for the two of them, it seemed so fitting. [James Cromwell and I] were always talking about Shakespeare like theater dorks, and Ryan had given us a beautiful Shakespearean ending. But I think that it seems sort of completely the perfect end to their very bizarre and complicated and dark loves story of sorts. For him, he really loved her for so long and was so devoted for her… that was maybe the last straw for him. 

I think in the way that she dies, which is certainly, I said this earlier, more of an assisted suicide… I think that she’s certainly trying to free herself and get this devil she has become out and away from everyone else. It’s her most heroic moment and her only choice at that point. But I think that taking Dr. Arden away with her is not a bad thing for everyone else who’s left alive, even though there’s a lot of… evil left around.  

Will you be back for season three? 

I have no idea. I can’t say a word. I know it’s such a boring interview with these “American Horror Story” types, but I can’t say a word. I’d love to be back. 

How did you figure out how to play this character who transforms so completely?

The truth is, the way I approached it really is to figure out before we started shooting… who Sister Mary Eunice was and not worry about the possession or the devil. So, to play the dark side or underbelly of someone, their shadow taking over, it’s really about knowing who that person is before this… dark thing takes over. So it was really figuring out who she was through and through. 

Did you enjoy working with Joseph Fiennes?

I had such a wonderful time with him. He’s such a wonderful guy and so much fun to act with. We didn’t have so much to do at the beginning of the season, but we had so much to do in the last episodes. I had a great time with him. 

Can you talk about your big finale?

I was on wires and my stunt double was someone I’d worked with before. They talked to me a couple weeks before shooting it, and asked how much I wanted to do. I wanted to do as much as possible, and they let me do the whole thing, the throw and the fall. I really like that kind of thing. 

Was there any one high point for you this season? 

It was one high point after another. I really, I think I could never pick. I had so much fun really… my relationship with Jessica, I thought all of those scenes were an incredible thrill to play. There are flashes of her still being inside there, because in all of if I felt her there even when she was very overpowered, so those moments of release were really special to get to do. I have to say I also had a lot of fun. I’m not sure fun is the right word, but it’s kind of a wild thrill to do things I’d never have the opportunity to do such horrible, horrible things to people.

Do you have favorite horror movies?

“Don’t Look Now,” “The Shining.” I’ve never really watched a horror television show with any consistency, but I do love to be scared, and there are some of those movies you watch them over and over and they’re still so terrifying every time.

How was it working with Jessica Lange again?

I had an amazing time. She’s an incredible actress… She’s generous, she’s pleasant, she’s everything you could want in a scene partner. She’s a great woman and a lot of fun. I felt very comfortable with her, I have faith in her… especially what we had to go through together, that was invaluable.

Were you able to prepare much to play Sister Mary Eunice?

Yes, a bit. I said yes to Ryan before I knew who I was playing, and he said, can you come back this year and move out to LA for five months? Learning about Sister Mary Eunice… and learning about her history and knowing something has been stunted, stopping her, so she hasn’t totally developed into a woman, so figuring out who that innocent soul was, that pure girl… I had lots of time to sit in my apartment to worry and prepare and all of those things. 

Is there a method to doing “American Horror Story”?

If you’re gonna do the show, you jump off the ledge and don’t expect you have a parachute open. That’s part of the thrill of it, and there will be somewhere soft to land… because you’re in such good hands. Part of the thrill of being on that show, it’s diving in completely. Things would scare me or make me really nervous, but nothing ever felt like this is too far or something I don’t want to do.  

What was the most powerful part of this season for you?

I think my storyline with Jessica was perhaps the most powerful to me. It was the most tragic. It was the one that involved the most love. I always believed that [with their relationship] cruelty was coming out of a place of love, and [Sister Jude] seeing her potential and knowing she wasn’t living it. Where we started and where we ended up, that was the most powerful. My relationships with James [Cromwell], with everyone — I even had a great side plot with Spivey; Mark Consuelos was so amazing. 

Did you discover anything about yourself doing this part?

That always happens when you have a great job; you have to confront constantly all these parts of yourself that you don’t want to confront. That definitely happens. I didn’t know how much I was going to love singing and dancing in front of a camera. And I also loved, I knew I liked stunts, but I really, really liked doing them. I would love to have a job where I’m on wires all the time. I know a lot of actors don’t like them, but I loved them.

Did you have any fun on the set, given how dark the story was?

Sarah Paulson and I, we’ve been friends for years and years, so there was a lot of laughing. And Zach [Quinto] was learning the banjo and I was learning the guitar, so there were musical breaks. But he’s much better at banjo than I am at guitar.