The American Plan’s Lily Rabe on Working With Mercedes Ruehl, and Her Next Role As a ‘Mafia Princess’

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Development of Barack Obama campaign identity, by Sol Sender, Andy Keene, and Amanda Gentry (2007) Photo: Getty Images

Several years ago, we dubbed Lily Rabe “a talent to watch” and called her Broadway debut in Steel Magnolias one of the year’s best breakthroughs. She’s since appeared onstage in Heartbreak House and onscreen in No Reservations and What Just Happened, and now she’s making her parents, actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, proud with her performance in Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan (we know because we sat right behind them during a preview). The show opens tonight at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and Rabe spoke with Vulture about the challenges of playing impulsive Lili Adler, and her ongoing fashion competition with co-star Mercedes Ruehl.

Did you have a lot of interaction with Richard Greenberg throughout the rehearsal process? Did you know him before this?
I didn’t know him that well before this, but he’s been very involved in the process — he and David have worked together a lot in the rehearsal room. You know, when you have a living playwright, it’s always wonderful when they’re around because they’re obviously the best resource.

What interested you about playing Lili Adler?
She’s really quicksilver, she turns on a dime, and I think that’s something that’s very special about Rich’s writing — it surprises in sometimes the most wonderful and sometimes the most gut-wrenching ways, but he gets into the underbelly of human relationships, and all of these relationships are so complicated, and there’s so much sort of misfiring and lost intention. The truth about this play is that everyone falls desperately in love, and it can make you act outside of yourself. She’s such a fiercely intelligent, witty girl on the one hand; on the other hand, she’s incredibly sheltered, she has really no idea how to interact with people, and she’s been kept in such a sort of solitary confinement that she’s sort of educated herself.

The play also mentions that she falls in love every summer. Do you think she’s just looking for a way out and here’s this attractive guy…?
I guess I would say that, for my money, no, I think she’s never experienced love like this or these sorts of feelings. I think in the past they were a little different than Nick — I don’t think they really looked like that [laughs] — but I think, yes, of course, it’s always a way out and it’s always a possible light and escape and distraction.

And what about his feelings toward her?
They’re all very complicated, but do I think he’s really in love with her? Yes, I do. And I can say with assuredness that Kieran [Campion], the actor who plays Nick, would agree, because we spent a lot of time talking about that exact thing.

What was it like working with Mercedes Ruehl?
I loved her from the moment I met her, and I love her more and more every day. She’s such a stage creature — she’s so alive and present at all times and brave and smart. We’ve been dressing for each other [laughs]. Well, I failed today, but she really threw down the gauntlet last week with some fuchsia Uggs, so I have to think of something good to get back in the game.

You also have the movie All Good Things coming up, in which you play Ryan Gosling’s best friend. Can you tell us about your role in that?
The movie is directed by Andrew Jarecki, who did Capturing the Friedmans, and the script is amazing. It’s based on a true story — the movie’s about Robert Durst. Anyway, the woman my character is based on was this sort of Jewish, mafia princess — her dad was a total mobster, one of the founders of Las Vegas. During the process, I met this man who had been her roommate and best friend — another one of her best friends — and saw great footage of her. She was quite a personality, and people sort of came out of the woodwork to tell me stories about her.

Related: The Annotated Script: 'The American Plan'