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American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe on Seducing James Cromwell and the Upcoming Christmas Episode

Lily Rabe. Photo: Getty Images

Last season on American Horror Story, Lily Rabe played the ghost of a socialite whose dead child was reanimated into a basement-dwelling creature named Thaddeus. This year, she’s a nun possessed by Satan, and the devil’s got a thing for closeted Nazis with mutilation fetishes. Clearly, Rabe — a Tony-nominated stage actress who last starred in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway — would rather be anything but bored in a role. Vulture spoke to her about why she’s attracted to scary material and what’s to come for Sister Mary Eunice, including encounters with Ian McShane in a creepy Santa suit.

Evan Peters told us that on his first day, he accidentally flashed his balls to Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. How was your first day?
Oh, Evan. Yeah. I showed my ass on the first day. That was all on the first day.

Is the set itself scary?
It can be. I haven’t been around the aliens very much, but I’ve gotten lost a few times. I have a terrible sense of direction to begin with, and in the beginning I definitely freaked myself out each time it happened. I was like running down the halls trying to find everyone. But you get used to it, living in that darkness.

When you see Bloody Face at crafts services, no big deal.
No. I never say, “Hey, Bloody Face,” because Bloody Face is terrifying.

Ryan Murphy tweeted a pretty terrifying picture of upcoming guest star Ian McShane.
Uh huh.

He was in a Santa suit sucking on a candy cane with a girl on his lap. What is going on there?
Well, I can tell you Ian and I had a lot of amazing Christmas things to do together. Sister Mary Eunice has something to do with why his character is wearing that Santa suit. She has a lot of Christmas spirit, that’s for sure.

So there will be a Christmas episode of American Horror Story?
Oh yes. Of course, right? That was one of my favorite ones to shoot, actually. Ian and I got to do some really evil things together, and I have to say it was a career highlight. He’s such a wonderful man. We had great stuff in the common room, with all of those background actors, the inmates. I can say Christmas will never be the same for me after shooting that episode. I’ll never look at a Christmas tree the same way.

Let’s talk about what’s going on with Sister Mary, who obviously started out as a very different character.
This clean soul in this very unclean environment appealed massively to me. She starts out with this kind of lightness in her — although she’s so eager to please and so in over her head — and then that all gets destroyed. The thing that’s so great about all of the characters that Ryan writes is the underbelly of who these people are. He’s just not afraid of anything. It’s not about making [the characters] likeable or massively appealing or singularly appealing. It’s about making them whole and complicated. They come with a lot of darkness. What’s been so fascinating as I’ve been playing possessed Mary Eunice is that it’s not just the devil on the one hand and Sister Mary Eunice on the other. It’s what’s happening between the two.

I loved when Sister Jude said, “I don’t know what’s gotten into you sister, but it’s a decided improvement.”
[Laughs] Yes. That’s what’s so interesting to play. What is having the devil inside her doing to her? It’s not like when the devil is inside of her she’s taken over 100 percent by it. And then you ask, if the devil ever leaves her, what or who will be left? I don’t know.

But we do know the devil’s color is Ravish Me Red. What did you think of having to seduce James Cromwell?
Oh, I was terrified. I think every script I read has something that sends me into a state of panic but that usually makes me want to do it. I can’t actually think of a job where I was relaxed the whole time. I don’t think I would want to do that job. When I break into a cold sweat when I’m reading, I think, Oh good. That’s what’s supposed to be happening.

Did you two do anything specific to prepare to shoot that scene?
We rehearsed a little but for me it was more fun to play it not knowing what was going to happen. The director wanted us to have as much freedom as possible, for things to just sort of happen. We didn’t plan out that I was going to back up on the desk, for example. That just happened in one of the takes. There wasn’t a lot of sitting around and talking about it [laughs]. I think that would have made it harder.

You worked on the first season of American Horror Story. Crazy must be a given by now.
You know, Ryan didn’t need to say much to convince me to do a second season because I had such a great experience the first time. There’s this feeling on this show that you’re a part of something that’s rare and special and brave and also just a lot of fun. There’s so much trust. Ryan’s not going to write a character you don’t want to play, basically. As an actor, you don’t want to ever feel trapped or bored, and you’re just safe with Ryan. That’s never going to happen with him.

Lily Rabe on Horror Story’s Christmas Episode