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Lily Rabe on The Whispers, Imaginary Friends, and ‘Magical’ Kids

Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the premiere episode of The Whispers.

The Whispers quickly gets under your skin. Adapted from the short story “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury and produced by Steven Spielberg, it’s also got enough mystery and eeriness to keep viewers on their toes.  In the pilot, young kids stare off into thin air speaking to an unknown, invisible, and maybe but probably not imaginary entity named Drill, who convinces them to play a “game” that leads to violence (one makes her mom fall from a tall treehouse) and perhaps treason. On the show, American Horror Story scene-stealer Lily Rabe plays FBI child specialist Claire Bennigan, tasked with uncovering the mysteries of Drill. We chatted with Rabe about what to expect on the show, what makes these kids so intriguing, and her childhood imaginary friends.

So the pilot opens on a scene of a very cute little girl talking to her imaginary friend and kind of slowly planning her mother’s murder. What were your emotions or initial reactions when you read that first scene?
You know, the pilot was inspired by this Ray Bradbury short story that I read before I read the script. It’s such a specific [tone]. This tone, that feeling — I hate using the word creepy because I feel like I must be able to come up with a better word than that — it just really gets under your skin in such a kind of specific way. It’s so unsettling, that short story. With that scene, it was a continuation of that kind of incredible, specific tone where there’s nothing gory or explicit, it’s not completely clear what’s wrong, but you know that something is just wrong. The compass is tilted. I always find that very compelling. It quickens your heart rate a little.

The whole idea seems ripe as an allegory. Did you talk to the writers at all about the symbolism of it?
Absolutely, because that’s so fun to talk about! That’s something I always want to talk about ‘cause I’m a total nerd. To me, that’s kind of the most exciting part of the show. And now that people will get to see it, I’m really curious to see where they take that because that becomes so personal. It’s really what nerve it strikes in every individual.

That little girl, Abby Ryder Fortson, Harper, is such a great little actress.
Yeah, she’s the greatest.  A young little Uta Hagen. She was the greatest actress. She is an amazing little creature. I love her so much.

One thing that’s so interesting about scenes with her is that she is this little child on the show, but she knows so much about the mystery than your character when you first meet her. How was it acting with kids who are so much more in on it than your character, so far?
Well, I think kids are so much smarter than grown-ups. Kids really have the keys to the castle. Then, somehow, we all lose it by the time we become grown-ups and just try to get it back, to get back to our childhood and figure out what we had. So, I think that’s the magic of kids. They’re totally keyed into the secrets of the universe. That sort of dynamic in the show was really fun for me. [It was] very appealing also because the character I play, Claire, would much rather be sitting at the kids’ table. I don’t think she’s someone who’s completely comfortable. She’s a loner. The people that she connects to the most in the world are children. That’s why she is so good at her job, and why she loves her job so much. Having the kids ahead of her, that was a wonderful dynamic to play in those scenes.

Your character’s a mother, and as much as you say she has the spirit of a kid, she also derives a lot of her power from her mother’s intuition. Do you think it’s true that a lot of her power comes from her having a kid?
I don’t know. I think yes, but also being a woman. You know, that’s a good question: If she didn’t have her own child, would she have the same intuition? I think she would have had a lot of it because I think she’s always been the most comfortable and connected and drawn to children. But definitely being a mom and being so incredibly close to her son — at the beginning of the pilot, it’s just the two of them — she’s more keyed in than ever. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse, but she always acts from her gut and from her intuition. She’s smart, but if she has a feeling about something, her heart is gonna lead her head. Which can be great or get her in a lot of trouble, depending on the day.

So you said you read the story. Are you yourself into alien invasion stories, sci-fi stories, or government-conspiracy stories? I think that covers all the bases of what this show could be.
You know what, not particularly. It’s not something that I was sort of well-versed in, all of those genres. I mean, on the other hand, if it’s great, like if it’s a great movie or a great book and that happens to be what it’s about, then I want to read it or I want to see it. But there are other genres that I probably find myself drawn to more in my own personal life. But this has been really exciting because it sort of opens up this whole new world. People [for whom] this genre, or this kind of world and all of those things, are their favorite thing or their obsession, it’s for a reason. It’s like crack. I mean, once you get into it — not that I know what crack is like — but it really can become sort of addictive, and so delicious and fascinating. Also, it brings up everything, you know, it’s really about everything else. So, yeah, that’s a very long, rambling answer. But definitely, this is like a new door has been opened in my brain.

Can you tease anything about what we’re going to learn about the character Drill?
I’m on lockdown. I can’t. There’s so many things that I’m not allowed to say. But I will say this: You learn a lot very quickly. It’s not one of those things where you have to wait and wait and wait to get more information. Soon enough there [will be] so much more to talk about.

We find out your husband [Milo Ventimiglia] is a character on the show who actually survived and didn’t die. Did you watch Gilmore Girls, by any chance?
I watched a lot of Heroes. I remember loving [Milo] on that. [But] no, I haven’t seen Gilmore Girls, but I can tell you a lot of women sure love him from that show. He must have been very dreamy on it.

You are probably getting this a bunch with all your interviews, but I have to ask if you had an imaginary friend when you were little.
I did, I had two. Lisa and Lena. [Laughs.] Someone pointed out, I had not realized — you know recently I’ve been talking about Lisa and Lena a little more than I had in a while — they’re both Ls. Four letter-L names. So there you go. Great work, 7-year-old Lily. They’re not around anymore, but I hope they’re doing well.

Did they look like humans?
They did. Definitely. I want to say one of them had blonde hair and one of them had brown hair. [Laughs.] But I probably shouldn’t talk about them. They’re gonna come lock me up.

I know you said you hated the word creepy, but what is creepier: the kids on this show being controlled or the twin boys from the first season of American Horror Story?
Oh my gosh, nothing gets creepier than those twins. They were so amazing. That was like the first episode of the first season that we meet those twins, right? They were unforgettable. You know, the truth is I don’t find the kids on this show creepy. I’m just so curious and interested in them. But I think the show will definitely be doing its job if viewers are creeped out. Between the two, I would definitely have to go with the twins, there’s no question.

You haven’t been announced as a cast member on American Horror Story: Hotel yet, so if you’d like to break any news on that front, that’d be great!
[Laughs.] Even if I had information to break, even if I was sitting on something, I couldn’t say it, but yeah, la, la, la.

I saw that you were going to be in Shakespeare in the Park again, in Cymbeline.
Yeah … I start rehearsals on the 18th in the park and I can’t wait. It feels like getting to go home for the summer. I can’t wait.

Did you read Cymbeline at all before this?
Oh yeah, Cymbeline is one of my favorites. And you know, needless to say, it’s a lesser-done play of [Shakespeare’s]. I think Imogen is one of the most spectacular parts. I can’t believe I get to play her. It’s one that I’ve been wanting to do. I’ve been sort of throwing it out there. It’s a play that I love. Dan Sullivan, who’s directing it, there’s just no production of that play that I would want to be in more.

So, to tease the whole season of The Whispers, can you talk about when you were most shocked reading this script? What episode can people expect the biggest shock in? I know you can’t talk about specific things that happened, so just reaction-wise.
You know, [it’s] one thing after the next. It’s that kind of a show. A lot happens in a short period of time. Also in the show, not a lot of time passes between episode one and episode 13, so there was a lot of plot happening to everyone. Some of which I knew was going to happen, and some of it I didn’t. Yeah, gosh, I’m trying to think if there was even just a number episode. Episodes four and five. Yeah, I’m a big fan of what happens in episode five. I’ll say that.

Are there any characters we should be watching for? There are so many characters introduced in the pilot. Are there any who maybe weren’t that big in the pilot but we should watch out for?
The kids are so amazing. And I have to say I was just so lucky to get to work with these two guys, Barry Sloane and Milo Ventimiglia, who are these wonderful actors and human beings and just so generous. I loved every day that I got to act opposite them. They’re all over the show, so you don’t have to look hard for them. But definitely I would be excited. It’s a great cast: Kristen Connolly and Derek Webster. And the kids are just, they’re magic. [There are] more and more kids, obviously, that’s not a spoiler. There are a lot of incredible young actors. But man, that Abby, right?

Lily Rabe on The Whispers and ‘Magical’ Kids