Chances are, if you curled up on the couch to partake in the national sport of streaming this past year, you had the pleasure of being joined by Lily Rabe. The 38-year-old actress played Nicole Kidman’s sidekick, Sylvia, in HBO’s The Undoing, the dual role of Karen-Emma, a complicated character in the witness protection program in Amazon Prime’s Tell Me Your Secrets and is a series regular in the cult-favorite American Horror Story anthology. Next up: The female lead in George Clooney’s The Tender Bar (a little behind-the-scenes beauty intel: they’re using Augustinus Bader skin care on-set) and the more personal project of introducing her newborn daughter to the world post-pandemic.
You played two different characters with two very different looks in Tell Me Your Secrets. How did that work with the glam, the makeup, the wigs?
We had the conversation at the very beginning about how we would accomplish the physical transformation between Karen and Emma. Of course, some things like acrylic nails you can remove easily but, some things, like a certain kind of physical shape, are harder. There were so many little things, and I had to work very closely with the costume designer, who was brilliantly and subtly creating the difference. There’s a softness and femininity associated with Karen, versus where Emma ends up physically, and we really had to find ways to accomplish that.
We also added a bit of padding in places—it’s not like wearing full-on prosthetics, more just little ways of creating a different shape and a different feeling about the way she would wear clothes, and how the clothes would fit. Then, of course, her hair changed, and that felt right to me since she was a hairdresser. I was like, this is not a person who is walking around with her natural hair color in her life, she’s most likely dying her hair.
We also had different colored contacts and different nails…we had a nail check every day with Karen. We literally had these different sets of different nails, but that was Karen—she really put a lot of effort into her appearance and that was the big part of her identity. Then Emma is just very much stripped down. Her physicality was all about creating some protection for herself. She’s wearing the clothes that she found, and she doesn’t even have a pair of running shoes. All of that was such a big part of it.
But I loved that part of the collaboration because I’m so detail-oriented. It was wonderful to work with department heads who were equally detail-oriented. So, that’s the very long answer! Let’s just say it was different in the makeup chair on a Karen day—I might be in hair and makeup for two hours on a Karen day, where on an Emma day, I was there for 20 minutes.
Then, on The Undoing, you had a very different, yet specific, look, too.
Yes! We had to tape the top of my highlights because Sylvia would never, never let her roots show. Actually, a lot of the look came down to the coats—it was the coat that was the very first thing I put on when I started shooting; a shot with my daughter in a coat. I landed, I hadn’t had any fittings, I had 10 messages on my phone telling me they wanted to get a shot of me that wasn’t on the schedule, and I went straight to set and met the brilliant costume designer, Signe Sejlund. I walked into the trailer and there was just this rack of the camel coats. We both eyed this one, pulled it off, put it on my body, and then I was walking. I put some sunglasses on my face and walked down for my first scene. It was actually so perfect because everything kind of came from that coat. It felt like such an embodiment of Sylvia. We didn’t have any time to overthink it—it was just the one.
You did press for the show in the fall via Zoom. How did that work?
I am very close with [makeup artist] Jenna Kristina. I love her, she’s so beautiful. And then she does such beautiful work. When we were doing press for The Undoing, we would sometimes do makeup over Zoom, but it was more an excuse to hang out. She would just sort of talk me through it and I loved it. When you do theater, at least in my experience, you do your own makeup most of the time, so I’m somewhat adept at doing my own makeup—much more so than I am at doing my own hair. I don’t even know where to begin with a blow-dryer.
You have great hair. What are some of your favorite beauty products?
I have a lot of favorites! Where should I start? There are some things that I’ve used for years and years and then some things that are new to me. I’m always open to trying new things and I definitely am a little bit of a beauty-product junkie—there’s no question about it. Right now, and for the rest of my life, I will be devoted to Augustinus Bader. Something that I’ve gotten really obsessed with for work recently are these eye masks by 111SKIN. I tried on a pair, and I’ll never turn back. I love Gucci Westman, I love Beautycounter, I love Chantecaille. I love True Botanicals, I love their oil. I love Shani Darden—even though I haven’t had a facial in over a year—but she is great and she makes this cleanser that I’m really obsessed with. She also got me into the iS Clinical serums. There’s a tingly one that is just great.
What else? I needed something for my hands from all the sanitizer; I’ve started to use the La Mer Hand Treatment, which is amazing. There’s a company called Baeo that I got for my little ones, but then I started using it myself. It’s super clean. For my hair, I love Olaplex, I love Virtue, and then there’s this brand called Innersense that I think I discovered during a late-night Google session…I’m just doing my beauty run over here on Google and Goop. I’m also always on the hunt for clean perfumes or perfume oils. It’s great when I find one. I think, because I grew up on the East coast, I’m drawn to different scents during the different seasons. You can’t feel the different seasons in L.A., but I always want to change whatever fragrance I’m wearing, depending on the time of year. I just want winter to be wintery and cozy—even if it’s 80 degrees outside.
You have a lot of exciting projects coming up this year—what are you most looking forward to?
Gosh, there’s so many things to be excited about. I’m excited to introduce my baby to people. [Rabe gave birth to her second daughter over the summer.] She hasn’t really met anyone! I really want everyone to meet her, so I’m very excited about that. There’s so much to be excited about, once it’s safe to do so. There’s a lot to look forward to.