‘The Undoing’: Lily Rabe Teases Sylvia Is the ‘Gatekeeper of Secrets’
HBO’s The Undoing may center on an elite Upper East Side couple and their connection to a gruesome murder, but the limited series also puts Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan Fraser’s (Hugh Grant) social circle in the spotlight.
In that social circle is Lily Rabe‘s Sylvia Steinetz, Grace’s close friend and source of all gossip. Right from the start of the HBO mysterious miniseries, it becomes clear that the high-powered lawyer has her finger on the pulse — she is, after all, the one who delivers the shocking news of the aforementioned murder (of a fellow school mom) to Grace in the premiere.
Below, Rabe opens up about the relationship between the Sylvia and Grace and teases more secrets under the surface. Plus, the American Horror Story alum weighs in on working with director Susanne Bier and how she connected with David E. Kelley‘s script.
What should people know about your character Sylvia? How does she fit into this world?
Lily Rabe: She’s a single mom on the Upper East Side and she’s a lawyer — she’s someone who I think I’ve known. She’s known Grace and her family her whole life, and she’s grown up in this world of the Upper East Side. She’s incredibly skilled at navigating through the rigorous social circles.
I think she’s the gatekeeper of a lot of secrets — she’s the number that a lot of people have on speed dial — but she herself doesn’t share, she’s quite concealed. Her real relationships are few and far between and one of them is definitely with Grace. Something else I love about Sylvia is that it’s not that she’s a troublemaker, but she likes to push right up against the boundary, she goes right up to the edge.
You’ve done quite a bit of television, including a number of American Horror Story seasons. What in particular drew you to this project?
The people making it — [director] Susanne Bier, and I had worked with [executive producer] Bruna Papandrea on a number of things, I love her and she’s an incredible producer. And HBO and working with Nicole and Donald [Sutherland] and Hugh [Grant]. And the writing is so good, [creator] David Kelley is such a tremendous singular writer.
Telling a story about this world with this group of people just felt like a great opportunity, because I think Susanne is such a truth-teller. And knowing that she was going to really get in there and mine this world, it was just like a ride that I wanted to be on. There’s so much underneath the surface for all of these characters, and certainly with Sylvia, and figuring out how to do that dance was something that I wanted to do.
This series is full of secrets. Does Sylvia have any of her own and will they be revealed over time?
I think you don’t get a full picture of anyone and that is part of what’s so wonderful about the show and about the world. There are so many layers and I think very often there are things that can be concealed, not only from other people, but from themselves. Over the course of the show, everyone changes including Sylvia.
This show seems addictive and perfect for binging. What was your initial reaction to reading the scripts?
I got two and then I got the rest. I devoured the first two, and then as soon as I got the rest, no time was wasted. But I think that the wonderful thing about [Kelley’s] writing is that you can’t get ahead of it. And not only that you can’t get ahead of the plot, but you can’t get ahead of the people. I think that’s the most exciting part of how he writes.
Sylvia is really close with Nicole Kidman’s Grace. What can you tease about their friendship as the season progresses?
There’s a real likeness between the two of them in the sense that they have to function in these social circles that can feel like they’re living on the surface. They’re both very adept at that. And certainly Sylvia’s very good at that and comfortable with that … [but] it’s not necessarily where she wants to be all the time. And I think her relationship with Grace, it’s almost like an outlet for that.
We have those people in our lives where we can lock eyes and with one glance have an entire conversation in a room where we can’t have the conversation we want to have. So I think that relationship means a great deal to her. But the truth is that she doesn’t even know how much it means to her until what happens, happens. There’s nothing easy about having an actual real friendship. And that happens for them too, where they have to sort of endure.
New York City plays its own role in the show. What was it like getting to gallivant around Manhattan during filming?
It is. It is its own character. And I think that it’s the great scene partner. Being in the city, being on location, being on the Upper East Side for so much of the shoot, it does so much of the work for all of us. But also knowing that it’s Susanne’s Upper East Side. It’s her New York. I’m always happy to be in New York, but particularly so when it’s through Susanne Bier’s eyes.
What do you hope people take away from watching The Undoing?
It never takes its foot off the gas in terms of not only who we are in our relationships and what we think about other people that we feel we know, but when we turn that lens towards ourselves and any time you get lazy about who you are, bad things happen. I think you have to keep asking the questions of yourself. There needs to be this rigorous intake of oneself.
The Undoing, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO