For Tony-nominated actress Lily Rabe, a life in the theatre might have seemed inevitable. Rabe is the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh, and practically grew up on Broadway—she lost her first tooth in the Cort Theatre watching The Grapes of Wrath. And, yet, acting wasn’t something that she pursued straight away.
“I had an indirect path to acting. I wish I had found or, rather, acknowledged my love and inclination toward acting a little earlier,” admits the actress, who preferred dance to drama as a young teen, and only decided to pursue acting in college.
“I think there was a slight delay because I was trying to do something else. I come from a family of artists, so I was trying to do something that felt like uncharted territory. But, really, I think dancing was just an excuse to get onstage. I loved performing.”
Nowadays, there’s no question about it; Rabe is a successful stage and screen actress. A Tony nominee for The Merchant of Venice, she has also been seen on Broadway in Seminar, The American Plan, Steel Magnolias and Heartbreak House. Last year, she starred in the Public Theater’s production of Cymbeline on the Delacorte stage.
Her latest role is the title character in Julia Hart’s new indie film Miss Stevens. Rabe plays an English high school teacher who is chaperoning three students to a drama competition for the weekend. Her character is at a crossroads in her personal life, while her students—one of which is played by breakout stage star Timothée Chalamet (Prodigal Son)—are navigating the throes of adolescence.
For the teenagers in the film—each a misfit of sorts—their love of drama is the thing that bonds them. As someone who also found herself through acting, this was something that appealed to Rabe. “I was quite shy and certainly a misfit in my own way—I felt that way profoundly,” says Rabe. “[When I did] find acting it was this incredible release for me.”
In the film, Miss Stevens’ students expect her to have life all figured out and are surprised to learn that she is going through her own personal struggles. The film brings to light the reality that for many, the messiness of youth never really goes away.
“[We] wanted to tell a story about a woman who, on the one hand, is incredibly wonderful at her job and capable of making great, adult decisions and, on the other hand, completely incapable of those things,” says Rabe. “Both things can exist in equal measure, and one doesn’t eclipse the other.
“[As an adult] there are these wonderful moments where you can feel like you’ve tread some ground, like you’ve taken some steps in a forward-moving direction. But [also], we are so deeply who we are from the age of those kids in high school and even before that … That’s what the film does so beautifully: realizing that the gap between those generations is actually so delicate. It’s nuanced and so small.”
For Rabe, her unique childhood as the daughter of two theatre artists is not all that different from her current reality. “Of course there was talk around the dinner table about the theatre and film and their work—their worlds,” recalls the actress of her family (and she wouldn’t have it any other way). “Just having the art be in the room, always in such a powerful way, is something that now I’m so grateful for. It’s formative in every single way.”
Watch the trailer below: