The Undoing’s Unsung Hero Is Lily Rabe’s Sylvia, “the Gatekeeper of Everyone’s Secrets”

Though Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant take the lead in HBO’s The Undoing, it’s Lily Rabe’s supporting character that really shines. In an exclusive interview, she opens up about playing Sylvia.

By Jonathan Borge Nov 13, 2020 2:55 PMTags

Who killed Elena? That's the question keeping viewers hooked—and maybe awake at night—since HBO's The Undoing premiered in October.

Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, the psychological thriller brings us straight into the posh, ultra-glamorous world of Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the heinous murder of a mother (Matilda De Angelis) at their son Henry's (Noah Jupe) school has turned the Frasers' world entirely upside down. Directed by Susanne Bier (Bird Box, The Night Manager) and written by Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley, the six-episode series feels like an adventurous game of Clue brought to life.

And while so many of The Undoing's themes are brooding—bloodshed, infidelity, mental health—it's American Horror Story veteran Lily Rabe who brings some levity to the drama. The 38-year-old plays Sylvia Steinetz, a high-powered lawyer who is best friends with Kidman's Grace and sticks by her side when the murder mystery goes pretty awry.

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From the very first episode, Rabe hilariously balances Sylvia's tough-as-nails persona (Her best line: "It's always the f--king husband!") with the softer, more pleasant demeanor she presents to the judgy group of supremely-anxious moms at the all-ages Reardon School. Simply put, she's the one character who will frequently (and unintentionally) make you laugh when everyone else on screen is just so serious. 

With just three episodes left in the mini-series, Rabe's character is beginning to feel more and more important as Elena's murder case slowly gets unraveled. In an exclusive interview with E! News, the mom of two—with boyfriend Hamish Linklater—opened up about stepping into the role, Sylvia and Grace's relationship and what it's like to work with Kidman. Scroll down for more.

Niko Tavernise/HBO

E! News: Sylvia brings so much levity to The Undoing. Tell us what you love about her.

Lily Rabe: I loved the levity too. That was something that Susanne said she really wanted to explore in our early conversations—certainly not broad comedy or anything, but just to have that breathing room with Sylvia. That was so much fun. Sylvia is someone who is so adept at functioning in this Upper East Side world and it's like watching a great athlete. There's also a real duality there. It's not necessarily where her soul would most want to be, but she's so good at it. And so both things exist at the same time. That was really compelling for me to explore and flesh out in the telling of her story. 

E!: In the first two episodes, we see Sylvia interact with Grace and the moms at Reardon. It's such a sassy and fascinating dynamic. What was it like to work with Fala Chen, Maria Dizzia and Janel Moloney?

LR: I loved all of the women. I loved figuring out who Sylvia is when she's in the group versus when she's one-on-one with Grace. I'm nothing like Sylvia, but I do feel like such a completely different person when I'm having to function in a group. I really thrive being one-on-one. Sylvia is so good at that group veneer. She carries it off so well. And I think she's the gatekeeper of everyone's secrets. Where she really thrives are in relationships that actually are challenging and real. And I think those are with her daughter and with Grace.

E!: It's easy to draw comparisons between The Undoing and Big Little Lies because of Kidman and Kelly. Did you actively think about any similarities?

LR: I hadn't really thought about it but I very much understand why you're asking the question. And I think for all of us who are Big Little Lies fans, something that's so wonderful about that show is how specific the relationships are between each one of them individually and how they are as a group. I think having David E. Kelly and Susanne at the helm, and then working with Nicole, we weren't leaving stones unturned in figuring out the complexity of this particular friendship, which does stand outside the other relationships for both of them with the other women.

E!: What is Nicole really like as a scene partner?

LR: Everything good that you hear about Nicole is the truth. She is a remarkable scene partner. And she's a remarkable woman. Something that was so wonderful was when we were sitting in that courtroom and just talking about our families. I was like, "You know, I do really want more kids." And she just looked into my soul with this Nicole Kidman gaze and said, "Do it. Do not wait, do it." Anyway. And I have another baby now. So thanks, Nicole. 

Niko Tavernise/HBO

E!: Sylvia always feels like she's about to tell a joke, even in the darkest moments. How did you achieve that? It's so fun to watch.

LR: I'm so happy that you felt that way about her. She has to sit on her hands a lot because she wants to misbehave and push the boundary. And that's part of what's wonderful about her. I think that's part of why these women are all drawn to her. She is right on the razor's edge. And she's very good at not pushing it too far.

That's something with that relationship with Nicole. I certainly have friends that when you can't say the thing you want to say, that person is sitting at the table with you and you can just give them a quick look. Or, you know, squeeze their hand under the table and you feel as though you've been able to say what you need to say and that you've been heard. I think there's that too. 

E!: The Upper East Side is a central character. How did you tap into the minds of this high-society group of people?

LR: I was born on the Upper West Side, not the Upper East Side, very different. But growing up, I had friends who were going to schools much like the school that Noah's character and Sylvia's daughter go to and so I had a lot of exposure to that. Part of what's amazing about these women, whether it was my friends' mothers or my friends themselves, there is something about them where you never really know them. Even if you've spent a lot of time with them, there is this feeling of something hidden.

I think that's why the show is so wonderful. In Susanne's hands we were going to tell the story of these women but not do it in a way that felt stereotypical or one-dimensional. Susanne is a truth teller and she's so curious and intrepid that we were just pulling back the layers of the place and of these people. But the thing about them is you sort of pull back the layers and you just find more layers. 

The Undoing airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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