Lily Rabe is no stranger to living with famous figures. She’s the daughter of actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright/screenwriter David Rabe. Still, her experiences were nothing like what happens in “Pawn Sacrifice.” In the new biopic, the actress of stage and screen — most notably “American Horror Story,” in which she’s the only actor to appear in all five seasons — plays Joan Targ, the sister of chess legend Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire). The film is about him, specifically his bout for the World Championship against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), but occasionally Rabe’s Joan swings by, trying her best to help her troubled brother.
Making movies and TV means there’s a lot of downtime for actors. Playing chess is one way to spend it. What do you tend to do?
I read. I listen to podcasts. I had my moment with knitting, but that moment has passed. I find I want to read lighter things, because you’re constantly getting interrupted. I normally would choose a different book to read than one I would choose at home.
Or you could just learn about Bobby Fischer.
I knew who he was, I knew about Spassky, I knew about that match. I didn’t know much more before starting. But luckily I had lots of luxurious time to get to know his story. One thing I didn’t know was his childhood. I got to learn about the women in his life and what those relationships were.
It’s worth noting that your character, Joan, his sister, was a pretty fascinating person in her own right.
I went into a very happy rabbit hole about Joan, even though it wasn’t in the movie. She was such a compelling, fascinating woman. She knew seven languages, married a parapsychologist, her daughter became a parapsychologist. She became a nurse, she was a physician and she taught at Stanford and held this program teaching computer literacy. And she was an organic farmer. She had this consciousness about things that people weren’t incredibly aware of then. She was so ahead of the times and such a revolutionary gal. I’m just in awe of her. Even though in the movie it’s all in relation to telling Bobby’s story.
We’re often drawn to tortured geniuses like Bobby Fischer that sometimes we can ignore people who are more quiet about their great achievements.
That’s such an interesting and amazing point. She had an incredible mind of her own and so many passions. The way she dealt with Bobby and loved him would inevitably have been so informed by that — that she loved and cared about Bobby so deeply, but was probably relating to an extent. They did have the same childhood and clearly her intelligence was above average. [Laughs] She just didn’t have that gift that he had and the life that he led and how tortured he was. But it probably didn’t feel that far away from her.
You’re a stage actor who’s been busy with film and TV over the last handful of years. When you get back to the theater do you find the transition at all jarring?
I don’t find it jarring. I’m so thrilled to go between the mediums. I did Shakespeare in the Park this past summer [in “Much Ado About Nothing”], then went back into “American Horror Story,” then another project I’m doing here. It’s a wonderful thing to use all your muscles and your muscle groups. I don’t want to make a working-out analogy here. [Laughs] I find it keeps you very awake as an actor going from theater to TV to film, because there are so many likenesses, really, in terms of the process. But I hope to never stay away too long from one medium or another, where it would feel too scary to go back. I’m lucky enough to keep it all warm.
I read you weren’t particularly a fan of horror before you signed up for “American Horror Story.”
I didn’t not like it. I was certainly not a horror buff. Those weren’t the movies and books I ran towards as a kid. Although I remember watching “Don’t Look Now” over and over and over again. That’s not really horror, though. But horror wasn’t something I was terribly familiar with. When “American Horror Story” came into my life, it was Ryan [Murphy] calling me up and saying, “I’ve written you this part.” He showed me the pilot. I don’t think it was because I hadn’t seen a lot or wasn’t well-versed in horror, but I thought it was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my life. And I wanted to play Nora, and then I played one character after another. It really is about what the role is first, then genre would not even be second in terms of a decision. It’s about if I want to spend whatever amount of time telling this person’s story and wearing this person’s clothes.