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Entertainment & Arts

Lily Rabe: Driving ‘Miss Julie’

The day after the Academy Awards, Lily Rabe was recovering from a night of hard partying around Hollywood. Against her better judgment, she and a friend had danced until dawn even though she was battling a persistent cold.

As an experienced theater actress, Rabe isn’t one to let illness or fatigue get in the way of punctuality. The 30-year-old actress arrived early to an interview to discuss her upcoming performance in “Miss Julie” at the Geffen Playhouse. And though she had trouble finding the right words to express herself, she was remarkably alert for someone operating on so little sleep.

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Los Angeles has become a second home for Rabe in recent years. Her success on the New York stage — a Tony Award nomination and two highly successful Shakespeare in the Park performances — paved the way for multiple television offers, including a major role on the popular FX series “American Horror Story.”

PHOTOS: 2013 spring arts preview - Theater

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“Miss Julie,” which opens in May, will mark her L.A. stage debut. The actress will play Strindberg’s aristocratic heroine in playwright Neil LaBute’s adaptation, which sets the action in the Roaring ‘20s.

Settled into a plush armchair in a lounge at the Geffen, Rabe sipped a cup of tea intended to fortify her senses. Off the bat, her most striking trait is her voice — deep, almost husky and somewhat at odds with her porcelain features. It’s a powerful, sonorous voice that seems made for the theater.

First, some practical questions to get out of the way: No, “Miss Julie” won’t interfere with shooting the third season of “American Horror Story.” Rabe says the new season doesn’t begin production until late summer.

In the past, she juggled the demands of the series with her stage commitments. During last season’s Broadway run of “Seminar” by Theresa Rebeck, Rabe would board a plane after the Sunday matinee performance so she could spend Mondays shooting her role in L.A. and be back in New York in time for the Tuesday evening performance.

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“I’ve gotten used to those flights,” she said with a smile. “It’s nothing.”

Rabe said the allure of “Miss Julie” was the challenge of playing a great classical part with the added benefit of working for the first time with LaBute. She also mentions the attraction of performing in the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater, which has only 119 seats.

“We will actually be able to whisper!” she said.

That’s a luxury Rabe has not had in most of her New York theater performances. Last summer, she performed the role of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in New York’s Delacorte Theater — an outdoor space in Central Park where actors must compete with the sounds of helicopters, sirens and other ambient city noise. There’s also the oppressive heat and humidity that comes with high summer in Gotham.

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“It’s Bikram Shakespeare,” said Rabe, referring to the copious perspiration she has experienced performing outdoors in period costumes. Nonetheless, she said she would do it every summer if she could.

Rabe was immersed at an early age in New York’s theater scene, thanks to her parents, playwright David Rabe and the late actress Jill Clayburgh. She studied acting at Northwestern University outside Chicago and made her Broadway debut shortly thereafter in a 2005 revival of “Steel Magnolias.”

Growing up in a theater household in suburban Connecticut, Rabe said acting was a common topic of conversations around the dinner table. “But we also talked about other things — you know, boyfriends and girlfriends. It was very normal,” she recalled.

Some of Rabe’s memories of her mother are focused on the theater. She fondly remembers attending the 2002 Broadway revival of Turgenev’s “Fortune’s Fool” with her mother, a production starring Alan Bates, who appeared with Clayburgh in the 1978 movie “An Unmarried Woman.”

Clayburgh died in 2010 after a 21-year battle with chronic leukemia. Her death came while Rabe was in previews on Broadway in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with Al Pacino. The actress returned to the stage the day after her mother’s death.

“It’s very difficult for me to talk about,” said Rabe, her voice trailing off.

Daniel Sullivan, who directed Rabe in “Merchant,” believes her return to the stage “was remarkable, but it was also sort of a measure of her relationship with her mother. That’s what her mother wanted her to do.”

Sullivan, who also directed Rabe in “As You Like It,” said they are talking about reteaming on another stage project. “We’ve talked about a lot of different things. ‘The Seagull’ is a possibility. And we’ve discussed more Shakespeare. She likes to scale the heights,” he said on the phone from New York.

PHOTOS: 2013 spring arts preview - Theater

Rabe was able to act onstage with her mother in regional theater, but she has never performed in a play by her father. She wanted to appear in his drama “In the Boom Boom Room,” but the actress said he was uneasy about her playing the role of an erotic dancer.

Instead, father and daughter are teaming on a movie titled “We’re Just Married,” with an original screenplay by the elder Rabe and directed by Rodrigo García. Rabe said she hopes filming will begin this year.

Strinberg’s “Miss Julie,” written in 1888, follows the interactions between the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat and the below-stairs servants — in particular, an ambitious manservant to be played at the Geffen by Logan Marshall-Green. LaBute updated the setting to the 1920s because “I wanted to see how far the play and its themes would stretch while retaining the power that already exists on the page,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.

LaBute didn’t have Rabe specifically in mind for the heroine, but he said the character “has to be brave and silly and sexy and imperious and childish and so many things in a short period of time; [Lily] is like mercury onstage. She moves from the highs and lows of a character within milliseconds.”

Rabe said she has read only a few drafts of LaBute’s adaptation and that rehearsals won’t begin until late March. While on the West Coast, the actress calls West Hollywood home. “It’s weird here — I actually know my neighbors. That doesn’t happen in New York,” she said.

In her down time, Rabe is an avid New York theater buff. She is particularly enthusiastic about a recent revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre and her brother Michael’s recent debut as a playwright.

The actress recalled a piece of advice her mother once gave her to cope with the often anxious times between acting jobs.

“She told me to remember to get on with your life, to keep on living when you’re not working,” said Rabe. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

david.ng@latimes.com

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