“She’s a rubber band that’s been stretched and is right at the point of breaking but is sort of living in that state,” explains Lily Rabe about her character Ethel Wells on Barry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), the actor discusses the “desperate state” in which Ethel finds herself, highlights Ethel’s multilayered infatuation with Cora (Thuso Mbedu), and finally teases the upcoming installment of “American Horror Story.”
On “The Underground Railroad,” Rabe appears in two episodes: the third, titled “North Carolina,” and, briefly, the seventh, titled “Fanny Briggs.” Her character, Ethel, is married to her husband, Martin (Damon Herriman), with whom she resides in an unnamed North Carolina village in the middle of the woods. Rabe points to Ethel’s “fraught” and “complicated” relationship with her father, Edgar — who does not appear on the show but plays an important role in the source material — as shaping the relationship with Martin, specifically the “unbelievable tension” between the married couple.
When viewers first meet Ethel in the third episode, “she’s in her place of worship and on her knees,” Rabe describes. Even before she knows what is happening, “she’s pleading for help, for oxygen, for some kind of guidance, because she’s so trapped,” the actress continues. Even though Ethel is begging for assistance and guidance in the face of her seemingly “untenable” state, Rabe elucidates that her character is so committed to “her religion and her belief system” that she has no plans whatsoever to leave or “break out of it.”
Matters take somewhat of a turn when Martin, also the local Underground Railroad station agent, brings Cora into the fold and hides her in their attic alongside underage Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), another Black runaway. Although Ethel initially treats Cora in a rather rude and hostile manner, she shifts gears once Cora becomes sick. “Her hostility towards Cora, her volatility, her violence towards Cora — it’s all incredibly present,” Rabe says, accentuating that, at the same time, however, Ethel “wants her there.” Having Cora in the house, “activates everything that’s been bubbling under the surface for Ethel,” who is not only obsessed but also in love with Cora, so the actor.
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When Cora then falls ill, “it’s her [Ethel’s] way to take over the relationship, to take over from Martin and her father,” Rabe carries on. Expanding on this, she explains that Ethel, who firmly believes that all answers lie in God and the Bible, is “holding those answers for Cora” and considers herself “the answer for Cora.” Reciprocally, Ethel “feels that Cora has come to her as some of answer for her, as an indication for what she is supposed to do next,” the actor concludes.
Finally, Rabe, who was in eight of the past nine installments of FX’s anthology series “American Horror Story,” teases the upcoming tenth outing, which is titled “Double Feature.” In it, she’ll be playing Doris Gardener, who is “nothing like any of the characters I’ve played on ‘Horror Story’ before,” Rabe enthusiastically previews. The actor adds that “the world is completely different” and that the season’s core subject matter is “incredibly compelling.”
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