The actor picked up strength training for her new role in the Amazon Prime series "Tell Me Your Secrets." Now, she's a weight-room convert, and her strength is sure to show on-screen.

By Lauren Mechling
February 18, 2021
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"I don't do well with just dipping a toe in," says Lily Rabe. No matter the role the actor is preparing for — be it Sylvia, the Nicole Kidman's best friend in the recent HBO hit drama The Undoing, or any of the characters she has brought to unsettling life on the cult anthology series American Horror Story (an ever-growing collection of characters including but not limited to a witch, serial killer, and ghost of an heiress) — she throws herself in full-bore, whatever it takes to access a new spirit and physique.

Still, things were a little different for her latest project, as the anchor of Tell Me Your Secrets, a dark and twisted series coming out on Amazon Prime on February 19.

Credit: Getty Images

For one thing, the 38-year-old would be taking on not one but two roles: Karen, a woman who makes the mistake of falling for a serial killer; and Emma, the new identity Karen is given when she comes out of prison and enters witness protection, traumatized and feral from time behind bars. Preparing to become Emma was not a matter of abstaining from junk food and dialing up her jogging routine. Rabe was going to have to get ripped — not necessarily for purely aesthetic reasons, but as a way to demonstrate how hardened her character had become, and a clear nod to her ability to defend herself. When Rabe first met with Houda Benyamina, the acclaimed French filmmaker who directed the pilot for the Amazon series, "she told me she envisioned Emma's body as looking like Brad Pitt in Fight Club," the actor recalls with a laugh. At the time, in 2018, Rabe had a newborn daughter who was not yet three months old. "I panicked for a second," she admits. "And then I said: 'I will work out every single day from now till the day I show up.'"

Rabe kept to her word and then some — often clocking workouts multiple times a day. Her friend, the actor Chris Messina, introduced her to the trainer Johnny Fontana, the owner of Vitru, an exclusive functional training facility in Hollywood that's popular with A-listers (including the likes of Shay Mitchell and Nina Dobrev) and NFL players. Rabe instantly liked Fontana's holistic approach as well as the gym's lo-fi vibe. "There was nothing frilly about it," says Rabe. "People aren't going there to look at one another, everyone is there for themselves."

Rabe had a little less than two months to train for the pilot, and then when the series was picked up, four more months to develop the hardened physique that Benyamina envisioned (all filmed pre-COVID, mind you). "She wanted to get in the best shape of her life," explains Fontana. "She was playing a badass, and she wanted to turn into one."

So the pair embarked on a plan, with a little bit of cardio and plyometrics and a lot of strength training with free weights, battle ropes, sleds, and pull-ups. "I had her doing so many deadlifts her hands were calloused," says Fontana. "People usually get annoyed when that happens, but it was a point of pride for her." They played it as they went along, taking inspiration from the workouts taking place around them at the gym, mostly enacted by big, burly men. One of the regulars, Cleveland Browns' star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., could be counted on to cheer her on.

"It kind of changed my life," says Rabe, who has always been athletic but who had never tried weight training. As she pushed herself to new limits, she found herself shedding notions about fitness and beauty she'd spent a lifetime unwittingly fostering. "Cardio is such a wonderful part of working out, but I was misinformed in terms of always thinking it should be front and center," she says. "I don't think I weighed myself at any point of it, and that was such a wonderful thing. It wasn't about: How many pounds did I weigh, it was how many pounds could I lift?"

Meanwhile, she was following a fat- and protein-heavy diet that would complement her weight training and support her milk supply, as she was breastfeeding her daughter. "It took some trial and error," she says. "I wasn't denying myself calories, I was pouring cream and stirring ghee into all sorts of things."

By the end, she had a core like never before, and unrecognizable arms and shoulders, all of which pop on the screen and lend an edge of menace to the show. "She looked like somebody who could beat you up," says Fontana.

Credit: Courtesy of Lily Rabe

When it was time to ship out to New Orleans for shooting, Rabe kept up the training with local trainer Jerren Pierce, who would meet her for a lunchtime session or even 11 p.m. parking lot workouts — whatever was needed with her ever-changing schedule. She stayed in fighting form, all the better to take on the heart-pounding scenes in which she trades blows, gives chase, or submerges her body in swampland. "There were no stunt doubles," she says. "It was all me."

Rabe's physical education began insanely early. Growing up in New York, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late acting legend Jill Clayburgh, she was taking ballet classes as soon as she could walk. "I have so many memories of leaving school 10 minutes early and changing into tights and a leotard in the car to dance school," she says of her first serious commitment to a craft. The pursuit of precise body control continued as an adult, with regular Pilates practice.

Working on her muscles in a new way, especially at this particular stage in her life, led Rabe to love her body as never before. "I had just gone through this whole experience of pregnancy and childbirth which is absolutely amazing," she says. "I had such newfound respect for my body and what it was capable of doing." She wasn't punishing it with her new fitness routine; she was paying it respect.

Credit: Courtesy of Lily Rabe

After witnessing Rabe's transformation, her partner Hamish Linklater (who appears alongside Rabe in Tell Me Your Secrets as a reformed sex offender who will do anything for a second chance in life) started seeing Fontana as well. "She would come home glowing from all the different things she was able to do," says Linklater. At the gym, Linklater says he felt slightly intimidated to be surrounded by NFL players, but also excited and fascinated. "It seems so chill and gentle and cool at Johnny's, and then you realize that you're soaked in your sweat and vomit, and he tricked you into doing what only what Greek gods ought to do," he says. Rabe, on the other hand, considers that a selling point: "Hamish once said, 'I always feel like I'm going to throw up when I work out with Johnny, and I said, 'Yes, that's the point!'"

These days, the pair is laying low in their Los Angeles home, with their three daughters. When she's not on set filming Season 10 of American Horror Story, Rabe has been keeping it simple, with a little meditation, regular talk therapy, and skin-care products from Los Angeles aesthetician Shani Darden and Augustinus Bader's The Cream (Buy It, $85, revolve.com), the moisturizer everybody who can afford to gets their hands on raves about. (People are also obsessed with the brand's face oil, FTR.) "My makeup bag has been gathering dust," she says, not sounding too sad about it.

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Rabe is staying active, tending to a toddler and an infant, and partaking in at-home dance parties and trampoline sessions with the help of Lekfit streaming rebounder classes. She also has a Peloton on the way. "I haven't quite mastered the workout from home thing, but I'm trying," she says. "I'm such a loner by nature, but I'm used to that gym energy, that's what I thrive on."

She is itching to return to Fontana's gym. "I would love to have a job where I was a superhero," says Rabe. "Then I'd have an excuse to do it all over again."

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