[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Love & Death, “Ssssshh.”]
Lily Rabe had heard about the Candy Montgomery-Betty Gore case, but it wasn’t until Nicole Kidman, an executive producer on Love & Death, reached out to her about playing Betty that she began to research.
“It always excites me to hear, ‘It’s so different from anything you’ve done,’” Rabe tells The Hollywood Reporter about her conversation with Kidman. “I always love when it’s like, ‘This is nothing like you and nothing like anything you’ve done.’”
What Rabe would find in her research and portrayal of Betty — the real-life Texas housewife who was murdered in the 1980s by her friend Candy Montgomery, played in the series by Elizabeth Olsen, when she was inexplicably struck by an ax 41 times — that she was able to relate to her more than she anticipated as she began to understand her more. “Betty is handled throughout the story, and there’s so much misperception about what’s really going on with her. I’m always so interested in that, as painful as it is,” she says.
Below, Rabe discusses the experience of being very pregnant herself while filming the infamous murder scene between Betty and Candy with her co-star and director Lesli Linka Glatter, something she calls “tremendously profound and tremendously painful,” while sharing why she believes the real Betty Gore was so misunderstood.
How much did you know about the real Candy Montgomery case and Betty Gore’s death when this project came to you?
My awareness was so minimal. Deep in the back of my brain I think I had maybe heard it once, but it wasn’t something that I feel I was aware of. And then I read the script and that sort of sparked a sense of a memory about it. But as you read the script, you just think: It can’t all be true. And then I read the Texas Monthly articles and then I read the book [Evidence of Love], and then of course I read everything I possibly could. I really do feel I was introduced properly to the story through the job coming my way.
What drew you to Betty? And, was this the role they came to you about from the start?
Yes. Nicole Kidman called, I think the night before I got the offer, and said, “This role is coming your way and here’s why you are the person to play it. It’s so different from anything you’ve done.” And that’s always something that excites me to hear. I think Nicole has such impeccable taste in material, and then hearing it’s a true story. I loved working with David [E. Kelley, creator] so much on The Undoing, and I’ve had kind of a talent crush on [director] Lesli Linka Glatter for a long time; I love Homeland so much.
So then I read the script and I was really taken with Betty. I had read the first episode or two before I met with Lesli and David and we got on a Zoom, and we talked about this kind of relentless fear and feeling that Betty has. David wasn’t going to diagnose her, but this idea that there is something she is going head to head with during the course of this story, and it’s not being named and she has no support. And because of what the community and time period [1980s] is, and what her access is, she has no ability to reach out for the kind of support that I think could have helped so much.
What about her resonated with you most as you began to portray her?
That kind of loneliness and that lack of feeling safe or if she’s being told the truth was so compelling to me. Even though Betty is so different from me and the way she moves through the world is so different — and that’s something that Jesse [Plemons, who plays Betty’s husband Allan Gore] said as we got to know each other, “Gosh, you couldn’t be more different from this woman.” But I so related to that deep sense of, “I am not getting the full story. I’m not getting the truth.” And how destabilizing that can be. And also, when something shifts in your life that changes your chemistry or the way you are experiencing your day to day. We have so much now; we have all of this access. And, she didn’t have it. And that loneliness and that sort of descent further and further into that loneliness, that was the thing about Betty that I was the most struck by and that I really wanted to investigate and spend time with. And really try to give voice to. Betty is handled throughout the story, and there’s so much misperception about what’s really going on with her. I’m always so interested in that, as painful as it is.
I spoke with Lesli Linka Glatter and she said that she believes Betty was undiagnosed bipolar. What were your conversations like about not diagnosing her while portraying her, and also walking that line of not vilifying but not glorifying her as well?
I think not vilifying and not glorifying was sort of the way in overall and for everyone. That is something we talked about very early on. They felt strongly that Betty was undiagnosed bipolar and that resonated to me without naming it. The thing about this story is that we don’t get to hear from Betty; we just have Candy’s testimony. So there was this voice, the voice I was holding, that we don’t get to hear. I felt very protective of that.
What we know is that when the Gores were in Kansas before they moved and before she had her first kid, everyone sort of talked about Betty as someone who moved through the world with a tremendous amount of ease. She was voted most likely to succeed. She had this smile that everyone talked about. She was popular. And she really fell in love with Allan and they shared their academic life; they wanted to have a family and there was romance there. She was a bright, shiny presence. And then when they relocated, and we can’t pin the timeline down exactly, but there was absolutely a shift in the way that other people were perceiving her. There seemed to be a kind of anxiety. She was in some kind of distress. I feel that most people were not handling this distress properly and by treating her like someone who might break or explode, that only isolated her more. Instead of just giving her space to be supportive and communicate.
In that time when so few women had careers, which is a big theme of the show, Betty had one. She was a teacher and she was a teacher when they moved and she was plotting her pregnancy, not just because she was Type A, but because she wanted to have her baby in mid-summer so that she wouldn’t miss school and leave her students. She had an enormous amount of ambition and focus and integrity. And I think it was just constantly misunderstood. I also think, she’s not guileless. She’s very direct. She doesn’t have a lot of filter, and I think the way she communicates could be isolating for her. Sometimes people don’t quite know what to do with that. But to me, there’s such humanity in that. She’s really just trying to connect and speak her truth, and she’s also simultaneously trying to figure out what the truth is.
Is there a period after their move to Wiley, Texas that you can pinpoint some of this shift?
When Jackie [the pastor played by Elizabeth Marvel] leaves the church, she was almost this planet everyone in town was orbiting around. And then when she falls out of orbit, all of the planets start crashing into each other and they don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Betty is the only one asking, “What is going on here? This is terrible.” Everyone is sort of glossing over it. They all think it’s terrible but Betty is the only one really saying it. But then that isolates her, because everyone wants to handle it in this glossy way, and she really wants to talk about what’s happening and how hard it is.
Something Jesse and I talked about right from the beginning with Betty and Allan is that there is so much of an effort from Betty to connect. I almost saw her as someone reaching through this void trying to connect to the people who she wants to connect to, but it’s like the room keeps getting darker and darker and she just can’t see them or they can’t see her, so she just gets further and further away. But what she’s actually trying to do is the opposite.
You noted that there is no way to get Betty’s side. The show is based on Candy’s testimony; she’s the one who survived. I spoke with Elizabeth Olsen and she said you and her spoke a lot about the murder scene and the lead-up to it. Can you talk about your experience filming that scene?
I’m sure Lizzie and Lesli told you, we choreographed and rehearsed the steps that are taken. The way we shot it is from the account from Candy, from her testimony. That was something going in that the three of us really talked about. Lesli was really careful about getting more than she would need to be able to figure out the balance that worked in the edit. But only one person came out of that room.
I certainly have my feelings about what 41 blows to another human being could ever mean. It’s so impossible to imagine. And the number is indisputable. In terms of the autopsy; that fact was never in question. It’s a tremendous amount; unfathomable. And the other part of what we know happened, which I still can barely talk about without leaving my body, is that Betty’s baby was in the other room in the crib. When they found the baby, she was dehydrated and had been screaming.
We really planned out the sequence; Lesli had storyboarded it, we had stunt and blocking rehearsal to really go through the beats with the testimony. It was a lot of very long shots, which I always love. So we had all of that. But there was no way to then sort of prepare for what it was like to actually shoot the scene. The thing that was so surprising to me and that was really profound… I was in the grips of this fact that I knew, but then suddenly it was so overwhelming and I really don’t have the words for it because I never experienced anything like it. But Betty thought she was pregnant at the time of her death. There is that scene in the show where she says she thinks she’s pregnant again. So, we know that. And then we know from her autopsy that she in fact wasn’t. At the time of her death, she believed she was pregnant.
How pregnant were you when filming the scene?
I was very pregnant when we were shooting it. Very pregnant! I had two heartbeats in my body and Betty believed she had two heartbeats in her body. And the idea of being struck that many times and how long she stayed alive was something that when confronted with it in the moments of shooting it, it was so profound. We fight for our own lives, but the way we fight when it’s more than that… and she was a mother regardless, but then this additional thing of feeling like she was pregnant at the time. It was really tremendously profound and tremendously painful.
The beginning of the murder scene is shown in the fourth episode, before being shown fully in the finale. But, you filmed it once. Was that towards the end of the shoot?
It was towards the end of when I was shooting. It was one of the last things I shot.
What was that experience like to be pregnant while portraying Betty?
Before we started shooting, I was pregnant and I called Susanne Bier and Lesli on the same day, because I was about to go do The First Lady and this right after. What was so wild with our show is that Betty is pregnant for so much of it. So we did this kind of amazing dance, like when she has the sonogram, that’s my belly. Whenever Betty is pregnant and we see it, that is my belly. With my first two children I didn’t show for quite a long time, but with my third, all of a sudden! But it was kind of amazing because we used it when we could.
When we shot [the murder], I was quite pregnant. We shot the sequence only once but we shot it over a number of days. I believe it was a Thursday/Friday and a Monday/Tuesday. So it was kind of like sustaining this note. It’s like this piece of music that we were in for what felt like six days. I don’t think I could breathe for these six days, because even though we had these two days where we weren’t shooting it, it was just so consuming. But they had was a body double who was a belly double, so they were able to take just my abdomen out and replace it in certain shots. It was wild. And there are other times where that happened, too. Because we were not shooting sequentially; there was some cross-boarding of things and block shooting.
Elizabeth said you were going for it with your stunts for the scene, requesting more than she wanted to do. Can you talk about getting into the physicality of the scene to put yourself in her shoes?
In my experience of doing stunts, pregnancy aside, there’s a tremendous level of respect and deference for what an actor wants to do. There’s no kind of one-size fits all. Some actors don’t want to do any, some actors want to do all of it. Some actors, it’s figuring out what feels right in the moment. But it’s always a conversation.
I am someone who — again, pregnancies aside, I’ve worked through three of them now — loves doing physical work. I always have. I love doing stunts. I love the physicality of the character. I was a dancer. It’s so much of my way in. I don’t even like to have a hand double. When they’re like, “You can go home early and we’ll have this other person write this letter or type this message or pick up the phone,” I always want to do it if I can, if it doesn’t mess with the schedule. And maybe it’s coming from the theater but to me, your fingertips are part of your performance. So I always want to do as much as I can safely.
Certainly when there’s another person involved, then it always has to be about making sure the other person feels safe. And I think we just figured it out. There were times where, if I had to fall to the ground, even if it wasn’t about contact, I think Lizzie wanted to have her stunt doing that with me. But for me, I felt I knew how to keep myself safe and my baby safe. There is a stunt double doing a lot of it, but I did as much as I could, and as much as they would let me (laughing). But listen, I was hung up from a tree in Underground Railroad when I was super pregnant with my second; I did all sorts of crazy things on American Horror Story when I was pregnant with my first. But, pregnant women run marathons. If you know your body, you can do anything really. So it was definitely an added element, but I’m pretty scrappy!
Lesli said the three of you would hold each other and weep after filming. That sounds very intense. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. Lesli is such a bright light and has this boundless energy. Whatever time in the morning, she just was always in the most wonderful mood. She’s very buoyant. There were just times shooting it… and it might be why I sometimes am struggling even now to find the words, because I don’t quite have them, but there was something really profound happening that I think surprised all of us.
There were moments where Lesli and I would just look at each other, or I would be laying on the ground covered in blood, and she would just hold my hand and she was crying. But we weren’t really talking about it. It felt like this deep moment of saying, “I’m here and I feel what you feel.” It was wild. And I felt that with Lizzie, too, throughout shooting. And I hope she felt the same. We would in moments of quiet, and just sort of sit. We were on a stage during [the murder scene], so we had our chairs next to each other in this enormous warehouse-like stage. And we would just sit there and have a hand on a knee. There was a lot of wordless communication. I feel very bonded to Lizzie and Lesli in a way that I did going into that scene, but it deepened it certainly.
If you could ask Betty a question now, what would that be?
Oh, God. (Pause.) I would just want to tell her how sorry I am that she went through what she went through.
When you see the title card updates about where everyone is now at the end, it seems like Candy found a way to move on after her acquittal and that Betty’s family was just never the same.
How could they have been?
Have you seen the finale?
I haven’t yet. But I read it, and we shot it. (Laughing.)
Do you not like to watch yourself?
I don’t have a sort of rule for everything. But it’s not atypical. I often don’t. I love watching things when they’re still in process. I love watching when I go to do ADR or a rough cut. Sometimes when something is finished, I don’t. But it depends. I think about Betty all the time. This is a show that I’m definitely going to watch. I’ll know when it’s the right time for me to do it and I will.
In your upcoming projects, you are reteaming with some of the Love & Death team, and you are also directing. Anything you want to tease?
I directed a movie [Downtown Owl] that’s premiering at Tribeca with the father of my children [Hamish Linklater]. (Laughing.) We’ve worked together many times, we just keeping working together. But Lesli and Jesse and Lizzie and Tom Pelphrey, and David, and Matt Tinker… there are so many people on this one who, whether I had worked with them before or not, I would want to work with them again and again.
Will you be back on Shrinking and will we ever see you back on American Horror Story?
I can’t answer either of those things!
Is the AHS thing fun to keep open, the curiosity around if you will be a part of new seasons?
I think it’s such a great indicator. People love what Ryan [Murphy] has set up with this actor troupe that keeps coming back for more. Now, more and more shows have done it. But he really started it and did it so successfully.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Love & Death is now streaming on Max.