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Lily Rabe is accustomed to tackling characters who can be otherworldly in one project and incredibly grounded in another. Looking through her impressive filmography, you’d think her time on American Horror Story alone would expose her to a treasure trove of characters to inhabit. But in The Tender Bar, directed by George Clooney and co-starring Ben Affleck, Rabe’s role takes her closer to home. The actress chatted with SheKnows about playing Dorothy Moehringer, and exploring the balance between helping her character’s son meet his potential, while leaning in towards optimism.
Based on the memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer, Rabe’s Dorothy in many ways becomes the heart that beats at the center of the film. The movie adaptation follows J.R.’s life from little boy to college graduate, coming from little money and finding himself at Yale, then the New York Times. Every step of the way, his mom is there to offer her support, and encourage him to reach every monumental stepping stone. But Dorothy was never a woman who wanted to live vicariously through her son, and that struck a chord with Rabe. “That was something that was so apparent to me in who she was when I first read the script — and then again when I read the memoir — there was such a specific quality about her that I was so interested in,” Rabe shared with us.
“Because, of course, she is ambitious for her son and wants him to have opportunities that she didn’t have. But that isn’t because she wants him to sort of fulfill her own dreams and live vicariously through him. She really, really just wants him to find his way towards a joyful life and to find his voice in the world,” Rabe continued. “And I think she knows that he has everything he needs to do that. And so it’s just her job to somehow make him aware of that, and to feel that, and that’s sort of what they’re all doing for him.”
When J.R.’s father abandoned him and Dorothy, the mother-son pair moved back in with Dorothy’s family, including her parents and J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, played by Ben Affleck. The warmth — and oft times familial exasperation — between each family member is, much like the title suggests, tender. And that same tenderness carried through for Rabe while playing Dorothy, a character whom she didn’t want to wholly let go. “It’s not always that you want to keep the roles that you play with you,” she confessed. “Sometimes, even if you’ve loved playing them, there is that moment when you finish and sort of feel so ready to say goodbye. And I didn’t feel that way about her at all.”
When it comes to what she learned from Dorothy, the actress hopes “to hold on to her sense of humor. She has this wonderful way of moving through the world when things are difficult. There’s something in the book about how she would sing when she was feeling particularly sad, she would sing sort of even louder in the car. I think that kind of determination to lean in towards positivity is something that I really hope I do hold on to, and I feel so grateful to her for having given me even more of that in the playing of her.”
The Tender Bar debuts in theaters December 17, and is available to stream January 7 on Amazon Prime Video.
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