You tend to believe American Horror Story star Lily Rabe when she calls the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park initiative "the best job." After all, she's gotten to play two of the greatest female roles ever written — Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Rosalind in As You Like It — at a venue unlike any other in Manhattan, Central Park's open-air Delacorte Theater. Not to mention the fact that she has starred opposite legendary talent like Al Pacino.
Hamish Linklater has also blossomed at Shakespeare in the Park. The Newsroom actor went from sidekicks like Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night to the comic Antipholus twins and a Drama Desk Award nomination for The Comedy of Errors. They're so well-regarded together that it's hard to believe that 2010's Merchant was the only time Linklater and Rabe performed together under the stars at the Delacorte (though they did appear on Broadway as disgruntled lovers in Theresa Rebeck's Seminar), but this summer, that's about to change.
From June 3 through July 6, Linklater and Rabe will tackle a pair of roles that Shakespeare practically could have written for them: Benedick and Beatrice in Jack O'Brien's production of Much Ado About Nothing. Neither can truly recall whose idea it was for them to take on this romantic comedy, but acknowledge that the seeds were planted some time ago. "It started probably three or four years ago," Linklater says. "I think I pitched [Artistic Director] Oskar [Eustis] a different Much Ado, with a different cast and different actors playing our parts, and Lily was like, 'You're an idiot. We should play those parts.'"
Having worked together in the past, they know this experience will have a comfort that other stage plays do not. "I'm a big fan of working with people you love to work with over and over again," says Rabe, who did similarly on the first three seasons of American Horror Story. "You can see that trust," Linklater adds. "You can look away from the person and know they'll still be there." As Rabe puts it, "You can really feel safe and fall flat on your face and know that nobody's going 'ha-ha-ha, I would have tripped her if I could have.'" While it's assumed that they're dating, neither mentions the D-word, though they happily admit that they wouldn't be doing this play without each other. "No way," Rabe says before Linklater interjects with, "Not this one."
Of course, anyone who's seen them onstage knows how well suited they are to play a pair of feuding lovers engaged in a "merry war" of insults. "They're good parts," Linklater says. "And they're so beautiful on their own, and they're so beautiful together," Rabe adds. "It's nice that the parts are the same size so we don't have to feel like one of us is supporting the other," Linklater posits with a chuckle. What attracted Rabe to her role, besides a desire to explore all of the ladies in Shakespeare's work, was the opportunity to play a woman who "knows what it is to be a woman." In her estimation, it's a far cry from Portia and Rosalind, who spend their respective plays "figuring it out." Beatrice "has a sense of herself from the beginning. Those other women are starting to arrive [at that] by the end of the plays."
There was also an opportunity to explore, as actors in their thirties, the concept of a romantic last chance between their characters. "Something all of us liked was the idea of playing these parts, not that we're spring chickens, but we're—" Rabe says, "younger than [others who have played the parts]," Linklater continues. "It's the difference between missing out on love, if older actors are playing it, or missing out on each other, which is what you can have with a younger Benedick and Beatrice." "This is their last chance with each other," Rabe interjects, "but it's not their last chance to be with anyone ever."
For Rabe, the missing-out aspect took on a professional degree when she had to drop out of the latest Hunger Games film, a situation that left non-theater people wondering why someone would drop out of a hugely popular film to do a month-long run of Shakespeare. "I got that job and they knew the dates of the play. And there was a time I was going to be able to do both, but then the schedules changed. It was one or the other, but there was no question. It was laid out from the beginning that if it jeopardized doing the play, I was doing the play." That kind of commitment is unheard-of in this business, but wholly unsurprising from someone who refers to this particular gig as "the greatest joy I have as an actress."
Which is why it's also not surprising that she and Linklater are already planning their next joint venture in the Park. "We'll march through as much canon as they'll let us march through," he says, and you know he's being completely serious. "Would you be interested in seeing us do something that wasn't Shakespeare, by any chance?" Rabe asks, more serious than not. (The answer is, naturally, "of course.") "We're really interested in doing Chekhov," she mentions, "and we're trying to think of what might be the right one for us to do together. And then, for Shakespeare—" "Shrew," her leading man interrupts. Both of their eyes light up. "We would really love to do that one."