The best part of what I do is the opportunity to speak with people I have admired for a very long time. Kathy Bates absolutely falls in that category. The first time I would see her would be in the 1986 television series St. Elsewhere and I knew then she was talented beyond belief!
From series and films I thought I had seen it all until 1990 when she scared the crap out of me in the Stephen King novel to film MISERY. As Annie Wilkes she would make us all afraid of nurses, snow storms and the sounds of hobbling. Again, in 1995 she delivered another Stephen King novel to film stunning role of Dolores Claiborne by the film of the same name.
Even the smaller roles stood out for me as in the 2002 role of Mrs. Belmont in the Kevin Costner film DRAGONFLY and as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in the film TITANIC. Bates would return to television in 2003 with the role of Bettina in the hit series SIX FEET UNDER. Flittering between television and films, this actress reaches so many fans that begin to experience what I have been experiencing for years.
In 2013 the FX series AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Coven brought Bates in for the role of Madame Delphine LaLaurie and the storyline took viewers places only creator Ryan Murphy would dare to go. Thrilled that she returned for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Freak Show, her role as Ethel is a thing of pure beauty!
Having the chance to speak with her will always be a fantastic highlight for me!
Thanks for joining us Kathy!
Absolutely, thank you.
How do you think you identify with Ethel?
Her authenticity and her strength, her struggle and also since I’m a cancer survivor, although she certainly had the liver cancer. I really identified with that scene in the doctor’s office.
How was it wearing the beard?
It felt like a little hummingbird’s nest. I have a wonderful wig lady, her name is Victoria Wood. She works with a lot of people. I first got to see her work with Melissa McCarthy on our movie Tammy. It took me a while to realize it was a wig, and I said, “That’s a wig?” and she said, “Oh, yes.” She gave me Victoria’s name. Then we hooked up for this and she made the red performance wig and she also made the beards that you see. We went through some getting used to it at the beginning in terms of application and what different pieces we would use on the face in order to keep the faces as mobile as possible and also so that the makeup people wouldn’t have to mess with me too much during the day.
What was the process to get the role?
I went in and had a meeting with Ryan Murphy, January before the first season that I worked with him. I have to start back and say, I was telling the previous gentleman, my show, Harry’s Law got cancelled and then right after that, literally right after that, I was told I had breast cancer and I had a double mastectomy. I was in pretty low shape, especially considering my age because that was the main reason they cancelled Harry’s Law is that our viewership was too old even though we had seven to eleven—okay, just stop. I have to let that go. Anyway, I was in a very low mood, let’s say, and my friend Jessica Lange spoke to Ryan. I had a great meeting with Ryan, and my inner child just woke up during that meeting and got so excited about the character of Delphine LaLaurie. I credit Ryan for not only rejuvenating my career, but rejuvenating my spirit.
This season AHS has had Matt Bomer and West Bentley on the show, how was that for you?
Well, I didn’t get to work with Matt Bomer, and I had seen him on Normal Heart and thought he was just wonderful. I’ve seen, of course, Wes. He reminded me that we had met at a party ten years ago. I said to him, “I really want to work with you.” He said, “Now, ten years later we’ve had the chance.” I just loved working with him with Mordrake.” I was so excited. I thought he did a lovely job with that; trying to create a character who’s not really real or used to be alive, but has that aura of elegant. I just thought he did a wonderful job treading that line.
Being on a television show, I’m curious what you watch?
I binge. I just watched The Bletchley Circle. I troll Netflix for interesting movies. I really troll it for Korean, for Italian, French movies. I have to catch up on The Newsroom. A friend of mine, who was the show runner for Six Feet Under—he was not the show runner, he was one of our producers and he produced Newsroom, as well. When I get home I’m going to binge. I’m also a fan of Homeland. It’s not network TV, but it’s more HBO and movies on Netflix.
Do you know if you’ll be returning? I have to ask.
I really hope so. It’s just such a unique situation to be in as an actor for television that you’ve got a whole new character to create for the next year. I think Ryan really appreciates older actresses who seem to have been—well, I said it earlier. He’s rejuvenated our careers, and he’s put us in front of the public at our best. We have a younger fan base now, and that’s all the reasons why I would come back. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear what the next part he might propose would be.
Working with Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett brings such a powerful trio to the show. Knowing that Jessica is leaving does it make your time special?
I won’t think about it. I don’t want to think about Jessica not being here next year. We’ve gotten to be such close friends now over the last couple of years, and I love her dearly. Working with her is a mystery I never want to solve. Angela, she rocks it. I just saw the trailer on BuzzFeed for Whitney. I’m getting chills now talking about it because I just watched it last night, twice; it looks amazing. I love working with her as an actress, she’s a powerhouse. I love the friendship that we had this year with “Ethel,” and “Desiree” had more to do together with those characters. I think that would’ve been a really interesting arc to explore.
How long have you known about Ethel’s fate?
You know, I really can’t remember. Somebody asked me that the other day. They must have told me, and then I read it in the script. I thought, okay, there it is in black and white. I thought, well, it’s been a good run and we’ll see what happens next; you never know with American Horror Story. It’s weird to see yourself get killed on TV, but I was really happy with the scene between us. It was bittersweet.
You had some intense scenes with Evan Peters and Michael Chiklis, how was the experience for you?
Well, I’ve shot a lot with Evan. I don’t know what it is, but I always forget my lines when I’m working with him. I don’t know if it’s because he’s so cute or when I just get lost in his eyes. When you look into his eyes, working with him, he’s just so real; it just knocks me for a loop. I know it sounds silly saying that. We had a funny scene—well, I can’t tell you about that. Anyway, Michael and I just have a solidity there that I’ve appreciated with him. He’s a sweetheart of a man, and just the opposite of what he looks like. I’ve enjoyed that. I felt like I’ve worked with him before somehow.
You’ve done some incredible performances throughout your career, how do you wind down after a film is done or a scene is shot?
When we’re working, unfortunately it takes me a couple hours to come down at the end of the day because we’re all jacked up. Sometimes it’s 12, 14 hours a day, and you have to just pace yourself. Then, afterwards, when you lose a character—sometimes when you’ve gotten really close with the character, like a friend, like you would in a way, and then you have to move on, you miss that character. I know Sarah Paulson has often mourned “Lana Winters,” not being able to play “Lana Winters” again because that was such a favorite role of hers. Yes, they stay with you; there are some roles for 25 years.
How was the change from Delphine in AHS Season Three to Ethel now in Season Four?
Oh, from Delphine? They’re very different. How did it feel to me? I don’t know, I kind of had to go easy with Ethel when I first got here whereas, with Delphine, she just explodes. I had to find my way gently with Ethel. Of course, Delphine was a real person. I had a lot of research for her that I was able to rely on, so I was very confident taking off like a bullet with her. With Ethel, I really wanted to, well, I just said it; I guess ease into it and find her as we were moving on. I know that sounds kind of, you didn’t know before you started working. I think in some cases you know some things and then you discover other things as you were going along. I think there was a point where I thought, okay, now I know who this woman is. That’s it.
Was there anything this season that was a little startling for you?
Well, you know what? I’ve got the DVDs, and my friend who’s coming to visit me for Christmas hasn’t seen them because he lives in France. I’m looking forward to binging with him, just to sit back and see the thing as a whole piece and see how I feel. That would be the only way I could answer your question would be after I’ve done that. I thought what was shocking at the beginning of the first episode was when the freaks went and chopped the policeman up, and I thought, oh dear God, you’ve just shown these wonderful, quirky people and already fallen in love with them and then they go out and do this. “Twisty” was just unbearable, so I guess, in a way, it has been. Because it is set in the real world, I guess—my sister said this, she said, “I’m not scared of goblins and all that stuff.” She said, “But the real world is what scares me.”
The scene between final you and Jessica was very moving, how was it for you both once it was completed?
Well, relief when we were done. Let me start back at the beginning. When we got the script, and we actually had a couple of meetings with the director on it to talk about the scene itself and how we were going to approach it because on the page it looks like Greek theater; it’s one monologue after another monologue after another monologue. With these kinds of arguments, in real life, it would be people would be talking over each other and all of that kind of stuff. It wasn’t constructed like that, so we couldn’t approach it from that direction.
We did a lot of talking about what was going on in the character’s minds and where they were coming from and would this be enough to—I know one concern from Jessica was, would this be enough for her to turn around and kill Ethel. Then, the shooting of it, oh my, Lord. For some reason it got scheduled on the last day of the week at 11:00 at night. She, especially, was just dragging because she had been working all day and all week.
Then, I had no idea she was going to knock the table over and do all of that. I thought the blocking was good, too. I thought Brad Buecker blocked it very interestingly because she’s got this huge tent; we were circling each other. That’s what we tried to accomplish was, to make those monologues really effective and real, even though they were written as these two titans, Greek gods fighting.
American Horror Story can be a little freaky and scary at moments, what do you think it says about us all?
Well, I think that’s an aspect of it. It’s sort of like homeopathy; you take a little bit at a time. I also think that the world has always been a troubled place to live. We think these are the worst times, and maybe they are in some cases because of the issues that we’re dealing with, certainly with the Ferguson and the Garner, which I’ve been watching. These things happen, people do go on serial killers like “Twisty.” They might not be all dressed up but look at Ed Gein. It’s like my sister did say, it’s the bad things that go on in the real world that are more upsetting and more frightening. Anyway, I think I’ve gone on too long about this.
In the next incarnation of American Horror Story where do you hope it goes?
Well, I was telling Sarah, I said, okay, I would love to be dressed in all of St. John, St. John mitts and stuff and I would love to be sitting in this beautiful, carved chair and I would love to have cloudy eyes, totally cloudy that you couldn’t see out of and be a modern day Delphic oracle. I don’t know why I see that character. Then, she gets to sit down all the time because I hate getting up and walking around. I’m so damn lazy. It would just be so much fun for her to be there, and in a kind of rarified eye cloud, as it were, and have her expend her advice every now and then. That’s just a joke. I’m sure Ryan will come up with something much better than that. I would love that. The Crone, she would be the Crone.
Don’t you think Ethel and Elsa are a bit like Dolores and Vera (DOLORES CLAIRBORNE, 1995)
I never thought that. I guess because I start from scratch each time. But I do have to agree with you, that’s my favorite film role. I did say to Jesse when we were starting; we were both looking at the scripts. I said, “Damn it I’m playing your maid again this year.” Yes, now that you bring it up it’s absolutely true. Yes.
Is there anything you’d like to see AHS bring up?
The thing that just sprang into my mind was self-image, and this is a very female thing, but maybe it’s becoming a male thing, as well; how we worship beauty and how to explore that issue. Not necessarily, it could be modern day, it go across the decades; but to go to bed a Venus and then come back and have to deal with cellulite; something like that. They would have to come out in the world and be a size 14 instead of a size 2 and live with that reality and how that changes people’s view of you. He’s explored ageism last year a lot and in Jessica’s character this year. I remember years and years ago having dinner with Diane Keaton, and she said, “After 40, you become invisible.” Jessica was saying the same thing the other night at this award thing that she received. She was the only woman to receive the Kirk Douglas Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival; it’s all been men.
She remarked that when she saw her film clips she could see that at about age 40 the films got fewer and far between, especially for leading ladies. I would love to see some exploration of that, and vice versa; what would it be like it you woke up and you were a Venus and having to deal with everybody’s attention and men coming onto you constantly and what that might be like. It’s always, maybe the grass is greener. I don’t know.
Has American Horror Story brought you any other roles?
Yes. Actually, I’m going to have a wonderful role, and Xavier Dolan. He’s from Montreal, and he won the Jury Prize at Cannes and he’s got this wonderful screenplay that we’re doing this fall. He’s 25 years old, this kid, and he’s just so much fun. I met with him in L.A. a couple weeks ago, and just brilliant script, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant script. I’m very excited that that’s come my way.
Another screenplay that Jeff Blitz has written called Table 19, which I’m hoping to do later this spring, about a wedding. I hope I’m not saying too much out of school. I don’t know if they’ve announced any of this. It’s about a wedding, and Table 19 is the group of people that nobody wanted to invite to the wedding but they had to. It’s very funny and a wonderful screenplay, so I’m very excited that I have lots of things on my dance card now.
Would you ever want to direct an episode of AHS?
Yes and no. I threw it out to them, but now when I see what happens with the schedules, and the directors sometimes running back and forth between sound stages, they’re doing two and three episodes at the same time; I don’t think so. I would love to do more television, though.
I’m very keen to see Whitney that Angela’s done, and it just looks incredible as I said earlier in this interview. It made me feel like, gee, I’d like to get back to it. If it were the right situation where I knew I’d have the time to repair and I wasn’t rushing around like a chicken with my head cut off I would love to do it because I love to direct actors.
Is there a role you’ve done that’s really affected you?
I did a playoff on Broadway that won the Pulitzer Prize called ‘Night, Mother in 1983, so doing the math probably 20, 25 years ago. That role of “Jessie Cates” has stayed with me, probably will until I die; it just gets in your marrow. And “Dolores Claiborne”—it all has with time and not the time in between—what I mean is, it’s like anything that you take time to create, and we don’t take time. You work so fast, and those things that you have made and taken time to make are the ones that stay with you.
Here, we work so fast. Jessica and I were talking about, if we had to do film class we would have a kid learn a monologue and then say, okay, you’re getting ready to go do the monologue and suddenly people descend on you; hair, makeup, the director saying, could you just change something here and the DP says, “We had to move your mark.” It’s so fast and you have to make choices so quickly and yet stay so plugged into this character that you’re still discovering.
I’ve answered your question and probably more than over shared as the young people say nowadays. It’s the ones that you’ve crafted well that stay with you and that you miss and that you feel proud of. “Jessie” was the role I felt proudest of on stage and probably in my whole career, and “Dolores” on film.
Now, these roles that I’ve been able to do on television I’m very, very proud of. I’m as proud of “Ethel” this year as I was in a different way for “Delphine” last year.
With AHS being about the supernatural in a lot of ways, do you believe?
Well, my beloved Yorkie, Griffin died. He was a rescue, and he was just my heart dog. When he passed away, I asked him to wait for me. This is before I had gotten another couple of puppies, but I’d feel him jump up on the bed.
Oh, and another thing happened, too. I was looking around to get another dog after him. At first I wasn’t sure and then we picked up a rescue and I brought him home and walked into the bedroom and Griffin’s picture fell off the mantelpiece. It was like he was saying, not here, not now.
I did end up getting two puppies after my operation. I think he’s moved over to my niece, Linda, who he adored. Often times she’ll tell me that she’ll be driving and he’ll either be in the back seat or the passenger’s seat and she’ll just catch a glimpse of him and he’s there. I think he’s still hanging around, but he may be a little put out with me because I’ve got these other dogs. I believe in it, it’s just not the dogs either. I think there are people around. I know there was a woman who lived in the house that I have now who was an artist. There were two big paintings of hers in the studio. She was there while the paintings were there and she left when the paintings left. My friends used to stay in the room where she died; it was a guest room. They would always say, okay, Marion was there last night. So, yes, I do believe.
And I believe in Kathy Bates! I’ve loved her work for so long and there isn’t anything she can’t do. Murphy chose a thoroughbred when he asked Bates to jump on board the AHS train with the rest of the stellar cast. Trust me when I say people are already guessing what incarnation she will show up in next. I personally can’t wait!
American Horror Story: Freak Show can be seen Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. on FX!