Q&A: Kathy Bates Talks ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ and How Acting Is Like Practicing Medicine
Kathy Bates is like the best utility player you could ever want on your baseball team. Give her the ball and she’ll always knock it out of the park. If you watched her on American Horror Story: Freak Show this season, you’ll know she did just that. It’s amazing how good she is and on a consistent basis.
She participated in a recent conference call to chat about her time on the show, fake beards, working with Jessica Lange and how acting is like practicing veterinary medicine.
What is it that you most identify with in Ethel?
Kathy Bates: 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 scratchy was that beard?
Kathy Bates: It wasn’t. 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.
Did the beard make you want to play with more gender roles with this character?
Kathy Bates: Oh, God. One of my fantasies would have been that, in order to break out and see the world that “Ethel” would’ve gone out as a man and been in a suit and a fedora and everything else just to see what it was like out there. Especially since I don’t have breasts anymore, there’s always an upside to that, you can do character tits. I think it would’ve been a lot of fun to do that.
Do you have to audition for each season separately? Is there an audition process or did they come to you?
Kathy Bates: Well, I haven’t had to audition for many years, but what I did do is, 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.
Do you know yet whether you’ll be back for the next American Horror Story or not?
Kathy Bates: 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.
What’s it like working with Angela and Jessica for a second season, and especially because I believe Jessica said this would be her last season and that she’s retiring? Has that added something extra special to the season for you?
Kathy Bates: 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.
I wanted to know, how far in advance did you find out about Ethel’s death, and what was your reaction when you found out how she was going to go?
Kathy Bates: 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 really great scenes with both Evan Peters and Michael Chiklis this season. What was it like shooting with them, because I know you didn’t really shoot much with Evan last season and, Michael, of course, has been new to the season?
Kathy Bates: 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.
Throughout your career, and then especially with American Horror Story, you’ve played some very powerful roles and sometimes a little controversial. How do you pull that power when it comes to performing these characters, and how do you wind down after it?
Kathy Bates: 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.
The versatility that American Horror Story provides the actors is just amazing. I was wondering, for you, how does it feel to go from “Delphine” in Coven to “Ethel” in Freak Show?
Kathy Bates: 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.
There was a scene in one of the past episodes with you and Jessica Lange and it was just incredible. Did you guys rehearse that a lot, or did you guys just talk about it a little and just go in and do it? What was the reaction once you guys finally finished it?
Kathy Bates: 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.
You touched a little bit on Wednesday’s episode and how you were killed off, but what happens on set after you film your final scene? Are there any goodbye traditions for you?
Kathy Bates: No, because you’re not sure if you’ve finished the scene. We left that night not knowing if we had to come back and do a couple of pieces or not. No, you don’t say goodbye, you move on.
Can you speak to how your accent came about, and was it hard to stay in it the whole time filming?
Kathy Bates: Well, gosh, that accent has become so controversial. I didn’t really have a dialect coach to help me, that’s first of all. I knew she was from Baltimore. Ryan said, but light. When I got into it, I studied Mikulski a lot. I actually had a dialect coach friend of mine spell it out phonetically, what it was supposed to be.
Then online, I found, if you can believe this, how to speak Baltimorese, and from that you had a link that could go to the “Star Spangled Banner” in Baltimorese, which really helped me prepare every day. Although, I did stay in it for the first—I spoke that way every day. It just got to be sort of ridiculous how perplexing and how people got turned off by it and there were things online, they got two scholars, which I just couldn’t believe.
At times I thought, oh my God, am I not doing this right? A close friend of Ryan’s was on set for a while, from that area, and he really helped me with it. You can’t do it lightly, it’s a heavy accent and I also wanted it to sound like old-fashioned working class, so that’s even more different than what people are used to hearing. Then, the funny thing was is that a guy asked two of his friends who were from Baltimore what they thought of my accent. They said, “What accent?” I feel like, okay, case closed. I’m moving on.
You said that the show had rejuvenated your career and I was wondering, had that translated into anything like do you have more upcoming roles that you’ve been offered that you’re going to be doing?
Kathy Bates: Yes. Actually, I’m going to have a wonderful role, and Xavier Don—I know I was going to screw this up. Oh, I have to look it up, Xavier. I’ll look it up on my phone because I just met him.
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’ll get his name here in a minute; Xavier Dolan, D-o-l-a-n. 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.
You’ve directed before. In fact, you had a DGA nomination for Six Feet Under several years ago. If you had the opportunity to direct an episode of American Horror Story, would you jump at the opportunity to do that?
Kathy Bates: 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.
You said earlier how certain roles stay with you for a long, long time. Do you have any more examples of roles that have affected you that much?
Kathy Bates: 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 overshared 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.
Every role that you take, an actor always learns something a little different approach [sic]. The nature that you said, the unique nature of Ryan’s repertory company, has that maybe taught you or changed your approach acting as an artist and as a person?
Kathy Bates: Well, I learned a long time ago, somebody very wise said that acting was like practicing veterinary medicine, and each one is a different animal. As I said earlier, you really start from scratch.