Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates and Emmy Winner David E. Kelly have teamed up on the new NBC show, Harry’s Law. Bates plays Harriet Korn, a former corporate lawyer who sets up a legal practice in an old shoe store.
Although Bates has appeared on TV in the past (she’ll soon reprise her role as Jo Bennett in The Office), she’s never starred in her own show. Thanks to Creator and Executive producer, Kelly, that’s all in the past.
Bates and Kelley talked about the show, how she got involved, his writing habits and more in a recent conference call with the press.
Kathy, can you talk about coming to TV and the role of – how the role of Harry challenges you after playing such great characters on film?
Kathy Bates: Yes I can. The role that really attracted me I got my – got the script from my manager sometime last spring and was immediately attracted to this wonderful character who’s rumpled and disillusioned and confused about her life and dissatisfied with things.
And I understand the role was originally written for a man. And I – at one point they changed the name to Harriet. And I said no, no, no, you can’t change it to Harriet. It has to be Harry. It still has to be that. I wanted it to be still this woman who’s very forceful and eccentric and loveable at the same time.
She has a hard time showing her love to people. And she doesn’t quite understand people who are bright and sunny as Jenna is and Malcolm. But she loves being with them and begins to love her new digs in the shoe store when we get going.
David, can you talk about the writing of the show and how you worked it to play to Kathy’s strengths as an actress?
David Kelley: Yes. It was – well first as Kathy said, we had written it for a man and saw a lot of good actors but no one that truly embodied the role to our satisfaction.
So we said okay well let’s think about a woman then. And as soon as we opened the field up to women, Kathy’s name came up first and fast. And everybody unanimously was on board with that.
The trick was getting Kathy. And we were lucky enough that she said – to get her to read the script and she signed on board.
The adjustment of the character really was surprisingly very little. I mean the characters originally conceived was this card carrying curmudgeon brilliant lawyer but one who had become disillusioned with the law. And that truthfully could have been a woman just as easily as a man. So the adjustments were very, very small.
In any pilot obviously you want to cultivate an investment in your lead character. You want the audience to care about this person and welcome he or she into the living room week after week.
And the joy with Kathy is we didn’t have to give her lines or scenes that sort of revealed her tender side or moments that were – would say to the audience see, I’m really a likable person after all. She oozes that naturally.
So we could make her as tough and disgruntled as we wanted to and she would take care of the rest. We knew the – we felt confident that the audience would find an affection for her. And that’s always a luxury for a writer not to have to take those little timeouts from a story in order to demonstrate that your character’s redeeming after all.
She just sort of exudes that.
I wanted to ask Kathy what’s challenging or different for you playing a character over a course of several episodes versus when you do a movie or some of the other work you’ve done?
Kathy Bates: Well the main thing is working with different directors. We get a new director coming in once every eight days. And I find that particularly challenging.
There’s no time to really get to know each other and you really hit the ground running with different people with different styles, different ways of approaching the material and some who are better at talking to actors than others. I find that to be the most challenging of the whole experience.
And playing a character like this where you get a chance to know her probably in different ways is there something a little bit challenging or different about that where you might learn something about her on Episode 5 that you didn’t know maybe when you started the series?
Kathy Bates: Yes, it is a little bit Woody Allen-esk sometimes. It’s, you know, you never know what the next script is going to hold and, you know, where David might be taking the character. And so sometimes it’s a big surprise and it’s an adjustment, you know, getting used to that and moving forward.
What qualities did you see in Kathy that had her jump to the forefront like that?
David Kelley: I guess first of all it was a persona that was very organic to Harry. Her skills are beyond reproach. She’s an Oscar winning actress with good reason. She is, you know, a great dramatic actress and she can also be funny. It’s very hard to find people who have both those muscles.
So it – I guess when you start a casting process you look for best actor who’s right for the role. Kathy was right for the role and she was certainly the best actor available and really best actor we could think of.
Once her name came up, everybody lit up and said she’s perfect. But, you know, we should only be so lucky and turned out we got lucky.
And for Kathy I’d like to ask why the decision to start taking on a series, a regular series role and what appealed to the character that you think will also appeal to the audience to get them coming back each week?
Kathy Bates: Well I just fell in love with the character. I don’t think I was even thinking about television per se. I just – I was thinking about what a wonderful character this was and how it fit me like a glove. And I couldn’t wait to get to work on her.
Kathy can you talk a little bit about jumping between comedy and drama because you have moments of both in the episodes. Is that a easy gear for you to shift?
Kathy Bates: Yes, I’m enjoying that very much. I mean I – the funnier Harry is the better I like it although there’s some wonderful dramatic moments that I get to play. And I love having both those elements in the show.
And without it I think the character would be a bit lopsided. I – and one tone. And it’s not the case. I think she’s a very rich and complex character and I love bouncing back and forth between those two elements of comedy and drama.
Kathy you just said that Harry – you – when you heard of the character you thought she fit you like a glove. So can you tell us how you as a person are most like Harry and how are you most different?
Kathy Bates: Well I think, you know, in my private life I’m probably just as curmudgeonly as Harry, that’s for sure. And I share her disillusionment at times with this crazy business I’ve had a career in for so many years.
And her upfront honesty with people, she suffers fools, you know, she suffers – what – how do you say that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly or whatever but, you know, all of those elements are similar to me in tone.
And she – her – she has a very irreverent sense of humor which I do also. So there are a lot of things that are like Harry. Sometimes I think David’s been, you know, doing some kind of background research on me because I’ll read a new script and I’ll say well how does he know that, you know?
He’ll give me a certain line to say and I’ll wonder well how does he – how did he figure out I felt that way? So it’s a very close fit and I’m enjoying it.
I – just quickly I worked with Marcello Mastroianni many, many years ago. And he said as a young man you want to pile on the masks. You want to put on a lot of masks and play a lot of different characters.And as you get older you want to remove those masks and just play yourself, play closer to your own self. And I found that to be true, especially in this case.
I know you worked with Jessica Tandy, I wonder if you could tell me what it was like working with her and if you learned from her as an actress?
Kathy Bates: Well she was great. She was a one of a kind great lady, a great dame. And she always told me to go back to the theater. That was her way of staying connected to what she was so passionate about which was acting.
And the one thing I remember the most about her was how – what a source of life her work was for her.
When we started working on Fried Green Tomatoes she came to work with jeans and a little jean jacket on. And she looked like a 16-year-old girl out of drama school with her first role. And she was 84 at the time.
And that taught me more than anything that you stay in love with what you do, you know, right the way through and it’ll support you.
Is it true that in one of your earlier jobs you were a gift shop cashier at the Museum of Modern Art in the city?
Kathy Bates: I did. Yes I was actually not the cashier. I stayed – I was the payroll clerk upstairs who counted all the money that they brought in from the cashier from downstairs.
So I had to take all the coins because it used to be coins back in those days and I used to have to take all the coins and count the coins and wrap them and send them off to the bank.
Kathy you make a career out of being an absolute scene stealer, you know, even when you have the smallest role but, you know, doing quite a cast in Harry’s Law. So are you planning to share some of that scenery with your costars?
Kathy Bates: Hell no. Hell no. No I’m going to go on stealing as many scenes as I possibly can. I especially love to scene steals in – scene – steals scenes in which I have absolutely no lines. I would really love to continue doing that.
Does it help when you feel that for that character when you feel close to the character?
Kathy Bates: Yes it does help. It helps tremendously. And it helps me evolve this character as we go along through the episodes and keep exploring and peeling back the layers.
Kathy you mentioned earlier that one of the challenges of doing the series is working with different directors. But you also are a director. Is there any chance that you’ll direct any of the episodes?
Kathy Bates: Not at this juncture. I’ve got my hands full right now. And I’m not sure I would want to just because I’m – I figure in so many of the scenes. I think I’d have to get a couple of seasons under my belt before I could before I could think about the directing.
Kathy you’ve played so many different characters so can you talk about a couple that you get recognized for the most and how do they compare to Harry?
Kathy Bates: Well I – I’ll never be able to duck the sledgehammer jokes. And that’s the main one out there. And who – I think that’s the one I get most often. And so I don’t think she really compares to Harry at all.
And that’s what I love about Harry is that she’s, even though even though she is as David says a card carrying curmudgeon, she’s kind of the most normal character I’ve ever played.
She hasn’t got any particular afflictions or anything. She’s not psychotic. So it’s wonderful for me to have a person like that to play a kind of unglamorous rumpled befuddled curmudgeon. I just love playing her.
David how would you describe your writing process?
David Kelley: Well it starts with – I mean in terms of a series it starts with the characters. And then you look for a franchise to really mine and explore those characters.
It’s – I don’t know that I could really quantify the process. It’s kind of sit down with the legal pad the blank page and sort of – and have a go at it very, very sort of unscientific craft I would think.
I don’t tend to – unlike some, I don’t tend to work with outlines on some series. Some of them, the – a linear show like The Practice for example, you kind of start with the beats an arc the stories.
And but then there are other shows that are much more character driven, I would say Ally McBeal and maybe this one as well where you’re really mining people and themes.
And you start with is almost like instead of a linear beat sheet you’ve got a big circle and you’re mining these people.
And then once you sort of identify what your themes and stories are then you sort of go back and re-craft it into coherent storytelling. It’s very, very inexact.
And, you know, we throw a lot of stuff up against walls that sticks and doesn’t stick like I think every writer’s room.