Kathy Bates Interview
Kathy Bates, who portrays “Ethel” on American Horror Story: Freak Show spoke to us (and others) about the show, her career, paranormal events and more. Below, an edited version of that conversation.
Can you start by talking about what is it that you most identify with in 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 scratchy was that beard, and did it make you want to—
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?
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.
What is the audition process for this series like? Do you have to audition for each season separately? Is there an audition process or did they come to you?
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.
If you can speak to it, at what capacity could “Ethel” be returning, and if you also feel like maybe her character had more to contribute to the season with her big twist in the most recent episode; her being killed by her long-time friend, “Elsa.”
Well, I always say, and it’s an old saying in showbiz, leave them laughing. You want to leave them when they’re still in love with you. I trust Ryan. It’s been a great go for me, and we’ll see what happens next.
This season, in particular, we’ve seen a ton of guest appearances from Matt Bomer, Wes Bentley. Who’s been your favorite?
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.
When you’re not working do you like to watch TV and, if so, what do 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 yet whether you’ll be back for the next American Horror Story?
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.
You’ve got some serious female power on the set. 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?
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 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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
How did you feel about this season since it was a little twisted and dark. Was there a part of this season that freaked you out a little bit?
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 the other night with you and Jessica Lange 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?
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.
We 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?
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.
Last season you had this wonderful dress that really brought “Delphine” to life and this season you’re very toned down but that accent. Can you speak to how that accent came about, and was it hard to stay in it the whole time filming?
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.
This season, to me, is definitely the most visually appealing of the series. Even though there are some supernatural aspects and it’s one of the, if not the most, believable season, to me. It’s more unnerving since scary things that happen in the show are carried out by humans, yet we gravitate towards it as an audience. What do you think that says about us? Do you think that we all just have this dark side to us that we just live vicariously from the safety of our couches when watching shows like this?
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.
If it were up to you, if you come back next season, what world would you like to see yourself in?
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 d*** 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.
The relationship between “Ethel” and “Elsa,” it’s very reminiscent of “Dolores Claiborne” and “Vera Donovan.”
I never thought that.
Was that relationship — Was it written that way, maybe, to pay some homage to what I would say is arguably your greatest role—
Oh, thank you.
— or, would you say that maybe you brought that little bit of “Dolores” to “Ethel?”
I didn’t think about it to tell you the truth; I don’t know why. 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, “D*** it I’m playing your maid again this year.” Yes, now that you bring it up it’s absolutely true. Yes.
Is there a fear that you haven’t seen on American Horror Story that you would love to delve into and see brought to life.
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.
You said that the show had rejuvenated your careers 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?
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?
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?
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.
The repertory nature of this being — familiar nature of being around people all the time, does that help you with the role, make it easier to do since you’re in a familiar environment?
That’s true, working with some of the similar people, the same people. I think, also, there’s an excitement [to it]. It’s like a kid playing dress up really. You just get very excited about the newest one.
American Horror Story has had a supernatural theme, for the most part, for every season, not so much this one. This one, other than Mordrake’s character hasn’t really been that focused on the supernatural elements, but yet it’s still very compelling and completely fascinating. What is your personal thought on the paranormal? Do you believe in ghosts and spirits?
You do? Have you ever had an experience?
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.
Yes. 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.
Excellent. Thank you so much.
Oh, it’s a good question to end on isn’t it?