Kathy Bates: an actor with plenty of character
Donald Clarke talks to the actor about sexism, ageism, cancer and the joy of ‘Misery’
Kathy Bates as the deranged Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s ‘Misery’
Kathy Bates and Eddy Izzard in François Girard’s ‘The Choir’. Photograph: Myles Aronowitz
Kathy Bates: “I had no idea it would take off. In fact, when I saw the first screening, I was horrified. I thought, ‘Oh dear God, I’m on a limb and I’ll never be able to crawl back’”
You won’t want to hear that the inestimable Kathy Bates, one of American cinema’s powerhouses of charisma, is a reticent sort who hoards her words in miserly fashion. Happily, you won’t have to. On screen this week as a kindly headmistress in François Girard’s The Choir, Bates, now 67, positively boils with energy and resilience.
“My great-great-grandfather was from Dublin,” she enthuses in that seasoned southern voice. “He ended up as physician to [US president] Andrew Jackson and stayed with him throughout his life.”
Bates has had cause to draw on that strength in recent years. Since finessing a successful stage career into character stardom with Misery 25 years ago, Bates has been blissfully unavoidable. Titanic, Dolores Claiborne, Fried Green Tomatoes, Primary Colors, and About Schmidt are just a few of the films in which she was the best thing. But there are challenges out there for a senior character actor. Three years ago, Harry’s Law, her hit TV series, was cancelled because the audience was seen as being “too old”.
“They said they couldn’t ‘monetise it’ on the age of our audience,” she says. “Right after that I had a double mastectomy and I thought, ‘Fuck, everything is over’. Then I got a call from Ryan Murphy and that kickstarted my career again. So I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Murphy, creator of American Horror Story, found delicious roles for Bates in the third and fourth seasons of that delightfully camp TV series. Mind you, few of us would have said that Bates was in need of a comeback. She has felt like a welcome part of the cinematic furniture for decades.
“Unless you pick up some role in a ‘tent-pole’ release – with a sequel – then it’s very tricky,” she says. “The ones that are most fun are the indies. But they tend to have a $5 million budget and you’re working for scale, which is really nothing.
“To be out there scrabbling for those roles is very difficult. I keep reading about older actresses who have to sell their houses because they can’t get hired.”
Bates has never held back when discussing the stubborn sexism and ageism that still infect Hollywood. In a recent interview with Larry King, she tore the industry a second one over its treatment of “women who traded on their beauty years ago and now can’t get hired”.
In the interim, American actor Rose McGowan was in the headlines when she claimed she was fired by her acting agent for complaining about sexist casting notes for an Adam Sandler film.
“I just read about that. Yes. Rose McGowan? Is that right?” she says. “Simply put, it is because men are still running the studios. They still have these fantasies: a man in his 60s with a woman in her 20s. You see it in real life. And of course women are participants too. But movies are all about beauty and fantasy.”
Bates lets loose a good-natured cackle.
“I’m guilty of it too,” she says. “When I go onto a set, I look around and wonder if there is any eye candy. So we can have a good time coming to work. Okay! But the ageism is appalling. I have seen beautiful women hit 30 and fall off the face of the earth.”
Bates blithely admits that, always classed as a “character actor”, she has not encountered these difficulties in later life. It hardly needs to be said that this is a good thing and a bad thing.
Born in Memphis to parents already well into middle age, Bates had the acting bug from an early age. She studied theatre at Southern Methodist University and, on graduation, made her way to an unfriendly New York City. I can’t imagine that, as a young woman, she set her sights on character parts. Somebody must have made that decision on her behalf.
“Yes. Very, very early on,” she says, with no apparent regret. “My parents went to see me do a play at university. They talked to my acting teacher. They were concerned. Nobody from the family had wanted to go to this forsaken New York City before. They asked my teacher and he said, ‘She’s not conventionally beautiful’. And that was the seed of it. I was always told, ‘You’re not going to work until your 40s.’ That turned out to be true.”
She exaggerates slightly. But the early days were tough. Bates secured an apartment in the Upper West Side that, 30 years before that area secured upmarket Boho status, was “really quite dangerous”.
She can be seen briefly in Miloš Forman’s brilliant satire of the hippie ethos Taking Off. She and her friends also staged theatre in a disused porno cinema off Times Square. Some years after that she moved back home and then to Washington DC, where she did children’s theatre. Eventually, as 40 loomed, she secured a few significant roles in the theatre.
It was, however, her turn as the deranged Annie Wilkes, terrorising poor James Caan in Rob Reiner’s Misery, that nudged her towards full-on fame.
“I never expected it to be that big, though I knew it was a step up to work with someone like Rob,” she says. “They were originally thinking of Bette Midler, I think, but Rob felt it would be better if nobody knew who this woman was. I had no idea it would take off. In fact, when I saw the first screening, I was horrified. I thought, ‘Oh dear God, I’m on a limb and I’ll never be able to crawl back’.”
No crawling back was required. Indeed, Bates went on to beat an impressive field – including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts – to take the Oscar for best actress in 1990. She was close to being the favourite, but it is still impressive to watch the assurance with which she took the stage.
This was an arrival to cherish. Hollywood looked at Annie Wilkes and said, “Here’s somebody we can work with.”
“Thinking back, I should have taken my mother,” she says. “I don’t know if she could have manoeuvred the corridors. But I wish I’d thanked her.
“She was born in 1907. She and my father gave up so much for me to be alive. It took so much money to give me the education I got. She was there in front of the TV at my sister’s.
“Years later, I have been more aware of what she gave up.”
Bates has been married twice and has had to cope with serious health problems. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 and had to have a double mastectomy for breast cancer nearly 10 years later. After that trauma, she came down with lymphoedema: fluid retention that often results from the removal of the lymph glands. None of this seems to have quelled her spirit.
“Yeah, I am still trucking along,” she says with southern swagger. “I am grateful I have a job. And I am grateful that it’s something I enjoy doing.”
nThe Choir is out now on limited release and on volta.ie and is reviewed on page 11