Kathy Bates by Michael O'Keefe

“I feel that I have made a career at doing what I’ve been told.”

BOMB 35 Spring 1991
035 Spring 1991
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Kathy Bates. Photo ©1990 Michele Singer.

Kathy Bates and I first met ten years ago, most nights and days, eight shows a week, performing as brother and sister in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July on Broadway. Then she was merely a great actor with numerous stage credits including the suicidal daughter in Night Mother. Now she’s becoming a “very hot ticket.” Her performance in Misery, the new Stephen King thriller directed by Rob Reiner with William Goldman translating from novel to screen, is scaring the shit out of everyone, especially successful white male writers with a persecution complex. Having just returned from an arduous five months in a Brazilian rain forest, shooting the Hector Babenco adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s At Play In the Fields of the Lord, she was on her way to South Africa to begin work on Athol Fugard’s film The Road to Mecca. Between Brazil and South Africa, she alighted long enough in Los Angeles to cop Best Actress at The Golden Globe Awards. Our conversation took place the day before the Award ceremony at the Village Coffee Shop in Beachwood Canyon.

Michael O’Keefe My hero, you just ordered a bacon lettuce and tomato? Did you get it on white bread?

Kathy Bates (laughter) No!

MO Like some concession to health, right? So how did Misery go down? Did they audition you, screen test you?

KB They just gave it to me.

MO They just offered it to you. Had they come to see you in Frankie and Johnny?

KB I don’t know if Rob saw that one, but he came to see a play I did out here by Wallace Shawn, Aunt Dan and Lemon. I had heard through the grapevine—through friends—that he really wanted to work with me on something, this was two or three years ago. And then the summer before last I got a call from my agent saying Rob Reiner was going to do this movie called Misery. And I said, “Have you read this?” Because I knew what it was about, I knew the book. She said, “No.” I said, “I think you’d better (laughter) take a look at this book because it’s quite an unusual role.”

MO Misery is a classic thriller, but it also seems to be about the dark side of being a celebrity, especially for Stephen King—the fear that someone out there, an excessive fan, someone you’ve never met, is intimately familiar with you and your work, and wants to control what you do.

KB Stephen King told me that he set out to write a nightmare, the worst monster that you could imagine. It’s about somebody sitting on your creative freedom. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, there was a great hue and cry in London. They made him resurrect the character. You know, the power of the public.

MO The worst nightmares are the ones that come true. We saw it at Universal City. There was this guy sitting about five rows down from us, and after your character, Annie, hobbles the writer, we heard this black guy go, “Oh, damn.” (laughter) Then the whole house cracked up. Have you ever watched a movie on 42nd street? The audience talks to the screen, “Watch out! Get the motherfucker…?” That’s what was happening at Universal, we were so pent up.

KB Oh, God. I know. Somebody said they went to a screening in Santa Monica. The last ten minutes the audience stood up like they were at a football game, “Hit her!”

MO Where’s your feminist head at, in terms of the way that film is constructed?

KB Somebody asked me if I think this film is about violence towards women. What about the hour and 15 minutes of violence towards men that preceded that? It’s not some woman being chained up and brutalized for eight hours. It’s these two people who’ve been brought to the brink of desperation going at each other.

I didn’t feel feminism was addressed in the film and I don’t think it needs to be addressed in the film. She’s certainly her own person. She’s done what she’s done in her life. She has her own backbone about things and she’s very opinionated: she knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like, and she knows what she’ll take from people and what she won’t take. She seems pretty well integrated on all that kind of stuff.

MO Except for this little killing thing.

KB Yes, this little killing thing. That rage. But that, as far as Annie’s concerned, comes from a very correct place. From her point of view, she’s doing the right thing. She’s putting people out of their misery. She’s an angel of good will, actually. No one sees themselves as a horrible person. When you do, then everything falls apart, you can’t face anything. She sees herself as a real avenging angel.

MO As I was watching the movie, it became clear that the audience was rallying behind James Caan, egging him on to beat the shit out of her—it could be construed as Hollywood’s tendency to play into misogynist strains that already exist.

KB I got the word, third-hand, from people when they didn’t like the film because of the violence toward women. I just don’t agree.

MO Well, let’s talk about theater. Where do you see the differences between film and theater?

KB I’m used to the stage where an actor has more control over the finished product, what’s put out there every night. Responsibility for the roles we choose to do. Responsibility for how much you can fight with the director over what you want the character to be. And so far, I’ve been a real pussy, but I lose something; my own plug into the character, my own interest in doing it in the first place gets chipped away—it’s a very childish response that happens to me more often than not when I work now—after a while, I feel like I don’t want to play anymore. You know? I don’t want to play anymore. And I don’t know how to remedy that. That, to me, is more of a feminist issue.

MO You’re not always doing what you’re told.

KB No, I am. I am. I feel that I have made a career at doing what I’ve been told. That my main thrust for years and years and years when I went back to work in the theater, after trying Hollywood for half a year, was always, “What do you want me to do here? Tell me what you want.” So I developed the muscles to get me the range to do all kinds of things. I have a tremendous range, but the passion, my relationship to the work, has suffered. It’s not gone, but, it’s faded, so when people sit down and say, “What do you want to do next?” I don’t have any idea. And you could say, “Oh, well, that’s because you’re tired and have so much on your plate.” And partly that’s true, but I’m looking around under the covers there for my passion somewhere, it’s sort of slipping off the edge of the world. That’s why, when I work with people like Fugard, that passion flower blooms in the desert for me.

MO Is it that his passion is so rooted in its own national identity that you grab on to his coattails?

KB No, although I do feel all of those things. He writes and lives his integrity. He lets everything grow: the good weeds, the bad weeds, the flowers, the things you might go, “Oooo, not that.” And then, he patiently reshapes and reforms things with you. Your confidence and your feelings about the work are respected. The unbelievable thing is that he wrote what you’re doing, he’s directing what you’re doing, and he’s acting in it with you. I don’t know how he does it. He’s the kind of person you want to be around all the time because he allows you to be everything you can possibly be. It’s unconditional love.

MO The demands of filmmaking don’t allow for that relationship to occur.

KB You don’t have the time for that kind of exploration with the director in filmmaking.

MO It’s a more contentious relationship…

KB …Because you’re coming up against a strong director who has to know what he wants in order for things to work. But you really throw yourself into this game because it occupies all your time. Think about having the technology to visualize and bring into being a whole world of your creation. And as human beings, we get to go and watch ourselves. Film is the only thing we know that can help us see ourselves doing what we do.

MO This bizarre ritual with semi-mythic overtones that you embody because you are in two places at once. In a major film, you’re in about 1,200 places.

KB That’s what hit me! You know, we’ve worked together on stage—that feeling after opening night, the reviews come out, and you have to go back and do it again the next night and the night after that. The night after Misery premiered, I was in New York for this little part in a Woody Allen picture and I put my head on the pillow and thought, “Whoa, I don’t have to play in Misery tonight.” The second realization was, “I’m playing Misery right now, in 1,200 theaters across the United States.” I told Tony (my boyfriend) that, and he said, “And your performance is so consistent.” (laughter) It was really heady.  

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Kathy Bates as the obsessive fan Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s Misery. Photo © 1990 Castle Rock Entertainment.

MO There’s nothing like fame in the animal kingdom: a single lion in the jungle where everyone goes, “You know him, dontcha? Yeah, you know about him, unfuckingbelievable, he goes around and kills people, I’m a vegetarian…” There’s no class in acting school on how to deal with the publicity that comes with success. A visitor from another planet could think this is how we worship.

KB The airwaves! It’s constant, constant—entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. I’ve had so much publicity to do. Walking down this red carpet at the premier with all these photographers screaming, this little voice in the back of my head was going, “Hey guys, it ain’t this big of a deal, it’s just a movie, it’s just entertainment. I didn’t discover the cure for cancer here.”

MO It’s the second biggest money-making industry in the world.

KB What’s the first one—war?

MO Oil. The only other business that makes more money than entertainment. Why do you think the Japanese are buying every fucking studio in Los Angeles?

KB Or talk shows. Who’s in and who’s out.

MO The gossip commodity and the power commodity become generators for news because it’s all being presented in a news format. We’re seeing it in more or less the same way that we see Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, or Dan Rather.

KB It’s weird, isn’t it? That’s another interesting issue. I’m noticing that the new programs on television are the ones about true events: 911Unsolved Mysteries. So, then you get into an area where the responsibility for shows that are fictionalized is to be as factually accurate as possible. So where do non-fiction and fiction meet and what’s going to be perceived as entertainment in the future? When is it okay to do a thriller about two crazy people beating up on each other, and when does it need to become about feminism? Or about the mentally ill getting angry about being represented in a certain way? Or, when do we sit around the fire and hear the news of the day, and when does it become myth? Or when does it become fiction? Do you know what I’m saying?

MO The mind believes, because of the way it’s being presented.

KB I don’t know how all of this fits together, but…

MO Hopefully, it doesn’t fit together, because it’s kind of a mess, isn’t it?

KB As an actor I’m always asking, “Why am I doing this now? Are you sure you want this to happen?”

I don’t know, maybe I want it both ways, Michael. I do want to be a child because I want it to be in an environment that I can play in, safely. But I also want to have some control over how the game’s going to go.

MO Somewhere, in the back of the producer’s or director’s mind is this issue that separates actors from the origination of the idea. You interpret their creation. It’s right to want to fulfill the director’s vision, it’s their film. It’s wrong to put yourself in a position as an actor where you’re in opposition to their idea. But you also know that you have some point of view that is invaluable to the character. They wouldn’t have chosen you if you didn’t. But we still have this need for paternal approval as actors. How old were you when you started?

KB Twenty.

MO Fifteen. I was a kid and this attention, from a good father figure, yeah, you’re going to try to please him.

KB There are actors who fit themselves to the role or cut and snip the roles to fit themselves. If I make myself do something which initially feels uncomfortable in order to discover what it is that I might not know already, sometimes, I strike gold.

MO The particular path I chose to get into this is Zen. They talk about Beginner’s Mind, being a child at play. What we’re talking about is that you have to have a Beginner’s Mind, but that doesn’t mean you’re dead to a sense of experience…

KB Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

MO That’s what they say in Zen practice, ritual prepares the mind for enlightenment.

KB That’s theater. The words of a play are like a ritual, like a mantra you keep repeating that reveals itself to you in the process of doing it. You don’t get that in film. Now, I’m beginning to hear on sets: “You don’t want to do it too many times because it will become stagnant.” And I’m going, “What? I don’t get it.” Because I’ve done a play for 11 months. But I’ve learned that they’re right. In that particular atmosphere, you can get stagnant doing it six times.

MO It’s because you’re doing one scene over and over again. In a play, it’s an experience every night of the entire scope of the piece. The only thing I know is that you can’t preconceive anything. What I bank on and what actors do best, is to forget they’re acting when they act.

KB I did a film called Straight Time, years ago with Gary Busey and his son, Jake. And Jake, who was five years old at the time said, “I guess acting is pretending but making believe like you’re not pretending.” That’s all it is. It’s making believe. It gets me to a whole other issue, I have spent 90 percent of this year pretending to be somebody else. And in the last couple of months, doing the publicity for the film, I’ve lost myself. It’s like I need to call myself up and say, “Hi, how are you doing? What’s going on?” People wonder if you had amnesia and you forgot who you were, who you would be. Is that weird?

MO What would you do if you woke up and didn’t have…

KB …this mindset. This way of relating to yourself through your past. What would you be? Would you become innocent again? Would you embark on a world, or would it be a nightmare? Sometimes I feel like I have amnesia.

MO That’s the state of mind—as an actor you have to forget your name. We mentioned the potential, to let go of yourself to the extent that all that is present is the piece. I’m not observing myself in the role, or gauging my performance, or editing myself, or writing myself, I’m not wondering whether or not I’m hitting the marks…

KB Devoutly to be wished.

MO One of the central tenets of Zen is that this ego we are attached to is no more real than anything else. Everything is moving, in terms of whether it’s real or not, in how we perceive it. The true test for me of whether I’m doing a good job, is if I’m free from the process.

KB Whether it’s well-received or whatever. Going back to Athol Fugard, he did his last play in a tiny little theater in New York because he just wanted that empty space and his words. He believes that a writer has control over how his work is put out there. And the only reason I’m doing Road to Mecca, is because he said to the powers that be, “I want to use this actor. And if you’re not interested, then there’s no need to talk further.” In my world, the writer says, I will take the money for my screenplay, and ultimately, I give up control.

MO It can change unrecognizably.

KB But then, what’s the point in doing it in the first place? I don’t get it.

MO That’s why writers are suffering. Did you hear the joke about the Polish starlet who came to Hollywood? (No) She slept with the screenwriter. Those guys are getting screwed left and right, you think actors are screwed.

KB Can the producers write?

MO They think they can. That’s the biggest problem in Hollywood. Essentially, because everybody wants to make movies, they think they can. But very few can. How many good feature films did you see in 1990? Name four really good movies from any year.

KB How Green was my Valley

MO (laughter) What year was that?! 1918?

KB But those are the movies I like. On the Waterfront

MO That’s from 1954. My point, it’s hard to make movies. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it. Is there anything you want to talk about, like why you became an actress?

KB No.

MO Your favorite color…?

KB (laughter) No.

MO We didn’t talk too much about morals and what being an actress is. (laughter) You’ve gotten in this groove as this character actress, where is it headed?

KB I just want to stay sane, and work. Since movies last, I would like to do a good movie. I would like to do something that’s going to contribute something to someone. I hope to continue to work. I keep hearing all the statistics about being over 40 and being a female in this business and how there are so few and far between roles. And so I’m concerned about my longevity in the business. I’ve never thought I was particularly good at directing or teaching. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just keep on riding the rail here, it always sounds corny to say this, but I think it’s a spiritual path and I want to have the courage to stay on the spiritual path, whether it results in something that I find particularly pleasurable or not. If this next year takes me in a completely different direction and if the roles aren’t there, and if next year is suddenly the opposite of last year, that I have the courage to follow that path and learn what I have to learn from it. That’s what I hope. And I also really hope that I don’t take myself too seriously because it just gets too boring. And all this publicity, that’s the road that I’m very reticent to go down.

MO But you’re well on your way.

KB I know. I’m in it. I’m being dragged.

MO You’re going to be forced to confront that aspect of yourself that seems least attractive—becoming fair game. The more attention you get, the more attention you will get. So you are going to be more attentive to who you are and what you’re doing.

KB These are the days when you wish you could get instant psychoanalysis and get your shit together in five minutes because the reporters are at the door. I’m the kind of person who would like to go through life and not leave tracks. And I’m in a business that’s a beach.

MO The only reason to become an actor is because you have to, not because you want to.

KB Exactly my point. You do it because you love it and you really get into it. And if you turn around and notice that somebody’s watching, the whole event changes. You’re not doing it anymore. Alan Watts was talking about the nature of the world, how things move and how things change. If you walk down to the river what you see is a river, there it is. If you put a bucket in it, and pull the water out, the water in the bucket is not the river anymore.  

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BOMB 35, Spring 1991

Featuring interviews with Kathy Bates, Philip Taaffe, Lynne Tillman, Kid Capri, Luisa Valenzuela, Meg Cranston, Melissa Kretschmer & Maya Lin, Zhang Yimou, Keith Reddin, Ira Silverberg & Amy Scholder, Jennie Livingston, and James Wines.

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035 Spring 1991