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Copyright © 1995-2008 Scott Larson

Public Interview with Kathy Bates

One of the tricks our minds play on us is the idea that we “know” people by virtue of having seen them act in various movies and/or television programs. Sometimes we confuse the actor with a character if he or she is particularly identified with that character or if we have seen the actor play that particular character only. So, it can be a bit of a jolt to see the actor in a non-acting setting, i.e. on a talk show, and find they are very different than any character we have seen them play. I guess that’s why they call it acting.

Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting when I saw Kathy Bates interviewed in the traditional on-stage, recorded-for-radio Sunday slot of the 18th Galway Film Fleadh, following a screening of a film that had given her top billing, Fried Green Tomatoes. (Or, as my ticket stub had it, “Fried Green Kathy Bates Interview.”) I had seen enough of her performances so as not to expect the sociopath Annie Wilkes from Misery. But I suppose I was expecting someone more bubbly or exuberant. What she was, however, at least in this setting, was a very serious, business-like professional. She could have been your accountant or your school teacher. And her hairstyle made her look, oddly and unexpectedly, a bit like Shirley MacLaine.

She was certainly funny at times, but in a very dry way. The only true burst of energy we saw was when she described how her niece convinced her that she absolutely had to take a role offered her in Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy. But the energy was entirely on the niece’s side of the conversation. Her account of her own side of it was that of, well, a bit of a fogey. But this isn’t to say that she was condescending about the experience of working on a Sandler film. She said it was great fun and had only warm things to say about Sandler personally. And, no, it wasn’t the false warmth that so many actors seem to exude when talking about one another. When she praised a colleague, it was real. And it was clear when her opinion of someone was less than glowing.

Mostly she had praise. She lavished it on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with whom she worked in the low-budget film Love Liza, and Warren Beatty, who cast her in a small role in Dick Tracy and wanted to cast her in Reds but couldn’t because she couldn’t get a visa to go abroad for the filming. On the other hand, she decidedly declined to join the chorus of actors who praise Woody Allen. She was in one Allen film, Shadows and Fog, and described the experience as very frustrating, since the actors were given very little information. She described Allen as the same neurotic personality one sees in his acting roles. “So you are not interested in doing another film with him?” inquired interviewer Myles Dungan. “No,” she replied, adding wryly, “and after this interview, I don’t think I’ll have to.”

Bates was asked if she kept up friendships with actors with whom she shared emotionally intricate roles, for example James Caan, her costar in Misery. “James Caan and I did not become friends,” she said simply. There was no hint of any feelings toward Caan, either positive or negative. She merely was stating an honest fact.

Dungan probed her about the fact that, in her early days as a stage actor, she had some very well-respected performances in plays that wound up being adapted for film with another actor in the role. She was very matter-of-fact about her disappointment. Her roles in Crimes of the Heart, ‘night Mother and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune went to Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively, in the movie versions. Summing up her character in Frankie and Johnny as “someone who has nothing to look forward to,” she archly observed, “I don’t think you can look at Michelle Pfeiffer and think she has nothing to look forward to.” After lavishing profuse praise on the late Anne Bancroft, she then pointedly declared that Bancroft was not nearly as good in the film ‘night Mother as her stage costar Anne Pitoniak and that it was a shame that it was Spacek and Bancroft’s version and not her and Pitoniak’s that had been preserved on film. An exception to the recasting indignities was Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which director Robert Altman filmed with the original cast.

Bates said she believed that she was cast in her breakthrough role in Misery because director Rob Reiner was dating the actor Elizabeth McGovern. Bates was costarring in a play with McGovern and Reiner was in the audience nearly every night. He apparently saw something of Annie Wilkes in the character she was playing and was impressed with her command of the role. One interesting regret Bates expressed about the movie was that her character only pounded Caan’s foot with a sledgehammer instead of sawing it off, as in the book. The special effects at the time didn’t allow for it to be done right, she said. She thought the novel’s version was more “poetic” because of the symmetry with the early scenes where the character nurses him.

Asked to name her favorite movie role, she named, not surprisingly, Delores Claiborne, noting how rare it is for a character actor like herself to get a lead film role and one as complex as that one. Upon discussing her role in Primary Colors (a thinly veiled look at the pre-presidential Clintons), Dungan asked her if she was a Clinton supporter. “Yes, and I still am,” she replied, adding that unfortunately reality had far exceeded the movie by the time it came out. Asked about any personal political significance for her role in the 1989 TV movie Roe vs. Wade, she said that she really hadn’t thought about it because everything was overshadowed by the fact that her father died on the final day of shooting.

She spoke enthusiastically about her work as a director. She has directed a number of television shows, particularly Six Feet Under, on which she also acted. Among her TV movies, she directed one in 1995 called Talking with. She spoke movingly of how her friend Jessica Tandy, who won an Oscar the same night she did and costarred with her in Fried Green Tomatoes, had agreed to take a role in it but died before filming began.

It is apparently a requirement to be Irish or Irish-American to be invited for an onstage interview at the fleadh. Bates was dutifully asked about her Irish roots, and she told how her great-great-grandfather Doyle emigrated to New Orleans and ultimately became Andrew Jackson’s doctor. She was also invited to tell a strange story about how her grandfather acquired a mummy that may or may not have been the corpse of John Wilkes Booth. She tickled the audience when she proclaimed definitively that Irish actors are the best in the world. And she inadvertently caused a potientially awkward moment when she talked about an upcoming project that was filming “here in the UK.” I could feel a palpable shudder run through the audience, although I think most discerned that she meant “here” as in “this side of the Atlantic” and not that she thought that Galway was part of the United Kingdom. She was on better footing again when talking about playing Colin Farrell’s mother American Outlaws.

Asked to give advice to anyone who might be nominated for Oscar, she suggested that one do what she did, i.e. leave the country until the day of the ceremony. Asked about advice to those who might find themselves in a hot tub with Jack Nicholson, as she did in About Schmidt, she said simply, “Just enjoy it.” (Attended 16 July 2006)