Kathy Bates Talks ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

Kathy Bates American Horror Story Freak Show Interview
Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling in ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ (Photo by Michele K. Short / FX)

Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Misery) is proud to be a part of FX’s critically acclaimed anthology series American Horror Story, and with American Horror Story: Freak Show series creator Ryan Murphy gave Bates one of the more intriguing characters of the season. And in this conference call in support of the current season, Bates chatted about what it means to be a part of the series, her Freak Show character, and her co-stars.

Warning: Make sure you are caught up through the December 3, 2014 episode (“Blood Bath”) before reading this Q&A.

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on FX on Wednesday nights at 10pm ET/PT.

Kathy Bates American Horror Story: Freak Show Interview

What is it that you most identify with in Ethel?

Kathy Bates: “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?

Kathy Bates: “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 more with gender of this character?

Kathy Bates: “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.”

Can you talk about initially signing on American Horror Story?

Kathy Bates: “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 […]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.”

Who’s been your favorite guest star this season?

Kathy Bates: “Well, 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 [Bentley]. He reminded me that we had met at a party 10 years ago. I said to him, ‘I really want to work with you.’ He said, ‘Now, 10 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.”

Do you know if you’ll be back for the next season of American Horror Story?

Kathy Bates: “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.”

The whole cast is wonderful but you’ve got some serious female power on the set. What’s it like working with Angela Bassett and Jessica Lange for a second season, especially since Jessica said this would be her last season and that she’s retiring? Has that added something extra special to the season for you?

Kathy Bates: “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, [and I wish they] 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?

Kathy Bates: “You know, 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 you didn’t really shoot much with Evan last season and Michael is new to the show this season?

Kathy Bates: “Well, 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.

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.”

How did it feel to go from Delphine in Coven to Ethel in Freak Show?

Kathy Bates: “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 [like] 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.'”

Was there a part of this season that freaked you out a little bit?

Kathy Bates: “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. 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… 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.'”

Did you and Jessica Lange rehearse that key scene a lot or just go in and do it? What was the reaction once you finally finished it?

Kathy Bates: “Well, 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 characters’ minds and where they were coming from and would this be enough. 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.”

Can you speak to how that accent came about and was it hard to stay in it the whole time filming?

Kathy Bates: “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.'”

If it were up to you when you come back next season, what world would you like to see yourself in?

Kathy Bates: “Well, 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.”

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?

Kathy Bates: “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 coud 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.

Ryan’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 if 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.”

If you had the opportunity to direct an episode of American Horror Story, would you jump at the opportunity to do that?

Kathy Bates: “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.”

This season, other than Mordrake, American Horror Story hasn’t really been focused on supernatural elements. What is your personal thought on the paranormal? Do you believe in ghosts and spirits?

Kathy Bates: “Yes.”

Have you ever had an experience?

Kathy Bates: “Well, 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.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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