By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Oscar and Emmy winning actress Kathy Bates has wrapped her second season in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s darkly tantalizing anthology series “American Horror Story,” first as the immortal Delphine LaLaurie in the third season, titled “Coven,” and now in “Freak Show,” as bearded lady Ethel in a circus act who is quite mortal, as fans of the series recently discovered.
Of course, the one predictable aspect of FX’s “American Horror Story” is its unpredictability, so who’s to say whether Ethel will remain six feet under. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
The Memphis-born actress recently spoke by phone about working again with Murphy and Falchuk as well as the ensemble cast (including pals Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett), playing another unforgettable character and what’s ahead.[private]
Q: What is it that you most identified with in Ethel?
Bates: Her authenticity and her strength and her struggle. Also, I’m a cancer survivor and she had liver cancer. I really identified with that scene in the doctor’s office.
Q: Was the beard scratchy?
Bates: It wasn’t. It felt like a little hummingbird’s nest. I have a wonderful wig lady; her name is Victoria Wood. I first got to see her work with Melissa McCarthy on our movie “Tammy.” We hooked up for this and she made the red performance wig and the beards that you see on the show. It took some getting used to at the beginning in terms of application and what different pieces we would use on the face in order to keep the face as mobile as possible and also so that the makeup people wouldn’t have to mess with me too much during the day.
Q: Did the beard make you want to play with more gender-bending roles?
Bates: One of my fantasies would have been that, in order to break out and see the world, 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. (She had a double-mastectomy in 2012 after being diagnosed with breast cancer.) There’s always an upside to that. I think it would’ve been a lot of fun to do that.
Q: How did this role initially come to you?
Bates: I went in and had a meeting with Ryan Murphy before the first season that I worked with him. My show, “Harry’s Law,” was cancelled and then right after that—literally, right after that—I was told I had breast cancer. I was in pretty low shape, especially considering my age. That was the main reason they cancelled “Harry’s Law,” because our viewership was too old, even though we had a lot of viewers. Okay, I have to let that go. Anyway, I was in a very low mood, and my friend Jessica Lange spoke to Ryan about me. 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 also rejuvenating my spirit.
Q: What’s it like working with Angela Bassett and Jessica Lange for a second season? Jessica has said this would be her last season and that she is retiring. Has that added something extra special to the season for you?
Bates: 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 rocks it. 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. We had more to do together with those characters. That would’ve been a really interesting arc to explore.
Q: Did you and Jessica Lange rehearse your final scene together a lot, or did you guys just talk about it a little and just go in and do it?
Bates: 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 talking over each other and all of that kind of stuff. But the script 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. 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 p.m. She, especially, was just dragging because she had been working all day and all week.
I had no idea she was going to knock the table over and do all of that. I thought the blocking was good, too. So we tried to make those monologues really effective and real, even though they were written as these two titans or Greek gods fighting.
Q: What was your reaction once you guys finally finished it?
Q: What happens on set after you film your final scene? Are there any goodbye traditions for you?
Bates: No, because you’re not sure if you’re really finished with the scene. We left that night not knowing if we had to come back and do a couple more pieces or not. No, you don’t say goodbye. You move on.
Q: Could Ethel return before the end of the season?
Bates: There’s an old saying in showbiz: leave them laughing. You want to leave them when they’re still in love with you. It’s been a great go for me, and we’ll see what happens next.
Q: Do you know yet whether you’ll be back for the next “American Horror Story?”
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. 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.
Q: How far in advance did you learn of Ethel’s departure, and what was your reaction when you found out how she was going to go?
Bates: I really can’t remember. They must have told me, and then I read it in the script. I thought, “Okay, there it is in black and white. 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. It was bittersweet.
Q: Throughout your career, you’ve played some very powerful characters that are sometimes a little controversial. How do you find that power when it comes to performing these characters, and how do you wind down after it?
Bates: Unfortunately, it takes me a couple hours to come down at the end of the day because we’re all jacked up. Sometimes we work 12-14 hours a day, and you have to just pace yourself. Sometimes, when you’ve gotten really close with the character, like a friend, and then you have to move on, you miss that character. Yes, they stay with you, some roles for 25 years.
Q: Would you want to direct an episode of “American Horror Story?”
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 so I don’t think so. I would love to do more television, though. “If it were the right situation where I knew I’d have the time to prepare 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.
Q: Has the unique nature of Ryan’s repertory company taught you or changed your approach acting as an artist and as a person?
Bates: Somebody very wise told me a long time ago that acting was like practicing veterinary medicine, and each one is a different animal.
Q: What are you doing next?
Bates: I’m going to have a wonderful role on a Xavier Dolan film called “Mommy,” which also stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Chastain. I’m very excited that that’s come my way. And Jeff Blitz has written a film called “Table 19,” which I’m hoping to do later next spring. It’s about a wedding reception, where at Table 19 is a group of people that nobody wanted to invite 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.[/private]