In the 13-episode, fifth installment of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning franchise, American Horror Story: Hotel ventures into The Cortez, an infamous hotel in Los Angeles that is operated by The Countess played by international superstar Lady Gaga. Featuring an all-star cast including series regulars Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Evan Peters, Dennis O’Hare and Chloe Sevigny, the series welcomes in expanded roles Matt Bomer, Wes Bentley and Cheyenne Jackson. AHS was co-created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Kathy Bates is an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress with a career spanning all mediums, with successes as an actress in front of the camera as well as behind it as a director. From scaring audiences in Misery and AHS to making them laugh on Harry’s Law and Primary Colors, Kathy Bates is a creative force to be reckoned with. This is her third season on American Horror Story and we sat down with the icon, discussing her long career, what kind of roles interest her and why she loves working in the horror genre.
You play this heartbreaking role of a mother that’s got an overbearing love for her son and cannot be loved back. Can you speak a little bit about how you see her, and how you developed this character with Ryan?
Well, I didn’t–Ryan presented the character to me, and this character was very hard to get a read on. I mean, even with costumes–we tried different kinds of looks for her. I think I originally thought, and so did the costume designer, that we weren’t talking about a hotel this grand. We had an idea that it was more kind of small and funky and stuff. So originally we went for different types of costumes, more dowdy, more–even like old hippie stuff, because I thought from that period, it might be. But then when we saw this, we went “Holy crap! She’s got to look like a hotel person to begin with.”
I don’t think I developed it so much with Ryan. I just began feeling my way along. I’m the kind of actor who loves to have wigs and accents and all that kind of stuff. I really like to play dress-up. So I found this character very, very hard, because I didn’t have any of those things–I felt naked. And at the very beginning, when we first shot, I really didn’t–I just didn’t know who this woman was and what direction she was going in.
And the other frustrating thing I find working, at least this season, was that you don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know what is coming up. And what began to make sense to me was that this woman–OK, the first thing I thought was, “OK, what is she doing every day? She’s waiting.” That’s all she’s doing. All she’s doing is waiting for a glimpse of her son. And that’s the first thing that I thought. “What do you do when you’re waiting?” So I thought, “OK, maybe she’s doing crossword puzzles, or looking at magazines.” It’s like a doctor’s waiting room… that was another image that I had, was that she was just waiting and waiting, and if nothing happened, she would just wait there till she croaked.
I don’t have children, so that was another thing that was difficult for me to grasp. But we’ve all—it is unrequited love, and I think in some manner or form, we’ve all felt that. We’ve fallen in love with somebody who regards us in just the opposite way that we regard them. And as the season progressed and I got to see the other sides of her–the frustration of being trapped like a fly in amber, that when she’s turned–she’s trapped–the irony is that she’s trapped not as the beautiful countess, not as her beautiful son, but as a middle-aged, invisible woman…
So anyway, there’s a feeling–when I talk to people, I’m well-educated, I use big words, so sometimes when I talk to kids, and they go “What does that mean?” All of those little things build up to making me feel a little bit like a Tyrannosaurus Rex right before the asteroid hits. [laughter]So anyway–so that part it just builds up until she just finally goes berserk. Then that arc began to make sense to me.
Can you share a story where you’ve had an encounter with a fan in a public place?
Yeah, I actually had a really–all my life, in terms of the business and acting, especially when I was much younger, was “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do this, it’s so self-aggrandizing, is it really helping the world?” So a lot of times I would go away from it, do other things, and then come back. And I had done a film called Dolores Claiborne, which was about a woman who was abused and her daughter was abused. I was walking down the street of this little village where I live, and all of a sudden, this woman–I had just gone into this little beauty place there, and all of a sudden this woman came rushing down the aisle, and she had been in back in the salon, and she still had her cape on–it was flying and everything. She came out and grabbed me and said “I can’t thank you enough! I was in an abusive relationship, and because I saw the film, I was able to get out of it.”
And that–I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t write it. Stephen King wrote it. My friend, Tony Gilroy adapted it. I’m playing a character. But she found so much in it that she was able to see that it was time to change her life. And in a similar experience, way back when I was working on Broadway, I did a play about a woman who kills herself, and we were really worried that people were going to say, “Oh, you’re advocating suicide.” The author of the play, Marsha Norman, got a letter from a woman saying that seventeen years before that, her husband had gone to a motel and had killed himself. All those years, she thought it was her fault, and she realized after seeing the play that it wasn’t.
That’s very powerful, even if you just reach one person like that. And you don’t know who other people are. I always feel like then the value of the work is my empathy with a character, and I put it out there in the most artful way that I can. Then I feel it passes that empathy on to the audience, then they deal with it or accept it or experience it in their own way, that may enhance their lives. I think empathy–Gloria Steinem said to me–I had given a speech and she was there, and she said that what i had said was subversive. I said, ‘What do you mean? I was just talking about being empathetic with people.” She said, “That’s subversive. Because if you empathize with someone–with a group of people, with a country, with whatever, then it makes it much harder to kill them.”
Your career has been eclectic on stage, film, television, and yet I think we’ve seen you won the Oscar for Misery, and just recently won an Emmy for Coven. Do you find as an actor that there’s something liberating in the genre, maybe working in without the boundaries of things that are necessarily realistic?
Yeah, I do, definitely. Yeah, totally. That’s how much fun the last three seasons have been for me. That I have to thank Ryan for, because I had just had a show on television that was cancelled, and right after that I had a double mastectomy, so it was like, “Get out of here. You’re too old. You don’t have tits anymore. Get out of here.” [laughter]So it was a very difficult period, and I had lunch with my friend Jessica, and I loved so much what she had done on her show, and I said “Please get me an interview with Ryan.”
I had no idea how much fun it was going to be. I just knew that after that first meeting, there was a huge shift in how I felt again about what I do.`
You’ve had an incredible career, and played so many amazing roles. At this stage in your career, what are you trying to avoid, in terms of opportunities that come to you? What don’t you want to do anymore?
Well, let’s see. I’ve never liked playing the rah-rah character, or the religious fanatic. I don’t know why. I’m trying to avoid–that’s a good question. I don’t want to get into something that I feel like is beneath me, as an actor. I want to investigate all kinds of different kinds of roles and different movies, comedies–whatever–all that stuff. But I just don’t want to be humiliated. I want to be able to continue to work as a woman at my age and older in a business that’s all about youth. Has been for centuries–probably since Thespus stepped outside the chorus. I just want to stay relevant. I want to stay relevant, and I don’t want to do shit. [laughter]
Are you watching these shows as they air, and how do you feel when you’re watching everybody’s story line? How do you feel watching yourself?
Well, when we had the premiere, and I hadn’t seen any of it, my jaw dropped. I did sit there in the theater going “What did I just see?” I don’t always watch all of the shows. Sometimes I go and I check my scenes and make sure that I’m happy with what’s happening. But other times I’ll watch and see what everybody’s doing, and it’s a close group this year. It’s nice. We all are pulling for each other and encouraging each other and telling each other when we’re happy. I’m not saying it very well, but you know what I mean.
Going back to your character, you said she was hard to play. I was wondering, do you sympathize with her? Do you feel sorry for her? Do you like her?
Oh, yeah, I hear that. Yeah, there’s very much a lot of me that’s in her. I do sympathize with her because there are millions of women out there that are like her, who are–they’ve got one foot in act three, and what do they do now? They’re probably dealing with health problems. I’ve had cancer twice. I have lymphedema in my arms, which I’ve been working with a group to try and publicize that. I had something called cellulitis last week that is a bacterial infection that happens just from the lymphedema, out of the blue. So I’m–yeah, I really identify with her a lot. You know, I feel like, “OK, now you’ve got to put the hearing aids in.” Anyway, it seems like it’s always something, you know. [chuckling]
American Horror Story: Hotel is available on Blu-ray ™ and DVD from 3rd October, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.