'AHS' Star Kathy Bates on Her Hollywood Struggle: I Questioned the Value of What Actors Do

by Chris Azzopardi 5:38 AM PST, December 17, 2014
Photo: Getty Images

For Kathy Bates, 2014 has been a momentous year.

After winning an Emmy for her role in American Horror Story: Coven, the actress' work during the FX hit's current season, Freak Show, recently earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or TV Movie.

ETonline caught up with Bates to talk about her controversial AHS Baltimore drawl ("I have to keep that accent warmed up"), the "fun" she had singing Courtney Love and her personal "struggle" to find purpose as an actress.

ETonline: After Ethel Darling’s reincarnation in the Dec. 10 episode, “Tupperware Party Massacre,” should we assume you’ll be around for the rest of the season?

Kathy Bates: I will be there! You will see me again since I’ve come back from the dead.

I found it amusing that you lost your head – as you did, too, during Coven – and now you’re in everyone else’s.

I know! When that happened, I asked, "So what, am I gonna be carrying my head around now for the rest of the show?"(Laughs.) I don’t know what they have about me losing my head all the time, but it’s funny!

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There have been reports that you sang Hole’s "Doll Parts" for an episode. Is that still happening?

That was supposed to be a part of [the Dec. 10] episode, but apparently they changed their minds.

What was it like singing Hole?

Oh, so much fun! They had to cut it from the show – I don’t know if it had to do with length or storyline or whatever – but hopefully it’ll come back. I think, maybe, the song will show up somewhere. I hear it’s a possibility that it’ll be on social media, but I never know.

How is Ethel different in death than she was in life? As a ghost, she’s definitely not as we knew her before she kicked the bucket.

I wanted to do that because it was [the other characters'] view of Ethel and not my Ethel. I just made that choice. I think you see it more in the scene with Michael Chiklis; it’s very still – almost unreal – and it’s just kind of a bizarre apparition. Jimmy's [vision] is very uncharacteristic of his mom, and I think it’s a drunken hallucination where you feel guilty, you cry and you go back to all the bad things in your life. That’s what it comes out of for Jimmy. [In that scene during "Tupperware"] she’s talking to the ladies and saying, "He’s just like his father," and that’s not who Ethel was to him, but in a drunken state it is.

Photo: FX

There’s been a lot of talk around your Baltimore accent on the show. Some people get it, and I’ve also heard it called an "enigma." Some people even thought you sounded like John Travolta in Hairspray.

(Laughs.) I’m probably not doing it perfectly – I’ll admit to that. I remember Ryan said "soft"... and I don’t think I’ve been very "soft" with it. Some people online say it’s ruined American Horror Story this year for them, and I certainly hope there aren’t many people out there who feel that way. But, it was very funny to see famous linguistics online trying to analyze this accent. I thought that was really taking it a bit far! (Laughs.) You know what else? [Co-star] Denis O’Hare knows two guys from Baltimore and the [one] guy said, "What do you think of Kathy Bates’ accent?" The other guy said, "What accent?!" So I figured after that, case closed.

Does Freak Show resonate with you in a personal way? Have you ever felt like an outcast?

I can remember just starting out as an actor and doing children’s theater in Virginia. I got sick – I had a fever and had to go to the doctor – and I remember them asking what I did for a living. I couldn’t hold my head up. It was the strangest thing. I felt sheepish, like what I was doing wasn’t real and wasn’t important. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe all the hoopla now about Hollywood has convinced us it all is, and in light of what’s going on in the world today, and in comparison, it is kind of silly escapism.

Over the years, because it actually was something I struggled with for a long time, I really questioned the value of what we do. What I discovered is that it has to do with empathy. At its best we can make something that can change people’s hearts and minds, and we can bring humanity to our characters and show that there’s humanity in all of us – that we’re all human beings – and that’s what I hope I get to show in my work.

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Besides Ryan Murphy, what is it about AHS that keeps drawing you back?

I just love the work, and I love the camaraderie. I know that Jessica [Lange] has said this is her last season and all that, but you know, people say that when they’re real tired and they just want time off. I’m hoping she does come back because I just adore working with her. That’s been a big draw for me. I’ve gotten to be very close friends with Sarah Paulson and Gabby Sidibe, and it’s just that I haven’t gotten to be that close of friends [with people in L.A]. It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but in Los Angeles you’re locked up in your house until you go out to these events and see people and all this B.S. But here, working together, you have a crew and you go out and you do things together – it’s really great. It’s very different from my life in L.A., so that’s a big plus.

It was recently announced that you signed on for The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which co-stars Susan Sarandon, with whom you co-starred on Tammy. How much of that pairing was due to how much fun – by that, I mean getting stoned – you guys had on Tammy?

(Laughs.) Yeah, we had a lot of fun! I probably shouldn’t have outed her, but it was Andy Cohen [during Watch What Happens Live] that put me in that difficult spot. I blame him! You know us old hippie gals – that’s the way it goes when we get together.