Oscar winner Kathy Bates is the 50 million dollar woman. She’s made over 40 films grossing two billion dollars combined and that translates to $50m a picture. Here she talks beating cancer, inspiring Hannibal Lecter and hot-tubbing with Jack Nicholson…
You were Oscar nominated for your role in About Schmidt, which includes a famous nude scene with Jack Nicholson. When you watch it back now how do you feel?
Like I wish I had another cosmopolitan. [Laughs] It took a couple to get in the tub I’m telling you. I’m glad I did it now. Originally it was written much more graphic and I felt that both the author of the book and maybe Alexander Payne who directed it had an agenda about older women’s bodies and were trying to make a comment about that. In fact there were a lot of emails between myself and Alexander. We’d never met and we were talking about intimate parts of the body and what I was willing to show and would I wear a merkin, which covers your pubic area. And I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute!’ So there was a negotiation that went on with the emails because I felt very protective of her and I didn’t want them to make fun of her body.
Were you also being protective of yourself?
I’m sure. A little part. And the day we shot it, I lit it. I got behind the camera and I watched my stand-in and was like, ‘Alright, alright, that’s it. Now clear the set and we’ll do it.’
What did Jack make of it all?
He was very cool, he was lovely. We had our bathing suits on and when it was all said and done he was still in the tub and I climbed out and he reached up and shook my hand, he looked right in my eyes – nowhere else – and he said, ‘That was beautiful honey.’ So it was worth it.
What’s he like to work with?
He’s an enigma really, I didn’t get to know him very well. There was that moment where we looked at each other and he said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and I said, ‘We’re making film history, come on Jack.’ We mainly just sat there for five hours and turned into prunes.
Your most famous role is probably Annie Wilkes in Misery. She’s like a female Hannibal Lecter…
Well do you know Anthony Hopkins – I had the privilege of handing him his Oscar – told me he that he watched Misery six times?
How did Misery impact on you and your life? Because it was such a huge hit…
Everywhere I go people remark upon it. I have an RV and I was travelling to Canada at one point and a young male friend of mine was driving me. We went to get on the ferry and the guy who was guiding us said, ‘Man, I don’t know how you sleep at night.’ So it’s followed me everywhere. It certainly opened doors for me. It was amazing to me that I won [the Oscar] that year because the field was so… Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Anjelica Huston.
What were you feeling when your name was read out?
I think I closed my eyes and thought, ‘Here we go.’ And I said to my husband at the time that night, ‘Do you think I’m going to win?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I think he was trying to protect me from being terribly disappointed. And I said, ‘I think I’m going to win.’ So in that moment I just knew when Daniel Day Lewis came on stage that my name was in that envelope. I forgot to thank my husband that night, I walked off stage and said, ‘I forgot to thank my husband!’
You’re the $50m women apparently. What a remarkable statistic?
It’s lovely, I love hearing it. I think I’m going to get more business now.
What do you think of your career?
I think the first thing that pops into my mind is, ‘I’m happy but I want more.’
Is that the secret, to always stay hungry?
I think so. Back when I did Fried Green Tomatoes with Jessica Tandy – God rest her, I loved her so much – when I first saw her on that set, in a nursing home in this little town in Georgia she was 84, she had on jeans and a jean jacket and she looked like a 16-year-old out of drama school who had her first part. She had such a bright light coming out of her and I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve gotta find that.’ When I got my first opportunity to direct a little tiny piece for PBS she agreed to come and do one of the six monologues. But that was the summer that she was dying of ovarian cancer and she called me a couple of weeks later and said, ‘I’m on the downward slope, I have to pull out.’ Then two weeks’ later she called back and said, ‘Do you need help finding somebody?’ It was extraordinary, really, when a lot of actresses at that time wouldn’t even return my phone calls. She’s always been my beacon.
You yourself survived ovarian cancer?
You kept it quiet after taking advice from a physician and decided not to tell anybody in case it damaged your work potential…
Exactly. I had been contracted to do a film that fall, Little Black Book. And I was very concerned, it was a good pay day and I have to work like all of us. And I was concerned about being well enough and fit enough and I just didn’t want it to get around.
How did you feel when you first heard the bad news? And how old were you?
It was 2003 so it’s been eight years, so I would have been 55. Not to be too graphic but I remember being examined by an oncologist and hearing her go, ‘Oh’. And my head whipped over and I looked at the sonogram or whatever you call it and she said, ‘You have a mass.’ And I began to shake, just none stop all afternoon. She sent me right away to do all of these tests because she had to do all of the diagnostics and it took several hours and it was terrifying, I just kept shaking. Somebody recognised me when I was in my gown in the waiting room and went, ‘Aren’t you..?’ and I was just like, ‘I can’t talk right now.’
If you had your time again, would you go public?
Yes. But then after I went through mine, I saw Melissa Etheridge coming out – I don’t know if you remember that moment? She played this amazing song and she had a bald head and she just knocked it out of the park. And I thought, ‘Gosh I wish I had done that.’
What impact did that whole experience have on your life?
I lost my hearing a little bit from chemo.
Yes. In fact I was online reading about that last night on the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance website which I did my public service announcement for. Apparently some of the things that I was on can damage the hairs on the inside of the ear and that’s it. It’s like I’ve been listening to too much rock music. I didn’t wear my hearing aids today but when we’re in the courtroom [filming TV series Harry’s Law] I can’t hear a thing. I wear my aids on set as well as my microphones. They’re so tiny now but I get vain about it. It took me years.
You’re now completely clear of the cancer. How did it change your outlook on life?
It sounds corny to say – and it took me a while because right after it, I went through a depression, which I’m hearing now is more and more common. As more and more people survive, it’s more common for people to live through that and then go through a depression. I don’t know if it’s a reaction to the chemo or whatever they’ve been through. It’s like, OK I am going to survive and life does come rushing back in on you. Because life becomes very simple when you’re facing just the one thing. And then when you have to go back to the complexity of life it’s a bit overwhelming. And then you get through that period. And now I feel younger than I did before, more grateful, more relieved to be here, more aware of how much time I have left, more aware of how much I want to give and do. As we say en Francais, ‘Je suis complet’.
Kathy Bates is currently starring in Harry’s Law on NBC.