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September 12, 2017

High Times

Kathy Bates knew she’d be a late bloomer, but her current career resurgence is a surprise — even to her.

Jenny Hontz
  • Keith Munyan
  • Robert Voets/Netflix

Kathy Bates sometimes tires of being best known for her wince-inducing scene in the 1990 film Misery in which she takes a sledgehammer to James Caan’s ankles.

But as she sits in her Los Angeles home with one leg propped up on a divan, icing an injured ankle after a long day on the set of Disjointed, her new Netflix pot comedy, it’s impossible — even 27 years later — not to call the scene to mind.

“To be known for that is just, like, ‘Oh, gimme a break,’ no pun intended,” Bates says. She won an Oscar for portraying psychotic fan Annie Wilkes, despite steep competition from Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Anjelica Huston and Joanne Woodward. “It’s nice to be famous for something, I guess.”

The story behind Bates’s own ankle injury is far more prosaic. A scene in Disjointed (from Warner Bros. Television and executive producers Chuck Lorre and David Javerbaum, which premiered August 25) called for her character, Ruth, to hurt her ankle. Coincidentally, during filming Bates fell at the Apple Store and sprained it for real.

“They had the cast for Ruth, so I said, ‘Let me have one,’” Bates says. Her character is a longtime marijuana legalization activist who begins running a legitimate pot dispensary in a strip mall with her son.

With medical marijuana card in hand, Bates also took advantage of the show’s cannabis consultant, who advised her to use a combination of marijuana-derived cannabidiol (CBD) oil and arnica. “It’s amazing. I’ve been using the ointment,” she says, “and it really healed the bruising very quickly.”

This wasn’t the first time Bates injured her foot while working on a show with Chuck Lorre. An hour before she was set to guest-star as the ghost of Charlie Harper on the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men back in 2012, Bates stubbed and broke her toe in her dressing room.

“I don’t know what it is with me and my feet,” Bates says. But once again, the foot injury proved fortuitous.

Lorre rushed to her dressing room and resigned himself to sending the audience home and shooting her scenes another night. Bates would have none of it. “I said, ‘F—k, no,’” she recalls.

“I got a lesson in old-school professionalism,” Lorre says. “She was determined to put on a show.”

The premise of her guest role was that Charlie Harper was forced to spend eternal afterlife in the body of an older woman as punishment for his treatment of women on Earth. Bates wore a bowling shirt and cargo shorts, and smoked a big Cohiba cigar — just as Charlie Sheen had done before his character was killed off the show.

“She couldn’t really walk, so we tried to make sure that she was seated as much as possible, and when she did walk, we had these beautiful women who were like angels in the scene. She could lean on them and use them as walking sticks,” Lorre says. “We not only pulled it off, but she was amazing.”

In fact, Bates won her first Emmy Award for the role. “I think Chuck was very — well, thrilled would not even be enough to say — when I won the Emmy for playing Charlie [Harper] when Charlie [Sheen] had been nominated and never won,” Bates recalls. “And this was after all of that horrible enmity between the two of them.

“I remember running into Chuck at Jeff Katzenberg’s party. And I said, ‘I bet you’re dining out on that.’ He said, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe. You betcha.’”

Five years later, Bates is now the center of her own sitcom for the first time in her storied stage, film and TV career, which has included roles both profound and profane — ranging from her favorite murderous character escaping an abusive marriage in the film Dolores Claiborne to a bit part she describes as a soap opera “prison dyke” alongside Susan Lucci.

Born and raised in Memphis, Bates studied theater at Southern Methodist University and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1983 for her portrayal of the suicidal daughter in the original Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ’night, Mother.

With Misery setting the standard, many of Bates’s most memorable roles have involved absolute horror. There’s almost no one better, in fact, at playing tough and terrifying characters who somehow engender audience sympathy despite their heinous acts.

“I was always taught in college and in acting school that evil people have a reason for being evil,” Bates says. She spent four seasons trying to find a glimmer of humanity in a variety of ghastly characters on the FX anthology series American Horror Story, including her Emmy-winning turn as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a sadistic New Orleans slave owner based on a real person.

Bates is a huge fan of horror films and rarely gets squeamish. But even she had a hard time filming one scene that called for her to gouge out someone’s eyes. The creep factor was heightened by a realization that her great-great-grandfather, President Andrew Jackson’s doctor, had a plantation right next to LaLaurie’s reputedly haunted house.

Bates credits American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy with reviving her career at a time when things seemed rather hopeless. NBC had just canceled Harry’s Law in 2012 — unfairly, in her mind, given that it was the network’s most-watched drama series and had twice earned her Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress.

“The head of NBC television at the time said it was because our audience was too old,” she says, which prompted her to publicly lambaste the network. “I think they treated us like shit,” she told the audience at a 2013 Television Critics’ Association gathering. “They kicked us to the curb.”

(Bates still has not forgiven the network. “I’ll never apologize for that,” she says. “I even feel like a hypocrite going to the Golden Globes,” because the awards show airs on NBC.)

At the time of the Harry’s Law “sucker punch,” Bates was already feeling low. “I just let myself go horribly,” she says. “I got into really, really bad shape. I was at my heaviest during Harry’s Law.”

But those concerns soon paled in comparison to what she faced next. Shortly after the show was canceled, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, great, so I don’t know how long I’m gonna live,’ and I really felt that things were over.”

Recovering from a double mastectomy was complicated by a diagnosis of lymphedema, a collection of fluid that causes painful limb swelling after lymph nodes are removed. The diagnosis devastated her even more than the cancer.

“[I was] absolutely terrified of it,” she says, “because I’d seen someone who did not take care of it, and lymph literally oozes out of your fingers. That was my only picture of it, and I didn’t know that there were stages, that he wasn’t taking care of himself. All I saw was that, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap. I don’t want that in my life.’”

Fortunately, Bates successfully treated her lymphedema early and has since become a national spokeswoman for what some doctors consider more of a cosmetic problem than the painful, debilitating condition many patients experience.

This wasn’t the first time Bates had faced health challenges, either. She had battled ovarian cancer in 2003 but kept her illness a secret and went back to work on a movie three weeks after having surgery.

Bates had been advised by her agent not to go public out of fear that no one would hire her and she would lose her health insurance. In part because of that experience, she’s “very dismayed” by the prospect of millions of Americans losing their health insurance if President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare.

“The way to understand Donald Trump is to realize that, for him, all of his life it’s been about money: ‘We make the most money, we beat you, we’re the winners.’ That kind of us-against-them survival of the fittest,” she says.

“People say they’re gonna impeach — bullshit! They’re not gonna impeach,” she goes on. “They have him over a barrel now, and he’s gotta do whatever they say, and they’re lining up with all of the things that they want. And, of course, the bottom line is, they want to slash the budget so that they can lower the taxes.”

As Bates enters her 70th year on the planet, she exudes the kind of brash, outspoken fearlessness we saw in her depiction of the Unsinkable Molly Brown in Titanic — the kind of courage that comes from having survived divorce, two cancers, lymphedema and the ups and downs of a long Hollywood career.

Bates, who lives with her two Yorkies and collects vintage perfume in her spare time, is a fan of Marie Kondo, the organization guru, and likes to rearrange hotel rooms to suit her personal design preferences. It’s not exactly feng shui, she says, “It’s just my shui — my shui or the highway.”

This confidence and the desire to strip away artifice extends to her personal appearance, too. She’s thinking about “going flat” instead of hiding the results of her double mastectomy. “I have to wear a bra on [Disjointed], but I keep thinking, I talked to the costume designer, and I was like, ‘Maybe we should just transition Ruth into being flat.’”

No question this survivor has stepped way back from the abyss she was staring into when Murphy approached her to join the cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Reeling from both cancellation and cancer, “I was pretty much burned out,” she says. “[But] he really got me excited about the business again. He pitched me the story of this character, and I just — it was like the little kid in me that loves to play came rushing out again.”

Appearing in four seasons of the show gave a jolt to her career at an age when many Hollywood actresses simply disappear. So, while Bates is “not too happy” about turning 70 in 2018, she actually started celebrating early this summer, at the beginning of her 70th year.

“Getting old is not for sissies,” she says. “I don’t like getting old. I don’t wanna even say what I’m feeling. I don’t wanna start complaining about what it’s like to get old, because I don’t wanna admit to any of the symptoms. It’s not fun.”

Nevertheless, she continues, “I have to say the last five or six years have been the best. By God’s grace, my career was revivified by Ryan. And it’s just an infusion of life and fun. It’s all of that opportunity to be around that life, that creativity, that craziness and to do such kick-ass roles. Every day I’m grateful for all of that.

“I knew that I would be a late bloomer, ’cause I’m not a glamour girl. But to have a rebirth is pretty cool.”

Bates may feel old, but her fellow cast members on Disjointed, most of whom are less than half her age, don’t see her that way.

“There’s no way this chick is almost 70,” says costar Tone Bell, who plays Carter, a military veteran with PTSD working as a security guard at the dispensary. “She hangs with the best of us. She throws punches. She’s going toe-to-toe with you.”

The entire cast has an ongoing text thread, and “she’s the one texting at midnight,” Bell says. “We’re like, ‘We’re trying to go to sleep. Why are you awake right now?’ She’s vibrant.”

In fact, Bates often arrives on set in the morning raring to go.

“You kind of know when she’s having a really good day when she comes in and goes, ‘Good morning, motherf—kers.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, Kathy’s having a great day today,’” Bell says. “Either that, or she’ll start dancing real early. She’s like, ‘Tone, show me that Drake dance.’ She says, ‘Next season, I’m gonna be twerking, don’t worry.’ You’re like, ‘Hey, it’s 9:30 in the morning.’”

Disjointed represents quite a departure from American Horror Story, but Bates is proving to be a master in front of a live studio audience. “The crowd loves her,” Bell says — especially when she occasionally flubs a line and drops an f -bomb.

“When this kind of grandmotherly figure says, ‘F—k me,’ it’s insanely funny because it seems so inappropriate,” Lorre says. “When the swearing comes out of Kathy, it’s like Andy Griffith saying, ‘Go f—k yourself.’”

After a career in broadcast-network TV, Lorre relishes working with Netflix, where there’s no censorship and few limits. Disjointed combines more traditional live action with quirky animation segments that peer into the minds of the characters, as well as fictional commercials and YouTube ads for various strains of pot.

Disjointed turns out to be the perfect title,” Lorre says. “The rhythms of it are very unpredictable. David [Javerbaum] said he wanted to do a show where, watching it, you felt high, and I think that’s been accomplished. Building a show around Kathy has kept it grounded in a way that wouldn’t have happened had it just been about a couple of slackers.”

Characters on the show are “stoned a lot,” Bates says, “but very rarely just insanely stoned. We’re functioning stoners.”

While Bates uses marijuana at home to treat lymphedema pain and to help her sleep at night, the characters on the show smoke an herbal oil vapor, which Bell claims “tastes disgusting but looks very real.”

With all that silliness on set, do he and Bates and other cast members ever get high together off screen? “I’ll plead the Fifth,” Bell says. “I’ve had shared experiences with some of the cast, but I won’t name any.” He will say this of Bates: “People always ask if she’s like a mom or a grandmother figure. But she’s really like a silly older sister. We’re all like a bunch of big kids on set because it’s such a loose show.”

Could Disjointed finally be what supplants Misery in our minds when we think of Kathy Bates? Don’t count on it. When fellow cast members were teaching her about Instagram and how celebrities monetize it by selling products such as tea, Bell says Bates’s first thought was, “I should sell sledgehammers.”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017

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