The Oscar winner opens up about the early struggles of pursuing an acting career, her breakthrough role in Misery and lessons learned from being a two-time cancer survivor
“I’m your number one fan. There’s nothing to worry about. I will take good care of you.” The image of Annie Wilkes’ stern, catatonic-like face hovering obsessively over the bedridden Paul Sheldon is an iconic one for any horror movie fan. In Misery, Kathy Bates brought to life one of cinema’s most terrifying female villains: the cunning, psychopathic nurse who traps and tortures her beloved author after he gets into a car accident.
Misery has gained a cult status since 1990 when it was released, with the mallet-wielding Annie earning her rightful place among the likes of Hannibal Lecter or Jason Voorhees. And because the character is so iconically quotable (“He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!”), and visually memorable (the frumpy, demure pinafores and a golden cross dangling from her neck), it can be easy to overlook the tour de force performance Kathy Bates delivered; nimbly alternating between love and hate, extreme mood swings and maniacal episodes, she made this film—and the world took note, awarding her the Best Leading Actress Oscar the following year.
"When I was born, the doctor smacked me on my behind and I thought it was an applause"
It’s astonishing to think that it was her first foray into movies—at that point, Kathy was already 42, having spent most of her career performing minor stage roles as well as working odd jobs, eg, as a cashier at the Museum of Modern Art.
“It was a very special time [filming Misery]. I remember at first it was really exciting. I got my own trailer but after a while of sitting there I just thought, Wow, it’s kind of lonely in here [Laughs]. So I started hanging out on the set and learning a lot. At one point this costumer, who’s been in the business forever, said, ‘Get your Oscar dress ready.’ ” And I just kind of looked at him blankly because the thought never occurred to me,” Kathy tells me in her laidback midwestern accent, speaking over the phone from her home in LA. I imagine she’s been asked about Annie Wilkes in every interview she’s done over the last 30 years, but she answers my questions gracefully, without a hint of annoyance or boredom.
“Goodness, Misery took me on the world stage. People always identify me with that but it’s nice to be in the Zeitgeist, I guess.” She’s incredibly funny, self-aware and completely deadpan—to the point that you never really know if she’s joking or not. She tells me in cringing amusement: “My mother used to say something really corny: when I was born, the doctor smacked me on my behind and I thought it was an applause—and I’ve been looking for it ever since.”
The path that led to the breakthrough role as Annie Wilkes was not always an easy one, the actor admits. Landing parts could be a real struggle, with one agent going as far as telling her that she wasn’t sufficiently attractive to become a successful actress.
“From the very beginning I knew acting was what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know if I could really do it as a profession. I was able to study it at the Southern Methodist University and get terrific training there. And I loved the 15 years I spent in New York, working on stage on Broadway and off. But all the time I kept thinking, Oh, what good is this? It’s self-aggrandising—what am I really doing? I’ve always struggled with self-doubt. When I was starting out in this business, a friend of mine said, “You have to have a head like a bullet and heart like a baby.” That’s my motto. It’s hard to do, you have to let things go, and do your best—but it’s out of your control.”
"I don't want to sound like a goody two shoes but I'm so just so grateful to be alive"
While Kathy’s career hit a temporary slump after winning the Oscar for Misery, great roles did come flooding in soon enough. She played the title character in another Stephen King adaptation, Dolores Claiborne; an American socialite Molly Brown in James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic and the scathing political advisor Libby Holden in Primary Colours, which earned her another Oscar nomination. Yet in 2003, her career was suddenly put on hold when she discovered she had ovarian cancer.
“I didn’t publicise. I had to stop working because I was in chemo. I just sort of went to the ground. I had about nine chemo treatments and lost my hair, the whole nine yards,” she reveals. “I went back a little too soon. It was hard working while I was still recovering and going through the chemo. I really just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Barely a decade later, the actor was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she describes as a “punch in the gut” that made her feel like her career was truly over. After a gruelling battle which involved a double mastectomy, Kathy finally overcame the illness; yet it left her with a little-known condition called “lymphedema”—localised swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system.
“I knew about it, I was terrified of getting it. Ten million Americans suffer from it— it’s more than MS, Parkinson’s, ALS and AIDS combined. Yet doctors spend 15 minutes in medical school on the entire lymphatic system, so if someone has it and goes to their doctor, they don’t know how to diagnose it. And it’s progressive and incurable—it just gets worse, unfortunately,” she reveals in a tone that has shifted from jolly enthusiasm to a suppressed tremble.
Spreading the word about lymphedema has since become one of the actor’s main missions in life: she became the national spokesperson for the condition, and the chairperson for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network’s (LE&RN) honorary board, raising awareness of the illness and lobbying for support for research funding.
“We just want anyone who has cancer to be armed. If the lymph system is damaged, you’re at risk of lymphedema,” she warns. There’s an urgency and candidness in her voice as she describes the graphic minutiae of chemotherapy and drainage pumps—something a typical Hollywood celebrity would perhaps shy away from because they’d consider it unsavoury or embarrassing. For Kathy though, making people aware of the dangers of lymphedema and arming them with the tools she didn’t have is of utmost importance. There’s no martyrdom or attention-seeking here; just steely determination to get the message across.
Aside from opening her eyes to this important cause, being a two-time cancer survivor also equipped the Oscar winner with a new perspective on life. Kathy downplays her talent and success, noting how the very acting experience and learning from other people is much more important to her.
“Quite frankly, I just try to be in the moment and enjoy every bit of my life; every contact with every person I come across. I don’t want to sound like a goody two shoes but I’m so grateful to be alive. My mum had breast cancer, my aunt died of it, my niece had it. It runs in my family. I’m just really grateful to be working with the kind of people I’m working with. It’s a life source for me,” she says modestly.
And her latest film, Richard Jewell, is teeming with people who are more than exciting to work with. Directed by Clint Eastwood, this drama about the titular security guard who got falsely accused of terrorism, stars the likes of Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm. Eastwood, understandably, was Kathy’s primary reason for wanting to be in the film.
“I think I said, ‘I’m happy to just get him coffee’ ”, she laughs about finding out for the first time that the director wanted her in the film. “I think from his roles he gives people the impression that he’s very taciturn or remote but he’s just the opposite, he’s very welcoming. Clint’s a horse-whisperer of actors,” she says of her experience of working with the director.
In the film, Kathy portrays Richard Jewell’s doting mother, Bobi, whose tender relationship with her son Kathy was immediately drawn to. “I thought it was so real and multi-level, I didn’t think that it looked like a caricature,” she says. It also embodies the element that Kathy looks for in every project she sets her mind to: empathy and the power to change people’s hearts, which is not something you always find in big superhero movies that have been consistently on the rise in the last decade or so.
“I think there’s a place for them but also I think there’s sometimes just too much CGI and not enough TLC [tender loving care],” says Kathy. “But for now, that’s just the way things are and I’m just really happy to have a job. And with Richard Jewell, I told Clint, I’ve had a great career and after 50 years in this business, I feel like I’ve finally hit the big time.”
Richard Jewell opens in cinemas across the UK on January 31. To learn more about LE&RN, visit lymphaticnetwork.org
Read more: Interview: Ralph Fiennes
Read more: Interview: Jane Hawking
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter