Interview: Kathy Bates On Her Wonderfully Bearded Character in ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

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Preston Barta // Editor

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW -- Pictured: Cast Art. CR: FXKathy Bates’ character-life on AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW may have been shorter than what we expected it to be, but that doesn’t take away from what the Oscar-winning actress brought to the series and the mark that she has left.

We had the chance to speak with Bates recently, where she talked about her character’s crazy accent and demise, and if we should expect to see her next season.

The versatility that AMERICAN HORROR STORY provides the actors is just astonishing. I was wondering, for you, how does it feel to go from Delphine in COVEN to Ethel in FREAK SHOW?

Kathy Bates: “Oh, they’re very different. But, I don’t know. I kind of had to go easy with Ethel when I first got here whereas, with Delphine, she just explodes. I had to find my way gently with Ethel.

Of course, Delphine was a real person. I had a lot of research for her that I was able to rely on, so I was very confident taking off like a bullet with her. With Ethel, I really wanted to, well, I just said it; I guess ease into it and find her as we were moving on. I know that sounds kind of, you didn’t know before you started working. I think in some cases you know some things and then you discover other things as you were going along. I think there was a point where I thought, OK, now I know who this woman is. That’s it.”

Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling. Photo courtesy of Frank Ockenfels/FX.

Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling. Photo courtesy of Frank Ockenfels/FX.

Last season you had this wonderful dress that really brought Delphine to life, and this season you’re very toned down, but that accent. Can you speak to how that accent came about, and was it hard to stay in it the whole time filming?

Bates: “Well, gosh, that accent has become so controversial [Laughs]. I didn’t really have a dialect coach to help me, that’s first of all. I knew she was from Baltimore. Ryan [Murphy] said, but light. When I got into it, I studied Mikulski a lot. I actually had a dialect coach friend of mine spell it out phonetically, what it was supposed to be.

Then online, I found, if you can believe this, how to speak Baltimorese, and from that you had a link that could go to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in Baltimorese, which really helped me prepare every day. Although, I did stay in it for the first—I spoke that way every day. It just got to be sort of ridiculous how perplexing and how people got turned off by it and there were things online, they got two scholars, which I just couldn’t believe.

At times I thought, oh my God, am I not doing this right? A close friend of Ryan’s was on set for a while, from that area, and he really helped me with it. You can’t do it lightly, it’s a heavy accent and I also wanted it to sound like old-fashioned working class, so that’s even more different than what people are used to hearing. Then, the funny thing was is that a guy asked two of his friends who were from Baltimore what they thought of my accent. They said, ‘What accent?’ I feel like, OK, case closed. I’m moving on.”

This season, to me, is definitely the most visually appealing of the series. Even though there are some supernatural aspects to it, it’s one of the, if not the most, believable season. It’s more unnerving since scary things that happen in the show are carried out by humans, yet we gravitate towards it as an audience. What do you think that says about us? Do you think that we all just have this dark side to us that we just live vicariously from the safety of our couches when watching shows like this?

Bates: “Well, I think that’s an aspect of it. It’s sort of like homeopathy; you take a little bit at a time. I also think that the world has always been a troubled place to live. We think these are the worst times, and maybe they are in some cases because of the issues that we’re dealing with, certainly with the Ferguson and the Garner, which I’ve been watching.

These things happen, people do go on serial killers like Twisty. They might not be all dressed up but look at Ed Gein. It’s like my sister did say, it’s the bad things that go on in the real world that are more upsetting and more frightening.”

(L-R) Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling. Photo courtesy of Michele K. Short/FX.

(L-R) Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling. Photo courtesy of Michele K. Short/FX.

How far in advance did you find out about Ethel’s death, and what was your reaction when you found out how she was going to go?

Bates: “You know, I really can’t remember. They must have told me, and then I read it in the script. I thought, okay, there it is in black and white. I thought, well, it’s been a good run, and we’ll see what happens next; you never know with AMERICAN HORROR STORY. It’s weird to see yourself get killed on TV, but I was really happy with the scene between us. It was bittersweet.”

Do you know yet whether you’ll be back for the next AMERICAN HORROR STORY or not?

Bates: “I really hope so. It’s just such a unique situation to be in as an actor for television that you’ve got a whole new character to create for the next year. I think Ryan really appreciates older actresses who seem to have been— well, he’s rejuvenated our careers, and he’s put us in front of the public at our best. We have a younger fan base now, and that’s all the reasons why I would come back. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear what the next part he might propose would be.”

And lastly, I heard that this is Jessica Lange’s last season and that she’s retiring? Has that added something extra special to the season for you?

Bates: “I won’t think about it. I don’t want to think about Jessica not being here next year. We’ve gotten to be such close friends now over the last couple of years, and I love her dearly. Working with her is a mystery I never want to solve.”

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW airs on Wednesday nights only on FX.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.