Long before dishing lesbian wisdom to Melissa McCarthy’s mess of a character in this summer’s road-trip comedy Tammy (playing now at Brewvies, Megaplex Gateway, and Century 16 Theatre in Salt Lake City), Kathy Bates had the gay community in shackles. It didn’t take a sledgehammer to maintain our obsession with her – it just took the Hollywood icon’s every turn on television (Six Feet Under, American Horror Story), Broadway (’night, Mother) and the big screen (Titanic, Misery).
Notably with Fried Green Tomatoes, her 1991 girl dramedy, and then with Dolores Claiborne and Primary Colors, Bates has kept us captivated for over four decades, bound to her boundless greatness. Now, as one half of a lesbian couple in Tammy (Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy plays her partner), she’s giving you one more reason to be her biggest fan.
I’ve never been to an all-lesbian party, but based on the one your character, Lenore, throws in Tammy, clearly I’ve been missing out.
You have. It was a lot of fun! It really was. And there was a scene that was cut out of the movie where all the lesbian women on the dock were singing “Fire,” the Bruce Springsteen song, which was pretty fun.
You really can’t go wrong with some lesbians and “The Boss.”
No, no, no. It’s a sure thing.
Tell me about the best lesbian party you’ve ever been to.
I don’t know if I’ve been to a lesbian party quite like the one we have in Tammy. (Laughs) I’ve known and loved many lesbians in my life … but I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten them all into the same room at the same time! I always imagined that my and Sandra’s characters lived in a very small town, so I think many of these lesbians they’ve known were shipped in and probably work in Lenore’s (pet) shops in other towns, that it’s an annual thing and they come in and hang out for the holiday.
Melissa said your chemistry with Sandra was instantly palpable. Who are some other women you could see yourself going lesbian for onscreen?
Let me think about that. I do know that I’m just absolutely in love with Sandra, and let me just say that she really brought our relationship to bloom. She brought a lot of love and warmth, and it was her idea to have wedding rings – because of course! – which I hadn’t thought about, and also, really, to think that our relationship is the healthiest relationship in the movie.
You know, we’re non-judgmental, and my scene on the dock with Melissa – it was important for me to be able to ad-lib how difficult it is, or was, especially 20, 25 years ago, for lesbian women to come out. I think almost more difficult than for men to come out as gay. She brought just so much love, and she really helped create the little bubble of our relationship, and now I have forgotten your question. Oh, whom else would I like to be with. Ahh, let’s see. Who do I love? Oh, I could totally see this: I shared a plane trip with Uma Thurman once and I thought she was pretty cool. I could see doing a movie with her and having a lesbian relationship – although I’m much too old for her! (Laughs)
These days, Kathy, that doesn’t matter.
Yeah, that would probably be a fantasy movie relationship. Who else? I don’t know really. I’m just so in love and married to Sandra that I don’t know if I could come up with anybody else. It would feel like cheating! (Laughs)
Growing up in the South and in the Methodist church, what was your introduction to the gay community?
I really didn’t know what gay was until I got to college, but I was really in love with two of the guys who were in the theater department and then I realized they were in love with each other. It was like, “Oh. Fuck,” – excuse my language – “that just cut my opportunities in half here. It’s hard enough to find a guy, and now that means there’s 50 percent less!”
See, my parents were more of the age of grandparents in the ’60s, which certainly made it difficult for both parties. It took a little bit of doing. So, when I brought gay friends home to visit, it was really kind of funny to see them react. But they embraced them. They just thought it was hysterical that one of my friends, Milton, was walking around in a nightshirt that had been pressed beautifully. They got along with them pretty well. I have to say my parents never said anything to me derogatory about them, which was cool.
Unfortunately, one of the guys I was in love with passed away a few years ago from lung cancer, but I’m still very close to the other love of my life. I just saw him in New York – he actually wrote the Vanities play that we did off-Broadway for many, many years; his name is Jack Heifner – and so it’s wonderful that that relationship has continued.
Lenore and her partner are based on Melissa McCarthy’s own friends. Did that help inform your character? Did you base her off any lesbians you know?
I didn’t know that. Melissa never told me, but cool! I really didn’t. Like I say, I mean, how do you behave lesbian? (Laughs) I really thought about that. Unless you’re gonna go to some kind of extreme caricature that’s demanded of the script for some reason, these are just regular people and that’s their sexual orientation. Why do we have to ask if somebody’s gay or straight? I hope we get out of that. I hope I see us get out of that before, you know, I exit this plane.
It’s refreshing to see a gay couple portrayed as the most “together” part of the story. What do you think that says about how far we’ve come as a society regarding gay issues?
Going back to the scene on the dock, I wanted to improvise about Sandra and how she stood by me when the times were tough, how big her heart was and how comforting she was.
I remember being at a wedding; it was a male gay couple and they must’ve been in their 70s. They had been together for 50 years, and for the first time they had been able to go to Massachusetts and get married. It was so moving to me that they were able to have a wedding and celebrate their love in front of their friends and stand up together and say, “We love each other,” and be open about it and have the union blessed after all those years.
I remember last summer I was on vacation with my best friend who’s gay and we heard about Prop 8 and how people were gonna be allowed to marry, and it’s just like, why does it have to be legislated? How can you legislate something like that, really? Why is it up for discussion? That’s my feeling about it.
One of your earliest lesbian roles was in Primary Colors, which is notable for the big wet one you exchanged with your co-star, Stacy Edwards.
She was a doll.
What do you remember of shooting that kissing scene?
I was really nervous! (Laughs) I wanted to do it great, you know. I wanted to make it look like we’ve always done it. At the same time, it had to be a shock for Adrian Lester’s character, and Stacy’s so adorable. I loved the fact that everybody assumes she’s straight, or maybe she swings – who knows! I think there’s also that: People are on the spectrum sometimes. So, I just wanted to make it look real and tough and sexy.
Let’s talk about your involvement in the upcoming season of American Horror Story: Freak Show. What can you tell us so far?
I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know yet. I have not read a script. Ryan keeps promising scripts. He says I’m supposed to get some this week, and I’m really hoping I do because I’m leaving town to head to New Orleans. I’m just now beginning to work on the character, so I have no idea.
Including the fact that almost all of the names of the characters on American Horror Story: Coven – Myrtle Snow, Madame LaLaurie, Misty Day, Cordelia Foxx – are ones you’d likely hear in a drag queen contest…
Myrtle – oh my god!
Right? Coven was widely regarded as being very gay. How aware are you, or have you become, that the show has really resonated with drag queens and the gay community?
Not at all! This is the first I’m hearing of it. I mean, I don’t know if it was a male or female because he was so far away from us, but when we were doing the PaleyFest (in Hollywood) there was a guy – I think it was a guy – in a Myrtle Snow wig, which we were delighting in. She just lends herself to that, I think.
But so does your character, Madame LaLaurie. And I’ve seen boys do her in drag. When that happens, can’t you retire? Inspiring drag queens – that’s really the ultimate life goal, right?
(Laughs) I hear there’s a gay bar here in West Hollywood where they do Dolores Claiborne a lot. Listen, it’s great to have your reputation still alive and kickin’ at my age, so I appreciate it wherever it comes from.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com.