Last summer, Kathy Bates was diagnosed with breast cancer (she battled the ovarian kind in 2003). Despite enormous odds, the Oscar-winning actress has survived and thrived, winning an Emmy Award for her guest appearances on Two and a Half Men last season. Still, Bates credits her turn on American Horror Story: Coven with “bringing [her] back to life.” And if Wednesday’s premiere is any indication, she may be able to credit it for her second Emmy. Rolling Stone sat down with Bates to discuss playing Delphine LaLaurie, what TV shows she’d love to direct and if we might hear her sing this season.
How did you get involved with American Horror Story?
I was a fan of the show from the very first season. In fact, when I was doing Harry’s Law, we would come in the makeup trailer on Thursday mornings and just scream about, “Oh, did you see when so and so did such and such?” We did the whole Monday morning quarterback thing. And when I ran into my friend Jessica Lange the summer after the first season, I said, “You know, I just would love to be on this show. Will you whisper in Ryan’s ear?” She very kindly did, and then he called me up and pitched the idea to me for this season. I just got so excited I said yes immediately. I’m thrilled and having an amazing time working on this character they’ve cooked up. She’s actually a real person, but of course they’ve got their own American Horror Story spin on her.
You’ve stayed busy in film and TV. Which do you prefer?
TV is awfully fast. That’s the only thing I don’t like about it. Of course we all want to do it because we want to make this epic story. I really just love to work, and I don’t care if it’s TV or movies. The only thing I haven’t done in years and years is a play. I think now maybe that’s in the cards for me. I would like to get back into directing for television, too. I really enjoyed that process on Six Feet Under.
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Are there any shows in particular that you’d love to direct?
I love Homeland. I’d love something that’s character driven like that. But I love House of Cards and The Walking Dead, too. (Tough shoot, I would imagine.) But what I really want to do is Coven. They have an option on me for next season and I’d love to come back.
We’d love to see a Kathy Bates-directed episode of Justified.
I love that show! My friend Margo Martindale was on for one season. I wish her character hadn’t been killed off. If she was on American Horror Story, she could be brought back to life, I guess. [Laughs]
Your character, Madame LaLaurie, is based on a real person. Did you do any research?
I did. There’s a wonderful book called Mad Madame LaLaurie that was researched all from the archives of the period. What’s interesting for me is that my Great Great Grandfather was a doctor from Dublin, Ireland, and he came through New Orleans in the 1830’s. He got to know Andrew Jackson and later became his personal doctor, and Jackson’s plantation was right next to the McCarty plantation, which is where Madame LaLaurie had her plantation. She probably would have thought of [my Great Great Grandfather] as a shanty Irishman and wouldn’t have had anything to do with him.
Is she more innocent than most people think?
Well, she could have been, but the people there in New Orleans say LaLaurie was really, really horrible. I have a friend there who’s a Deputy Sheriff of Jefferson Parish. He’s been there for forty-five years, so he knows a lot of stuff. He said that he knows a guy that was involved in excavating some of that property, and they found sixty or seventy bodies there.
So your character’s life takes place in the 1800’s?
I can’t tell you that.
Let me rephrase that. Since you’re in the past, do you have a showdown with Jessica Lange?
I’ll just repeat what Ryan Murphy has said – he’d like to see us go head to head.
What’s it like working with him?
When we met last January, he spun this tale for me, it was like the little kid that lives inside all of us was just jumping up and down and saying, “What is this? And what if I did this? Can I do this?” When that happens, I know I’m hooked.
So you get a lot of input then?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Everything goes by Ryan. I lost the battle for the French accent early on. [Laughs] He knows exactly what he wants. He knows his vision. He’ll listen and compromise, but he knows what he wants to do.
Is it easier or harder to find your character that way?
I don’t think it’s hard. I think that the show is so well written that it inspires my creativity. I have not been disappointed so far and I’ve read seven episodes. And not just my stuff, but everything. What is so smart about it, to me, is that he’s called it American Horror Story. That’s because, in the midst of all of this kind of ghoulish entertainment that’s on one level, and on another level he’s unearthing the horrors of our own history. That is such a clever way to spice up the soup. Genius, really.
Without going into spoilers, because we already know Ryan is on high alert for all that. . .
Oh, he’d fire me.
Is there anything you can tell us about this season?
You know what, I can say this: I think that in addition to people being terrified, they will also be moved.
Last season, we got to see Jessica in a musical montage. Are we going to see Kathy Bates singing this year?
Oh, dear God. [Laughs] One part of me goes, “No!” and the other one goes, “Yay!” [Laughs] But stranger things have happened in a Ryan Murphy show.