Being naked on stage isn’t difficult for Kathy Bates. Being emotionally naked is another proposition.
“What little nudity there is, is handled very tastefully,” said the actress, who reprises her Obie-winning role in Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at the Mark Taper Forum. “It’s a very frank, realistic vision of an evening between two middle-aged people who’ve made love on the first date. But it’s really a play about intimacy. It’s about learning to trust, learning to open up and live.
“He’s decided he wants to have this relationship with her. Bam! Right off the bat, he wants to get married and have children. This is very off-putting to her. She’s had a difficult past, doesn’t trust men, has had some bad relationships--the last one really bad. So it’s the (meeting) of these two very different people who want very different things from each other. What she really wants is to get him out of her apartment, so she can watch TV and eat ice cream.”
The role of Frankie, which McNally wrote for Bates, is a big departure from the actress’s last local stage outing: playing the manipulative Aunt Dan in Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon” at Taper, Too last year.
“Every part is a different animal,” Bates said, relaxing in her Taper dressing room. “I found Aunt Dan a real challenge, very much a stretch, an out-and-out terror a lot of times. She has about nine monologues, one after the other; there are all these words and no one to bail you out.”
The Memphis-born actress had an equally tough time in New York last summer, replacing Amy Irving in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.”
“I played a young social worker from Cape Town. At the end, my character divulges that she’s had an abortion recently, lost a lot of her illusions about life. It necessitated a real emotional breakdown for me.”
She sighed. “Maybe someday modern medicine will find out what happens when those emotional storms go on inside an actor. What does it do to the system? As a (non-actor), if you have big upsets once in a while, and you cry--well, how do you feel the next day? Imagine having to do that eight times a week, regardless of the climate in your own system. Other times you can be on stage, in the midst of an awful turmoil--then you go off stage and it’s gone.”
Nowhere did Bates identify as closely, and as dangerously, as in Marsha Norman’s “ ‘night, Mother” (Taper, 1986), a part she originated at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Ky.--where Bates did several seasons of impressive work--and later played on Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination and much broader recognition.
“I identified with it too strongly in the beginning,” Bates said of her role as the suicidal Jessie. “I had to go into therapy in the middle of the run to try and get distance on it, be professional. Because, after all, an actor’s job is to identify with the character, imagine--not to really become them. But it’s a very fine line. I got sick and tired and depressed. But I was under contract, so I had to stay in it.”
She laughed suddenly. “Actors love to complain. (The business) can be very hard, very stressful. It’s hard on relationships. My boyfriend, Tony Campisi, is standing in for Tony Musante (in the New York company of “Frankie and Johnny”). He lives there, I live here. We’ve been together almost 11 years. We figured out on our 10th anniversary that we’d spent maybe 40% of the time together--which actually isn’t bad.”
Bates, who also appeared in “The Normal Heart” at the Las Palmas and “Vanities” at the Westwood Playhouse, is less at peace with the industry’s habit of typing her in character roles. “On stage it’s a little different, I guess. It depends on the people. Sometimes they pigeonhole you as a character actress: round, pudgy, overweight--which I get so sick of.” She grimaced. “Don’t even get me started on that.”
The actress assessed her career with equal candor. “I’m very well-known and respected in the theater--but that’s it. I’m just beginning to do film (‘Arthur 2,’ ‘The Morning After,’ ‘Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’) and television (‘Cagney & Lacey,’ ‘St. Elsewhere.’)”
She grinned. “I was talking to a friend the other day who said, ‘I guess we ought to move to L.A. and get a hit TV series and then go back to New York and do a play.’ It’s real yucky. What we see continually in our business are wonderful actors who are replaced by names. A producer comes in and says: ‘This is great--let’s get Robert De Niro to do it.’ Then the actors who did the wonderful work have to go out and get another job in regional theater.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said quickly. “That’s not bitterness. It’s realism.” Bates’ implicit reference is to the name actresses--Anne Bancroft and Sissy Spacek--who were tapped for the film version of “ ‘night Mother.” “Geraldine Page didn’t get to do ‘Agnes of God’ and Ethel Merman didn’t get to do ‘Gypsy,’ ” she said. “It happens at all levels. What I have to do is keep enjoying my work. The minute I don’t, I’ll stop.”
There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that. According to Bates, her mother jokes that “when I was born, the doctor spanked me on the behind and I thought it was applause--so I’ve been looking for it ever since.”
After attending Southern Methodist University--where classmates included playwrights Jack Hefner and Beth Henley and Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright--Bates headed for New York.
“It was a difficult adjustment living there, coming from the South,” she said. “I think I had a really protected upbringing. It took me quite a while to catch up to the world, to what was going on.” After two years, she packed for Memphis, Tenn., but returned to New York in 1973 and has worked steadily ever since.
“This business is so perplexing,” she said. “You try not to get bitter or cynical about the breaks. It can be wonderful: the challenge of working with someone, learning to stay in the moment on stage. You think, ‘Maybe this will help me stay in the moment in my life.’ ”
A wry smile. “When I started, I had no idea how you even got a play. Once I did that, I started to realize how it affects the choices you make in life, the time you have to do everything else, your relationships, whether you want to have a family.”
For Bates, the answer to the last item is probably no.
“I think it’s the right decision for me,” she said slowly. “It’s not quite too late biologically, but emotionally I think it is too late. I’ve invested so much time in my career; it seems very important to me. I find I look at jobs differently now. If someone says: ‘Let’s do this play on Broadway,’ it means a year’s involvement. I have to ask myself, ‘Do I want to spend this much time devoted to this person’s vision, interpreting this character?’ As you get older, you realize what each role means out of your life.”