From the deep cushioned sofa in her well-lived-in study, Kathy Bates is considering her options. On the other side of a glass door, her backyard is deep and leafy green even in the summer heat; the emerald grass of the Wilshire Country Club golf course shimmers in the distance. “I’m on the eighth hole fairway,” she says. “The balls break the doors a couple of times a year, but they’re very nice about it -- they fix it right away.”
Which is good because Bates is very protective of her time. Recent battles with cancer -- her own and that of her niece, who is also her assistant -- left her conscious of how little is apportioned to each of us, really, making it important to spend it well. Both women are healthy -- Bates’ ovarian cancer, diagnosed two years ago, was caught and treated early; she is officially cancer free. The same is true of her niece Linda Wehbi, who had her last chemo treatment for breast cancer earlier this year.
“It makes you look at your priorities,” Bates says simply. “Things you’ve wanted to do since you were young come back to tug at your sleeve. Like I’ve always wanted to write, you know, but if you want to write, you have to write. So I’m back to journaling everyday.... I still want to do the work I love, which is act, but I think I will be salting in other things as well.
“Which means,” she says with a big bubble of a laugh, “I’ll have to get more disciplined.” At this, Wehbi laughs. “She’s pretty disciplined as it is,” she says.
In the last year, the 57-year-old Bates rarely stopped working. She has roles in the upcoming films “Rumor Has It,” “Relative Strangers” and “Charlotte’s Web.” She was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in HBO’s “Warm Springs,” and worked on both sides of the camera on the HBO series “Six Feet Under” (she had a small supporting role and was a guest director). She also directs and stars in “Ambulance Girl,” a Lifetime movie that airs tonight.
Left to her own devices, Bates would remain out of the press -- how many times must she answer questions about the hot-tub scene in “About Schmidt” or the sledgehammer scene in “Misery”? But “Ambulance Girl” is her baby, and everyone wants to talk about their babies.
Based on a memoir by food writer-personality Jane Stern, it is the story of a woman who overcomes a suffocating miasma of neuroses by becoming a volunteer emergency medical technician. A classic tale of female self-empowerment, it seems, on the face of it, stereotypical Lifetime fare. But in the hands of Bates, costar Robin Thomas (“The Banger Sisters”) and screenwriter Alan Hines, what emerges is a complex, often unsettling, portrait of a long-term marriage.
“That really happened when Robin came on board,” says Bates. “He wanted Michael [Stern] to be a real man, not just some accessory to Jane.”
“I’ve done the husband role, the boyfriend role. I wanted to make sure this guy had some depth,” Thomas explains. He told Bates he thought the film would be better if the couple’s relationship was as important as Jane’s transformation. Thomas, who had never worked with Bates before, had no idea how this would go over. “Kathy said, ‘Wow, hmm, well, OK.’ She was onboard right away, which was amazing.”
Bates had explored some of the themes of the story -- depression, overcoming fears -- before. Marriage, however, was newer territory. “It’s always presented either as the romance or the tragedy,” says Bates, who is divorced. “We don’t look too often at what marriage really is. Marriage masks thousands of different arrangements -- behind the scenes, it’s all about change and negotiation and compromise. But we have the same attitudes toward marriage that we have toward death and dying -- we want to sanitize it.”
Thomas brought in a friend, an L.A. psychotherapist and rabbi, to offer suggestions on what happens to a long-term marriage when the partners undergo change. “He was very insightful, pointing out that when one partner breaks away, even if it’s in recovery, the other is left wondering ‘Who am I?’ ” Thomas says.
A vulnerable character
So, instead of being a midlife happily-ever-after, “Ambulance Girl” shows exactly what can happen to a couple after recovery -- he from alcoholism, she from depression and phobias -- and although much of it is uplifting and funny, much of it is not.
In Jane, Bates found a character through whom she could explore vulnerability, a trait she’s not normally associated with. While many of the women Bates has played have been damaged -- such as the psychotic Annie Wilkes of “Misery” and the fatally idealistic Libby Holden of “Primary Colors” -- they have all been formidable. Jane, on the other hand, is a ditherer and a klutz, driven by desperation and chance rather than any inner voice.
“A lot of Jane’s fears are based in her fear of being exposed,” Bates says. “Because once phobias are exposed, you feel compelled to deal with them. And who wants to do that?”
Bates chose not to meet with the real Jane Stern, fearing it would cloud her performance, make her too intimidated. “People ask me questions about this woman’s childhood, her life, and I don’t know,” she says. “Because I’m not supposed to know.”
Stern’s book did not center on the marriage, but Hines had been clear from the beginning that he would focus on it as much as on Stern’s EMT training. (It helps, Stern says, that the couple are about to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, giving the tale a real-life happy ending.) But still, as the air date approaches, Stern has been experiencing symptoms of anxiety. “So, it just shows you, that nothing stays one way or another for ever,” she says, laughing.
Bates had directed TV shows, including “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Six Feet Under,” as well as short feature films, but this was the first time she would be directing a feature in which she was also the star, and it wasn’t always easy.
“Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I know what the camera is showing,” she says. “But I did have to learn how to take the reins. And it’s odd worrying about light and weather and how it affects how a scene looks when it’s you in the scene. When you’re looking at dailies and it’s not ‘Why is her face so blue?’ it’s ‘Why is my face so blue?’ ”
Another laugh bubbles up. Even after all these years, after the performances, the awards, the reviews, the public nature of acting remains the price Bates pays to do what she loves.
“It’s hard,” she says. “It’s hard having people look at you. People say, ‘But you won an Oscar’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but not for this performance. This performance is still up for grabs.”
She tells a story of the day she was directing a TV series she declines to name. One of the writers was on the set, complaining about how an actor was playing a scene. “I looked at her and said, ‘I understand, but you go out there. You go out there under the lights, surrounded by people and sit and write your pages while we all look at you for a few hours.’ ”
It is disconcerting to hear Kathy Bates talk about being afraid. There is something so no-nonsense about her, with her watchful, intelligent eyes and clear, direct tones. It seems impossible that she would be plagued by the same doubts that plague the rest of us, the same doubts that plague her character in “Ambulance Girl.”
But the artistic temperament usually comes with this built-in conundrum: to perform well, a person must be sensitive enough to understand the subtlety of emotion but thick-skinned enough to strip down to her skivvies and dance on the table.
“I am a very private person,” Bates says. “Not shy exactly, but it takes me a very long time to make friends. I still have such a hard time navigating the waters out here.”
“The waters” being Hollywood, with its emphasis on networking and relationships and keeping up appearances.
“When I work with someone, they inevitably want to work with me again,” she says, and she’s not bragging, just stating a fact. “But it can get confusing for me because I may be also starting a friendship with them, and then I don’t know if they like me or if they’re just trying to get something. Linda, I know, gets this all the time.”
Wehbi nods -- she can’t count the times people have cozied up only to produce a script “that maybe I could get to Kathy.”
For Bates, it’s even worse. “I meet a man and there’s interest?” she says. “I just wait. Sometimes, I can count the hours before it turns out there’s a script he wants me to look at or a phone call he wishes I’d make.”
Nowadays, Bates says, money has pushed everything into the category of publicity -- one’s personal life as well as how an individual learns, or doesn’t learn, the craft.
“Now, you have to be a name to even get on off-off Broadway,” she says. “There are just fewer and fewer places where actors are allowed to fail.” Instead, performers are forced to rely more and more on their personalities. “Now, what they seem to want is people who can be themselves in front of the camera, which is fine. It certainly worked in the old studio system, but it’s not asking much of people. Even with me, directors will say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the accent’ or ‘Whatever, just be yourself.’ That’s just lazy.”
Lately, Bates has been reading Sylvia Plath’s journals, and it is a good reminder of all the work that goes into what seems like an effortless piece of art. “This is where she worked out all her stuff,” Bates says. “So, when it came time to write the poem, she was ready to write the poem. As my writing teacher says, ‘You have to be ready to take the Slauson turnoff,’ because no one will wait for you if you don’t.”
Outside, a bit more of the yard has deepened into shade. There is a sense of seclusion and serenity, the eighth fairway notwithstanding. When Bates first moved into this Hancock Park house, she says, she and Webhi swore they saw a fairy take off from the underbrush.
“It was this thing that flew away,” she says, and it’s difficult to tell whether she is joking. “It wasn’t a bird or a bug, so it must have been a fairy.”
She likes directing but is on the fence about whether she would direct another feature because of the time required. One option she feels fairly strongly about is returning to New York. “I’m in the process of making that happen,” she says. She also thinks about spending time in Ireland or France -- she and Joan Allen and a coterie of other actresses are trying to get a film off the ground about Irish women who go to work at Lourdes. But maybe she won’t wait for the financing, maybe she’ll just go, live abroad for a while.
She wants to write more, although she’s not certain in what form -- probably not screenplays, she says with a laugh.
On a recent trip back to Memphis, Tenn., she was struck by how rejuvenated her hometown had become, how galleries lined certain streets. Maybe, she says, she should take some time off and try painting again. “Maybe I’m no good at any of these things,” she says, “but the value is in the experience itself -- it’s not a question of how many times have you succeeded, but have you done what it is you want.”
When: 9 p.m.
Ratings: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for language)
Kathy Bates...Jane Stern
Robin Thomas...Michael Stern
Executive producers: Patricia Clifford, Frank von Zerneck, Robert M. Sertner. Director: Kathy Bates. Teleplay: Alan Hines.