Clothes help Kathy Bates get in character

[22 January 2009]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Kathy Bates listened to her bra.

“In the costume fitting is where I really begin to see my characters,” the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress said in a recent phone conversation to promote her film “Revolutionary Road.”

“Once you get the clothes on you understand how your woman walks, how she stands.”

“For this film I had to wear a period brassiere with a very definite shape, a ‘50s shape. And it told me a lot about my character.”

Bates rarely gets the biggest role in a movie.

But she is often the best thing in her movies, inhabiting supporting roles so completely (think “About Schmidt,” “The Waterboy” or “Primary Colors”) that, driving home from the theater, you’re often thinking about her character rather than the handsome young leads.

She does it again in “Revolutionary Road” playing Helen Givings, a busybody real estate agent in ‘50s suburbia opposite her “Titanic” co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who play the Wheelers.

Helen is on screen for only a few key scenes - her character sells a house to the couple .But she makes an indelible impression as a woman who is both irritating (she schmoozes mightily to make a sale) and pathetic (she has a mentally ill son - brilliantly played by Michael Shannon - whom she hopes will be befriended by the young couple).

That her minor character has so much dramatic weight Bates credits to the original novel by Richard Yates, a largely ignored book from the early ‘60s that some critics now rate as one of the 20th century’s great novels.

“The book is a bit like the movie ‘Network’... it was a prescient view of things to come. Yates gave us this vision of where suburbia was leading. At the time we all thought it was taking us out of the dark, dirty cities and into this bright future, but Yates saw it as a trap, a cul de sac from which you couldn’t escape.

“It’s such a rich work,” Bates enthused. “There’s so much on all the secondary characters, such rich and deep insights into the whole Givings family.”

The book was close at hand during filming, Bates said, providing insights into a woman who is chirpy on the outside and desperate on the inside.

“There’s a scene in the book where Helen is distraught because the Wheelers are announcing they’re going to move to Paris, and this will ruin Helen’s plan for her son to meet them. She sits down on the bed and cries.

“Yates writes that she cries because she is alone and because she wasn’t popular in school. She cries because only one man had asked to marry her, and she cries because she had married him. And she cries because her only son is insane.

“Those aren’t a lot of words, but they say so much about this woman.”

Bates also drew upon the personalities of her own mother, aunt and sisters.

“A key to Helen’s personality is that she puts a brave, cheerful face on things. I saw that with one of my sisters whose husband died in Vietnam.

“Helen’s like that. She’s industrious; she has ‘one foot in the road’ as we say in our family. She keeps busy. That’s very much what she’s about.”

It’s fitting that the book and the film end not with the charismatic Wheelers but with the more down-to-earth Givings, Bates said.

“It’s because life goes on, because people like Helen Givings endure. She’s a fixer. She likes to put the right people in the right house. ... She’ll come up with a new project. She’ll endure.”

So, one imagines, will Kathy Bates.

She works regularly. She serves on the board of governors of the actors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. An ovarian cancer survivor, she has begun doing public service spots to advance research into the disease.

“I’ve been lucky that the jobs have always come my way,” she said. “I’m a woman of a certain age now, and I’m playing lots of supporting roles - mothers, that sort of thing.

“Which is fine, but I’d love a couple of really meaty parts. I’m eager to sink my teeth into something challenging.”

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