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Kathy Bates on American Horror Story, Playing a Brutal Racist, and Becoming an Awesome GIF

It’s a good thing Kathy Bates is a real horror fan. As American Horror Story: Coven's Madame Delphine LaLaurie, an 1800s-era serial killer and torturer of slaves made immortal through voodoo magic, she has been subject to the scares of her life. She’s been sprung from her coffin by a power-hungry witch, terrorized by the minotaur she helped create, and made aware that the sitting president is black (“Liiiiiies.”) At the end of tonight’s episode, "Fearful Pranks Ensue," she’s greeted on Halloween night by her dead daughter turned zombie and a few dozen of her undead friends. Leave it to Oscar winner Kathy Bates who, in the middle of all this deserved comeuppance, manages to make Delphine someone for whom you feel a twinge of sympathy as she begins to realize the gravity of her past behavior. Vulture spoke to Bates right before she was headed to the laundromat — “My manager was horrified I was doing my laundry in a laundromat. I was like, ‘Susan, I enjoy it! It’s a lot less expensive than the hotel. C’mon! What’s the big deal?” — about Delphine’s blossoming relationship with Queenie and how much she’s enjoying being an Internet meme.

I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve really managed to humanize Madame LaLaurie after an awful, awful introduction.
I try to do that. I don’t know if she deserves it [laughs]. A friend of mine who’s a deputy sheriff here in Jefferson Parish was telling me that not long ago they dug up 60 or 70 new bodies at her house. Having done all this research on the real woman, my suspicion is she was a woman holding on to her third husband. He was younger than she was, a dentist who wanted to become an osteopath, so I’m imagining that some of those poor creatures were operated on. It’s just demented.

She’s introduced at her most monstrous, but she’s evolving quickly. She even tells Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) that she feels indebted to her.
She’s really struggling still with everything in her past, the guilt that she feels about how she treated her family, the horrible things she did, which have all been exposed, her own innate racism. It’s just so much ingrained stuff. She comes from a time when you owned another person like you would own livestock. I just went to see 12 Years a Slave and that first scene with Paul Giamatti selling people was just horrifying. That was Delphine’s world, so I think she’s having a real hard time adjusting to modern day.

Having just seen 12 Years, does it make it more difficult to film Delphine’s crimes? 
It does. When I first went in the [AHS] trailer and I saw some of those actors [who played the disfigured and mutilated slaves] in makeup it was very upsetting. I just hope that people don’t feel because we’re in the horror genre, and we’re camp, that we don’t have the right to talk about these issues. I’ve read some people feel like we’re trivializing that struggle, and I hope they don’t feel that way moving forward. Just look at tonight’s episode. The show takes these issues seriously.

Let’s talk about the zombies. I was not expecting zombies!
I know, it’s pretty cool. Is this the one that starts back in the sixties?

Yes.
Oh God. Oh God. You know, I never get a copy til after it’s aired, and I don’t get FX at my hotel. Can you believe it? All I can do is watch my Twitter feed when it airs.

The American Horror Story zombies seem to be more aggressive than the ones on The Walking Dead. They have weapons.
Oh, really? See, I didn’t see any of them except for my zombie daughter. I haven’t seen the zombie apocalypse yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Denis O’Hare’s in a lady’s nightgown and bonnet throwing tea parties for his dolls. Do you have anything that nuts coming up?
Oh, yeah, I’m afraid so. I’ll say it’s a pivotal moment between me and Queenie. Oh, yes. Oh, dear [laughs]. I’m always waiting for the phone to ring after episodes air. Usually it’s my best friend and I’ll hear, “Ooooh. Myyyyyy. Goooood.” I live for that. It’s been delightful. Seriously, you don’t always feel that way when you open scripts, and I must say every single script I’ve opened for this series so far has just really thrilled me.

This season has a ton of big-name veteran actresses. What does Ryan get about writing for older women that others don’t?
I don’t know, man. He somehow understands how to write for us, and not every guy does, especially for older women. You either got it or you don’t. Either you understand who they are or you don’t. Either you’ve got their voices or you don’t. Even with Franny’s character Myrtle [Frances Conroy], who I just adore, he’s nailed it.

She looks amazing. Were you on set when she filmed the scenes with the Council? 
No. I wish I had been, oh my God. I heard from my friend, who is one of the producers on the show, everyone who was there was gathered around the monitors watching. They said it was fucking awesome. I worked with Franny on Six Feet Under so I really hope I get to work with her.

Are you a fan of horror in general?
Yeah, I love horror. I just watched The Conjuring, which scared the bejesus out of me. One of my favorite films is Psycho, which I saw when I was 12. I kind of grew up on horror.

What have you found most scary about this season?
Well, after I watched episode three last week I was pretty disturbed. I thought Patti LuPone ... I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen a Bible thumper played like that. She’s so real, and so sympathetic, and so honest. She didn’t come off as some wacko, you know? And Mare Winningham, oh God.

Have you seen the GIFs of you hissing "Liiiiies"?
Yes! And you know what? My niece, who works with me, I invited her to the premiere. Let’s just say she’s more like Patti LuPone’s character.

Wait, what?
She is, but I don’t laugh at that. She doesn’t like the occult. But she came to the premiere and she thought my performance was good but decided she didn’t want to watch any more of the season because she had nightmares. But yesterday, I was FaceTiming with her, and I told her to YouTube that scene, and she loved it. I mean, it was hysterical. I have to say, the director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon really helped me with that. Sometimes I can be just way over the top. He keeps me on the straight and narrow so it’s not too crazy. I’ll just go off if they don’t rein me back.

Jessica Lange requested a scene in which she'd get to sing and dance last season. Have you made any special requests?
No, no I haven’t done anything like that. I’m just so grateful to be in the damn show. Well, I guess the only request I made was when was I lobbying for a French accent. Delphine was French. Ryan just looked at me and went, “No. French. Accent.” I thought it would be fun! But he had a larger view of the landscape and wisely held me in on that one.

How much did he tell you about what would happen to her? 
I thought he told me a lot, but to be honest, I never dreamed of the whole slave thing, of her becoming Queenie’s slave. I never dreamed of that relationship growing into what it’s become. Gabby and I just finished one scene that I can’t tell you anything about but that relationship does continue to blossom. I do remember also when Ryan was pitching me that Delphine was immortal and awakened in the present day, my mind was reeling. I said, “Oh my God. Obama is in the White House. That’s going to flip her out!” I don’t know if that’s an idea he had as well, but I said that’s gotta be in there. I guess I did ask for that [laughs].

And now it’s everyone’s favorite meme.
It was pretty brilliant.

Where does Delphine figure into this war between the Salem witches and the voodoo witches?
I don’t know! See, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t know what Delphine’s lifespan on the show is but I keep being told she’s immortal and not to worry. But I don’t know how she would figure in that war! I’m also trying to figure out what the heck Fiona would get from her in terms of her immortality. What can Fiona accomplish with her? I mean, that’s why she dug her up, but how can she get what Delphine’s got? Why does she need her?

It sounds like you’re having more fun on this show than you did on NBC. [Bates said earlier this year that the network treated the Harry's Law team "like shit."]
I’m very happy. There was a wonderful open letter on Deadline.com the other day, and what was cool about it was it was the last day I got to speak to my manager, who passed away a few weeks ago. Her assistant read her that letter, and she just smiled a really big smile. It was nice. The timing couldn’t have been better.  

Needless to say, you’re down to do another season of American Horror Story.
Absolutely. I’d love to do another season with them.

Jessica said she only wants to do one more.
Well, we’ll see. You know she doesn’t watch the show. I wish she did. Maybe I can trick her into watching one, especially the one that aired last week. I thought the whole ending with Madison was absolutely phenomenally played. Jessica looks incredible, and she’s just knocking it out of the park. I’m going to have to find a way to get her to watch with me.

Photo: Michael K. Short/FX