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Kathy Bates Talks About "About Schmidt"
by Rebecca Murray and Fred Topel

Kathy Bates stars in "About Schmidt"
Photo©New Line Cinema - All Rights Reserved.

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When casting the role of free-spirited Roberta, the filmmakers needed an actress who could stand up against Jack Nicholson. Producer Harry Gittes believes it took nothing short of a miracle to secure Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates' participation in "About Schmidt." From balancing work schedules to the threat of an actors' strike, mountains were moved to get Bates involved.

"There aren't many actors around who can do what Kathy Bates can do," says producer Gittes. "She's an unbelievable actress. We were really lucky."

Producer Michael Besman concurs and adds, "We were looking for someone who could take Jack on. Kathy Bates immediately came to mind."

KATHY BATES ('Roberta')

How did it feel to get naked in a hot tub?
With Jack Nicholson? Good (laughing). We had a very small set that day so Alexander (Payne) made me feel very comfortable. I even had a little Cosmopolitan before I got in the tub to kind of take the edge off. All in all, it was a good experience.

But it wasn't your first nude scene. Have you become comfortable with onscreen nudity?
I think this was the most comfortable because Alexander and I each negotiated what he wanted and what I wanted, until we both felt comfortable. I love working with Jack and he made it very comfortable, so this was good.

It's a beautiful scene between mature adults. What's your take on this representation of beauty that we don't always get to see in movies?
I think Roberta is larger than life in a lot of ways, and I thought it was very right for the character. I was pleased.

Is she an uncomplicated hedonist?
Hedonist - certainly. I don't know if she's uncomplicated. I think she's definitely a hedonist. I think she's a free spirit. I think she's complicated with men, she's a control freak, and she's sort of a dilettante artist. I don't know that she's any more happy in general, deep down inside with her life, than Warren is with his own. She does live alone and I think we see her at a moment when she's excited about this new man that's come into her neighborhood, so to speak, so she's pretty upbeat. Having gone through two marriages, I don't know if she's totally happy. Her kids are growing up and she's getting older.

I think she's been free to experiment with her individuality and [she's] not as repressed as Warren. In that way I think she's more open and more fun, and more at ease. [She] lets other people experiment with themselves, as well.

What do you look for in roles these days?
I look for a role that hopefully I feel empathy with and that I can understand and love, but also that has that challenge for me to play - a different kind of role, a different type of character, a different time period. But in general, if I get the same kind of visceral reaction with a script like you do when you see a finished movie, that kind of thing of knowing what its possibilities are and you get excited and you think, "Yeah, I need to do this. I want to do that." It's a very kind of primitive visceral response that's hard to be more specific about.

Did you have that response with this script?
I did. I loved the script as a whole and I loved Alexander's work, and the thought of working with Jack just thrilled me. This was a no-brainer.

Did you have a hand in shaping Roberta?
Not really, no. I try to always stretch myself to fit the characters that have been presented. [Alexander Payne's] very specific. His scripts are always complete when you start working on them. I did adlib a little bit at the end of the dinner scene. I worked with Jane Stewart in terms of the house. I decided Roberta should have been trying to play the harp there at some point. There were little things like that. But basically I really like to stretch myself to do the characters and not make her just generally ballsy or aggressive. I wanted to understand who she was.

You've never worked with Jack Nicholson before. What was the experience like?
It was great. I was expecting him to be more of a cut-up, you know? But he's very professional. He arrives focused and works hard. I felt very good about that because he works like I was trained to work. I always like that when I see that in people whose work I've admired.

Does filming on location help you get into the spirit of the character?
Always, it does. I rode around Omaha with Alexander when I got there and I rode around with Howard Hesseman. We went shopping for some jazz and we got to know each other. I think that being in an environment is a much richer experience than just working on a soundstage.

How did you keep Roberta from being a one-dimensional character?
I wanted to make it very real. I was always very suspicious of Alexander and I kept saying, "But you like Roberta, right?" Because I wasn't sure. I always have to sort of fall in love with my characters and I wanted to treat her right. When I work on these characters, I just try to make them very real and grounded in the world. It's just the regular work that I do on a character with the director, trying to find out who this woman is and what's her backstory. Howard and I met with Alexander as a couple and we talked about different things that might have been true when we were together and what she does and how does she live, what kind of money does she have. Her social strata - her financial strata - seemed really important to me because when I first saw the house it kind of [took my breath away]. That wasn't what I had in mind. But all of those things helped me understand where she might be coming from.

I also worked on a walk for her. I really wanted her to walk with her pelvis thrust out to the world like she was ready. That was important to me, especially with Warren arriving and the whole celebration of a wedding being very fertile and all that. I think Roberta was getting off on that. She's so proud of her son and having him around always gives her another kind of buzz. You just sort of begin to pick up on all of those little things to try and specify who she is.

Was the house too big?
No. I had always seen them having a little more money, I don't know why. But then I understood when I saw the film all put together how different Warren's house was. His was sort of upper middle-class and this was the other end of the spectrum. I think it was very right and I love the colors that she painted the inside of the house.

Were you worried that Alexander was going to mock the characters a little bit more?
I wasn't concerned about anyone's character but mine (laughing). Roberta is the only one I'm caring about here. I wanted to make sure that she wasn't being mocked and that she was a real person and was treated with respect. He does walk a fine line and it is a satire.

Do you have a favorite role?
Just purely from the craft point of view, I'm very proud of "Dolores Claiborne." In terms of the acting craft and having to play a character at different ages and the movements and make-up - I'm really proud of that one.

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