'AHS: Hotel' Star Kathy Bates: There’s a Method to Iris' Madness

Bates also talks with THR about filling Jessica Lange's shoes, working with the "mesmerizing" Lady Gaga and the show's many "complicated" relationships.
Courtesy of FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel.]

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology horror series, American Horror Story, returned to FX Wednesday for its fifth chapter, set in a haunted hotel where guests don’t really get a checkout option.

The premiere introduced an onslaught of new horrors, with something dark and disturbing waiting behind just about every door of Hotel Cortez, owned by the enigmatic Countess (Lady Gaga), who isn’t exactly a vampire but does have a thirst for human blood. Her lover, Donovan (Matt Bomer), also enjoys slitting people’s throats to drink their blood in his spare time. The hotel catches the attention of John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a detective investigating a series of grisly murders throughout Los Angeles. He checks into Hotel Cortez — home to a sadistic junkie, Sally (Sarah Paulson), as well as many other disturbed characters — seeking answers.

This is the first season of American Horror Story not to star Jessica Lange. Instead, Oscar winner Kathy Bates — who previously appeared in AHS: Coven and AHS: Freak Show — replaces her as the headlining actor. She plays Iris, Donovan’s mother and the manager of Hotel Cortez. She’ll do just about anything for her son, including run a hotel where people come but never leave.

Bates speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the premiere and how she’s still in the process of figuring out exactly who Iris is. She also discusses the different skills required for doing such emotionally demanding character work, as well as what it’s like to work with Lady Gaga.

On a surface level, Iris appears a little more “normal” than other AHS characters you’ve played. But she’s still a manager of a hotel of horrors, so is there more than meets the eye with her?

Yes, there definitely is. When I read the first script, I was like, "OK, where are we going to go with this character?" By the end of the first episode, you know that she’s been there for 20 years, but you don’t exactly know why she stuck around. And she has put herself through — for her —what’s been hell. In the very beginning scene, it’s hard to figure out where she’s coming from. She seems irritable, but when she’s talking to the Swedish girls, she definitely wants them to stay, so it’s very strange that she doesn’t like them, and yet she wants to be sure that they stay. And she really couldn’t give a shit about them. She throws the keys on the bed and says, "Whatever," and leaves. But when they complain, she definitely wants them to stick around, so she puts them in the infamous room 64. There’s a whole method to Iris’ madness that has not been revealed yet.

When your character exists in such extreme darkness and has to deal with these really over-the-top situations, how do you keep your performance grounded?

There certainly is less time for socializing on set. I really have to stay off in a corner by myself and stay focused on the scene and the character and whatever the emotional demands are of the scene. And for Iris, certainly in the first few episodes, she’s in an extreme situation that’s taking her through a journey she never imagined that she’d go through. I really have to focus. In television, you don’t have a lot of time, and you only get maybe three, four, sometimes five takes for something unless something goes wrong technically, so you really need to be on your toes and know exactly what you want to do and get it done quickly. If a scene is extremely emotional, you know you’re going to be shooting it from different angles, so that means you need to keep the emotions running, so that’s why I often refer to it as keeping the pot on the stove. I like to go off again and stay in that corner. I find it’s also very important to be in that state, even when you’re not on camera, so that the other actor can respond truthfully to what you’re doing. A lot of actors don’t have the ability to keep sustaining the performance they give on their close-up, so they drop out, and it’s really not fair to the other actors, so I’ve always felt through my career — and learned it from other really wonderful actors that I’ve worked with — that you can’t mess around.

We all love each other so much, so the temptation to play around is huge, especially when I get around Paulson. I just adore her so much, and I want to play with her and have fun and be bad. She’s so joyful and naughty and all those wonderful things, and so I really have to seal myself off from engaging too much with Paulson between takes. But she’s always there when you’re filming with her. She’s always focused. She’s always giving it her all, no matter which way they’re shooting. I adore her. I could get into a lot of trouble if I’m not being professional.

What do you like about playing in such extreme darkness on a show like this?

It’s always fun. I go back to when you’re a kid and you’re playing dress-up and monsters and pirates and this and that. That’s acting really at its base. And I know it’s a craft, and I know we take many years to learn things. We learn you have to sustain a character over a long period of time, whether you like it or not, if you’re a professional. But at the very basic level of just playing pretend, we all love that. There’s a little kid in all of us and certainly in all of us actors who love to play dress-up, who love to pretend to be different characters and mimic other people. It’s so much fun to pretend to be an entirely different human being for a day and then to, in this case, to dive into that character when you go to work and when you work on a script like this — I don’t know how to describe it. You’re certainly drawn to it, God help you.

You’re now on your third AHS role. Has any one of the three roles stood out as more challenging than the others?

It’s just a different ball game. They were all challenging in their own ways. What makes it challenging every season is that we don’t know where the characters are going. We don’t have an idea of what’s going to be happening in episode eight or even episode five, so when we read scripts, we’re just as surprised as you are when you first see the show, so that’s the challenge. Also jumping into a new character at the very beginning is always difficult because you go through the usual process of costumes and makeup and all that kind of stuff, and then you really take your first spin without knowing all the dials. It’s like going out in a car that you don’t know how to drive yet. I’ve always likened it to being in a hotel itself. You don’t know what’s behind each door. I’m still discovering who Iris is, but I’ve gotten close over the last three or four episodes to figuring out what’s making her tick. In episode one, you certainly see that there’s something going on with her and Donovan. He wants her to leave, and she needs to be there.

What keeps Iris at the hotel? Is it just her son keeping her there?

Yes, at this point, that’s what it is. At the very end of episode one, you don’t know what happens to Donovan. She has no idea who The Countess is. But as you see in the present day, Donovan survives, so she’s probably made some kind of deal with The Countess that we don’t know yet.

You mentioned you’re still trying to figure out Iris. Have you been pulling any influence from outside of the script, like from other characters?

Sam Shepard wrote a wonderful play called Fool for Love, and that title has always been on my mind. Iris is certainly a fool for love. She has hung on with tooth and nail, for years, because she can’t let go of Donovan. I think we can probably all identify with that — those relationships where we just get so blinded by our love for someone to our own detriment.

We only really see Iris interact with The Countess once, but it definitely looks like Iris fears her. What can you say about their dynamic?

It’s easy to see that she’s absolutely terrified of The Countess. Everybody’s terrified of that glove, for one thing. The Countess does own the hotel. I think anybody’s position there is tenuous at best. Sally gets Iris into trouble, and probably with a lot of glee, by letting the girl out of the cage. She knew that Iris would have to pay the price for it. It’s the cardinal sin of the hotel to let someone out because, God, if they do, the jig’s up.

We do get a strong sense of this rivalry between Sally and Iris in the premiere. Are we going to see more of that moving forward?

Oh yeah. They’re strange bedfellows, these two. I don’t want to give away too much, so let’s just say relationships are very complicated in this hotel. Iris and Sally are very complicated, and I’ve just seen one direction that they’re going in, and I would imagine they would go another direction. I look forward to that because, like I said, I just absolutely adore Sarah. In the last couple of seasons, we really haven’t had a lot to do together. A lot of my scenes were with Jessica, whom I adore. I’m really happy now that I get to work with Sarah more.

What’s it like not to have Jessica Lange around for this season?

She’s the reason I got involved in the show. I’ve worked with her before over the years. She’s a friend. I really loved playing with her, and every day when I was getting ready to go into a scene with her, I was just so excited. We just played together well, so that was a great joy for me.

Now, I’ve only done a few things with Stefani [Gaga], but she’s — and especially from seeing the premiere the other night — just so fabulous. She was just so simple, so mesmerizing. She was like something from another time. I’ve only had two or three little scenes with her so far. I’m looking forward to another one in the next couple of weeks that’s a bigger scene. I know Ryan has said a lot about her in the press, but she really is so down to earth. She’s so much fun to be around, and she’s very professional. She’s joyful. The couple of times we were on set rehearsing, she was all dressed up — not in her costume, but she had a very simple outfit that she put together just for rehearsals, which was fun on the one hand but also very smart of her. When we were back training to be actors, if we did period costumes, we’d wear a rehearsal skirt because you’re not used to wearing long skirts. So I don’t know if that was her intention, but it’s very smart of her because she’s got a long gown on, so that’s informing the way she moves and walks, and she also looks really great for everyone who gets there in the morning. It’s her thing. It’s her way of really being The Countess from the get-go.

Iris appears to enjoy doing crossword puzzles. Will that be significant at any point, or is it just one of her quirks?

The reason I asked for a crossword puzzle — or maybe it was even in the script — was because it’s like playing solitaire: People often do it when they’re waiting. Crossword is more from Iris’ time, and she does that while she’s waiting for victims to come in. Everybody that checks in is a victim, and I think it also takes her mind off of where she is and what she has to do. And she’s really limited in terms of what she can do sitting there at the desk all day, so I just think it’s a habit that she has gotten into.

American Horror Story: Hotel airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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