LOS ANGELES -- Not long after winning the Oscar for Best Actress last spring, Kathy Bates was shooting another picture, "Prelude to a Kiss," in a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago.
It was a night shoot, and people gathered to watch Bates and her co-star, Alec Baldwin, at work. "We had bodyguards and it was all really big time," she says. "A lot of people were asking for autographs."
Along about 2 a.m., accompanied by her bodyguard -- "that was kind of strange" -- Ms. Bates took her Yorkshire terrier Pip for a walk. "And he did his business and I didn't have anything to clean up after him," explains Bates, "and I looked on the ground and there was a piece of notebook paper and it had my autograph on it. So I used it. It might as well be used for something."
Ms. Bates tells the self-deprecating story with glee. It's one of her favorite anecdotes about being Kathy Bates.
Another is about buying her wedding dress off the rack at a discount house last April and trying it on in a communal dressing room and then blushing in her underwear while lying to other half-dressed customers about not being Kathy Bates.
"I don't lie very good," she says. "I know actors who say they're really great liars. But I'm terrible at it."
So what is she doing when she acts if not lying? "I really don't know," she replies.
Critics and audiences do know. So do members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who last year declared her to be America's best movie actress for her performance as the No. 1 fan in "Misery," beating out Joanne Woodward, Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston.
Ms. Bates, when she acts, is telling the truth. Her authenticity on the screen, on stage and even in person is startling and disarming. Compared to most Hollywood females who seem like effete race horses, all skittish and brittle, Ms. Bates is feline, powerful and playful, like a lioness.
Moviegoers can now watch Ms. Bates at work, giving a strong performances in "Fried Green Tomatoes." She also appears in the upcoming "At Play in the Fields of the Lord."
Sipping the ice water, Ms. Bates speaks about her weight, which has given her problems in the past. "Oddly enough," she says, "it's at this weight that I've been able to make a name for myself."
Not conforming to the image of a movie star has cost her. Though highly praised for her stage performances, she's been passed over many times for the same roles in the movies. The most recent snub was "Frankie & Johnny," in which glamorous Michelle Pfeiffer was hired to play the role of the frumpy waitress.
It was a role playwright Terrence McNally created for Ms. Bates. She hasn't seen the movie.
For her work in " 'night, Mother" -- a role about a suicidal woman that she played for more than two years and identified with so overwhelmingly that she became depressed, broke down and entered therapy -- Ms. Bates gained a Tony nomination and Outer Critics Circle Award. The role went to Sissy Spacek in the screen version.
Finally, in 1985, Ms. Bates, who'd been born in Memphis and educated at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, decided to leave New York and put herself on the line in L.A. At the time she told an interviewer, "On my bad days I got tired of developing material for Sissy Spacek and other stars. I started to think, 'Well, what am I up here bustin' mah hump for, when they're out there picking the gardenias off the bushes.' "
Now Ms. Bates is like a kid in a flower shop. In addition to "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," she has a cameo role in Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fogs," to be released in March. "Prelude to a Kiss" was completed over the summer, and "Used People" with Shirley MacLaine and Marcello Mastroianni finished shooting in late fall.
Now she complains that she doesn't even have time to stop and smell the flowers. "Logistics, and telephone calls, and getting clothes ready -- I don't have time to think about anything or read a book," she says. "I feel like I'm still rushing to catch the train. I'm going to have to find a way to manage things better."
Within weeks of winning the Oscar, she married her companion of 13 years, actor Tony Campisi. He's a sweet man, she says, who kept her sane this year. In June, Ms. Bates hired a part-time personal assistant: "I realized that I'm a business."
The challenge was, "after the Oscar, keeping my heart and my mind on what was important, the source of what gives me joy in my life and what got me here: the work itself, the story, working off another actor."
Though she has dismissed her craft as a mystery at the morning press interrogation, she relaxes enough during a private conversation in the afternoon to be more reflective about what she does.
"I get everything from the other actors," she says. "Because acting is responding to something. It's very hard for me to react to something that isn't there."