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THE NURSE AND BEYOND: AN INTERVIEW WITH LOUISE FLETCHER

Interview with Louise Fletcher
LOUISE FLETCHER won the Oscar for Best Actress in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, the adaptation of Ken Kesey's story about a boisterous freespirit named McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who slowly takes over a mental asylum run by the dictatorial Nurse Ratched, an iconic character brought to life by this amazing actress who also appeared in THIEVES LIKE US, BRAINSTORM, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and SHAMELESS. 

When did you first know you wanted to be an actress?

Well it was my childhood ambition. I knew from a very early age but it didn’t really develop into a reality or strong ambition until I was older, like in my late teens. And I went to the University of North Carolina and I majored in Dramatic Arts and I promised my folks that I would graduate from the University, so I got a really wonderful education and majored in Dramatic Arts.

Medication Time
That would be almost impossible to do today because majoring in Dramatic Arts is no guarantee that you can earn a living. I think probably if I were seventeen years old today I’d be planning a different kind of education. I’ve often thought of that… thought how lucky I was to grow up in a different time.

That’s my past and then I accidentally came to Los Angeles. I was on my way to New York City where I was planning to suffer a great deal in becoming a Broadway Actress because my first love was the stage. But I came to Los Angeles with my roommates from school as a graduation present. We went across country in a new Oldsmobile and this was in 1957.

We took three months to cross the country; we had a wonderful time and great adventures, and it was almost safe in those days. But when I got to L.A. I had to get a job because I spent all my money I had saved up to take that trip to New York. And I didn’t have enough money to get to New York, so I thought I’d better get a job and… That’s how it all began. One thing led to another out here... And I’m still in L.A. and I’m still on my way to New York.
Louise Fletcher on SHAMELESS
Young Louise
What were some of your more challenging roles on TV?

More recently, SHAMELESS was challenging. I’ve never been profane on screen before, that was a challenge, and you know it’s a very "shameless" show. I was called on to be the mother of William H. Macy and he’s incorrigible, and when you meet his mother you realize why he’s so incorrigible...

But in the early years back in the fifties and early sixties I worked at Warner Brothers a lot. And did a lot of their series they had going at that time which was like, MAVERICK and, oh Lord, 77 SUNSET STRIP and…

PERRY MASON...

PERRY MASON, yeah… Thanks… But that wasn’t Warner Brothers…

I saw that you were in that… It’s one of my favorite shows…

Raymond Burr was quite a nice man but the scuttlebutt was that he was lazy. And sometimes he would call in sick… So when you were on his show and he called in sick they had to keep paying you. And that happened twice, the two times that I did his show. And I made double that I would have made. So I remember being so happy he was sick.

Let's talk more about your role in SHAMELESS...

Louise in FLAWLESS
Well I'm William H. Macy’s mother, who’s been in prison because her meth lab blew up and killed a few people. And he plays an incorrigible person on SHAMELESS. He’s a deadbeat dad who’s a thief and an alcoholic and a drug addict – just whatever… he would do anything to survive and feed his habit. And he has six children – their mother’s not in evidence. I think she appears once in a while. And these children just get by on their wits. It’s a series about survival really.

And the series has been running now, I think about three years. And I’m not sure about that; how long it’s been running, as I was just on it for this one thing… And I won’t be going back, obviously.

So when you meet his mother, as he said to me, “Gosh, this is so great because now people will like me a little better.” Because they understand he’s a victim because his mother’s so incorrigible. And so playing this woman who is really anti social or, asocial… She does everything: She’s a liar; she’s a thief; she makes meth; she sells drugs to kids: she does everything bad… Including… She tries to teach her grandson about meth in the basement…

Cheap Detective
Anyway she gets out of prison because she’s ill. And she tries to convince them all that she’s not really ill, but she is really ill with pancreatic cancer. And I did one episode last year in January just to establish the character. And then I came back this season and did three episodes where you find out who she really is and what she’s all about. And then she’s sick and she comes and lives with them and then she dies.

But it’s all very funny, even her death is very funny. And it was so much fun to do comedy and… It’s not something I’m known for, as you know… But it’s something I really love, but… I’ve never ever, ever been given a chance to do much…

There's THE CHEAP DETECTIVE...  

Oh yeah, that was funny, wasn’t it? My job was to make fun of Ingrid Bergman. And I had to watch that CASABLANCA about 900 times – how to make Ingrid Bergman funny, and that wasn’t easy. But I figured out that she whines a little bit. She was whining and complaining and you know… Anyway…
Louise Fletcher in Kai Winn Adami garb
On STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE you played Kai Winn Adami... What was this character like? 

Well I called her “The Pope in Space,” and she’s a bit like Nurse Ratched: she’s power hungry and relentless, ruthless, she’s not a lovable Pope. She’s the religious leader who has found this ambition and she will take down anything in her way, and it was fun to play, very operatic.

Star Trek
I thought of it as sort of a grand opera because of my costume and my hairdo and the length of time it took to get in all that, and I felt like I was carrying around about thirty pounds of extra weight at that time. Really it was a lot of hair and hats and a big heavy costume and but I’d never worked with such a group of professionals. I tell you, that was very impressive over there, that group they had making those STAR TREKS.

The makeup, the hair, the production, the props – it was fantastic. I watched it in awe all the time, everyday, when I was there. It was hard work. Long hours, but fun. And then some things you… like SHAMELESS dialog is just the easiest dialog in the world to commit to memory because it flows… It flows and it’s natural.

STAR TREK dialogue is not easy. You’ve really got to learn it. You’ve really gotta put it in that memory bank. But it’s a discipline; it’s a certain discipline. I’m so glad I did them because I love being able to say I was a little part of STAR TREK.

And the fans are just the best with us, you know, they just love it. I must get… I don’t know how much fan mail I get, but… It’s still 50% of my fan mail.
Louise Fletcher in Robert Altman's THIEVES LIKE US
So your first theatrical film was THIEVES LIKE US?

Earlier I had done this movie… What was it called, with Rock Hudson? He played a pilot. Gosh I can’t remember the name of it… And I was pregnant and I was cut out of the movie, I think, because I wasn’t meant to be pregnant… I had a very small part but it was my first movie…

Thieves Like Us
A GATHERING OF EAGLES...

That’s it… Yes, that’s right… But THIEVES LIKE US was my first movie after I came back to work, after I’d taken off eleven years when my children were little. I stopped working with no intention of ever coming back. I didn’t think I would and I was just being a mom and loving that, and didn’t think about coming back…

But THIEVES LIKE US was directed by Robert Altman and was produced by my husband [at the time], Jerry Bick… Bob Altman wanted me to play this part and I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to be in a movie that my husband was producing.

And I said, “All the other actors will say, ‘We know how you got this part,’” and I just didn’t want to do that. But Bob didn’t cast anybody else, and the day was approaching that this character was gonna have to work.

So that’s how it happened. I just sort of backed into it and had fun doing it, and got very nice reviews and when we got back into L.A. I thought I might try again, so, thinking of trying again and actually being able to do it again are two different things. I had kind of a hard time getting started again but I was very lucky after a couple of years…
Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) overlooking her NEST
And then CUCKOO’S NEST happened… I’d done a few smaller things before, and after I started again I had a very hard time getting an agent. But eventually I did and Milos Forman was casting CUCKOO’S NEST and asked to see me.

Louise and Shelley Duvall
He had looked at THIEVES LIKE US to look at Shelly Duvall for one of the other parts in the movie… And he asked who I was and if anybody knew me, and a few people from the old days remembered me. And I went in to see him, and after about a year of going in to see him every few weeks, maybe five or six times, I had to go and read with him, and talk with him, and he’d tell me to go home and forget about it: that it wasn’t gonna happen.

And I would… I’d go home and forget about it. You remember, I was already grown up and mature, and I understood rejection at that time. It’s a good thing I wasn’t twenty because you have to learn to eat that rejection just like it’s breakfast food. What I didn’t realize was during that whole process of casting they were offering the part of Nurse Ratched to lots of movie stars… And I didn’t find that out till about halfway through the shooting of the movie. But they all turned it down so I was lucky. And they asked me, so finally I was the last person they asked.
Nurse Ratched closing the window of hope
What do you think are some good aspects of Nurse Ratched? 

She was well groomed [laughs lightly]… She took a shower every morning… She was on time…

She loved her job…

She loved her job… And she was consistent.

The reason I asked that is... In the novel by Ken Kesey, since The Nurse is seen through Chief Bromden’s eyes and he hates her guts, she’s sort of a caricature or representation of pure evil…  But in the movie she’s a real human being…

70's Paperback Cover
You have to realize that in the book Chief Bromden is mentally ill. And he hears things and sees things and Nurse Ratched has smoke coming out of her ears, I think… she’s an apparition to him.

And the brilliant thing about the movie is that Milos Forman changed the point of view. He told the story in a narrative way rather than through someone’s eyes. Not that the book was not a universal theme, it was… But making a movie and by just telling the story as you’d tell the story of anything, like the story of Christ: Where he was born, who his parents were, how he grew up, what he became, and what his destiny was… This is the way Milos told the story.

And that was brilliant because all the truths were there; it’s just that you didn’t have the distortion of the point-of-view of Chief Bromden. So you had to… although there was nothing on the page to say who Nurse Ratched was…

I mean, you knew who McMurphy was and what his background was and what he had been through… And what he was trying to do by pretending to be mentally ill and going to this facility, you knew that he was trying to get a cushy gig…

But you know nothing about this Nurse. And you just find out about her through her everyday actions. And so introducing some human qualities into a person who’s just playing a position was daunting, really… And you had to make her a human being… And you had to make her believable...

And so I saw that as my job, and I just put myself in that spot and gave her that rigidness that never wavers. The person in power who thinks they have power because of who they are and how they do their job, and they’re "right"… There’s no other way but my way. And yet they can deliver that with quite a lot of kindness and conviction with the appearance of being a human being, a kind person.
McMurphy's intrusion rattles Nurse Pilbow, but not Nurse Ratched
I like the scene when Jack Nicholson goes into the Nurse’s station and Nurse Pilbow freaks out… But Nurse Ratched is very calm and in control…

The key word is Control... And when she figures out that she’s losing control and everything’s been in control until this guy shows up and starts undermining her position and she begins to lose it and does lose it… That was a challenge.

And believe me, I can talk about it in a very comfortable way now, but at the time nobody was quite sure this was gonna work, because he was a very powerful character and I have this soft voice, and I didn’t know for a long time if it was working… But it was wonderful to do it and wonderful atmosphere to work in...

Brad Dourif in Cuckoo's Nest
They shot it chronologically which is a great gift for the movies because you very rarely shoot chronologically, but that was because we were in one set, one place, and we could pretty much do that because usually it’s the end… It’s a “rule,” you start on the last scene of the movie then you have to imagine what you’ve done already… That you’ve done everything else and you try to put yourself in that place… of work you haven’t done yet. So that was a great gift… It was a true ensemble, really.

The control Nurse Ratched had over Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) was really intense…

That was awful; that was the worst thing… She “lobotomized” a few people I think.

The scene in the doctor’s office was interesting because The Nurse didn’t have the men to take care of… And the head doctor actually calls her by her first name…

I gave her that name. As a matter of fact, early in the... I think it might have been during rehearsal... We had a week’s rehearsal which I think was a great gift… Jack said to me, “What’s her first name?” And I said, “Mildred.”

I had decided, because it’s not on the page… She was just Nurse Ratched… But I had given her that name...

And so about four or five weeks into shooting, when he comes back from having E.C.T. and enters the ward, and we’re having our group therapy and he pretends to be loopy, and he says, “Hello Mildred.” It took me by such surprise and such a shock that I don’t even know that anybody notices but I actually do blush… And Milos had more than one camera going at the same time… It was just perfect… He made me blush.
Nurse Ratched's reaction after McMurphy speaks her first name
Dean R. Brooks
So Dr. Spivey was a real doctor, not an actor...

All those guys were real doctors…

Dr. Spivey (Dean R. Brooks) in particular was great…

Wasn’t he great? You know he’s still around. He’s ninety-four or five, and we talk about every month or so… He’s very, very involved with the hospital still and they’re building a new hospital and he’s very active in all that. But he’s in an assisted living place now.

And in that scene I think it’s funny the doctors want to send McMurphy back to prison, but you want to keep him…

And I make it look like I’m really sacrificing… I think I can help him now… [Laughs lightly]… She’s has it in for him…
McMurphy practices his own form of medicine
The scene where McMurphy chokes Nurse Ratched looks very realistic... How was this planned out?

When we were about ready to do that, Jack said, “I think we should rehearse.” And he said, “I think we should do the Yiddish school of acting.” I asked, “What’s the Yiddish school of acting?” He said, “You try to make me choke you, and I try not to choke you… It looks the same but it’s not gonna hurt.”

A Chokeful of Nuts
And it was brilliant; it worked brilliantly. I got a few bruises just from the pressure but nothing worse than that…

I just loved rehearsing that because you have to realize, I had to sit and stand in that uniform eleven weeks without ever doing anything. I just had to sit in a chair, or stand…

And they were acting crazy and having fun all the time, so doing this physical thing was a great release for me, even though it meant me getting choked to death… I enjoyed doing the scene… And I thought it was extremely effective: he tried not to choke me and I tried not to make him choke me, and it worked brilliantly…

And the time I saw the movie, in the movie theater, which was in Chicago… They opened it there… A big movie theater, I’d forgotten the name of the theater. And when he choked me people in the audience stood up and cheered [laughs]…
 
That was frightening… That was so frightening.
LOUISE FLETCHER INTERVIEW BY JAMES M. TATE
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