''I love playing unlikable people,'' swears Kathy Bates, so the role of Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's hit movie Misery must have been a dream come true. As a crazed rural nurse who rescues and then terrorizes a bedridden romance writer (James Caan) in the adaptation of Stephen King's novel, Wilkes is about as unattractive as leading women get. But if the obsessive, murderous character was a juicy part, Bates says that being virtually locked in a small bedroom on a Hollywood soundstage for four months ''was like being in a pressure cooker.'' Things really boiled up in the finale, during which Caan pulverizes Bates with a typewriter, then lights his manuscript on fire and forces her to eat the pages.
''It was so ferocious,'' she recalls. ''The paper-stuffing part was hardest for me. I just started crying after the shot. Everyone got upset and I felt bad because I didn't want to be a wuss.'' On the bright side, Bates was tickled pink by another costar, Annie's pet sow, Misery. ''I thought she was sexy,'' says Bates. ''She had a long, lean ass, and these little feet like she was walking around on high heels.''
Bates, 42, has made a specialty of difficult roles: She appeared on Broadway as the suicidal daughter in 1983's 'night, Mother, a role that sent her into a serious depression and therapy. Known primarily for her stage work until now, she has had only small TV and movie parts, including James Spader's sympathetic boss in White Palace and a brutish yuppie caterer in Men Don't Leave, and has lost some plum roles she seemed destined for. Though Terrence McNally wrote his Off Broadway play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune specifically for Bates, for instance, Michelle Pfeiffer was given the part in the upcoming film version, a slight that still bothers Bates. Misery, which could bring her an Oscar nomination, seems to be her breakthrough. Bates just finished filming At Play in the Fields of the Lord, with Tom Berenger and Daryl Hannah, and will soon star as a radical South African schoolteacher in the movie of Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca.
Reiner, who first saw Bates perform in a Los Angeles staging of Aunt Dan and Lemon, is proud of his discovery. ''She's a great actress,'' he says. ''She's one of those actors who'll work forever. Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith she's in that league.''
Born in Memphis and educated at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bates still has a trace of Tennessee twang and sometimes punctuates her speech with a soft ''Lordy!'' While studying acting in New York, she supported herself as a cashier at the Museum of Modern Art, then joined a Virginia children's theater, ''toured as a duck for a year'' to get her Actors' Equity card, and returned to New York to get her big break in Vanities in 1976. She and her boyfriend of 12 years, actor Tony Campisi, divide their time between his home in Manhattan and hers in Los Angeles, where she moved in 1985. ''We're looking for wedding rings now,'' she says.
Bates' newfound fame has already brought her one certification of acceptance: A cameo in Woody Allen's new movie, in which she plays a prostitute alongside Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster. ''It's neat,'' says Bates. ''You look over and see him standing there, and think, 'Geez, I'm doin' a Woody!' ''