Two words grant Louise Fletcher pop-culture immortality: Nurse Ratched.
The “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” villain remains Fletcher’s defining role, a character whose name alone conjures the image of a terrifyingly prim bureaucrat. Her soft-spoken calm made Ratched seem rational when in reality she was abusive and power-hungry. “Cuckoo’s Nest” — based on the popular counterculture novel written by Ken Kesey — swept the Academy Awards in 1976, winning Best Picture as well as Oscars for Fletcher, co-star Jack Nicholson and director Miloš Forman. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Ratched the fifth-best villain of all time.
On Sept. 18, the big screen’s scariest caretaker will get an origin story in the form of “Ratched,” Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series. Sarah Paulson takes over for Fletcher, with the prequel opening in 1947 as Ratched lands a job at an experimental California psychiatric hospital. Over the course of eight episodes, her dark past, as well as a burgeoning interest in lobotomies, comes to light. “Ratched” takes a more pathological approach to the character, which will make sense to Murphy fans but frustrate some “Cuckoo’s Nest” purists.
Fletcher never found another role as distinct as Ratched, but her career carried on. She’d left the industry about a decade earlier to raise her two sons, returning when Robert Altman coaxed her into taking a part in 1974’s “Thieves Like Us,” which Fletcher’s husband produced. Her parents were deaf, and seeing Fletcher communicate with them in sign language on the set inspired Altman to create a role for her in his magnum opus, “Nashville.” But he gave it to Lily Tomlin at the last minute, which hurt Fletcher deeply and helped teach her how fickle the industry can be.
In subsequent years, she appeared in “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “Brainstorm,” “Firestarter,” “Flowers in the Attic,” “Blue Steel,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Virtuosity,” “High School High” and “Cruel Intentions.” She earned Emmy nominations for guest roles on “Picket Fences” and “Joan of Arcadia,” and also popped up on “Heroes,” “ER,” “Shameless” and “Girlboss.” Despite that résumé, it’s clear Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with Fletcher after “Cuckoo’s Nest.” But she’s 86 now and doesn’t fret about it.
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Ahead of the “Ratched” premiere, Fletcher called me to discuss her most famous character, starring in Natalie Wood’s final movie, the disparaging feedback she got from male executives and forgiving Altman.
Sight unseen, what are your thoughts about the idea of a Nurse Ratched prequel?
Oh my gosh. I wish them well. I hope they have a very successful series. No doubt they will, because [Ryan Murphy] has the Midas touch. I don’t think it’s going to be anything like what I would have imagined if I was given the job to create a prequel to Nurse Ratched. My intention was to create a character that could be believed, compared to the book. When you read the book, you don’t know a thing — not one fact — about her. The screenplay, either. Miloš Forman wanted a natural feel. He wanted it to be 100% believable. He would say, after almost every take, “Does it sound natural?” Because he didn’t trust his understanding of colloquial American language.
As an actor, that gives you the ability to do a lot of the creation yourself, which I assume isn’t often the case. How did you want people to perceive Nurse Ratched?
I wanted them to see a person like we all see in life every day: a teacher, a telephone operator, or a conductor or a senator or a president — one who is convinced that they are right and the thing that they are doing is best for you. “Sit down and shut up.” “Take what I say because it is a great act of kindness that I am giving you.” And there’s nothing scarier than the old lady next door who has power. You don’t realize that there’s somebody tied up in her basement. I’m thinking of the Kathy Bates character.
Oh sure, “Misery.”
Yeah. A familiar person who looks like she’s normal, like she could be a nurse, all smiles. She says kind things, but if you cross her, that’s it. You’re done for.
You’re absolutely right that Annie Wilkes in “Misery” and Ratched in “Cuckoo’s Nest” have similar traits. A lot of movie villains are theatrical and cartoonish, and I think your performance as Ratched inspired a much more subtle approach.
One of the biggest — how should I put this? — struggles that I have had in my career was [when] I did a part in a movie called “Flowers in the Attic.” It was the most miserable time of my life because I was not allowed to make her a human being. She had to be like this scarecrow, this witch. “Scare me to death” ― that was my direction. And I had to do a lot of reshoots because I was just so uncomfortable. It was against my grain, against the way I work.
Ratched is so calm and subtle, especially when surrounded by the chaos of the mental ward. Were you worried that your work would be drowned out by Jack Nicholson and all the other men giving such big, larger-than-life performances?
Yes, I was, mainly about my voice. I have a soft way of speaking, and I can’t just suddenly make it into something else. After the first week, I said to the sound mixer, “Gosh, they’re talking loud and they have strong voices. Jack’s voice is so clear and strong. What’s the comparison going to be? Am I too weak-sounding?” He said, “I don’t think you have a thing to worry about.”
At what point did you feel validated by the decisions you made when it came to how you decided to play Ratched?
We went to Chicago for the first showing in a theater there. It was a theater that had been restored from famous past days. That was the first time I had seen the movie with a crowd. When [Nicholson’s character, McMurphy] grabs her by the throat, they stood up and cheered.
And how did you feel about that?
I just thought it was the greatest thing.
When you made the decision to step away from acting after doing a lot of TV work in the ’50s, producers were telling you that you were too tall to be attractive on-screen. Did hearing comments like that, presumably coming from men, contribute to your decision to leave the industry after becoming pregnant in the early ’60s?
No. That had nothing to do with it. I went out to Warner Bros. about 12 times before I ever was cast. That was back in the days when they were doing a lot of TV series. They had “Maverick” and “Sugarfoot” and “77 Sunset Strip,” things like that. I had a little Chevrolet coupe that I paid $90 for. It was my first car I ever owned. I drove out from West Hollywood to Warner Bros. 12 times before I got the first part.
I would have to go through the same process. First, you meet with the producer of the series, and then you meet with the two men, Bill Orr and Hugh Benson, who were head of the television department at Warner Bros. I kept thinking, “This car’s not going to make it out there again.” And every time Hugh Benson or Bill Orr would say, “Now, how tall are you?” And I would say, “I’m 5 foot 10.” And, “Oh, you are tall.” And of course, [“Lawman” star] John Russell was 6 foot 3. James Garner, who was Maverick, was 6 foot 2. So what’s the big deal?
Anyway, 11 times I was asked, “How tall are you?” And I never got the part. So the 12th time, I had pretty much decided this was the last time I was going to drive out there. And he said, “Now, how tall are you?” I took a pencil, put a mark on the wall, and I said, “This is how tall I am, and next time I’m supposed to come here, just look at this.” I got the part, of course.
So, hearing feedback like that, or knowing that that contributed to why you weren’t getting those roles, didn’t —
Here’s the point of the story. I was already married, and I had a husband [Jerry Bick] who was in the business and knew a lot more than I did. [Warner Bros.] offered me a seven-year contract after that day in the office, and I turned it down. I can’t believe that I actually did that.
Why did you?
Because my husband said, “All they want is cheap labor.”
Well, he probably wasn’t wrong about that.
“They want you to go from show to show to show and pay you $750 a week, so I don’t think you should do it.” And I didn’t. You can bet your bottom dollar my agents weren’t very happy. It wasn’t long after that — I would say maybe a year after that — that I had a baby. And then I got pregnant the second time very soon after that. I was leaving home in the morning when they were still in bed, and I’d come home at night and they had gone to sleep. At that time, I just couldn’t do it. And I didn’t look back, really. I was really happy doing what I was doing and thrilled that I could do that and my husband could support us. It was 11 years before I came back, and I had no plan to come back. No plan at all. It just happened that way, almost like destiny.
And not just to come back, but to come back first with a Robert Altman movie, who’s such a celebrated filmmaker, and then to do Nurse Ratched and win the Oscar for it. You must have felt very starry-eyed. But at the Oscars that year, Altman’s “Nashville” was also being celebrated. Lily Tomlin was nominated for the role that Altman had designed for you based on your connection to sign language. How did you feel about that?
Well, it was bittersweet, I’ll tell you. I was standing up on the stage and I looked down, and there’s Robert Altman sitting right there, gesturing toward me as if he were signing.
Was he mocking you?
No, I think he was happy for me. But he had a very special sense of humor.
You did appear briefly in “The Player,” his wonderful movie from 1992. Does that mean you were able to forgive him?
I think so. I mean, that’s why I did it. Just to say, “OK.” My husband produced two of his movies, “Thieves Like Us” and “The Long Goodbye,” so we knew him very well. It’s just a long relationship, and something happened that I couldn’t swallow. I don’t think Lily knew anything about it. It just was one of those things that happened. I think he just got caught up in Lily Tomlin. He made a decision based on what he wanted to do, not what I wanted to do.
A movie you did after “Cuckoo’s Nest” that I am fond of is “Brainstorm,” which was ahead of its time. Your character is accomplished and powerful, and that means we got to see you lean into the traits that made Nurse Ratched so effective, without being a villain. Compared to the other work that you were getting around that time, was that a particularly exciting project for you?
I had the most wonderful time making that movie because I loved my part, and I loved [director] Doug Trumbull, and for all the reasons you just said. I was looking forward to playing a kind of heroine. She was a sympathetic character, even though she had her issues. I got to spend one whole week alone with the crew, being the only actor on the set. It was insane. I’ve never had that before.
The movie itself got overshadowed by the death of your co-star Natalie Wood, who died while you were still shooting.
It was tragic, losing her that way. It was just something that should never have happened. And as a result, I think MGM probably would rather have shelved the movie than have it come out. I’ve since become great friends with [Robert Wagner, Wood’s husband]. We did a movie together about Dennis the Menace. We had a really good time. I got to know him and I feel quite close to him. I remember from the day that she died, he just was completely ruined.
[“Brainstorm”] suffered because MGM decided they’d rather get their money back from insurance. They took depositions from various departments and actors and Doug Trumbull, and they decided that the movie could be finished. But what suffered was the special effects that Doug Trumbull is known for because there wasn’t enough money left to do it. It’s a miracle the movie came out.
Around that time, you either turned down or missed out on a handful of roles that became famous for other actresses. I’m thinking specifically of the mother in “Carrie,” Norma Rae, and Shirley MacLaine’s role in “Terms of Endearment.” When you look back at it, do you find yourself wondering what could have been?
Well, you know, it’s just the way life happens. There is competition in our business and rejection. People ask me, “I want to be an actor. What’s your advice?” My advice is “Don’t do it.”
In the ’90s, you had a recurring role on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” You once said that you could have fun with that role because baked into it was the ability to overact and be very theatrical. Did you take that gig for the paycheck?
Sure. I mean, I guess so. Most gigs, I’m happy to get the paycheck. I’ve never been in a position where I wasn’t happy to get the paycheck. I’ve never had a lot of money. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But it’s a big help.
But “Star Trek” was so much fun because the crew was the most professional group of people I’ve ever been at work with — like a ballet, almost, the way they work together. It’s in a genre that they are all so familiar with and they know what to expect. It’s a thing of beauty to watch it work. Of course, we had extremely long hours, but that’s because of makeup and hair. But I thought it was great fun.
I don’t know whether you know how relevant “Cruel Intentions” is to a particular generation. Anyone who was a teenager in 1999, when that movie came out, more or less worships it. I know your role is small, but are you aware of the legacy that it has?
I kind of know because of the mail I get. People write and they mention certain movies. That one is mentioned more than others. Not more than “Cuckoo’s Nest” or more than “Brainstorm” or more than “Star Trek,” but it is mentioned. Sometimes it’s the only one mentioned in the letter. And they are of a certain age. Yeah. I recognized that.
You were working with a very young and trendy cast. Did you bond with anyone on the set?
Not really because they were practically teenagers then. They were very wrapped up in each other [laughs]. And their bond was so intense, the three of them [Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe]. I was just an outsider.
That was the last time I was on a horse. The time before, I was not filming, but I was in France. A friend of mine had horses, and she begged me to go out on horseback to see the views. I gave in and I went with her. We went down through this cornfield that had just been cut, and what we didn’t know was there was a beehive down there. I was stung 70 times, fell off and went into anaphylactic shock. I woke up and realized that I was dying in the middle of this cornfield and that my children were going to read in the paper that I died from being stung by bees. I was pretty upset. I was in the hospital for about four days.
Wow, I hope the “Cruel Intentions” horse experience was not as traumatizing as the other one. Broadly speaking, what do you make of where Hollywood is today, in terms of the opportunities that women are being given?
It’s improved very much for women and I’m very happy about that. And I believe that the marketplace has much more material than it ever had before, with the way people are viewing entertainment.
What sort of conversations, if at all, are you having with your agents, or anybody in your life, about the type of work that you might want to be doing?
Well, I’m 86. It would have to be something very special because I don’t have the stamina that I used to have. I don’t know if I’ll ever work again. It would have to be the right thing. Actors don’t have to retire because the right thing might come along. Lionel Barrymore spent the last how many years of his career in a wheelchair?
You’ve said that you saw a lot of Richard Nixon in Nurse Ratched. Thinking about it from today’s vantage, do you feel the same way about Trump? Or do you think Trump is more like Nicholson’s McMurphy, governed by testosterone?
When I said Nixon, it was because he abused his power. If you take any situation where somebody has power over somebody else, there’s always going to be abuse of power. There are always villains who will do the wrong thing. Richard Nixon definitely abused his power and did things that were wrong and tried to justify them. Is there any difference in Trump? Except that Trump is an outsized character. He is a bigger-than-life character. He has stretched our imagination of what a narcissist can be like. I’m watching Turkish sitcoms to shut him up.
Before I let you go, I wonder if you’ll let me spoil a little bit of “Ratched.” I’ve seen about half of the first season, and I’d love to ask how you feel about this interpretation of the character.
Can I ask you a question first?
Is it kind of like a horror movie?
Yes, very much so.
I saw a little bit of the trailer, and for me, it was like looking at the trailer of a horror movie, so I sort of put it out of my mind as not having anything to do with the movie.
Well, it’s interesting because I know that you’re the one who gave Ratched her first name, Mildred, since neither the book nor the screenplay mentioned it. The show, which for obvious reasons cites Ken Kesey’s book and Miloš Forman’s film as source material, also uses Mildred as her name. That means it’s positioned within the same world, so to speak, as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She’s still a former World War II nurse, but here’s what’s different from your portrayal: She is pathological. She will kill to get what she wants, which contradicts a lot of what you were doing with the character.
I don’t think we need to belabor the fact that they have little to do with each other because at least I feel reassured about one thing: Nothing is going to happen to the movie. All I can say is, every single day we were on that set, Miloš Forman emphasized natural behavior. He didn’t want mental illness to be part of the villain. I met with Miloš for a whole year before, so by the time they gave this part to me, which was at the very last moment, I really knew the whole thing.
The list of women who were in contention for the role is long: Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury. Were you aware at the time that they were all in the mix, too?
No. I didn’t know that until about a third of the way through the movie. A reporter asked me how I felt, having taken a role that had been rejected, and he named five major actresses. And I was really shocked. I don’t know who I thought they were offering it to. I just thought, “This is my part. This is mine.” But by the same token, if I wasn’t going to get it, I was OK with that. And I would have understood if Angela Lansbury had it, or Jane Fonda or whoever. I’m happy you told me that about the series because I was worried that it would somehow interfere with my character, but it doesn’t because it’s completely different.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.