East Texas actress talks about role in 'Bernie'
RUSK Kay Epperson didn't think she would get the part.
But, when she read about a casting call in Carthage, her husband persuaded her to audition.
"I brought a 5-by-7 picture and got in line. I knew nothing about the story at all. I just got bits and pieces from talking with others," the 70-year-old Rusk native said.
The movie was "Bernie," a story about the 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Carthage by local mortician Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede. Nugent's body was found in a freezer, and Tiede was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
Epperson was told she would get a phone call if her audition sparked interest. That call came the next day, and she was cast as one of the gossips.
"I got a call, and they said ‘We love your voice,' and I said ‘Honey, it's for sale,' " she said before showing off her scrapbook of "Bernie" mementoes at her home in Rusk.
The former hairdresser didn't know who was in the film, but she soon found herself in Bastrop working on a project starring Jack Black as Bernie Tiede, Shirley MacLaine as the widowed Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey as the local district attorney. Filming occurred in fall 2010 in Bastrop, Carthage, Smithville, Georgetown, Lockhart and Austin.
Epperson said she first caught the acting bug when she joined the Cherokee Civic Theatre in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
She started out cleaning the restrooms and doing other things, but she eventually landed a role as Ouiser Boudreaux in "Steel Magnolias," a role she had a chance to tell MacLaine about.
"She was sitting outside the church one day with a Nook, and I figured out she was learning her lines, and I said ‘I know I'm not supposed to bother you, but I wanted you to know I played Ouiser, (and) she looked up and said ‘Did you do us proud?' I said ‘Honey, I promise you I did you proud.'"
However, movie acting was a different experience for Epperson.
She said the process was longer and harder than she thought.
"When you see it on the screen, you're relaxed and you're watching it and you think, ‘Oh, my gosh. That's wonderful.' You have no idea the crew, the set, the makeup, what they go through to get there, so it's five times the work," she said.
The courtroom scene, which shows Epperson's rings, was shot in the third week or so and was the first time all the cast was together. The scene took two or three days, Epperson said, but the movie only shows bits and pieces.
McConaughey "was as handsome and skinny and polite and everything (as he appears). Of course, the first time I looked at Jack (Black), he looked like he was in character. He always looked like the funeral director," she said.
The actress also recalled a benefit for the Bastrop Fire Department and sitting in MacLaine's chair at the Bastrop Cemetery. A co-producer said MacLaine wouldn't be there at that time, so she sat in the chair and began to hear an animal sound.
"I looked behind me and in cages they had white humming doves," she said. "In the movie, they come up and circle the casket. It was the most moving thing I've seen in my life, and I said (to the co-producer), ‘This is why I was in here today. I want these doves at my funeral.'"
Crews also did some filming at Nugent's old house, where the yard is done and somebody still comes to clean.
With director Richard Linklater, Epperson said he "basically lets you find your own character."
The movie has drawn mixed feelings among Carthage residents.
Epperson said some were pleased with "Bernie" while others weren't so happy with the dark comedy.
Linklater "was wanting to do a premiere in Carthage, but there are still some people who don't want (it)," she said. "I think some of the ministers were saying they were making fun of an old lady being murdered. ... But where were they when she was in a freezer for nine months?"
She said the more she learned about the film and the real-life people, the more she understood why Nugent left everything she had to Tiede.
Carthage resident Reba Tarjick, who also was in the movie, said that Tiede was beloved in the community, and people were shocked at his arrest.
"I told (my husband at the time), ‘Can you believe that?' He was like an angel. He had done everything for people in Carthage," she said.
And although some residents at her church refuse to see the movie, she said she sees nothing wrong with it.
"It's a true story. I think it's hilarious. It's a funny movie," she said.
As far as the future of her career, she has joined the Screen Actors Guild and was told she needed a representative and publicist.
She even got a few encouraging words from McConaughey.
"He said, ‘Well, she's got a voice like (cook) Paula Deen, and if she wants to work, she can work after this movie comes out. She's gonna be good,'" Epperson said.
Her advice for other actors?
"Follow your dreams, honey. If somebody has an inkling, follow your dreams. Go for it. It doesn't matter how crazy it is," she said.