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Home mySSlife Entertainment What Kay Baby learned on set: A visit with the breakout star of ‘Bernie’

What Kay Baby learned on set: A visit with the breakout star of ‘Bernie’

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Reaching Kay Baby Epperson, the retired hairdresser who steals the show in the movie, “Bernie,” only took one phone call to the Rusk Chamber of Commerce.

“Give me your name and phone number,” said the nice lady who answered the phone. “I’ll have to track her down.”

Kay Baby, who owned Kay’s Hair Fashions for 35 years, said she’s not hard to find.

“I get Christmas cards and the only thing on the envelope is ‘Kay Baby – Rusk, Texas,’” she said in her smoke-tinged voice.

Getting cast in the Richard Linklater movie was “a God thing,” Kay Baby says. “When I decided to go over there to interview [for the part], I knew nothing.”

The movie is based on the 1996 real life murder of wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent. Nugent was killed by Hawthorn Funeral Home’s assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, one of the city’s most popular citizens, who confessed after Nugent’s body was found in her deep freeze nine months after the crime.

Nugent, who was estranged from her only son, her sisters and her grandchildren was in the freezer for nine months before they found her. Tiede confessed at once.

In January of 1998, Texas Monthly published a piece called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” a riff on the John Berendt book about a famous murder in Savannah, Ga. The piece was written by Skip Hollandsworth, who was drafted by Linklater, a Texas native who heads an Austin-based film company, to co-write the script for the movie.  Linklater got his start with “Slacker,” and has directed “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and a remake of “Bad News Bears.”

The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

When she was hired for the movie, Kay Baby, the mother of two and grandmother to two boys, said they told her she was supposed to be a busybody.

“Richard [the director] said, ‘I’m hiring you as a gossip in the movie,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, I can do that. I’ve had a beauty shop for 35 years. I know how that works.’”

On the day she left to go to the shoot in Bastrop, Kay Baby was injured in a wreck that totalled her car, but she wasn’t deterred. This was her moment in the sun, so she found someone to drive her to the set.

After her first husband, Dr. John Hunter, died, Kay Baby said she stayed home for a while, “listening to the refrigerator run.” Then, she decided to get back into life.

“If you sit, and ‘poor little me’ and have a pity party, you need to get out and do something for someone else less fortunate.”

She volunteered at the Good Samaritan mission.

Gary, her current husband, was doing some electrical work at the facility.

“Now you know you’re not going to get paid to do anything down here,” she told him.

“Excuse me, I think I know why I’m here,” he replied.

“When I got ready to leave, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Let me tell you one thing, don’t you put ‘Miss’ on my tombstone, because I haven’t missed a damn thing.”

“That’s the first intelligent thing a woman’s said to me in Rusk,” he told her.

“We started going out to dinner and stuff at that point,” she said. “That was in August of 2003.”

They married in Las Vegas in 2004.

“We went to the Flamingo,” she remembered. “Gary had set it up. The flowers matched my dress. You would have thought I had a year to plan this wedding.”

As it turned out, the flowers belonged to another bride who offered to let Kay Baby use them.

“My wedding pictures are the most beautiful things you ever saw,” she said. “It’s been a God thing all the way.”

While on the set, Kay Baby learned how things work in movieland.

On the first day, they handed her a rewrite and told her to have the changes memorized by lunch.

“Is that lunch, 12 o’clock or lunch 4 p.m., because if you’re having lunch at 4 p.m., you know you’re going to be there until midnight,” she told them. “We started one scene at the school at 4 p.m. and we didn’t finish until midnight. They used one of the last scenes because I had put on this pretty dress for the scene, but about 11 o’clock, I said, ‘I am freezing to death. Can I put on my jacket?’ It was one of the last takes because I had on that jacket.”

Kay Baby was surprised to learn how early things start on a movie set. The cast and crew were scheduled to shoot several funeral scenes one day.

Here’s a transcript of a conversation between Kay Baby and one of the crew:

“Miss Kay. We’re going to pick you up at 5.”

“That’s fine, honey. I’ll just have an early dinner.”

“No I don’t mean dinner.”

“You’re not talking about 5 a.m., are you?”

“Yes, ma’am. We have to go to San Marcos in the morning to a funeral home. We’re going to do three funerals there.”

“The good part about that is that I don’t know anything until at least 10 o’clock so I can ride down there and be just fine.”

Kay Baby put on her makeup before she went to bed the night before and laid out her clothes.

“I just got up, got dressed and got in the van.”

When they were shooting a scene in church, where Bernie (Jack Black) is singing, Kay Baby decided to give him a little wave.

The wave was not in the script. The following exchange took place between director and rookie cast member:

“WHAT are you doing?”

“Well, that’s just what I would do. I’m friends with this man.”

“Oh. OK. I like that, let’s do it again.”


Giving her artistic freedom made the scene “cute,” she thinks.

Kay Baby had her way more than once during the shoot.

In one scene, she addresses the issue of Bernie’s sexuality as only someone named Kay Baby can.

A member of the community says he thinks Bernie is gay because he had never married, wore his belt hitched above his waist and he wore shorts and sandals.

Kay Baby’s character defends Bernie with a speech that goes something like this:

That dog don’t hunt. Jesus wore sandals. Jesus had 12 disciples. They all ran around together. The apostle Paul was a confirmed bachelor all his life. He never married. Do you think anybody would call them a bunch of queers? I don’t THINK so.

“I was supposed to say ‘gay,’” she said. “For some reason, ‘gay’ never would stick in my brain.”

At Wednesday’s matinee at the Carmike in Tyler, the mostly over-50 audience howled at her political incorrectness.

“That’s one of my favorite parts.”

Kay Baby also learned how long it takes for a  final cut to reach local movie houses. The movie wrapped in December 2010. She thought it would be released in January of 2011. Wrong.

“Last Thursday, they did the premiere in Kilgore and I told Richard, I said, ‘Richard, I need some work! I haven’t worked in a year.’”

She asked the director what took so long.

“He said, ‘Kay, you look at every frame.’”

Kay Baby was also shocked to learn what Hollywood’s interpretation of low budget meant.

“When they said it was low budget, $18-20 million, to me that’s not low budget,” she said with a laugh. “I about choked.”

She said working with Matthew McConaughey was a lot of fun and commented on his recent nuptials.

“They have two children together,” she noted. “It was time they got married. You THINK?”

With that, she broke out in a fit of laughter.

Kay Baby is up for future projects, saying she’d love to work with Anthony Hopkins and Sandra Bullock.

“Oh, Lord, if I could do a movie with them.”


Editor’s note: I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in a movie theater. I want to see “Bernie” a second time just to hear what I missed while laughing.

While Linklater skates close to the edge of parody, he diffuses some of the ugly truths about small town life with quality writing and award-worthy performances.

Not for one minute do you see Jack Black act. His transformation into Bernie Tiede is astonishingly complete. Especially the final scene.

MacLaine plays down her obvious acting chops, letting rip only when necessary.

McConaughney’s interpretation of a good ol’ boy district attorney is so over the top you can’t help but laugh and laugh and laugh.

And, then there’s Kay Baby. A star is born!

Linklater relies heavily on Christopher Guest’s (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) format of interspersing “real life” interviews into the plot.

In “Bernie,” Linklater uses actors like Kay Baby and real Carthage residents for the vignettes. A list of who’s who runs during the credits.


Check current listings for show times of “Bernie,” as the run at Tyler’s Carmike Cinema has been extended, due to popular demand.

As of press time the film was also showing in Mount Pleasant.

Do not leave your seat until the final credit rolls. There’s some funny stuff at the end. (See if you can pick out McConaughey's mother. She plays one of the citizens of Carthage.)


Click here to see the official trailer.




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