In No Country for Old Men, the period Western from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Javier Bardem plays a sociopath named Anton Chigurh who thinks nothing of killing strangers who inconvenience him. But he finally meets his match in the form of a no-nonsense trailer park manager who refuses to divulge the location of a man Chigurh is looking for. "Where does he work?" Chigurh asks over and over again, never changing his tone or demeanor. The manager fixes him with a steely glare and doesn't back down. It is alternately terrifying and hilarious, and it happens to be Bardem's favorite scene in the movie. "This woman doesn't know who this guy is and isn't intimidated," Bardem says. "I said to the guys after shooting with her, 'There's only one person who can frighten Chigurh, and it's this woman. You can't tell whether she frightens him or he falls in love with her—if he's going to kiss her or kill her.' "
That woman is played by Kathy Lamkin, an actor who is beginning to make a habit of stealing movies in a single scene. Most recently she's been seen on the big screen as Ben Stiller's affectionate mother-in-law in The Heartbreak Kid and as a fast-food employee in In the Valley of Elah, opposite Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. This season she appeared in what may be a recurring role on Boston Legal as Judge Marcia Fudge, a part she was unable to audition for in person and booked on the strength of her reel. She recently finished filming the lead role in Staunton Hill, a horror film from Cameron Romero, son of horror filmmaker George Romero.
Not bad for a girl who grew up "painfully shy" in Texas and made the move to Los Angeles much later in life than most actors do. Lamkin can remember wanting to be a performer from an early age. "I grew up in a very rural town, and you could only get two television stations on a good night, depending on the weather," she recalls. "And I loved watching the Academy Awards and would dream and get goose bumps about those things. But we weren't rich, we weren't going to be famous, and so it was just something to dream about."
A choir teacher in junior high school encouraged Lamkin to overcome her shyness, which was so bad "you couldn't even hear me talk." The teacher cast her as a carnival barker in a concert but, because Lamkin's singing voice was so quiet, asked her to speak the lines. "The moment I spoke it, everything changed," Lamkin says. "I was still shy, but as I got into high school I started doing plays. If you put me on stage and give me a line, get out of my way!" She continued acting while attending college at Texas Woman's University, then began traveling the world with her husband, who was in the Air Force. But she was still hesitant to try to break into the professional world. "We were in California for a time, and my husband said, 'Don't you want to try?' And I was like, 'No!' " Lamkin says with a laugh.
When the family settled in Houston, where her husband is still based as an engineer for NASA, Lamkin became very active in local theatre. She opened her own company, USA Theatre, where her whole family would get into the act, her two children and her husband often acting or working behind the scenes. She attempted to land an agent, going to see Mary Anne Duffy of Mad Hatter in Houston. "I went in with a nine- to 12-page résumé of my theatre work and a photograph that was all wrong—my hands on my face, lots of jewelry, and red lipstick that looks black in a black-and-white photo. Everything was so wrong that it was right," Lamkin recalls. Duffy referred her to another agency, which sent Lamkin on an audition for the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove. "I think they were just being nice to Mary Anne, but they said, depending on what the casting director said, they would determine if I would be good for their agency." As it turned out, her audition got her called back to network. "I've never seen so many people around one table," she notes of the experience. And while she didn't get the role, she did get the agent.
Lamkin also began teaching, starting the Unicorn School of Acting, which led to an important connection with L.A.-based casting director Terry Berland. "I wanted to bring a CD into the class, and I called around, and Terry came highly recommended," Lamkin explains. "I basically cold-called her and asked her to come teach. I flew her in to Houston, and she was amazing. My commercial acting made a big change with her; it was like the light bulb went off." Berland eventually convinced Lamkin to make the move to L.A. Reveals Lamkin, "After a few years she said, 'You need to go to Los Angeles. I don't tell people that, but I really feel strongly this is what you need to do.' "
In October 2002, Lamkin made the move with a group of her students, planning to stay for two years since she "knew from the school that it takes about two years from making a contact for it to pay off." Several commercial agents expressed immediate interest in her, but she held off. "The vibe wasn't right for me," she explains. "I go a lot on my gut feeling." Then she met theatrical agent Kristene Wallis. "She said, 'I don't know of anyone like you. You're unique, and I want to represent you. It might be an eventual thing, but you will work,' " recalls Lamkin, who is still with Wallis. "And I've always remembered that. Anytime I would get down, I would call my husband and say, 'I don't like the traffic here; I don't like the people.' He would say, 'Remember what Kristene said?' "
Lamkin also began teaching at the ActorSite in L.A. and participating in workshops. "I know some people don't like workshops, but I see the value of letting people see your work," she says. Through a workshop, she met a casting director for the FX show Nip/Tuck, who recommended her for a memorable role in which she wore a 200-pound fat suit. "I had medical people writing me after Nip/Tuck," Lamkin notes. "One wanted me to come talk about this condition; I had to explain to her I was just an actress."
Since then, she has been working nonstop and seems to have overcome her shyness. Asked if anyone ever told her it was too late to try to break into Hollywood, Lamkin laughs. "I did!" she says. "It was an impossible dream. There's still moments, driving in the city, where I say, 'I'm here. And I'm doing it.' "