Crimes and Ms. Demeanor:
The Kathleen Turner Interview
by Tony Phillips
When Kathleen Turner rings up bright and early from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, deep in rehearsals as the director of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart, one doesn’t know what to expect. There are just so many ways in when it comes to this two-time Golden Globe winner. There’s her globetrotting childhood as the daughter of a diplomat: the young gymnast in Cuba could take all morning. There’s her searing debut in 1981’s noirish potboiler Body Heat as Matty Walker: a she-bitch the big screen has not seen the likes of since. There’s Jessica Rabbit. Then there are the lean Nineties spent battling a debilitating case of rheumatoid arthritis and scripts like Baby Geniuses. And finally there’s her inspiring reinvention on the New York stage — literally stripping herself bare and rebuilding herself anew — to become the inspired, confident, funny, sexy woman on the verge of a directorial debut on the phone today. With so many points of entry, it had to be a gag, so I pretend to confuse Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart with Turner’s own spectacularly out-there turn as hooker China Blue in Ken Russell’s 1984 film Crimes of Passion. It’s a test, but instead of the "certifiable diva" slamming down the phone, the joke meets hearty gales of laughter cooler than any Berkshires’ breeze. We go on to discuss the ass-kicking prowess of Holly Hunter, waking up naked in a room full of strangers and domesticating Marga Gomez.
Kathleen, how are you doing this morning?
I’m trying to breathe in some of that Berkshires air over the phone.
It’s pretty beautiful.
It’s heaven. So what’s your typical day like up there?
Well, we usually start rehearsal at ten, but today we pushed it back a little bit to do these interviews. We run until one and the stage we’re at right now is we’re running the play every morning. Then after lunch, I choose scenes that I think need more work and more detail and then we work until at least five.
Now, I’m curious, what made you think Crimes of Passion would work as a play?
Crimes of Passion was a film!
Kidding! That was a joke.
[Laughs] All right, fine!
But seriously, how does one approach a Beth Henley property?
Well, of course, it was a play, first and always, but Roger and I discussed this last summer. Roger Rees, you know, he’s the artistic director here. He’s sort of been pushing me for the last couple years toward directing so last summer I got my toes wet by directing a reading and this year he said, you know, you really should take a full stage production and I liked this play so much. First of all, the writing is beautiful. It’s excellent. And I liked very much exploring relationships between women. I think they’re much less predictable and very layered as opposed to the usual male/female, which obviously follows some sort of almost rule. And the fact that they’re siblings also adds to their layers.
I get that, but I guess my question was more — I just had this conversation with a choreographer who was setting a dance to Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, no less — so I guess what I’m asking is I think of Beth Henley as so heavily identified with Holly Hunter. You know, you’re much more formidable than me, but I’d be worried about picking up a Henley play for fear of Holly tracking me down and kicking my ass.
Well, um, no. I mean Holly has the right accent, I guess. Apparently, it’s the only accent she’s got, but it’s always been a play to me. I didn’t see the film.
Well, you’ve come up with a pretty New York kind of cast. Tell me about casting. And who’s playing the Magrath sisters?
Well, it was really pretty flattering. I have to say that when I decided to do this my agent got a call from Sarah Paulson’s agent saying that she would love to work with me and she recommended Lily Rabe and we talked on the phone and she sounded wonderful. Sarah plays Meg, the middle sister: the difficult one. And Lily is playing Babe, the younger one: the one who shot her husband in the stomach. And then there’s Jenny Dundas, who I had not met, but the casting director here at Williamstown gave me resumes, tapes, photos. Jenny’s reputation is excellent and so we asked her and, you know, all of this is juggling availabilities, but they all managed to do it. They all managed to get free for the summer.
And beyond, I’m sure, because the thing about this cast is they all seem so ready to move this show to New York.
Oh! Well, I’m not sure the last time there was a production of this in New York. I don’t know, I should look that up, but the way they’re shaping up, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Well, just to speak for the entirety of Broadway for a moment, bring it. We’re ready. So what is this play about for you?
Oh, boy! Well, we have three more characters. There’s Doc played by Patch...oh, what’s Patch’s last name?
Yes, Patch Darraugh. And Kali Rocha, who’s playing the terribly obnoxious cousin Chick and Chandler...oh, hell!
Oh, wait, I know Chandler too.
Yeah, he’s been here before.
That’s it. And he’s playing Barnette Lloyd, the young lawyer. And everyone is at a pivotal moment in their lives. They’ve come back together after many years, the sisters, through extremely different experiences, but they’re all at a point of change, almost crisis. And so the way they support each other and what they learn from each other and on their own is really what the passage of the play is about. It’s very moving, but it’s got a lovely, quirky humor, which is what I love because I need humor and the weirder, the better.
Now, Kathleen, what are you like as a director? I have to confess the only glimpse I have into your directing style is this Marga Gomez story about auditioning for you. Do you know it?
Well, Marga said she came in to be put on tape by you for this Lifetime movie about this Fifth Avenue socialite who befriends her maid. She says you kept making her do the scene over, each time doing a different bit of housework. She said by the time she was done she she cleaned your whole house, but she didn’t get the part.
Well, I have to tell you that I never did that film. I think she must be mistaken.
Oh, no. It was very high Turner. She does the voice and even had you in a safari suit. Perhaps it’s apocryphal, but she definitely meant you.
Well, I did do a film with Anne Archer and Mary Kay Place about a woman later in life who in her forties chooses to get an abortion and all the fallout from that, but I never did this one with the maid and the Fifth Avenue woman so I think she’s got the wrong person. And I’m sorry. I hope it was a good story, but I don’t think it was about me.
Okay, so you don’t make your actors tidy up, but what do you make them do?
What am I like as a director? I think that I do have an advantage by really, truly understanding the acting process. I find it’s fascinating, though, as a director, to look at the larger picture. As an actor creating a character, you get little blinkers on your eyes, in a sense, you really have this almost tunnel vision as you work to develop your character with others. As a director, you have to see the whole story, how it’s being told, the balances between actors, the focus, the balance in the voices, the consistency of accents, the consistency of design. The pace! God knows, too many directors just don’t push at that. Anyway, I do think that I have very definite ideas as an actor and as a director on how it should look, where it should go and how it should feel and I think they’re finding that a good thing.
Can we talk about your other stage work a bit?
I had the unique opportunity to see you do The Graduate in New York and then see Jerry Hall do the same part in London.
Did you really? I always wondered about that.
Well, I know it’s not a competition or anything, but I have to say your performance was so much more nuanced and just the physicality, I much preferred you in that role. I mean Jerry just seemed like this really angular piece of furniture that you would stub your toe on in the night. And, I have to tell you, I know you have that line about "if a man doesn’t look at me, he’s probably gay" but Miss Turner, I’m as queer as the proverbial three dollar bill and I was looking at you. I found you quite compelling.
Well, that line has never been quoted in full! Somebody said to me, okay, what makes you sexy? And I said, well, if you’re feeling really good about yourself, you know, and feeling great, if I’m feeling like that and I walk into a room and a man doesn’t look at me. That was what it was about, about what makes you sexy.
I’m just saying, I was looking at you. It was spectacular.
I thought it was pretty goddamn brave, I have to say.
Sure, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare: waking up naked in a room full of strangers.
Well, it wasn’t just that, it was here I was 46 through 49, well, 48 anyway, you know, at an age when most people have dismissed women my age as being sexually attractive or viable and so it was extraordinary. I got the most extraordinary letters and responses from women saying I haven’t undressed in front of my husband for ten years and I’m going to do it tonight. You know, wonderful sort of stuff like that, and all right, it was a kind of fuck you, too, but that wasn’t the only reason I did it.
And then, of course, there’s your Martha, who was just staggering.
Thank you, that was really a culmination of many, many years of desire to do that.
I can remember Ben Brantley writing that your end game Martha was more naked than you ever were in The Graduate. And I thought that’s a very easy thing to scribble on the aisle wearing a suit, but did you feel that way?
Oh, yeah. She’s stripped. Oh, God love her. Really both Bill Irwin and I felt that ultimately there’s hope there. You know, that it’s very probable that they will go on — George and Martha — we felt that way. Anthony Page, our director, agreed. Albee, of course, refused to say anything, but he did say-he gave us a sort of party in June when we finished the national tour-and he stood up and he said, all right, I have to say it. This is the best production I’ve ever had.
I know! We were all like holy shit! I mean you can wait your whole life to hear something like that, you know?
It’s interesting that you found hope in the play. I mean, I agree that they’ll go on, but I thought your particular production leaves one feeling that they’re going to get up the next morning and do the whole thing again. I found it almost existentially bleak.
No, I don’t think so. I think Nick and Honey are done. They’re gone.
I heard a very funny story about the original matinee cast Honey. Elaine Stritch was playing Martha in that cast.
I know. She and I have talked about that.
So she comes offstage and crosses Honey — who’s about to go on-in the wings — and Stritchey says, knock ’em dead, kid, the couch is on fire. And it was!
Whoa! That sounds just like Elaine. Truly, truly, truly.
So you beat out an incredible number of actresses for that revival — everyone from Jessica Lange to Bette Midler — what do you think gave you the edge?
Well, first of all, we don’t call it a revival. Edward hates that word. He calls it a new production. All right, whatever, but it hadn’t been done since 1975 with Colleen Dewhurst, and I didn’t even know if Albee wanted to mount a new production. I just wanted to have lunch with him. So we had lunch and he said finally, well, what is it you want? I said, I just want to read Martha for you, that’s all. I just want to put together a reading. And Bill agreed to do it and we did it. We went to Anthony Page’s apartment and there were all kinds of people there, I’m not even sure who they all were, and we did the reading. And at the end of the first act, we took a break and Albee came up and said I haven’t heard anything like this since Uta Hagen. And I said well, this is only one act. Ha-ha! So we finished the reading around two that afternoon and you know, I went home thinking well, God knows when we’ll hear and the phone rang at 5:30. They said when can you do it? It was the most extraordinary thing. And then the next week I turned fifty. Isn’t that mindblowing?
Totally. So you have this amazing film debut in the 80s. Matty Walker: so major! Then you go onto to do some amazing work in that decade: the aforementioned Crimes of Passion, all the Douglas/Devito collaborations. And then the nineties break, along with your nose the set of V.I. Warshawski. What happened?
Well, what happened primarily then was that I got rheumatoid arthritis and for a few years it was very, very bad and frankly, I couldn’t take a job I couldn’t physically do. And it wasn’t really until I went back to Broadway with Indiscretions with Roger Rees...
I remember seeing that! With the young, and very nude, Jude Law. And that set! I don’t think I’ve seen a set applauded since Indiscretions.
I know, wasn’t that fun? It almost upstaged us. So anyway, that was the beginning, really, of my recovery when I felt I could take on a whole job again.
You know, I didn’t mean to write off the entirety of the nineties. I mean, there were some major milestones: Serial Mom, Virgin Suicides, Chandler’s father on Friends!
Well, thank you, but basically since Indiscretions I’ve been doing mostly stage work, which I adore. I mean this was always my original ambition. Also, I knew that as I got older the better roles for women would be on stage so I think it worked out pretty good.
Absolutely, but in terms of rehabilitation, the stage seems so much more rigorous than film. I mean, there’s no trailer, for starters.
Yeah, it’s tough. It’s very tough. It’s physically tough. It’s mentally tough. You don’t do anything else when you’re doing a Broadway play eight shows a week. You don’t, that’s it, that’s your whole life. Listen, Sweetie, we have to wrap up, my other interview is here so is there a last question?
Oh, God yeah, there’s like ten, but you have a daughter?
Okay, that wasn’t the question! What I’m imagining is she’s probably around that age where she’s giving some serious thought about what she’s going to be doing with the rest of her life.
So what would you do if she came to you and said I really want to do what you’re doing?
Ah, she only says that when she’s angry with me. She’s a musician. She’s a very stunning jazz and rock guitarist. She has her own band in college and she’s extremely passionate about that. It’s cool. She’s really good. I went up to see her band and I was amazed.
Well, thank you for doing this Kathleen. And break a leg with this play. I’m really excited for it.
Well, see if you can come, yes?
Okay, but just to speak for the entirety of Broadway for another moment, I’m quite sure that even if I don’t make there, it will definitely be coming here.
Oh, Gaaaah! Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God! Thank you.