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Kathleen Turner: ‘I started out a star, so Hollywood had no leverage over me’

Kathleen Turner Kathleen Turner

As the film star prepares to put that famously husky voice to full use in the West End, she tells Matthew Hemley how she overcame a health scare to continue a thriving stage career, and why actors should Shut Up and Do It

A little more than a decade after the 1981 film Body Heat turned her into a Hollywood star, Kathleen Turner faced the possibility of never acting again.

Her feet had become painfully swollen, her energy was low and her body was feverish. Doctors were initially conflicted in their diagnosis of her symptoms, but tests eventually confirmed the source of the actor’s chronic discomfort.

Turner was battling rheumatoid arthritis, and suddenly a woman whose career had delivered a raft of 1980s hits and seen her star soar on Broadway was facing an uncertain future.

I was terrified that I would not be able to continue acting. And I could not imagine my life without acting

“I was terrified. Terrified,” Turner says, her distinctive drawl faltering as she recollects the pain, which began when she was filming 1994’s Serial Mom. “I was terrified that I would not be able to continue acting. And I could not imagine my life without acting. I believe I was born to do this job. I am one of those fortunates whose talent matches their passion, you know?”

Her steely determination – “Someone told me I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life and they were promptly fired” – meant she refused to give up on her passion, even if the pain was at times so unbearable it reduced her to tears mid-performance.

Turner recalls appearing in Indiscretions on Broadway in 1995. In the second act, her character was required to walk up a flight of stairs, and await a cue to return to the stage.

“I had tissues at the top,” she reveals. “And by the time I got up there, tears were streaming down my face. My feet were so incredibly painful. I let myself cry, and then I would hear Roger Rees saying my cue, so I’d clean my face, wipe the mascara and go back down.” In the end, she was put on steroids, which helped treat the conditions, but the side effects brought their own problems.

Turner’s battle with arthritis is just one of the stories she shares in her new one-woman show coming to the UK, called Finding My Voice.

Turner in Mother Courage and Her Children at the Mead Center for American Theater in 2014. Photo: Teresa Wood
Turner in Mother Courage and Her Children at the Mead Center for American Theater in 2014. Photo: Teresa Wood

It features anecdotes from her varied career, which began on stage before she was cast in Body Heat. She would go on to star in films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (providing her distinctive, sultry tones for Jessica Rabbit) to playing Chandler’s dad in Friends. Along the way she also appeared alongside Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone and its sequel The Jewel of the Nile, while her impressive stage credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bakersfield Mist, both in the West End, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway.

In between anecdotes about her career, Turner does something surprising: she sings. Her voice is, of course, as famous as her name. But it’s fair to say that it’s not one usually associated with belting out a show tune.

It was during a stint in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in 2014, in which she was required to sing, that she discovered she could hold a tune. “And it turns out I loved singing,” she says. “So when I came back from that show I wanted to keep working on the singing and see what else I could do.”

Together with her collaborators, Andy Gale and Mark Janas, the idea of a cabaret show was born. Finding My Voice was launched in Philadelphia before playing in San Francisco. The length of the show has been extended for its UK run.

“In London, a 75-minute straight-through cabaret doesn’t work, as you have to have an interval, otherwise the producer has to pay the theatre for the booze they would have sold,” she says, candidly.

Her frank nature is what makes listening and talking to Turner so enjoyable, whether she’s discussing why she doesn’t use private cars these days – “First of all I can’t afford that sort of thing any more” – or sharing thoughts on why she thinks she has managed to evade harassment during her career. “Two elements protected me, other than my naivety,” she says. “First, if some man had said to me: ‘You do this for me and I’ll do this for you,’ my first reaction would have been to laugh.”

She continues: “My first job in Hollywood was starring in Body Heat. I had never been in a film before and they didn’t know me from Adam, so I didn’t go through that passage of a young woman trying to get a position or role. I started out a star, and they had no leverage over me.”


Q&A: Kathleen Turner

What was your first non-theatre job? I went to a temp employment agency and they would send me out to whatever office needed me.

What was your first professional theatre job? It was Off-Off Broadway, a play with the Soho Rep, and Jonathan Frakes [known for playing Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation] was my leading man.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To find a way not to be so hurt by the ‘Nos’. I was not quite prepared but I don’t think anyone is.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother. She was gracious, courteous, strong-willed and had a real sense of honour.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be brave, risk it. What I tell my students is, if you go through an audition and they say, ‘No, but thank you very much’, have the guts to say, ‘Can you tell me what you’re looking for and let me try that?’ Half the time they might not like that they’re being questioned but the other half they might say: ‘We thought you were too soft, now let’s see it more hardcore.’ If you’re going to get told no, you are going to get a no anyway.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I would be a diplomat in the foreign service.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No shoes on any table anywhere near me, any place I can see them. No shoes on any table. Not in my home, my dressing room or the theatre.

Turner may have had her share of Hollywood success, but she also made a decision fairly early on that she wouldn’t be making LA her home.

“I felt isolated there, insecure, and had a lack of confidence whenever I was there,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Why the hell would anyone want to live here when it makes you feel worse about yourself?’ So I never did.”

Instead, she rented a house for the length of a shoot and would return to New York when it had ended. “It affected my career,” she admits. “In those days you couldn’t work from just anywhere. You were supposed to be there [LA]. But I don’t care, as I would have been desperately unhappy.”

While New York is her home now, soon she will be heading to the UK for Finding My Voice. She admits to finding life away from NYC lonely, and suggests performers here could learn from being more welcoming to actors from overseas.

“British actors do not have a habit of coming backstage,” she says. “I always make a point, when English actors are on Broadway, of going backstage or sending a note with my contact information on. I say: ‘Give me a call.’ ”

She adds: “Actors appearing in their own country have their families to go home to. But if you’re appearing in a show abroad, you go back to an empty flat.”

Kathleen Turner in The Graduate in the West End in 2000. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Kathleen Turner in The Graduate in the West End in 2000. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Brits may not have been overtly welcoming thus far, but Turner did make friends with Maggie Smith in 2000, when Turner was starring in The Graduate and Smith was appearing next door in The Lady in the Van.

Turner recalls how Smith dropped a note backstage asking, jokingly, if she could borrow one of the security barriers that had been put out to protect Turner at stage door.

Turner laughs as she recollects the scene. The two actors have remained such good friends that she asked Smith to join her to do some teaching when she’s over here.

“I love teaching and try to fit it in as well,” Turner continues. “I asked Maggie but she said: ‘I can’t teach.’ I told her she could, and that I was going to need her protection, because they are not going to approve of the way I teach in London. It’s hardly traditional.”

How so? “One of my courses is called Practical Acting – Shut Up and Do It,” she laughs, her no-nonsense, direct manner once again on display. It’s a refreshing trait and, perhaps, unusual for someone whose career has taken her to such heights.

Maybe that comes from facing an illness that threatened to undo everything, very early on? “You learn to sort things out, to categorise things,” she agrees. “This I can’t do anything about, so let it go. This needs doing but I can delegate it. This must be done but only I can do it.” Turner reflects and adds: “It makes life pretty simple, really.”

CV: Kathleen Turner

Born: 1954, Missouri
Training: Studied theatre at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Landmark productions: Theatre: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Broadway (1990), The Graduate, Gielgud Theatre, London (2000), Broadway (2002), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Apollo Theatre, London (2006). Film: Body Heat (1981), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Kathleen Turner: Finding My Voice is at the Other Palace, London, from April 17-May 6

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