Actress Kathleen Turner, Part 1

In the first of a two-part conversation, the Oscar- and Tony-nominated actress shares what she believes she has in common with Molly Ivins, the writer-humorist she portrays in the stage production Red Hot Patriot.

Kathleen Turner paid her acting dues for years as a relative unknown in stage productions and on TV before landing her breakthrough role in the neo-noir thriller Body Heat. She's since starred in a wide variety of popular movies and also found success on the stage, earning two Oscar nominations and two Best Actress Tony nods. The daughter of a U.S. ambassador, Turner has lived in several countries—gaining experience that helped mold her as an actress. She's also a passionate and outspoken advocate for women's health choices and has worked to raise awareness of rheumatoid arthritis.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kathleen Turner to this program. The Oscar and two-time Tony-nominated actress is receiving terrific reviews for her latest stage production, a one-woman show based on the life of legendary Texas writer Molly Ivins. It’s called “A Red Hot Patriot.” The production is currently running here in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse. Here now a scene from “Red Hot Patriot,” the kick-a wit of Molly Ivins.

[Film clip of theater performance]

Tavis: I was just saying how much I miss Molly Ivins.

Kathleen Turner: I know, I do, too.

Tavis: Yeah, especially around these times. Her commentary in this presidential race with these Republicans would be to die for.

Turner: It would be – the thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize about, and we were starting to speak of, is that Molly was incredibly well informed and politically savvy. She wasn’t simply a humorist in that sense. She really understood options and how the government worked and our responsibilities as citizens, and our rights, which I think we’ve lost so much knowledge of.

Tavis: What warrants for Molly being featured, her life, that is, being featured in a one-woman play starring Kathleen Turner?

Turner: I have really put some thought into this, that we share very many of the same values, and perhaps somewhat the same kind of personality in that I’m not very accepting of a lot of the precedents set by other people, shall we say? So I’m very attracted to it in that way. But also what happened when – first, we developed this in Philadelphia, and now we’re here at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

I’m always having to introduce her to a lot of people because she wasn’t widely read in the northeast, because after “The New York Times” fired her there was a sort of disapproval of her in the northeast. So I found many people really don’t know her work or who she was and what she wrote very well at all, and I think it’s important.

Tavis: She wasn’t just a great writer or a great humorist, but obviously she was a woman, and so much of her story has to do with being a trailblazer as a woman.

Turner: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: So tell me more.

Turner: Well, when she started out, right out of college, she started at the “Houston Chronicle” I think was her first job. As we point out in the play, there’s a photo of the whole newsroom and everything, and she – the character says, “Now, what is wrong with this picture? That’s right, it’s all men.” It was – it was consistently all men. For many years she was the only woman at that level of reporting.

Tavis: As a woman, then, I suspect that more than just getting her story out, it’s about empowering women, or am I reading too much into it?

Turner: Well, I don’t know that it’s so much empowering women, particularly. I think it’s more empowering Americans as citizens.

Tavis: That’s fair.

Turner: I think that one of the great losses in our time has been, like, so many of the arts. It’s been considered unnecessary or a luxury or an expense to have civic classes, to teach our kids what their rights and responsibilities are as a citizen of the United States, with the result, I think, that we have created a climate of almost victimization.

That we have generations now of Americans who feel powerless. So to me, what Molly, the most important aspect was not so much about women but about the individual citizen.

Tavis: Tell me more. I take your point and I want to just dig a little deeper and have you unpack it for me. Tell me more about the link, Kathleen, between a lack of appreciation for the arts and people feeling disempowered. What’s the link (unintelligible)?

Turner: Well, what I was saying in that too is that like a lot of – considering art, education or exposure to the arts, which is considered an unnecessary luxury. So went the way of civic classes and that kind of teaching, that instruction, which I think is desperately needed.

Tavis: What’s the price you think we pay as a society for not valuing the arts as we should?

Turner: Oh, Lord. Well, I am constantly – and this is something that has been an ongoing crusade, of course, for many years and the many times I have been to Washington to fight for even just another little – hold on to the budget we have for the National Endowment of the Arts or anything like that.

I try and point out that what we have left of all the great civilizations that preceded us are in essence the arts – the painting, the writing, the sculpture, the architecture.

This is the greatest legacy that these other civilizations have left behind. What will be our legacy if we don’t treat it with the same respect?

Tavis: How did you get drawn to this calling, to this vocation?

Turner: Of acting?

Tavis: Yes, in the arts.

Turner: Oh, heavens. I think – well, my mother tells me it was inevitable. I remember thinking when I was 12, oh, okay, that’s how I’ll make my living. We just moved to London. My father was with the Foreign Service, he was a consul, and we’d been posted to London.

The first night we were in London I snuck into a theater and I was all the way up at the highest tier, which in England is very, very high. They call it the gods because you’re so far up there. I remember thinking oh, okay, I could make my living doing this, because I suppose it always, in my family at least, it’d always been regarded as a hobby, or maybe you do a little community theater or something, but you don’t take it seriously as a profession.

All of the kids, all my brothers and sister and I knew we would be having to earn our own living, so it wasn’t – when I was 12 I thought oh, all right, I can make my living this way, and that was that.

Tavis: How’s it been? How’s it working out for you? (Laughter)

Turner: It’s worked out great. I’ve had long and wonderful years.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of these long, wonderful years, so many of us came to know you in that wonderful movie, “Body Heat,” and there are a number of things I want to ask or could ask about that. I think I want to start by asking what the – I know the up side, because the movie was so successful. What’s the down side of starting your career out as a sex symbol?

Turner: Well, I think I was both smart and lucky in that first of all, it strikes me, as many things do these days, that was – I just suddenly realized that was 30 years ago when that was released.

Tavis: Goes fast, doesn’t it?

Turner: Yes, oh, Lord, I guess it has, I don’t know. (Laughter) It was certainly – made quite an impact, quite a wave, because also the film itself was pushing the limits on what had been done in terms of sexuality on film up until that point, and we knew that.

We knew that we were risking a lot, and in fact when we finished shooting the film I came back to New York and they didn’t actually pay me much money for that. So I came back to New York and I started working as a waitress again for a while, paying my rent, and people would say, “Well, you’ve been gone for so long.”

I said, “Well, actually, I was a lead in a motion picture,” and they’d say, “Wow, what’s it called?” And I’d say “Body Heat,” and they’d go, “Oh.” (Laughter) (Unintelligible) okay. So yeah, just wait until it comes out. Okay, fine. Anyway, but the first thing I did after “Body Heat” was go to Arena Stage and do “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and after that – I always tried, and this is where I was both lucky and maybe smart, to contrast the role I had just done with something quite opposite.

So my next film role was “The Man with Two Brains,” which again was to me sort of a spoof of a femme fatale, but also primarily showed that I could be comedic also.

Tavis: You ran past that story so fast – (makes noise) back up, back up.

Turner: Okay, okay, sorry.

Tavis: You’ve got to get back to the diner, where you were working as a waitress, because you’re telling everybody okay, I’ve just done this movie called “Body Heat,” wait till it comes out. So what was the reaction of the customers and the clientele when “Body Heat” actually comes out, and the waitress who they see every day in the diner is the star of “Body Heat?”

Turner: Well, it was – I don’t know, I was not still waitressing when it came out. By then I’d already agreed to go down to Washington to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because doing theater has always been an essential part to me of my career.

But it was – suddenly I got a great many invitations to dinner, and –

Tavis: (Laughs) I can imagine.

Turner: Yeah, yeah, I didn’t – it was really kind of – and when –

Tavis: Especially in Washington, I can imagine that.

Turner: When I flew out here, the next time I flew out here to Los Angeles, then suddenly I’m getting calls from Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and all of these types that I’m like, “Whoa.” Pretty crazy.

But I learned very, very quickly to always drive myself everywhere, because to get stranded in L.A. is really, really – can I say sucks? (Laughter)

Tavis: I think you just did.

Turner: Yeah.

Tavis: You left me speechless on that one. (Laughter) So when “Body Heat” comes out, did you – I want to ask this way. Did you ever have any regrets about playing that part after it came out?

Turner: No.

Tavis: No regrets? Okay.

Turner: No, no, I didn’t.

Tavis: Okay.

Turner: No. In fact – see, to me, my greatest fear when we were doing “Body Heat” was that I wouldn’t be sexy. I didn’t have a self-image of myself as this alluring, powerful, sexual female. I really thought that I would throw a smoldering glance at Bill Hurt and people in the audience would start to giggle.

That’s kind of how – so I was surprised when it was so effective, and Bill and Larry kept saying to me, “No, no, no, really, truly, it’s – you’re sexy, it’s okay. Really, truly.” But at the same time I would come to work without any makeup and my hair in a cap, and everybody thought I was a boy.

So to me, that wasn’t really – I wasn’t very convincing as a femme fatale. So I just knew that I could not get any ingĂ©nue parts because of my voice. That was always too low to play the “sweet young thing,” and I always thought good girls were kind of boring anyway.

Tavis: Mm. How has – there are certain actors, there are certain, obviously, musical artists, whose voices are so distinguishable. How has the voice helped or hurt your career?

Turner: Well, I think it’s been great, on the whole. Truthfully, today, I’m a little used up because I just did a five-show weekend and I had bronchitis two weeks ago. So it’s a little – this isn’t quite as rich a voice as I prefer to have. But when I get a day of rest, we’ll see.

In any case, it was – it became extremely helpful in terms of when they wanted a specific kind of woman for a role or something like that. It works against me, of course, if they didn’t want – if they wanted a more generic. If they didn’t want the woman to stand out too much, then they didn’t want me, because that, I could not change.

Tavis: You referenced earlier – I’m going to bounce back and forth, because there is so much stuff in your rich discography.

Turner: It’s because I’ve been doing it so long.

Tavis: You’ve been doing it a long time, so long and so well. So long and so well.

Turner: Yes, thank you, I will take that.

Tavis: You take it. You suggested earlier how much you love the theater.

Turner: Ah.

Tavis: I recall reading in an interview you gave some years ago that you always thought that you would do better on the stage –

Turner: As I grew older.

Tavis: – as you grew older.

Turner: Yes.

Tavis: Why? Why?

Turner: Oh, because the roles that are written for women as they grow older in theater are much richer and much more powerful, and the truth is I have usually found in terms of filmmaking, especially conventional studio filmmaking, is that they need to be able to immediately identify what each person’s role is – i.e., the love interest, the vicious, dried-up spinster, the grandmother, the – they want to be able to immediately – the result being that they don’t really write much of a character.

Now on stage, you’re going to spend a few hours with this character, and they have to write more, which will give you much, much more to work with, a much richer and a much greater conflict.

As I grew older, I kept my theatrical skills, always, because I knew that that would become true, and my dreams became true five years ago, when I did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and that was everything I dreamed of it being, that it could be. I dreamed of that character for 30 years, so I think being able to say that is such a joy.

Tavis: I’m glad that you’re still here and I’m glad you’re still doing what you’re doing, so this is an odd question. But I was so pleased for you, I’ve been a fan for so many years – we’ll talk more about that in just a second. I’ve been a fan for so many years; I was so pleased for you, having never met you until today, so excited for you with the success of “Virginia Woolf.”

If your stage career – strange question, I admit – if your stage career had ended then, would that have been the – you would have been happy with that as the end?

Turner: Yes.

Tavis: It was received so well.

Turner: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Turner: I would have, yes. I don’t think I would or should. What I’m enjoying very much now is creating new pieces of theater. In the play that we’re doing here, the kick-ass wit – oops, I’m not supposed to say that either, am I?

Tavis: Sure you can.

Turner: Anyway, “Red Hot Patriot,” I shall say, and another play that I’m also touring this year called “High,” which is about the battle between faith and addiction. I play a rather unusual nun. Yeah.

Anyway, what I’ve found quite exciting there is being in on the process of creating a new piece of theater altogether for our library.

Tavis: What’s the – aside from the taxing on the voice, which I totally get when you’re doing so many shows in a weekend and throughout the week, for that matter – but what’s the challenge of doing a one-woman show? You’ve got the copy boy coming on stage every now and then, but this is you, and you’re out there for 75 minutes with all this dialogue.

Turner: No, he didn’t have any lines, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Turner: Yeah, there are a lot of words in 75 minutes. It’s an interesting dilemma in terms of acting, because I don’t imitate. I’m not pretending to be Molly in that sense. I’m playing.

Tavis: Interpreting.

Turner: I’m acting Molly, do you know, in a way that evidently is close enough by – I had the most extraordinary experience, because her brother came backstage after a show and wrapped me in his arms – he’s a very big guy – and was crying, and said, “Thank you for keeping her alive.”

That’s happened over and over again. So many people who knew Molly have come to me and said that we’ve captured her spirit and her wit and her passion, and that’s very, very pleasing, because it’s a funny line between acting a person who you knew, or just imitating.

Tavis: You knew Molly.

Turner: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Turner: Well, I’ve been on the board of People for the American Way, they tell me, for 22 years now, and we are protection of the First Amendment and watchdog of the religious right – two areas in which Molly’s interests and ours coincided quite often.

So yes, Molly was involved with some of our events, but the most fun I ever had was when Ann Richards moved to New York for her cancer treatments and everything. She took an apartment in the building I was living in. So one day I walk into the lobby and there’s Molly and Ann waiting for the elevator.

The two of them looked at me and looked at each other and said, “You’re coming with us,” and I said, “I guess I am.” So we went up to Ann’s apartment and the two of them commence telling stories on each other, and I have to say that Molly won. Can I tell the story?

Tavis: Please.

Turner: Oh.

Tavis: Absolutely. I was about to ask if you could regale us with some of this good stuff.

Turner: Oh, it’s so good. Okay, well, Molly said that when Ann was just starting out in Texas politics, so much of the politicking was done at, like, backyard barbecues and this kind of thing. So she went to one of these events with two of her assistants – a young woman and a young Black man.

So the good old boys, or the Bubbas, as I like to call them, would come on over and say, “Annie, aren’t you just a picture? You’re just so lovely. And who’s this sweet young thing you have with you?” and they would just ignore this young Black man, as if he didn’t exist.

“Their eyes didn’t focus on him,” she said. So finally, Annie evidently had about enough of this and somebody came over and she said, “Judge, I’m so glad to see you. I need you to meet my new husband.” (Laughter)

Tavis: I knew that’s where that was going. That sounds – that is so Ann Richards.

Turner: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: It is – (laughter) it’s so Ann Richards. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to see the two of them go at it.

Turner: Well, and Liz Carpenter. It was like the three of them. These three women were just a force of nature, evidently.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I miss Ann Richards as well, her wit, which raises –

Turner: Well, I work with her daughter, who is now president of Planned Parenthood National, because I’m chairman of the board of advocates for Planned Parenthood for I think about 18 years now, I don’t know.

Tavis: Have you always been this cause-driven?

Turner: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah?

Turner: Yeah. Part of it, and very specifically, was part of being brought up in a diplomatic family, in a Foreign Service family, and through my father and my mother you started early and you worked hard on being part of a community, on helping a community grow and contributing, and service.

My father called himself a public servant, and in the best sense of the word. What it has come to mean, I think, in recent times is that you didn’t make it in the private sector. But to him it meant giving service to our country, and that’s how I was brought up and that’s what I believe in.

Tavis: So much more to talk to Kathleen Turner about. She is in town now. If you are in the L.A. area, it’s been extended because it’s been doing so well, so that’s good news for those of us who haven’t had a chance to go see it yet.

It’s called “Red Hot Patriot, the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” now playing at the beautiful – I love the Geffen Playhouse.

Turner: It’s a lovely theater.

Tavis: Don’t you love the stage? It’s beautiful.

Turner: It’s a great theater, yeah.

Tavis: Playing at the Geffen Playhouse, for those who are in L.A. or are coming anywhere near this region in the next few weeks. Go check out Kathleen Turner there.

So tomorrow night we get a chance to continue this conversation, because I haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet. (Laughter) When you walked in I wanted to just grab you and kiss you, because “Romancing the Stone” is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Turner: She is a sweetie.

Tavis: I promise you tomorrow night we’re going to start with “Romancing the Stone.”

[Film clip of theater performance]

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Last modified: January 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm