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Kathleen Turner on Playing Catholic, Fighting Sexism, and Reviving Red Hot Patriot

Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner. Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty Images

In her new indie drama The Perfect Family, Kathleen Turner plays a docile, frumpy Catholic housewife whose life is thrown into turmoil when her nomination for Catholic Woman of the Year (yes, it’s a real thing) is threatened by her daughter’s lesbian wedding and her son’s impending divorce. But this being a Kathleen Turner character, she finds that she has some unexpected fight in her. In real life, Turner has fought the stigma of the aging sex symbol, won her own battles with both rheumatoid arthritis and alcoholism, and emerged as a woman thoroughly in charge of her career. She does fewer films these days, preferring to work in theater — her next project is a revival of Red Hot Patriot, her acclaimed one-woman show about political humorist Molly Ivins, which she’s taking to Washington. And though she has long sworn off doing her own television series, she told us that may soon change. Vulture had a frank discussion with the 57-year-old actress about her upcoming projects, sexism, and finally saying what she means.

I watched The Perfect Family last night. Eileen is a great character.
She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she? I mean, God bless. It really is a sweet film.

So you’ve played a killer housewife in Serial Mom, you’ve played a CIA spy housewife in Undercover Blues. I don’t think you’ve played a typical housewife like Eileen before.
The only one that really comes to mind is Virgin Suicides. I felt so sorry for that woman; she was just heartbreaking, she was so clueless, so detached from the life of her daughters. Although Eileen is not, there’s that same sense of not being in control of her life, not being the one who’s making the choices. And it’s a little saddening to me.

Your upbringing wasn’t especially Catholic, but Eileen’s whole mind-set has developed around growing up in the church. How did you connect to that?
Well, I certainly understand the idea of service. This is something I believe very strongly in, in my own activities for Planned Parenthood, for People for the American Way, Citymeals-on-Wheels, for Childhelp USA — these are all organizations that I put a lot of time and commitment into. So this I understand; that’s a base that I can go from. As to the religious aspects, oh, I had to read up on all this stuff and find out what venal sins were versus mortal sins, all this kind of stuff. I just researched the basis of the doctrine, which really, I don’t agree with at all, let’s just put it that way. But the point is not my belief, the point is the character’s.

This film is written and directed by women —
Oh, that’s part of it! I would never take a job just because of that, but it certainly enhanced the choice to me, that, yes, women writers, women producers, woman director. I think really the only major male we had was the cameraman. And yes, that did add to it for me. To support women’s work. As I say, it wouldn’t be the reason that I take it, but it certainly was another reason to take it.

Is there a difference for you, working on films made by women?
I think so. You know, we shot this in twenty days. I’m sorry, but women just don’t screw around. We don’t have those kind of egos that waste time saying, “Oh no, I’m more important, I’m more important!” We really don’t. On the whole, we tend to say, “What needs doing? Let’s do it.” We’re used to taking care of things. That’s what we do.

You’ve directed plays. Why haven’t you directed a movie yet?
I have, some years ago. But actually now, oh, I’m so swallowed up by theater; I’m so in love with theater. I’ll be directing theater again in the fall.

Oh, what are you directing?
Can’t tell you yet! Can’t do it till I’ve worked out the deal! But I’m going to star and direct it, which will be a new step for me, a new challenge. Yep, haven’t done that one yet!

One thing you’ve said that gets quoted a lot is, “When I was 40 the roles started slowing down. I started getting offers to play mothers and grandmothers.”

But you’ve continued to play some very sexy roles into your fifties: You did The Graduate on Broadway, you did Californication. Is that a deliberate fuck-you to the idea that women age into a certain kind of role?
Ohhh, yes! Well, The Graduate totally was. See, I did The Graduate in England, and we developed it there, we rehearsed it, we played for six months on the West End. And then they said it me, “All right, now we take it to New York.” And I said, “No. Americans are so screwed up about sex, we’re such hypocrites that we have all this ranting and raving about the evils of sexuality, and then of course we use naked women to sell beer.” I said, “No, I don’t need this. I just don’t need this.” So I went off and I was doing another play, Tallullah. And then I got a script by some idiot. And the description of the character was — and I quote — “37 but still attractive.” I called up the producers and I said, “We’re taking The Graduate to Broadway.” Because then I was 48, right? And I thought, to hell with you assholes! You think a 48-year-old woman is no longer viable, is no longer attractive? To hell with that. So anyway, that’s exactly what pushed me into doing it on Broadway! [Cackles with glee.] Oh, well. There you have it, yes?

You’ve spoken recently about how you would never want to do a TV series and you’re more dedicated to being onstage. But TV, especially cable, is a direction that a lot of stage actors have taken lately.
I’ll tell you, things have changed a lot. What I discovered doing Californication is, it was five months work, and I’ve got the rest of the year to do theater! When they were network series that were 26 shows a year, and you gave your whole life to it, that I could never do. But now there’s a whole different range of choices.

Have you been offered anything on a network like Showtime or HBO?
I’ve got some people writing some stuff, which could be cool. But then, okay, I have to tell you about something else that’s really exciting to me.

At the same time I was doing this film, I was also putting together this one-woman show [Red Hot Patriot] based on Molly Ivins. You know Molly — what a woman. Well, I took it out to L.A. to the Geffen Theater this winter, and the response was just unbelievable. I mean, it was to the point where I’d walk offstage and go, “Holy shit, guys! Wow!” So I was determined that I want Molly’s voice in Washington before the election. So we just made a deal with Arena Stage, and I’m taking Molly to Washington, end of August through the end of October. It’s gonna be such fun.

That’s fantastic!     
Isn’t that great? I’m so thrilled.

Speaking of politically opinionated people, I listened to your interview on Alec Baldwin’s radio show from last month. At one point, you called him a schmuck to his face.
I think I said “asshole.” [Giggles.]

You said that too! At 57 now, do you find yourself being less filtered?
Totally. Absolutely! In fact, I’m getting myself into trouble for it. Although luckily, people are beginning to understand that it’s nothing personal. It’s just that I don’t care to take care of everybody else anymore. If you can’t handle it, I’m really sorry. But it’s not malicious; I don’t mean anybody ill. You know, unless I say “I mean you ill,” which doesn’t really come up very often. But it’s just like, look, okay, I won’t play this game anymore. “This is what I am, this is what I think. Okay? Fine.” I guess I’m just more impatient.

I find it encouraging that, as the women I admired growing up get to a certain age, they seem to feel more free to speak their minds.
I think I always did, though I was certainly more filtered. But I’ve never been a decent liar. And that’s a funny sort of contradiction: the better actor I become, the worse liar. It’s really awful! [Laughs.] My daughter tells me I’ve really gotta work on that. She’ll say, “What do you think, mom?” And I’ll go, “You really want me to answer that?” And she’ll say, “No, no thank you, no. Don’t answer!” [Laughs.] Oh, heavens.

Kathleen Turner Is Reviving Red Hot Patriot