Serial Mom runs a jaunty 95 minutes, just enough time for Kathleen Turner to make vulgar prank calls to her scandalized neighbor (“Is this the Cocksucker residence?”), extract a teenage boy’s liver with a fire poker, bash a woman singing Annie over the head with a leg of lamb, clobber Patty Hearst with a pay phone for wearing white after Labor Day, and have acrobatic sex with Sam Waterston because murder makes her horny.
Turner’s Beverly Sutphin is the perfect housewife, aside from, you know, all the carnage and whatnot. John Waters’s 1994 satire underperformed at the box office, but today it’s considered one of the sharpest parodies of suburban life. Beverly is content to keep her home tidy and her family fed as long as no one insults her children, steals her parking spot, interrupts her bird-watching plans, or violates the insipid fashion codes of the upper middle class. When Beverly snaps, a mischievous glint fills Turner’s eyes, as if a demon has possessed Beverly’s body — not that she minds.
Serial Mom was initially developed at Columbia before landing at Savoy Pictures, a short-lived distributor co-founded by two former Columbia executives who didn’t seem to grasp the humor of the movie they’d acquired. Along the way, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, and Roseanne Barr were among the actresses considered for Beverly. But the role was always meant to go to Turner, who was riding a career high that started with 1981’s Über-sensual Body Heat and continued with Romancing the Stone, Peggy Sue Got Married, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Accidental Tourist, and The War of the Roses.
There’s never a wrong time to revisit Serial Mom, so Turner rang up Vulture to reminisce about working with Waters, and why her agents told her not to take the part — which only made her want it more.
When you think of Serial Mom and that era of your career, what first comes to mind?
Oh God, the first thing I think is how we laughed. I mean, we just howled every day. Honestly, if you’d said to me, “You’re going to do this John Waters film,” I’d have said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I had seen Cry-Baby with Johnny Depp — I liked that, but all the Divine stuff I didn’t have much of a handle on. So when he sent me the script, I thought, Well, of course I’m going to read it. I got to the point where she sticks the poker in and pulls out the guy’s liver, and I went, No! Gross! I threw the script down in my office and puttered around, and then I went back to it. I started reading on, and it was fine until the lit hairspray with the kid. Nope! Couldn’t do that. I still hate that, actually. It was the only thing I didn’t like when we got to doing it.
Anyway, I threw it down again, and again I went back. I finished it, and I thought, Okay, this will either be the height of absurdity and humor, or it can be a gore-fest. So I called John and said, “Here’s the deal. I need to know exactly how you would shoot this because if it’s going to be a gore-fest, that’s not for me. I don’t do that.” And he said, “No, no, no. Are you going to be home this afternoon?” I gave him my address, and four hours later John was ringing my doorbell.
He was in Baltimore, right?
Yeah, he just jumped on the train and came to my house in New York. He had storyboards and explained to me exactly how he would shoot it. I thought, Okay, this is kind of what I was hoping for. It tickled me. I liked that sense of celebrity-excuses-all crap. I said, “All right, I’m going to do this with you.” Well, that’s when the screaming started. My agents and all the other people around were like, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t work with John Waters. He’s a B-movie director, and you don’t do B-movies. It’ll ruin your career.” Which of course set my back up.
That attracted you to it more, because people were cautioning you against it?
Oh, yes. What was I, some kind of institution that had to be put in a glass case? The crap with that shit. So I said, “Yeah, well, watch me.”
Is it true that Michael Douglas cautioned you against it as well?
Oh, I don’t remember specifically anymore. He might have. But it didn’t make any difference.
I liked John, and what I came to learn about John is he’s honest to God one of the kindest people I have ever met. Yeah, he’ll dig an elbow into you when he sees a weak spot or a sore point, but if he sees that he’s actually hurt you, he’ll back off and apologize. Think about it. His great strengths have been taking truly unattractive people and making you care about them, and I just think that’s admirable.
In the course of working together, did you feel like he was getting those elbows in?
Well, you know what John always says? The secret of working with Kathleen Turner is show no fear. I get caught up in something, and I’ll think, Okay, this is how this should go. I can become a bit of a steamroller, I guess. All he has to do to stop me is say, “No, that’s not what I want.” I think he just loves personalities. Everybody on the crew and his design team and Mink Stole and all these people that he’s worked with all through his career adore him. We’re going to bond together to make whatever he wants to happen happen. You just join the team.
Have you felt over the years like directors were intimidated by you or fearful of you?
No, not in that sense. It’s very simple, Matthew. If a man says, “This is how I think it should be, and let me show you,” they go, “Oh my God, he’s decisive.” When a woman says, “This is how it should be, let me show you,” they say, “My God, she’s difficult.” It’s really that simple.
And the role of Beverly was perceived, for a well-known actress like yourself and the other women considered for it, as a bold choice. It was provocative and edgy. But to me, it feels like a logical extension of a few of your other edgier roles around that time. I’m thinking of movies like The War of the Roses and Crimes of Passion.
Well, I’m very glad you see that because one of the impediments to the appreciation of my overall filmography is that, no, they don’t follow a pattern. That was absolutely on purpose. I don’t do just one thing. The problem is people don’t put the work together. They’ll say something like, “God, I loved you in Romancing.” And I’ll say, “Did you like The Accidental Tourist?’ They’ll say, “That’s right! You did Accidental Tourist!” “How about Prizzi’s Honor?” “Oh right, that was you!” There are many actors who do the same kind of role over and over for years, but I would shoot myself.
How did you think about and approach Beverly’s split personality? Part of what makes the movie so funny is the way she snaps. It’s almost like you’re playing two different characters.
It’s all true — she actually means both sides. When her eyes go [laughs], when you see that look come into her eyes, oh my God. They did a painting of Beverly for the living room, above the mantelpiece, and the eyes are Serial Mom eyes, not Beverly eyes. They gave me that painting afterward. I couldn’t bear it! I couldn’t stand to have it in my house. Anyway, I finally sold it on eBay.
That’s incredible. I wonder who has it now.
I have no idea. But they’re both completely wholehearted: her sincerity about all the wonderful things — her kids, her husband — and then all the terrible people who need to be punished. It’s not Jekyll and Hyde or anything like that. They’re both intentional, and they’re both true.
When she’s nice-housewife Beverly, she has a certain Julie Andrews quality to her.
I bet Julie wouldn’t appreciate that.
Julie Andrews was actually one of the actresses John considered for the role, which I think is interesting. Did you guys talk about her?
No, but wouldn’t that have been funny?
The movie is meant to star Kathleen Turner, but yes, it would have. Were there any other reference points you used? Maybe classic American ’50s sitcom moms? Leave it to Beaver?
Honey, I didn’t grow up in the United States. I never watched TV. I didn’t have any of those clichés in my head. I never saw all those family shows, like Brady or Leave It to Beaver.
It’s interesting how much that side of Beverly taps into the sitcom archetype then.
That’s the writing. That’s John. Believe me, he grew up on it.
Certainly. Beverly also often sings Barry Manilow while cleaning the house.
No, no, no! That was just John’s little nastiness on me. He knew that I hated Barry Manilow. He absolutely knew it. In fact, he asked me what I hated. I said, “Well, I don’t know, like Barry Manilow?” So he had to make me sing it, you see. God.
So that wasn’t written into the script? That was him coming to you and saying —
“What would really drive you wild?” Yeah. “What would you hate? Let me do that.”
Let’s talk about some of the murders Beverly gets to commit in the film. The most intriguing involves the one and only Patty Hearst. What was that like?
I can tell you a terrible story about that, and it’s all on me. We do rehearsal, and I fight with her. I’m slamming her back and forth with the receiver. She took each hit like she was completely trained. I went over to John and I said, “God, has she had stage-fighting training? Because she’s really, really good.” He went, “Yeah, you can call it that. She was trained because she lived through it.” I felt so badly.
Did you not know what her backstory was?
I just never thought of it. But God, I felt lousy.
What was she like?
Oh, Patty’s an old friend of John’s, and every friend of John will do what he asks.
When you hit Mrs. Jensen over the head with a leg of lamb, was that actual lamb?
Oh yes. I think in the first script it was a knife or something, but this is much better.
And you mentioned the one that initially turned you off of the script.
Yeah, I really had trouble with that one. I didn’t know you could fire hairspray like that right into somebody’s face. I kept trying to get out of it. I kept trying to say, “Do we really have to do this one? Can you do it another way? Can he be stampeded by the mob?” But no. John wanted it, so there you go.
Was it because it was too real?
Yeah, I think so. All the others were pretty out there. I don’t know, it just bothered me.
But you did survive the other one that you disliked, which was the liver coming out on the iron poker.
Oh, honey. She tries to shake it off the poker and it won’t come off, and she finally has to reach out and very daintily push it off with her finger. That is just so funny.
Was the moment when you’re opening your legs in the courtroom to distract the witness intended as a send-up of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct?
No, no, no. I think I came up with that. I had to find something to do behind the desk, so I used my legs. I was not thinking of Ms. Stone, no.
That’s how it got talked about at the time, maybe because Basic Instinct was still fairly recent.
I don’t think I would have known it at that time.
Did you improvise during the shoot?
Not much. John was pretty dead-on with the dialogue.
Everything is sort of a joke within a joke, so I can understand why the dialogue would need to be specific in that regard — especially in capturing the heightened tone that made you want to do the movie in the first place.
I remember one of the biggest laughs I got was the lovemaking scene with Sam. We had a little trampoline in bed, so that’s why we bounced like that. It was so funny.
I didn’t realize you were close friends with Sandra Day O’Connor and that she joined you for lunch on the set one day.
I wouldn’t say close. Obviously I did and do admire her, but she wanted to come to the film set to say hi. Baltimore and D.C. are quite close, but I think she just wanted the thrill of being on a set, honey.
Were other people impressed that Sandra Day O’Connor had come to visit the set?
Well, they should have been. I was much closer to Ruth Ginsburg. She always came to see my work.
How did that friendship form?
I did some shows down at the Arena Stage in Washington. She attended every show. And the artistic director of the arena — although she is sadly soon to leave — is a woman named Molly Smith. She has built the most extraordinary theater there over the years. Anyway, Ruth Ginsburg officiated Molly’s wedding to her longtime love, Suzanne Blue. So we were in the theater, and the wedding guests were watching from the audience. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out onstage, everyone in the audience stood. Later at the reception, I said, “How did you like the standing ovation?” She went, “Well, it’s very nice.” It made me laugh.
And that relationship continued through the years?
Yeah, and then when I went and did the opera, she came. I did La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera — it’s a speaking role, I’m not insane. And we did a production in Washington, D.C., for one night, and Antonin Scalia also came.
Oh, they went together?
Yes. Talk about a weird friendship!
Does that friendship give you any hope that maybe we can come together?
I wish, honey. I wish.
So what do you remember about the reactions to Serial Mom? The executives didn’t get it, right?
Okay, we’re sitting in a screening in L.A. This is a young company. The bosses had left their previous production companies to form this company. So this was one of their first. I’m sitting in the back row, and the audience is going kind of wild. One of the guys turned to me and said, “Oh, it’s a comedy?” I thought, Fuck. We’re sunk. They were thinking they were going to publicize it like a crime thing. Why they never bothered to read the script is a very good question. As soon as he said that, my heart sank. We had more theaters in Germany than the entire United States. It was crap.
Had these people never heard of John Waters? Did they not know what to expect from him?
I guess not. Why they approved the whole thing, I have no idea.
What does it mean to you that the movie has become such a cult phenomenon?
It’s what it always should have been. I was always sorry because John is very grateful for its success, but it could have been more for him then.
I was looking through photos of the New York premiere. It feels like everybody was there: Iggy Pop, David Byrne, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, Iman, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Kate Pierson. What do you remember about that night, if anything?
Gosh. Just being happy, really. Everybody in the cast was so thrilled. We were shooting the whole thing in Baltimore, and it’s not a shoestring production, but we didn’t have a lot of frills. There wasn’t any budget to waste on it. The rheumatoid arthritis was starting at the end of the film, and I was almost unable to get into the shoes because RA starts with the smaller joints. My feet were swelling so badly, but I knew damn well we didn’t have the money to buy more shoes. You just shove your feet in and make them work for another day. Everybody was pulling their weight, and then to go from that to this glorious opening where everybody was so gripped was swell.
What about downtime? Did you guys hang around the Serial Mom house?
No, we didn’t have much downtime — at least I didn’t. I ate a lot of crabs. I love crabs! I was actually at this crab restaurant one night for dinner, and Shirley MacLaine was also shooting there. What was it? It was about the ex-president’s wife and the bodyguard.
Yes, I guess so. We were eating hardshell crabs together, which we’re both fanatics about. I swear to God, she must have eaten ten to my three. I was in awe! This stack of crab shells.
Wow, Shirley MacLaine can house some crabs. That’s impressive.
It really was.
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