When Kathleen Turner, standing in the Vulture reception area, introduces herself in her singular throaty rasp, the effect is almost comic — who else has a voice like that? “This thing happens with restaurants,” says Turner as we walk to a conference room. “I’ll call up and say, ‘This is Kathleen Turner,’ and they’ll hear me and say, ‘Why yes it is.’”
For a time, that voice, and her charismatic blend of steel and sass, made Turner one of film’s most interesting and popular actresses. The now-64-year-old starred in an impressive string of ’80s hits (Body Heat, Prizzi’s Honor, and Peggy Sue Got Married, among others, as well as The War of the Roses, Romancing the Stone, and The Jewel of the Nile, the latter trio all co-starring Michael Douglas). But by the mid-’90s, as a result of a devastating combination of illness, addiction, and, she says, an unfair reputation for being hard to work with, her era of big Hollywood success was over. Since then, Turner, a blunt talker, has turned most of her formidable energy to theater, and also regularly conducts master classes for acting students across the country. “I’ve been acting professionally for 41 years,” says Turner. “I think my ability to maintain a career for that long has a little something to do with quality, don’t you think?” She teasingly arches an eyebrow. “Maybe I’m being pie-eyed.”
I randomly caught Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on TV the other night and it made me wonder if you’d watched Elizabeth Taylor’s performance before you played Martha?
God, no. Quite the opposite. For a while I felt like half my life was making her wrongs right.
Sorry, Elizabeth Taylor’s?
Yes. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — you ever listen to her voice? It’s awful.
But you’ve got one of the all-time great voices. Maybe that makes you a tough critic.
No. She has a bad voice, badly used. In any case, people are after me all the time to do Sweet Bird of Youth, and I’m like, “Enough Taylor shit.”
Maybe you don’t like Elizabeth Taylor’s acting, but she was at least charismatic in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? wasn’t she?
I don’t think she was very skilled. And Edward Albee disliked the film intensely. In the play, when George comes in he pours himself a drink and then nurses that drink the whole evening. The film got that completely wrong. Taylor and Richard Burton are drunk and screaming at each other the whole time. I heard somebody once say [about the film], “I get this at home. Why would I go see it?” But I was lucky that I got to do the play myself and show the humor in it for God’s sake. Luck has a big part in anyone’s career, yeah?
What else, aside from luck, has driven your career?
What do you mean?
I’m fuckin’ angry, man.
Where does that anger come from?
Injustice in the world.
How does rage show up in your work?
In my cabaret show I use this passage from Molly Ivins: “Beloveds, these are some bad, ugly, angry times. And I am so freaked out. Hatred has stolen the conversation. The poor are now voting against themselves. But politics is not about left or right. It’s about up and down. The few screwing the many.” She wrote that over ten years ago and it’s no less true today.
Is any part of the rage you feel related to how illness derailed your career?
I’m too busy coping with disease to think much outside the day-to-day. For me it’s can I hold a pen? Can I stand up? Can I climb those stairs?
So you don’t feel as if part of your prime was unfairly taken from you?
I suppose there was a feeling of loss. Rheumatoid arthritis hit in my late 30s — the last of my years in which Hollywood would consider me a sexually appealing leading lady. The hardest part was that so much of my confidence was based on my physicality. If I didn’t have that, who was I?
What was the answer?
To fuckin’ get it back. You work with what you have, as best you can. That’s what I’ve done.
How difficult was it to deal with the knowledge that some guys in Hollywood had arbitrarily decided you were no longer viable as a leading lady?
It took adjustment. You have to remember that my first big role was Body Heat, and after that I was a sexual target. I understood later, from Michael Douglas, that there was a competition between him and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty about who would get me first. None of them did, by the by.
How did learning about that competition make you feel?
I don’t like being thought of as a trophy. Let me tell you, when Jack and I were shooting Prizzi’s Honor a bunch of us went to his place up on Mulholland [Drive]. Jack said, knowing Warren’s interest in me, “Why don’t you call Warren and tell him I don’t have a corkscrew.” “Why?” “You’ll see how fast he gets here.” There was an unspoken assumption that women were property to be claimed. Another time I was at a dinner party and there was an empty chair next to Jack. I sat down in it and had a delightful time. After a while — because I was shooting the next day — I said I had to leave and drove back to the Chateau Marmont. I get there and the phone rings. It was Jack: “How could you do that to me?” “Do what?” “You were my date and you left!” And I said, “I was your date? No one informed me.” Assumptions like that are why I’ve never lived in Los Angeles. Every time I go to that city I feel insecure.
How was Nicholson to work with?
He was great. Partly that’s to do with John Huston. He challenged Jack. He said to Jack that he always winked at the audience as if to say, “That’s not what I mean.” John challenged him to not do that, to not put a lie to his character, which can be very tempting for stars to do because you want audiences to like you. Avoiding that temptation is a great lesson.
When did you learn it?
Very early. My first Broadway show was Gemini in ’78. I played this spoiled white girl whose boyfriend is struggling with whether or not he’s gay. She can’t handle that, and at the top of the second act there was a scene where she’s saying how wrong it all is. I was not doing the scene well and I didn’t know why. Then it hit me: I’m afraid that the audience is going to think that I’m like this character. I didn’t want people to think that I was this stuck-up, privileged white girl. But there’s the choice: Do you want the audience to like you or do you want to be a good actor? That’s an easy choice for me.
Do you have sympathy for actors who choose differently?
Certainly in terms of film, there is intense pressure to repeat successful characters. I’ll give you an example, but you mustn’t include her name. [Very famous Hollywood actress] has played the same role for 20 years. She even looks pretty much the same. She’s probably one of the richest women out there, but I would shoot myself if I were like that, only giving people what they expect.
There isn’t really an identifiable “Kathleen Turner”–type character.
And that wasn’t helpful to me in Hollywood. People would say, “God, I love The Accidental Tourist. Oh, you also were in Undercover Blues? That was great! And Prizzi’s Honor? Shit, you were in that too.” They never put my work together because I wasn’t doing the same thing over and over, which, by the way, wasn’t good for me financially.
Which actors are you excited about right now?
On the whole, I’m very ignorant, but I like Emma Stone. And the stage actress Nina Arianda is incredible. She’s got the power, babe.
I have another question about actors and their choices: When you show up on set, like you did for Peggy Sue Got Married, and realize that Nicolas Cage has decided to play his part with such an unusual voice — that he was doing a thing — how did that affect how you calibrated your performance?
It was tough to not say, “Cut it out.” But it wasn’t my job to say to another actor what he should or shouldn’t do. So I went to [director] Francis [Ford Coppola]. I asked him, “You approved this choice?” It was very touchy. He [Nicolas Cage] was very difficult on set. But the director allowed what Nicolas wanted to do with his role, so I wasn’t in a position to do much except play with what I’d been given. If anything, it [Cage’s portrayal] only further illustrated my character’s disillusionment with the past. The way I saw it was, yeah, he was that asshole.
Sorry, Nicolas Cage or his character?
Listen, I made it work, honey.
From a performance standpoint how much easier is it to act with someone when there’s no interpersonal tension? Was working with Michael Douglas, whom you liked, easier than working with Burt Reynolds, whom you didn’t? Or do your personal feelings for the other actor just not matter?
Working with Burt Reynolds was terrible. The first day Burt came in he made me cry. He said something about not taking second place to a woman. His behavior was shocking. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t someone’s equal. I left the room sobbing. I called my husband and said, “I don’t know what to do.” He said, “You just do the job.” It got to be very hostile because the crew began taking sides. But as for the performance, I was able to put the negativity aside. I’m not convinced Burt was.
Is there anyone from your cohort of film actresses — I’m thinking of women like Sigourney Weaver, Debra Winger, or Meryl Streep — whose trajectory you’ve found particularly inspiring or interesting?
It seems to me that we’ve all made good lives for ourselves. Surely that’s as important as what credits we all have. I will say that I miss Meryl onstage. I remember seeing her in The Taming of the Shrew many years ago. She charged out on stage swinging a footstool. I was like, “Oh yeah!” — I loved the energy of it. I wish she would do more stage work. But we’ve all matured into interesting women, yeah? That’s the important thing. I’m very interested in women’s growth as people. You know, I work with an organization called Young Elected Officials, and I teach women how not to compromise and I work with them on their self-presentation. I tell them, “If you say ‘like’ one more time I will kick you!”
Did you ever kick a co-star?
No. I slapped one.
He bit me.
I was doing a play — there was a scene where another actor was all over my character and fuckin’ bit me, and I was like, whack! Maybe he didn’t mean to, but he was taking things a little far.
Do you believe there are better roles for women in theater than in film?
The roles for mature women onstage are a thousand times better than anything written in film. The screen roles are usually stereotypes: the evil stepmother, the bitter spinster. Whereas in theater there’s Martha or Mother Courage — I could name many characters I’d love to do. That’s why, knowing where my career could grow as I got less desirable for the camera, I focused on theater. I remember I got sent a screenplay once where the character was described as “37 but still attractive.” That pissed me off. Americans are so screwed up about sex.
This is a sort of left-field question, but President Trump seems like someone you would’ve bumped into at a party in New York in the ’80s. Have you ever met him?
Yes. Yuck. He has this gross handshake.
What’s he do?
He goes to shake your hand and with his index finger kind of rubs the inside of your wrist. He’s trying to do some kind of seductive intimacy move. You pull your hand away and go yuck.
Thank you for indulging the question. Anyway, there’s a part in your autobiography where you talk about how playing different roles allows you to learn about different parts of yourself. What do you learn when you do something like your cabaret show, where you’re not playing a character?
Even though I’m not playing a character, I am playing a version of myself. And there are basic qualities I want to convey: the sense of loving people, of loving to be onstage, of loving to communicate. I’ve always felt that people had affection for me and my work, and doing the cabaret shows has helped me understand why.
And what’s the reason?
I’m a really nice person.
Didn’t Eileen Atkins call you a “nightmare”? What was that about?
It’s two-sided. Eileen could be extremely difficult. I spoke to Maggie Smith about my problems with Eileen and Maggie said, “It wasn’t you.” But at the time we were working on Indiscretions, Eileen was soon to be diagnosed with cancer. She probably knew there was something wrong with her and was frightened. Also at that time I was on a new medication that was making me fuzzy, and for the first time in my life I couldn’t retain the script perfectly. I would find myself searching for words. Eileen found this extremely unprofessional. I can understand that. It was not intentional on my part. I was in a great deal of pain — I don’t know how I got through it. One of the areas that was most painful was my right wrist. Just touching it would make me want to scream. It’s hard to understand the level of pain that this disease [rheumatoid arthritis] brings. In any case, I would say to the cast on some nights, “Tonight is really bad. Please avoid this wrist.” And on those nights when Eileen particularly disapproved of me, during a scene where I was supposed to be dead she would …
Sit right on my wrist. I would just lie there, trying not to gasp. Oh, it was a very confusing time. I didn’t know that it was the medication that was keeping me fuzzy. But, you know, even that — I don’t think anyone’s attitude toward me was coming from a cynical place.
You didn’t think any of the press about your being “difficult” or your drinking or your illness was cynical?
The “difficult” thing was pure gender crap. If a man comes on set and says, “Here’s how I see this being done,” people go, “He’s decisive.” If a woman does it, they say, “Oh, fuck. There she goes.”
What’s an example of that happening to you?
Here’s one that was very nicely resolved with Francis [Ford Coppola]: Sometimes at night I dream the scene I’m going to be doing the next day, and with Peggy Sue I had dreamed a scene where my character was coming down the stairs in the old house and meets her mother. In my dream the camera was there. When I got on set, the camera was here. I was disoriented. I said to Francis, “The camera’s supposed to be over there” — because that’s how I’d dreamed it — and he went, “No, it’s not.” I said, “I’m telling you it should be over there.” He goes, “Well, it’s over here.” So we made a deal.
What was the deal?
He said that if I gave him as many takes as he wanted from where he had set the camera, he would give me two takes from where I wanted the camera. And guess what happened?
The take he used was from your spot?
But what about when your career took a dip in the ’90s? You don’t think the way that was covered by journalists was coming from a cynical place? They were pretty mean to you.
Well, that had so much to do with the rheumatoid arthritis. At that time there was very little public knowledge about autoimmune diseases, so my illness was a source of bad mystery — certainly compared to what was going on with, oh, for example Robert Downey Jr.
I don’t quite follow the comparison.
Someone like him could show up on set and be drunk or misbehave in some way, but he would still get hired because producers figured they could control that kind of behavior. But if you say, “I have a mysterious illness and I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk tomorrow” — you’re not getting hired. And the only real effective treatment back then was massive doses of steroids, which has massive side effects. If I went to pick up a bottle, for example, I couldn’t grip it, and people would assume I was inebriated.
At what point did drinking become a real problem and not just a falsely perceived one?
In truth, I did have a period when I found that alcohol was a great painkiller. For some reason, which I do not understand, I thought I could control the pain of my illness better with alcohol than I could with pain medication. I didn’t want to take OxyContin and Percocet. I thought that would be an immediate path to addiction; I never thought alcohol would. Then I did, of course, abuse it [alcohol]. It never got in the way of the work but, oh, on my time off, just to kill the fucking pain, drinking was great.
It’s under control now?
Yes. Now it’s sharing a glass of wine at the end of a show or something — an occasional pleasure.
You know, when I went back and watched The War of the Roses, it was amazing to be reminded how savage and perverse that movie is. And it was a hit. Was Hollywood making riskier movies in the ’80s?
You know, they tried to neuter The War of the Roses. The Fox suits came in toward the end of the filming and said, “Kathleen and Michael, you can’t die.” They wanted us to film an ending where the chandelier falls, our characters are on the ground, and then we’re loaded into two ambulances that pull away in different directions — to leave open the possibility that our characters were alive. Come on. The studio was up against me and Michael [Douglas] and Danny [DeVito]. We just told them we wouldn’t shoot the ending they wanted.
But are mainstream Hollywood films less sophisticated than when you were starring in them?
Gosh, the last film I went to, every trailer was a Marvel comic movie or a shoot-’em-up. It was all guns and superheroes. I just thought, Why isn’t someone doing something different? I would think that whoever could offer an alternative would make a killing. I imagine that’s what television does so well now.
You’ve done a handful of television. To pick one show you guest-starred on: What stands out about your experience on Friends?
I’ll be quite honest, which is my wont: I didn’t feel very welcomed by the cast. I remember I was wearing this difficult sequined gown — and my high heels were absolutely killing me. I found it odd that none of the actors thought to offer me a seat. Finally it was one of the older crew members that said, “Get Miss Turner a chair.” The Friends actors were such a clique — but I don’t think my experience with them was unique. I think it was simply that they were such a tight little group that nobody from the outside mattered.
How did you find them as actors and actresses?
I won’t comment on that.
That’s where you draw a line?
[Laughs.] Maybe if I’d had months to work with them, I’d be in a better position to evaluate their skill. But I could only judge based on the period I worked on the show, which wasn’t long. I do respect the camaraderie they had. You can see camaraderie on the screen. When I did Body Heat with Larry Kasdan and Bill Hurt, we rehearsed significantly before shooting and there was a familiarity before the camera rolled. You see it in the film.
I read in your memoir that William Hurt was into magic mushrooms. Did he ever try and get you to take them with him?
No, I never tried any of those things that he liked. Bill can be very odd.
I remember one night while we were shooting Body Heat we were sitting around, and for some reason he wanted to talk about how we’d each like to die. I don’t remember what my answer was, but he said he wanted to be sucked up into a jet engine. You would find yourself in that kind of discussion with Bill. Then when we did The Accidental Tourist, Bill was sober, so there were fewer discussions like that. God, you did not want to get Bill talking too much.
Just to go back to working with Michael Douglas. You did three movies with him. How quickly was it apparent that you played off each other so well? Is that something you realize as it’s happening or are you only aware of it later, when you see it onscreen?
Well, you can’t tell on the first day. With Michael, and Danny [DeVito], too, I think they saw me as one of the guys, you know? I was willing to throw myself down mountainsides. And when we did the sequel, Jewel of the Nile, the sense of coming back together was so cool. It was nice to be back with friends.
Were you surprised or hurt at the way Michael leaned on you to do that movie?
That was a bad blowup. I had signed a contract to do a sequel [to Romancing the Stone] but the script for it [The Jewel of the Nile] was terrible. What had happened was that Romancing was so successful that Diane [Thomas], who wrote the original script, evidently asked Michael for what he felt was a ridiculous sum to work on the sequel. So instead, he went with these two guys and what they came up with was terrible, formulaic, sentimental. Anyway, I said no. Then I found out I was being sued for $25 million [for breach of contract]. My position was that, yes, I signed up for a sequel but I didn’t sign up to compromise the quality of my work. Eventually Michael and I talked.
How’d that go?
He said, “What would it take for you to do this film?” I wanted Diane back, or at least to give input. And Michael did go to her for some alterations. But ultimately I read the script on a plane to Morocco, where the film was shooting, and I was furious. It didn’t have what Michael said it’d have. When I got to the hotel in Fez, Michael and I sat down on the floor with three versions of the script. We were trading pages to get a script that was acceptable to both of us. It was, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that.” It was frustrating. But I do have to say, when I got sick Danny and Michael called and said, “If you need anything, kid …” So they’re true friends.
Have you seen a change in the kind of acting popular in Hollywood over the years? Or the kind of acting that appeals to students in your master classes?
I have a confession to make.
I never really studied acting. People talk about these different techniques — Meisner, all this stuff. I don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time. My acting school was acting. One year, when I was at Southwest Missouri State University, there were only 14 nights out of an entire year that I was not in rehearsal or in performance. I just did it. In fact, the master classes I do, my course is called Practical Acting. You shut up and do it.
What do you think about the approach of actors like Dustin Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously do all this intense in-character preparation in order to play a role?
In Crimes of Passion I was playing a designer by day, $50 whore on Hollywood Boulevard by night. Do you think I was going to hang out with whores on Hollywood Boulevard and find out what the fuck that was like? I have an imagination, you know. My belief is that all the information I need is in the script. And if it’s not, then it’s not a good enough script.
How often do you get recognized for your voice?
More often than by my looks. I’ll be on the subway and I keep my mouth shut, because if I’m silent, I’m just another person. If I speak, heads turn in my direction.
How much of that recognition is due to Jessica Rabbit?
I don’t know. I think my voice has taken on a persona of its own. It was always low and it’s only gotten lower. But my voice is an asset. I was not born to be an ingénue. I played one once — it was Nina in The Seagull — and I was terrible. I’m rather thrilled with my voice.
At this point in your life and career, what would be a dream role for you?
I have a very exciting idea about how to do Lear. Usually when women play Lear, the daughters are rewritten to be sons. I’d keep them as women. When Lear says to Goneril, “May your womb dry up” — you understand what I mean, yeah?
It’s a very different line if delivered by a mother to her daughter.
Devastating! “May your womb dry up” from a man? So what? From a mother? My God. There’s a power to the relationships between women that we don’t examine as much as we should.
You’d referred to your 50s as your “fuck it” 50s.
The fuck you 50s. I did what I wanted.
How do your 60s feel?
Sixty freaked me out. When I turned 60, I was doing a show on the West End with Ian McDiarmid. I thought, I’m turning 60. I deserve a good ring. And I went out and I bought myself this ring that says, “La vita è un dono”: life is a gift. Yes, 60 felt different. My mother — I was back in Missouri visiting her and she turned to me and said, “I have a 60-year-old daughter.” I was like, “Holy shit.” Suddenly I was a 60-year-old daughter. It was strange.
In a good way?
In an interesting way. I’m a tree now where the trunk is strong enough, and the roots are deep enough, that I can branch out in any direction: teaching, acting, my cabaret endeavor. And I’m getting stronger all the time. So let’s find out what I can do.
This interview was edited and condensed from two conversations.
Hair and makeup by Heather Schnell for Exclusive Artists using Chantecaille and Oribe Haircare.
*A version of this article appears in the August 20, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!