LONDON – Here’s a tip: Don’t tell Kathleen Turner what to do.
The 59-year-old actress, whose career stretches from 1980s movie hits Body Heat and Romancing the Stone to Tony-nominated stage roles, does not like being pigeonholed. Cast early on as a sex symbol, even in animated form – she was the speaking voice of sultry Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – she’s long refused to be stuck with the limited parts Hollywood provides for women over 40.
But she knows it’s a strategy that brings risks.
I did The Graduate’ here in London when I was 46, and that was full nudity – for 20 seconds, but it was a big hoopla, said Turner, who is back in Britain with Stephen Sachs’ play Bakersfield Mist.
The producer said, Great, we’ll take it to Broadway.’ And I said, No we won’t. Sex in the States is just so screwed up, people’s heads are so weird – I don’t need the fuss.’ So I went off and did another play.
And then I was sent a film script that described the character as 37 but still attractive.’ And that pissed me off so badly I called up the producer of The Graduate’ and said, We’re going to Broadway.’
So at 48, I was naked onstage in New York. I’m very proud of that.
Turner tells the story with a smoky laugh. She seems like a woman who enjoys a challenge – and has the complex roles to prove it, despite battling rheumatoid arthritis since the 1990s.
She was nominated for a Tony for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, and recently played Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage in Washington.
I’m attracted to characters that I might fail at, Turner said.
She still takes TV and movie parts, most recently in the slapstick sequel Dumb and Dumber To. But she finds the process of movie-making boring.
The interchange between the audience and you onstage is so intense and so exciting that I find I miss that desperately when I do film work now, she says.
In Bakersfield Mist, Turner plays Maude, an unemployed bartender convinced that the painting she bought for a few bucks is a priceless Jackson Pollock.
Turner said the play transcends cliches about the uneducated woman who lives in the trailer and the supereducated elitist who comes from New York to look at the forces that shape characters and the value of art.
She said she always knew as she grew older that theater would offer the more interesting roles.
For that reason I never went more than two, 2 1/2 years between being onstage, she said. I saw many film actors who grew terrified of going back onstage. Because it’s a huge risk. There’s nobody to say cut,’ no editor to fix your performance if you get a little lost.
There’s no safety net.