THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Kathleen Turner Finds Her Voice
The star tells Michael Burland about expat life, instant stardom, Hollywood double standards, playing God ("which I found surprisingly comfortable!" and singing in public for the first time
First published in the May-June 2018 edition of The American magazine
Tickets for The Other Palace (see also other venues' own websites)
Americans in the UK have an exceptional chance to see one of their own, Kathleen Turner, in Finding My Voice, her new cabaret show. She sings! Who knew? Ms Turner was in deep rehearsals for the shows as she chatted with The American. "I'm getting very excited about it!" she told us. But to start with we asked her about her early life, which expats will identify with. Kathleen was a 'Foreign Service brat', one of the many Americans whose mom or dad served in an American diplomatic posting abroad during their childhood. In fact, she was one of the first ever students at the American School in London...
My dad was a Foreign Service officer, and he was posted to the Embassy in London for four years, and from '68 through '72 I went to the American School in London. The first year I was there we went to the Working Men's College in Mornington Crescent 'cause they were building the school in St John's Wood. We shared the premise, us in the daytime and the Working Men's College in the evening, which was ...interesting. It was a difficult area sometimes. Then we got into the St Johns Wood building the next year and I was here until my graduation.
That's a very formative age. Did you feel American, British, or a mixture?
Oh, most American expats are fervently patriotic! I suppose we need to reaffirm it to ourselves, when we're outside the country. Certainly my father was extremely patriotic. I never felt I was exiled, because I never really lived in the States – before London I lived for five years in Venezuela. There was never any doubt that I was an American. Although I did acquire a bit of a British accent, which I now have to fight against every time I come back here. I tell my friends here to please keep an ear on me!
My father died suddenly, and the only place we had to go in the States was my mother's parents, who live in Springfield, Missouri, which is the real heartland of America. That was a bit of a shock! I was told I had quite an accent – even more so, I suppose, because I was absolutely terrified.
When you decided to be an actress, was it an act of rebellion – were your parents against it?
My father certainly was. My mother thought it was amusing for a long time. And I became an American actress rather than a fake British one, which was for the best. In my last year of college at Baltimore a very famous director and teacher Herbert Blau had seen one of my plays and asked me to come work with him and create the first international experimental theater festival. To which I said Yeah!, packed the car and left. I don't have much stuff, it all fit in the car. And then… New York.
It all went crazy. After six months I got an off-off-Broadway play, at nine months I got a soap opera, and at eleven months I was on Broadway. So that was my first year! It doesn't really happen like that. Then I got Body Heat when I was 25.
I still had to fight for roles – probably even harder, because everybody wanted me to just keep doing the same role over and over, the way they do. The last thing I wanted to do was repeat myself, so I had to convince Carl Reiner and Steve Martin I could be funny, to get The Man With Two Brains. I had to convince Michael Douglas and Robert Zemackis that I could be shy and insecure, for Romancing the Stone. Then they were like, 'Sure you're sexy and you're funny, but can you be…' 'Yes, yes, it's called acting!'
You steered away from the obvious route of 'femme fatale' movies.
It's true that I was offered endless Body Heat II, III, IV and so on. But it was simply that if I'd explored one character and been satisfied with what I'd found, I wanted to move on. It always amuses me when people have difficulty putting all my work together. They'll say, 'I loved you in' whatever, and I'll say one of my favorites was The Accidental Tourist – 'Oh yeah you were in that too, I loved you in that', or I'll say I had great fun with Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor – 'Oh, I loved that film'. It's like they never put my whole career together.
The 'Me Too' movement is changing things in Hollywood now. Did you have experiences like Weinstein?
Well, no. Unlike so many young women who were preyed upon – and are preyed upon, they are looking to become established. Body Heat was my first film, I went from zero to stardom, so it didn't happen to me. If it had, I think I would probably have just laughed. But the reason I have never lived in Los Angeles, is that there is an tremendous attitude of almost contempt, certainly negativism, toward women. Even working there I have felt very isolated, even insecure. I always think, why the hell should I live in a place that makes me feel like this.
That doesn't happen in New York?
Lord, no! In New York, like in London, on almost any street you are among people of every race and background and education and income – you just can't have that kind of crap here [laughs].
In the Big Apple, folks don't take anybody too seriously?
Not at all. Although I did have one extraordinary experience. I was waiting to get on the subway, near where the front of the train would come in. As it slowed down, the driver saw me and shouted 'Kathleen!' I said hello, got into the second car and sat down. The train doesn't move. The next thing we knew, the driver's coming back through the cars, he's left his cab, and he wants to shake my hand. I thought, well this is very odd. The other passengers, of course, are just glaring at me and going, come on, let's go!
Do you enjoy passing on your knowledge to the next generation of actors?
I love teaching! I just came back yesterday from the University of Oklahoma where I did five days of masterclasses. I tell my students that the only real right that the actor has is to say no. Once you say yes, you are subject to the director's, the writer's, even the producer's vision, which it is your job to embody. Your power lies in your choices. It would be worse to make a choice that you would be haunted by for the rest of your life, one which you would be compromised by, than working another couple of months as a waiter.
Since your start in the business you've criticized the double standards of how male and female actors are treated like pay and the roles you're offered as you get older – do you give advice to your students about that?
I absolutely do. I tell them to be prepared for it. If you come in to do a scene with forethought and excitement about how you think it could, or should be played, if you're a man they'll call you decisive – if you're a woman they will call you difficult. It's an almost subliminal attack – everything a woman offers is questioned, rather than considered. It was obvious from the early days that, for me, longevity would be in the theater.
Are the roles better for older women?
Indeed they are, I just played Virginia Woolf, something I'd dreamed of for 30 years and I've done Mother Courage. Last fall I did an play called An Act of God, in which I played God, of course, which I found surprisingly comfortable! I did Joan Didion's piece, The Year of Magical Thinking – that was tough. I keep busy, sometimes people don't know – I'm not great at self-promotion, I don't do Facebook or any of that crap! My next big project after the cabaret is a new play I'm planning to direct.
Not written by you?
No... No, no, no! I can not write, let's not have any confusion about that! I do write all of Finding My Voice, but that's personal.
You did have a hiatus when you had the arthritis problem.
I have the arthritis problem – but yes, it was out of control, and I couldn't work. I certainly couldn't take the responsibility of a lead role. I never knew if I would be able to walk the next day. I haven't discussed it much before. People know that I have it, but I haven't described what it did to me at the time.
Now I've brought it into the cabaret show. In the States the usual show is about an hour fifteen. Alex Fane Productions invited us to London to do a one-off invitational show, and then they offered us The Other Palace, but they wanted a full evening, with an interval, which would mean adding another 30 minutes or so. Alex, very innocently, Lord love him, said [cue a cut glass English accent] 'Do you think you could be more political?' Oh yeah… I can do that! [raucous laughter]. So there's a lot more in it.
Why is the cabaret show called Finding My Voice?
Because I'm singing – I've never really sung before, and nobody knows I can [laughs]. Imagine, when I came to New York every lead was a soprano. That was never going to happen! So I said, no, I don't sing, I just act. And that became 'true'.
Who are you doing the show with?
Mark Janus and Andy Gale – Mark is a pianist and musical arranger, Andy is a brilliant singer and teacher. I met them first when I was going to go do Mother Courage. It's an immense role, I was offstage three minutes out of three hours, and it has five songs. I thought I would be wise to feel confident about the songs before I went to D.C. to start rehearsals, so I worked with Mark and Andy on those songs. I really enjoyed the singing, and I wanted to carry on. The word organic is overused, but I would tell them stories, Andy would say it reminded him of a song, and Mark knew exactly how it should sound. Suddenly the three of us looked at each other and said, 'We have a show'. It's joyful – I sing for about two hours and I walk out of there with the biggest grin on my face.
You've worked in London a lot, where do you stay when you're in town?
I like to get a flat, always in different parts. I hate hotels. I've stayed in Marylebone, Buckingham Gate, South Kensington, and this time I have a little flat in Soho.
Final question: what is the best thing about being Kathleen Turner?
Oh… that people are so nice to me. They really seem to like me. And I find the kindness of people always astonishing.
UK dates: April 17 to May 6, 2018 The Other Palace, London; May 8 The Lowry, Salford Quays; May 9 The Apex, Bury St Edmunds; May 11 Capitol Theatre, Horsham; May 12 Mercury Theatre, Colchester; May 13 Connaught Theatre, Worthing; May 14 Queens Hall, Edinburgh. USA: May 22-June 2 Café Carlyle, New York City.