Few actresses are simultaneously glamorous in their persona and penetratingly psychological, sensual, and intellectual in their portrayals. But two time Golden Globe-winner Kathleen Turner indisputably fits that bill. Though her early roles in such enormously popular films as Body Heat, Prizzi’s Honor, Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile, the voice of the sultry Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and her Oscar-nominated lead in Peggy Sue Got Married, remain what the general public probably knows her best by, Turner is also a luminous stage actress.
She was Tony-nominated for her revival performances in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Not to mention her acclaimed biographically-based performances as Tallulah Bankhead and Molly Ivins.
Moreover, Turner has been one of the most courageous major film and stage stars regarding bold images of sexuality and challenging content. Her nude scene as Mrs.Robinson at age 48 in the stage adaptation of The Graduate was quite controversial. Unfortunately, it was taken out of context by ignorant critics and media hounds who had not examined the substance of her remarkable acting career – not only how that brief scene figured into the context of that particular play, but how that particular play fitted into the context of her career.
In Matthew Lombardo’s HIGH, which also played Broadway, Turner garnered raves as a tough-loving therapist nun. She has now taken her on the road with co-leading actor, Outer Critics Circle nominee, Evan Jonigkeit. I spoke to Turner a few weeks before her Minneapolis opening at the Pantages.
JT: You really believe in this play.
KT: Well, I do. I put about two years into it and of course the whole development process, which was fascinating and somewhat new to me. To get in on the ground floor and actually help shape the writing and the words and the choices that the characters made. Pretty much before, I had always been handed a finished script and been told to make the best of it as it were. And this was really a much more open than that – the ability to help create a new piece of theater.
JT: You call your character, Sister Jamison Connelly, a strong and flawed woman.
KT: She’s a woman who has come to a place of belief and channeling her abilities, her intelligence, her passion toward this Catholic rehabilitation facility where she tries to help people who have gone astray, as it were, with different substances and stuff. Having been there herself, having been an alcoholic to the point of three and a half years of homelessness, having lost all her belief in religion and God, she’s found her way back from that, which shows an incredible strength. But at the same time, I think probably with any real addict, there’s a love/hate relationship between her dependency and her faith. I think that one of the things that Matthew Lombardo, our playwright, feels is that you are never, never not at risk.
JT: Tell me about your co-actor, Evan Jonigkeit, who plays Cody, the young crystal meth addict she counsels.
KT: Evan Jonigkeit has been with me since day one. I go in to the call back auditions to work with the author to be sure we’ve got someone I can work with too. Well Evan did an audition and I turned around and I said that’s it. We have it.
JT: What qualities struck you?
KT: He can act. It’s fabulous. You might find some people who might do one role well. But its not gonna be as good as someone who is really innately understanding and is skilled as an actor and Evan is! Rob Ruggiero has partnered with Matthew Lombardo before and he has been an extraordinary influence as a director, and like I have, making choices about the words and the actual intentions of the play as well.
JT: You’ve had a marvelous career and you have never steered away from roles that have strong sexual themes. In the ’80s I must say the role you played that I was absolutely crazy about was the sex worker, China Blue in Crimes of Passion.
KT: I was hoping you’d say Crimes of Passion!
JT: I loved it! Directed by the legendary Ken Russell.
KT: Some of the best work I’ve done. Ken Russell. It was sad. He called me just before he died. He wanted me to work with him again. Anyway, he was a genius. He had his own furious problems. I mean the man needed to shoot himself in the foot at the same time he needed to create these wonderful films. It just seemed to be something he needed to do.
But he actually forced me, to my mind, to another level of acting and exploration than I had ever attempted before, so for that I will always be grateful to him.
JT: What was it like acting opposite (your co-leading actor), Anthony Perkins (Friendly Persuasion, Psycho, Murder on the Orient Express)?
KT: It was tough. Tony was extremely difficult. He also was a drug user and in fact, was using something during the film and everybody knew it. And I can say that because it was by no means a secret. He would pull out this vial on set in front of the camera so I’m not telling anything out of school. But the problem was that after he inhaled this stuff it was very difficult to know what he was going to do and how the scene was going to proceed. I think Ken thought this was artistic license in some ways. It was not easy for me because I believe in a great deal more discipline than they did. But at the same time it was exciting to have to deal with that and take that into consideration.
JT: Another notable performance you gave was in The Virgin Suicides.
KT: (Director) Sofia (Coppola) needed me because she needed to have an actress who you wouldn’t automatically blame. (Author Jeffrey) Eugenides and Sofia both (held the view) if you could just say it’s the mother’s fault, then you have this awful, easy answer that’s not accurate, not true. Nobody understands why a 14 year old decides that there’s absolutely nothing worth living for. But at the same time my daughter was 13 and it was terrifying to me. When she would come to visit I would grab her and say ‘don’t you fucking dare!’ So emotionally, personally that was difficult because it’s a terrifying situation for a parent. And playing that woman was very much against my instincts. She’s a woman with so little energy, so little belief, so little strength. I always said to Sofia if I felt like if I were a blow-up doll and I had that little valve in the heel of my foot before we’d start shooting, I’d have to pull that and let all the air out and sort of become this woman.
JT: Your Mrs. Robinson in the stage version of The Graduate created a stir.
KT: One of the things that spurred me on to do that was when they asked me to do it in London, I thought yes, all right, that’s fine because one of the things I suppose I’ve been angry about for many, many years is the hypocrisy in this country toward sexuality. We don’t approve of it and we don’t discuss it, but we use naked women to sell beer! This pisses one off and it always has pissed me off. I just can’t buy this crap.
But I thought, well, I’ll go off and do this in England because frankly the whole thing wouldn’t have been about that 25 seconds of nudity. It might actually have a shot of looking at the whole piece. So then they said let’s bring it back to Broadway and I said no, I don’t need this crap. Our country is simply not mature enough.
So then -and this is utterly true- I received a film script where the character is described as ’37 but still attractive’ and that pissed me off so bad I called up my English producers and said, fine, we’re going to Broadway! Then I was 48 and I thought up yours America! I got the most wonderful letters from women saying things like I haven’t undressed in front of my husband for 10 years but I’m going to tonight!
Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Av., Mpls.