by Patricia Grandjean
Nov 21, 2012
12:35 PMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Kathleen Turner
Most of us know her as an remote icon of cinema—think Body Heat, Romancing the Stone or even Who Killed Roger Rabbit?—but Kathleen Turner, 58, is no stranger to theater, directing, or Connecticut. She first played New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre back in the 1980s, starring as Camille opposite Yale School of Drama grad David Hyde-Pierce. In 2011, she returned to the Nutmeg State in High, a well-received TheaterWorks of Hartford production of Connecticut native Matthew Lombardo's play, which went on to a very brief Broadway run. In between, she starred in an acclaimed Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and directed an acclaimed off-Broadway production of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart for New York City's Roundabout Theater Company. To bring things full circle, she's returned to Long Wharf wearing both her actor's and director's hats to stage a renovated version of the 1960s British black comedy The Killing of Sister George—a fine way to launch, we'd say, Long Wharf's newly renovated Claire Tow Theatre in the C. Newton Schenck Mainstage for 2012-13. It runs Nov. 28 thru Dec. 23; for ticket and schedule info, call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
I caught up with Turner in late summer, after she'd assembled her production team but while she was still working on yet another play, Red Hot Patriot, in which she played rabble-rousing Texas journalist Molly Ivins at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She shares much of Ivin's fire, particularly when it comes to the subject of women's rights. But I'm sure she shared her happiness with the outcome of presidential election 2012 with the guests of Nov. 15's New Haven Choice Affair, a Planned Parenthood gala at which she was featured speaker.
How did you first decide to do The Killing of Sister George?
I did a reading of the play a year and a half ago, at least. I really fell in love with the lead character June Buckridge, but I did think the play was rather out of date. So my agents helped me get in touch with Joanna Marcus, the daughter of the playwright Frank Marcus. She's the administrator of his estate. I approached her about whether she would let me bring in a writer to do some serious rewrites on the play. She was pretty open-minded about it when I sketched out what I was thinking.
Then I went to Jeffrey Hatcher, who's this wonderful writer, and he had great ideas. So he pumped out a new version of the play, which I thought was really terrific—it's cleaner and funnier in some ways. It's just really good, now. He kept the essence of the characters and the action, and just added to it in a way.
Having the new script, I could approach designers. One of the most fun things is that Jane Greenwood, who I've worked with before—most recently in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—informed me that for the original production that came to New York City in 1967, they had to recast the role of Madame Xenia. Actor's Equity wanted an American actor in the part. So at the time, she was asked to create that costume. So this is her second go-round, she says she loves circles like that.
I got John Lasiter to do the lights; he's just stunning. I last worked with him on High. John Gromada is doing my sound and music; we worked together on Crimes of the Heart. Allen Moyer is doing the sets—I haven't worked with him before, but I've seen a lot of his work. So what was really flattering was approaching these designers who all said, "Yes, of course I'll do it." Hey, okay! That's pretty exciting.
And I got the casting director I wanted, Pat McCorkle. We had two full weeks of auditions, and found some extraordinary women. Once that was done, I had the production crew, company managers, assistant director and the designers over to my place for dinner to go over the broad strokes, and found that everything was on track right away—it was fantastic. I turned to one of the producers and said, "God, I love this job. Is it really this easy?" Not usually.
You mentioned falling in love with the character of June from the get-go. What grabbed you about her?
I think she's the truest of them all, in a way. She's rough and blundering, with a touch of sadomasochism—the dominatrix kind of thing—but she really is without guile. All the other characters are extraordinarily self-serving. They look out for their own interests first, while June really doesn't. I find her kind of gruff vulnerability really intriguing. I want to explore it.
I've read that you've said you found it difficult to play the viciousness of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Some of it. Yeah.
Is there a similar hurdle to playing June?
Yeah, a little bit. I don't know that I've ever been into the sort of dominatrix thing. But of course, one doesn't have to be that way personally to act it. I mean, thank goodness—otherwise, Lord, what messes we'd be. But I haven't really started exploring the character yet—partly because I haven't had time and partly because more immediately, I'm doing this show about Molly Ivins. I can only really do one character at a time. I don't think I could be like the English actors who film one character during the day and then play a different one in the evening onstage. As enticing as that is, I think it would really muddle my mind. So I have yet to really set my mind to exploring June.
Now, I know that you had played Long Wharf before, in Camille . . .
Oh, yes, many years ago.
. . . but why bring this project to Long Wharf? How did that happen?
Well, they're redoing the main stage. It's been torn out since May, and will be ready to reopen in November. And so [artistic director] Gordon Edelstein came to me, saying he'd heard that I was building this production. I'm aiming to take this off-Broadway—I'm not sure Broadway would be the right place for it. But I don't like to build a show in New York City; I like to give it time out of town. So Gordon said, "Would you like to open our season?" Long Wharf is a good theater plant; they have the shop, costumes and resources to build a show. And the best regional theaters all have that—the Guthrie in Chicago comes to mind. That was a tremendous gift, that I would be able to have everything I needed in house, rather than having to farm it out. So that was a real easy "yes."
Was there something about this play that made you eager to direct it?
I do love directing. When I did Crimes of the Heart, I found that I'm very interested, as both director and actor, in the relationships between women. I think that's very underexplored. Male/female relationships are clichéd to a great extent. We haven't paid nearly as much attention to how women interact.
And, okay, I probably shouldn't say this, which is exactly why I will, of course: Most actors who reach a certain level of experience have done a great deal of "directing," without credit. So that's not a worry to me. I think the only place that I perhaps feel that I have to be very aware is what happens in the fine line between being a co-star and being a director. As a co-star, I'm asking you to try things a certain way; as a director I'm telling you. So I need to be very aware and sensitive to that kind of thing. I don't want to step on anyone's toes.
But given that you're an actor, it just seems that you'd be naturally more sensitive.
I think so, and I think the fact that it's all women is very helpful, too.
What do you find rewarding about directing?
It's just fascinating. The detail! It's amazing, the subtlety of saying, "I need you to bring the sound up just a touch. You want a kind of emphasis right there." Or, "Wait a minute now—I want a blue vase there," y'know? Details build the entire world of that piece, of that production. It's just thrilling and so exciting to be involved with all the different aspects. An actor is usually cut off from a lot of the production; and usually it's enough to focus just on your own part. Being able to be in charge of all the decision-making is really quite thrilling.
What can we expect about the look of Sister George?
The play will stay in the 1960s; we're not changing the time or the place. It still concerns a BBC radio soap opera in London.
What would you say is the central theme? Is it simply a character study, or more than that? Does it try to say something about the culture of the time?
To me, it's always about the people. The larger socio-context is interesting, and of course we do have hindsight about that time. So, it's not as though we're trying to explain our own times here. But I don't think explanation is the point; I think exploration of the characters and their relationships is what it's really about. To me, primarily, it's a comedy.
You were in Connecticut just over a year ago, at Hartford's TheaterWorks, working on High.
Yeah, we started the workshop of High in downtown Hartford—which I've got to say, I mean, forgive me, Connecticut, but that place is just deserted. There's two or three apartment buildings, and on the weekend everything closes. There's no grocery store anywhere near; there's no bookstore. You'd do a show on Sunday and go, "Where is everybody? Was there a nuclear holocaust?" Awful, man. So many cities are reviving their downtowns; we know it can be done. That's really what I know about Connecticut; that and driving through it. But I am looking forward to exploring some of New Haven.
High went to Broadway last spring . . .
Then we toured it because it closed really quickly on Broadway. That was really a shame; the play was better than that and deserved more life. So we took it out to five or six cities last December through May. Our last date was in Toronto. The response we got on the road was fabulous, but I have to say working with that playwright [Matthew Lombardo], who handled the tour, just broke down awfully, became extremely upsetting and difficult. So I wasn't sorry when it ended. It was a shame, because we built a heck of a play.
But that's what happens with these people—there's a self-destructive quality to addiction that's hard for them not to fall into, I guess. It's really a shame, because we started with such good spirits frankly, right now I've washed my hands of the whole thing, vigorously. I just can't work with that man.
And this fall he's going to be managing a tour of another of his plays, Looped, starring Valerie Harper.
I know; I feel like I really should call Valerie up and say, "Honey, don't get involved." Put all your money in escrow, to start . . .
Why are you so drawn to comedy?
I like to make people laugh, to be funny. I just like to do it. It lightens my heart. And there's something in the Molly Ivins piece where she says, "Jokes, you may have gleaned by now, are very important to me. When you make someone laugh, they open up their ears and hear you." I think there's some truth to that. And real comedy isn't just jokes or slipping on a banana peel. That's the sort of humor that seems to be prevalent on a lot of TV shows today; it relies on the humiliation of someone else. It's funny because somebody got hurt or made to look like an idiot. I don't like that humor; I don't think that's funny. Good comedy comes out of the juxtaposition of what's perceived versus what's actually happening. That's funny.
That makes me wonder if you're a Daily Show fan.
Oh, yes! But I have to say, I wrote my first and only fan letter to Stephen Colbert . . . yes I did! When that idiot in Congress [Arizona Sen. John Kyl] said that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's budget went to abortions—and then had it pointed out to him that the real number was actually seven percent, none of which was actually federal or state funding—his office issued the disclaimer that the original comment was "not intended to be a factual statement." Colbert did this huge riff on "You can say whatever you want; all you have to do is say, 'Not intended as a factual statement' to cover yourself. "So and so has a prehensile tail . . . oops! . . . not intended as a factual statement." I just had to write him a fan letter for that one.
Which raises the point that you're actively involved with Planned Parenthood.
I've been chairman of the board of advocates for many years, and I've visited the majority of state affiliates by now. My role is to help fundraise, draw attention to and support affiliates whereever I go. So of course, I will be doing that in New Haven as well.
What is your take on the current negativity towards the organization?
I gave a speech at the National Press Club in September, about the threat posed to women this election more than any other. The defunding of family planning clinics, be they Planned Parenthood or not, is literally going to put 20 million women without access to health care at all.
If you flip that coin, something I've never been able to understand is . . . I keep saying to these pro-life groups, "We have so much common ground. No one's saying, 'We want abortion as birth control.' We're saying we want every pregnancy to be planned and wanted." It's the unintended pregnancies—because people don't have the education or access to contraception—that cost lives and taxpayer dollars. Without the influence of family planning clinics, we estimate that that will result in 1.9 million unplanned pregnancies, which will probably mean 800,000 abortions. This will cost each taxpayer $3.74. How is that saving money? It's so clear—do the math, guys.
In addition, who the hell is this bunch of men to tell us what we may or may not do with our bodies? I was at the affiliate in Los Angeles on the day when the Susan G. Komen controversy hit. Our phones were ringing off the hook with people calling in, making pledges, saying 'I'm taking my money from them and giving it to you, for mammograms and screenings." And it was exciting and frightening because it was a substantial amount of money for that budget. Anyway, when things calmed down the head of the clinic said, "Can I show you around a little," and I told her, "I'd like that very much." Just because they have a new facility and they've done a stunning job. Anyway, we were walking quietly through the clinic because it was a day when they were offering abortion services, and we didn't want to disturb anybody. And in the course of the tour she said, "Well, of course we don't overlap on Friday, which is vasectomy day." And I said, "Wait a minute . . . can you tell me if you ever have people in the parking lot, trying to stop them from coming in?" She said, "No, I don't believe so." Hmmm . . . I think they should be able to use that somehow.
The most vulnerable group in this country are women. The mystery to me is why we allow this, accept it. Not only are we the majority of the population, we earn 57 percent of the higher educational degrees, we're the primary wage-earners in 40 percent of households, yet we have 17 percent representation in this country. We let 83 percent of these assholes tell us what to do. Why? I want very much for women to understand that they could be to the 2012 presidential election what the youth vote was to 2008, as long as we're awake.
I have just a few more questions. You were the daughter of an American diplomat in the foreign service who traveled everywhere while growing up. I once talked to Oliver Platt, whose father was also in the foreign service, and he said the reason he thinks he became an actor is because it gave him a sense of belonging to something that he'd been missing . . .
That's true, too . . . well, I didn't miss so much. I had a very strong family with four kids, and wherever we went, we carried the unit with us. But one of the things I think it did give me was, when you move from country to country and culture to culture, in different schools, you learn how to present yourself. The girl who was in Caracas, Venezuela cannot be the same girl in London. So, you have to find out who you are in each place. That's a skill; it's an acting skill.
In relation to your successful Broadway run in Virginia Woolf, you've talked about wanting to play the role of Martha ever since you read the play in school. I just wonder, are there are other plays you have that drive to play?
None that I want as strongly as that. I'm very happy to say that that was everything I hoped it would be, an experience that you don't get to have all the time. Afterward, Edward Albee wrote me a note saying, "You're the reason I'm a playwright." I thought, "Oh, my stars and garters!" I treasure that very, very much.
There are aspects of other characters that fascinate me. Lady Macbeth captures my imagination when I think of her "Unsex me now" moment. That's just fascinating. I wonder, "Oh! How would I do that?" But my desire to do Virginia Woolf was about the whole piece, not just the character.
Has there ever been a character that you've played, in which the process of playing that role has revealed to you something surprising about yourself?
Oh, every one! I mean, you don't try to put yourself into a character; on the other hand, every character goes through you. And in this passage, things are highlighted, or flaws more than usual show up. It always enlightens you about yourself, though you don't go into it with that intention. It's part of the exploration, I think.Front Row Q&A: Kathleen Turner