The stage entrance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre leads to a flight of stairs. Up the stairs and to the right is a door, and on the door is a piece of paper with two words: Kathleen Turner.
Behind those words lies the first of two tastefully decorated rooms, a parlor in beige and white, with a large, curving L-shaped sofa, fluffy pillows, a coffee table and, along one wall, a long mirror. Beyond the parlor, through another entranceway, is a smaller alcove for applying make-up and putting on the costume. It is a spacious dressing room, the kind appropriate for what used to be called a leading lady.
Sitting on the sofa, tall and slender, a seemingly ever-present cigarette in her hand, Turner, in beige blouse and brown pants, her dark blonde hair cut fashionable short, perfectly matches her room. Just as she says, her career so far has perfectly matched her objectives.
“I’m very happy,” the 40-year-old performer says in a husky, hoarse voice that several observers have noted is reminiscent of a leading lady of another era, Tallulah Bankhead. “I don’t think I got sidetracked into a lot of the traps. I think my reputation is very much as I would like it to be: as an actor, a solid actor. Not a celebrity. Not a star. And that’s what I wanted.”
Turner skyrocketed to film fame 14 years ago in the film noir classic Body Heat, a steamy thriller in which her illicit romance with William Hurt led to murder and mayhem. Her films since have included Romancing the Stone, Peggy Sue Got Married (for which she got an Oscar nomination), Prizzi’s Honor, The Jewel of the Nile, Accidental Tourist, The War of the Roses and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (for which she supplied the erotically charged voice of Roger’s sexpot amour, Jessica Rabbit). In between she found the time to garner a Tony Award nomination starring in the 1990 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Now she is back on Broadway in another revival, Indiscretions, the Royal National Theatre of London’s highly acclaimed production of Jean Cocteau’s 1938 play Les Parents Terribles. The play is a farce, with deadly serious, even tragic overtones, about the tangled relationships within an eccentric, self-devouring middle-class Parisian family.
The New York cast includes Eileen Atkins, Roger Rees, Jude Law and Cynthia Nixon; the director is Sean Mathias, who won both the Evening Standard Award and the Critics Circle Award as Best Director for the London version.
Turner stars as Yvonne, an excessively possessive mother intent on keeping her 22-year-old son for herself and not allowing him to have a life of his own. The actress says she jumped at the opportunity to play Yvonne, choosing the role over that of Leo, Yvonne’s sister, who sets the gears in motion to free the son from smotherly love (and who is played by Atkins).
“I’ve done Leo,” Turner says. “I’ve done the woman who is controlling and plotting and planning. I haven’t done this hysterical child who has no thought about the effect of her emotions. So this was a departure.”
She finds the play extremely powerful. “It has a universal theme,” she says. “It’s exaggerated, and it has Cocteau’s twisted humor about the middle class, the bourgeoisie, but it’s very recognizable. Right at the top of the first act the audience clicks on it right away. It’s about an overpowering mother. And possessing children, giving up children, the disappointment in love and relationships. And we also see a failed marriage, a failed love affair, every aspect of adult sexual relationships. The play covers a lot of ground.
Turner has spent much of her career in films, but she loves returning to the theatre. “Onstage, it feels like I’m completely alive,” she says. “In film, as much as I am fascinated by it, it often feels as if you’re cut into little pieces. All this shot is about is your eyes, all this shot is about is your eyes, all this shot is about is your hand, all this shot is about is from the chest up. It’s all compartmentalized. Onstage, they don’t see your face after the 15th row, so it’s all your body and your voice. And I love using my voice. I love it soaring. I love it floating. I love it booming.”
Turner is of an age when many movie actresses say they have difficulty finding good roles. “I seem to find a sufficient number,” she says, “but I’m less and less in the mainstream studio productions. I don’t do those $100 million films, mostly because they don’t interest me. They’re geared to a much younger audience. I’m more interested in smaller films. I recently finished one that’s coming out in September called Moonlight and Valentino. It was written by Ellen Simon, Neil Simon’s daughter, and it stars four women – me, Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Perkins and Gwyneth Palthrow. It’s about a woman who suddenly loses her husband, and the other come to support and take care of her. It’s about how women talk to and help each other. It’s a $15 million film, nothing like a big studio picture. It’s lovely.”
She does agree though, that on mainstream celluloid, women have it tougher than men. “A woman’s body of work is not regarded,” she says. “It’s not important. What matters is how you look that day or that month. It’s really very frustrating and discouraging, and I would rather not subject myself to it.”
There are several classic stage roles she has coveted and is hoping someday to play. “I want to play Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Then there’s Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. And I have some ideas about Lady M.”
She will not, of course, mention Shakespeare’s Scottish play by name, because to do so in a theatre is considered extremely bad luck. Turner, though, clearly believes that her luck, on and off the stage, has been exceptionally good. She, her husband and their daughter live in Manhattan, a place she adores. “I love to go walking, to go into the bookstores,” she says, “It’s wonderful.”
Professionally, she says, she is right where she wants to be. “I have no regrets,” she says. Then she smiles, puts her cigarette in an ashtray, gets up from the couch and heads for the smaller room, to don her wig and make-up, to go out on the stage and act. “I’m content,” the leading lady says, and makes her exit.