Kathleen Turner is best known internationally for her Hollywood film roles. She returns to the stage following her appearance in The Graduate both on Broadway and at London’s Gielgud Theatre in 2002, making her West End debut. Her other Broadway credits include Indiscretions and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for which she received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play.
Turner’s other theatre credits include productions of Travesties, The Seagull, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sandra Ryan Heyward’s one woman show, Tallulah, which she toured across the US.
She made her film debut in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 film noir, Body Heat, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a British Academy Award. She starred alongside Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains, and received a Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association Award for her starring roles in Crimes of Passion and Romancing the Stone, for which she also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.
She received an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe nomination and a National Board of Review Award for Best Actress in the title role of Peggy Sue Got Married. She earned a second Golden Globe for Best Actress for Prizzi’s Honour.
Turner’s other film credits include Jewel of the Nile, The Real Blonde, The Virgin Suicides, Baby Geniuses, The War of the Roses, Serial Mom, Switching Channels, VI Warshawski, Moonlight and Valentino, The Accidental Tourist and the voice of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Her television work includes a guest appearance on hit US sitcom Friends (as Chandler’s drag-queen father), and she also received a Grammy nomination in the Best Spoken Word Category for her work on The Complete Shakespeare Sonnets album.
In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Turner plays Martha, a woman who is sick of her 23 year marriage to George and on a particularly bitter night when a good-looking young biology professor and his wife arrive for a nightcap they soon become blood sport during a booze-drenched evening. Anthony Page’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1962 classic has already been a success on Broadway and now has a limited season at the West End’s Apollo Theatre.
Date & place of birth
June 19, 1954 in Springfield, Missouri.
Lives now in
I moved to Manhattan in 1977 when I got out of university, and that was it. New York is great, I love it and I will never stop living there – I live on the Upper West Side. But the rest of the States is still alien to me. When I did movies, I would rent a house for four months and bring the family out, but I never lived in LA.
30 years of work! I went to South West Missouri University and the University of Maine near Baltimore, I did some auditing at the Central School of Speech and Drama when I was in high school here in London, but I don’t think I can count that as training because I would just sit in and watch.
What made you want to be an actor? First big break?
When I was 12, I said that is my job, and that’s what I’ll do. In film, of course, my first big break was Body Heat, which was also my first film. But when I came to New York, within the first year I had got a soap opera, and I did an off-off Broadway show, and then I replaced someone in a play called Gemini on Broadway. So I was on a soap opera and on Broadway at the same time – I would go to the studio at six in the morning, and get to the theatre by six every night: I was 22 and you can do that stuff then! I would never do it now, thank you! That was within my first year working as an actress, in 1978!
Career highlights to date
The fact that I have always paid my rent as an actor, which is thrilling. I have done my share of waitressing, of course, but that’s an extraordinary accomplishment!
Favourite productions you've ever worked on & why?
This one – there’s an extraordinary thing between the four of us. So very often, no matter what size the cast, there is a weak link – someone that you have to carry a little more or work around; but there’s no such thing here in this case. Everyone is so individual; it’s such a pleasure to watch the others work. We all feel that way. And as I get older – and older(!) – I just decided in my 40s that there’s no way I’m working with assholes anymore. I don’t need it, I like myself, I like to like people, and I don’t need that nonsense. But everyone here are good people - experienced professionals – and it has always been a great experience, with the reactions of the audience from the time we first did it amazing. I muttered to the younger ones in a curtain call early on, don’t get used to this, it doesn’t happen all the time! But people would yell out thank you, thank you! There isn’t a lot of theatre like that in New York, and I think they were saying thank you for this quality of theatre. Plays are an endangered species there – I think they’re doing a musical of Tarzan now: oh, give me a break! Am I tempted to do a musical? All the musicals I want Miss Bacall has already done! But I did take singing lessons all fall – for fun, and to keep the voice flexible for London.
I don’t say that – it’s not fair!
I’ve had so many wonderful directors; it’s been extraordinary. All three Brits I’ve had – Howard Davies (on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Sean Mathias (on Indiscretions) and Anthony Page (on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) – I would work again with in a minute. Sean has his own style altogether, which I found very intriguing; I didn’t quite understand how he did it, but it was interesting! But Howard and Anthony I felt such a communication with.
I love Tennessee Williams; but I hate Eugene O'Neill: it’s five acts of shut yourself in a house and suffer. I’m not interested! Peter Hall once asked me to do Long Day’s Journey into Night and I said, how much you gonna cut of this thing? He said not very much. I said bye bye!
You have worked both on stage and screen - which do you prefer, and why?
I’ve always felt I do better on stage than on film – you get to use so much more of yourself. The stage gives back so much. Do I have a preference? Totally. I prefer the theatre, very much so. Especially at my age – the roles that I can get now in the theatre are so much more interesting than anything I’ve ever read on film. One is so stereotyped at this age.
What's the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last thing? What was it about those productions that made them so memorable?
The first thing was here in London - Mame! I think it was Angela Lansbury, I was sitting in the gods, I’d just arrived in London, and that’s when it hit me that acting could be a profession. I lined up three plays to see here when I first got to London that I was very excited about Mary Stuart; The History Boys; and Ian McKellen in his pantomime Aladdin. I adored Light in the Piazza on Broadway, it was really wonderful, and the design was great.
What advice would you give the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Politics is a large part of my life. My advice is: give them money – give them lots and lots of it. Especially in the United States, my God – because of the Bush budget cuts, which is absolutely appalling, the schools are having to cut what they call the extra luxury courses, and of course art goes first, before sport, before anything. But what do they think survives out of a civilisation? If you look back in time, what has survived is the art – the art of the Greeks, the Renaissance, Egypt – this is what mankind truly leaves as a legacy, and we’re cutting it? Blaaah! Don’t get me started on that.
If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
A diplomat, like my father. It’s a people’s skill, a communications skill – for some reason, I read people and communicate with them more effectively than many others do.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
It’s never occurred to me before! I’d be President for a day – I know it’s a huge job, and it worries me people who want to have that job, but access to all that information would be fascinating!
I just read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner: it’s brilliantly, beautifully written; you read a paragraph and go wow! I love science fiction and mysteries and fiction, but I’m not into non-fiction.
Favourite holiday destinations
I saw a lot of world as a child. I like to travel. Now that my daughter is 18 and she’s going to start university next year, I am free – we’ve been tied to her schedule until now, so I want to get a base back here in Europe. I’m really thinking Italy, because I love it, and because I’d like to work here. I miss the whole way of living.
Favourite after-show haunts
This play is a full three hours, so usually by the time I’m out of the theatre it is about 11.30pm. I eat lunch around 2.30pm, and I don’t like to eat again anytime near the show – I like to be empty; so by the time it’s over it’s about eight hours since I’ve eaten, but at the same time I need to go home. So what I’ve done here is ask for a serviced flat with a kitchen, so I don’t have to go out or wait for room service; I can just stuff my fridge and make something myself. The last thing I want to do is go out. To a certain extent, you get tired of people. You’ve had several thousand in your life already that day, and that’s enough!
I really use the computer mostly to seek out information or for e-mails. But I don’t surf much. I’m a terrible writer – I use words that haven’t been spoken in years. I’m the only child in the world who said when she was four or five years old, I take umbridge at that!
You made a big splash over here when you made your West End debut in The Graduate five years ago. What does appearing in London mean to you? And why did you want to come back now?
I lived in London as a teenager from 1968 to 1972 – I went to high school here, at the American School, so appearing in London meant a lot to me. I got my idea and ideal of theatre here when I was in high school. I already knew I wanted to be an actress, but I hadn’t realised it was a viable profession, that I could earn my living doing it, until I saw theatre here. The standard of theatre and the actors I saw formed my idea of theatre, so to come back here and be successful was a great affirmation. Doing The Graduate was great. I understand that Anne Bancroft was not pleased that we had done a stage production of it, but what the heck – she had no sense of humour! I really enjoyed working with Terry Johnson. Although the play was not critically that well received and it’s not that strong a piece, the audiences loved it. I wanted to come back to London now because the show is so good, and honestly I thought it would be really appreciated here. So I thought we should keep doing it.
How did this production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? originally come about?
The play had not been done in New York for 30 years – Edward Albee had never allowed it to be done again, because he had never found the actors he wanted to see do it, until I insisted that it was me! But I had to court him. I decided when I was in college, when I was twenty or twenty one, that when I was 50 I wanted this role. I always thought it should be 50, because essentially I think the character Martha must clearly be passed child bearing age, otherwise it’s not tragic. If she can still have a child, her heart is not broken. So when I was 48, I started talking to Edward’s producer Liz McCann, and she said he really didn’t want to do it again, he was working on new stuff and didn’t want to be known just for his old stuff. I understood that, but I said he doesn’t know me. When I was 49, I finally got Edward to go to lunch with me; we didn’t talk about the play, we talked about politics and the environment, and luckily we were both on the same side, and as we were leaving, he said so what do you want? And I said I want a reading. He agreed; and we brought together a cast including Bill Irwin to do one – at Anthony Page’s apartment in New York – and at the end of the first act when we took a little break, Edward came over and he said, “I have not seen anything like this since Uta Hagen did the play originally.” So that was that and we were off and running. And I turned 50 the next week!
Had you seen any previous productions of this? Did the film version influence you in any way?
No, knowing that I wanted to do this role I have always avoided seeing anyone else do it. I’ve only ever seen bits of the film, I have never seen the whole thing; but I mind it, because what we hear from people who came to see the play was that they hesitated to come because they thought it would be three hours of two drunks screaming at each other, which is what they took out of the film. But I said to Edward, I don’t believe the humour has been realised in this play, and it’s funny – there are huge laughs throughout the play, even in the third act there are some fabulous laughs! And Bill Irwin being the comic genius he is, people had no idea it was like this. So if I could whip that film out of people’s minds I would do so quickly.
How much did you draw on own life experiences in investigating Martha?
Well, there’s a long marriage – my husband and I have been married for 21 years. We have a daughter – one of the ways I got to the part where she has to give up her child was to think of losing mine, which luckily you only have to use once or twice and not every night thank you very much. There’s my age, that’s very close to hers; and I went through a drinking problem for a while when I was extremely ill with the rheumatoid arthritis and we didn’t have it under control - you’ll be amazed at how much pain alcohol can kill. It’s a disinhibitor; if you have a great deal of anger in you that she does and I did, it’s easy to realise it only made things worse. In fact doing Martha, people say to me, “don’t you feel like you want a drink”, and I say, quite the opposite – it puts me off! God, wouldn’t it? So I know a lot about her, but there’s a great deal of universality in Martha, too. The real crux for me is what a wasted life Martha has had. She’s a woman of intelligence, energy and ambition, but in that day and time it is set in – 1962 - she had no outlet for it; she should have been president of the university herself, but she has to live through her husband, and George simply didn’t have any of these ambitions or energy or desire to do that. And they didn’t have children, so she doesn’t have that job either. She has no job – she just sits there in this empty house, day after day, so it’s no wonder she started drinking.
Do you have a favourite line from the play?
Yes, but it’s not mine – it’s George’s: He says, “you create government and art and realise they are and must be the same thing”. I love that line – it encapsulates so much for me.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I think when I came to New York and was starting out, someone said to me no matter what happens and no matter how broke you are and unhappy you are in your living conditions or whatever you have had to settle for, once a week give yourself something that reminds you that you are special. If it’s a cab ride instead of the bus home, if it’s a bottle of wine instead of a bottle of soda, give yourself something once a week.
- Kathleen Turner was speaking to Mark Shenton
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on 31 January 2006 (previews from 20 January) and continues at the West End’s Apollo Theatre until 13 May 2006.