Kathleen Turner spoke in the same deep, graveled voice that has grown familiar to movie watchers over the years, whether as the weary writer of romance novels in Romancing the Stone or as the furious groan of a possessed house in Monster House last year. It’s a distinct voice — coarse yet warmly empathetic — belonging to women on screen who hide behind their strong wills weighty emotional baggage. Even the miserable monster house had its issues, possessed by a woman who only wanted to be reunited with her beloved husband.
Throughout her career, Turner has embodied women who seek out love with all their might. Joan Wilder from Romancing the Stone waded through a Colombian war zone to get it. In Body Heat, Turner’s character asked her lover to kill for it.
“I play women who are changing,” Turner said. “They’re not victims. All the women I play have to have the capability to fix their lives. I know that sounds pompous. But if you look back, it’s not interesting to play women who wait around for someone to fix their lives.”
Turner stood in front of Northwestern students Monday night at a question-and-answer session hosted by the NU Women Filmmakers Alliance.
“I hope you’re being blunt. I am,” she announced to the group of about 35 students, some of them aspiring actors and filmmakers fishing for a veteran’s tips. The first piece of advice Turner gives to actors just starting out: “Shut up and do it,” which is also the name of her “practical acting” class at New York University.
“Don’t use the word ‘method’ around me,” Turner said. “You need to find your way of doing it. Obviously you need the physical skills, the vocal skills. You need to read your ass off, so you have every resource of thought at your disposal. But if someone else tells you how to do it, that makes no sense to me.”
Her other piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to turn down the roles that will compromise your work. When asked to pick a favorite character she has played, Turner stalls: “I never pick a part I don’t like.” She can’t play favorites.
Often enough, Turner’s characters have become iconic women in pop culture history. It’s not easy to forget Jessica Rabbit, the slinky cartoon from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, who coyly uttered in that unusual voice, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
In her most recent performance on Broadway in 2005, Turner played another iconic woman: Martha, the cruel wife of a professor husband from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha is a bitter woman who directs her rage at her passive-aggressive husband in wild fits of screaming and insults. Elizabeth Taylor originally made the role famous in the play’s 1966 film adaptation. Taylor played it when she was only 34. At 51, Turner was ready to make it her own.
“I have no desire to recreate someone else’s role,” Turner said. “If I take a role like Martha it’s because I see something in it that I don’t think anyone else sees.”
“They don’t write great characters in film,” Turner said. “One thing that I think is really missing in this industry now is risk-taking. Because so much money is put into these movies, they go with safe, conventional choices. Ken Russell [director of Crimes of Passion] didn’t believe in that. He said, ‘Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.’”
Ultimately, though, Turner lives for the process itself. When she acts, she says the rest of her life simply fades away. She always arrives at the theater two hours before curtain time, to mentally prepare herself. She has a list of three people for whom she will leave that theater if they ask. Otherwise, she is rooted in her world.
“Have any of you ever been in a car crash? You have microseconds. Is there a baby in the car? Who’s bigger—you or them? You have microseconds to choose how to take that impact. But that’s acting. You have to choose how you move, how you speak. You have microseconds,” Turner said. “Can you imagine being in a car crash every day for three hours? It’s addictive.”
As for how Kathleen Turner goes about performing alone on stage?
“With joy,” she smirked. “There are times when I feel like if I sink my arms low enough, I can hold the whole stage in my hands.”