Q&A: Kathleen Turner shares movie memories ahead of Arena Stage gala

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Kathleen Turner (Jason Fraley)

She’s one of the most successful stars in Hollywood history with her signature husky voice.

Next Tuesday, Kathleen Turner headlines the annual Arena Stage Gala in Southwest D.C.

“I’m the entertainment at the gala, which is to celebrate and raise money for the Arena Stage productions and community engagement they do throughout this area,” Turner told WTOP. “Last year about this time I put together a cabaret. It was a full evening of theater. I took it to the West End in London, took it back to New York to the Cafe Carlyle, then Molly Smith, the artistic director here who I absolutely adore, asked me if I could do a version for the gala.”

Which songs can we expect to hear during the cabaret?

“I think of myself mostly as a storyteller, so the songs help to illustrate the stories,” Turner said. “I talk about growing up in South America, so I sing a song in Spanish and English. Then I talk about my career being on the road and the exhilaration and weariness of it, so I sing ‘Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home.’ That goes into ‘Sweet Kentucky Ham,’ then the music of Michel Legrand I cannot resist, so I sing, ‘You Must Believe in Spring.’ Songs like that, ones I love.”

Born in 1954, Turner bounced from place to place, including a brief stop in Silver Spring.

“My father was a foreign service officer, a diplomat with the State Department, so living here in D.C. for two years in first and second grade when I was six and seven was the only time I lived in the [United] States until university,” Turner said. “When I was 8 we were posted to Venezuela in Caracas, then after that to London, then after that a theatrical career of course.”

Her stage presence was first developed at Missouri State University before transferring to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) — an hour up the road from Arena Stage.

“I took my last year of college at UMBC under Herbert Blau,” Turner said. “He saw me in St. Louis doing ‘House of Blue Leaves’ and asked if I’d come work in his company. He was taking over the department at UMBC. I said, ‘Of course,’ packed my car and drove to Baltimore.”

Upon graduation, she moved to New York City, making her Broadway debut across Danny Aiello in “Gemini” (1977) and her TV debut on the NBC soap opera “The Doctors” (1977).

“After six months I was doing off-off-Broadway at SoHo rep, after nine months I got a soap opera ‘The Doctors,’ then at 11 months I got ‘Gemini’ on Broadway,” Turner said. “I was showing up at NBC at 7:00 in the morning to shoot the soap opera, then going over to the theater at 7 p.m. to do the play. At 22 you can do it!”

Shortly after, she saw an announcement for a Hollywood audition in New York City. The film was the erotic neo-noir “Body Heat” (1981) and the role was femme-fatale Matty Walker, who persuades her lover to murder her rich husband in an homage to “Double Indemnity” (1944).

“The man casting the film in New York thought it was a waste of time to allow me to audition because I had no film experience,” Turner said. “I went to L.A. to audition for another film and a woman was casting the film and she said, ‘Oh no, get your butt in here.’ Once I read for Larry, he had me come back the next day, the day after that they had me read with Bill and it just kept going. It was a tribute to noir, because Larry Kasdan loves that style of filmmaking.”

The film marked Kasdan’s directorial debut after penning “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) for George Lucas and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) for Steven Spielberg. While the role earned Turner her first Golden Globe nomination, her famously sultry sex scene was complicated.

“You wouldn’t believe what that scene took,” Turner said. “It was one of the first uses of the Steadicam, which we now use all the time. Obviously it was a night shoot. The camera kept breaking down all night long! Our frustrations are sky high. Finally it works for the whole back and forth, he picks up the chair, smashes the window, starts in and Larry yells, ‘Cut! There’s too much light. The sun’s coming up.’ So we had to pick it up the next night. It was crazy.”

She played a much lighter role in Robert Zemeckis’ adventure “Romancing the Stone” (1984), playing romance novelist Joan Wilder, who heads to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister. Not only did she win the Golden Globe for Best Actress, it was her first of three films with Michael Douglas, including “Jewel of the Nile” (1985) and “War of the Roses” (1989).

“The three of us, Michael, Danny DeVito and I always had such a great time together. … I just went out to L.A. and he’s doing this series ‘The Kominsky Method’ and I’m now his ex-wife in a recurring role,” Turner said. “Zemeckis is much more technically oriented. He was much more interested in many ways with the camerawork than the interior life of the characters.”

She reunited with Zemeckis as Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988), a mix of live-action and animation with the genius line, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

“That’s one of the ones people always want me to say,” Turner said. “Bob would send me a series of progress videos of how they were doing it. For example, they’d have different shapes or stands so the actors had something physical to focus on, then they’d draw in the character, but the breathing, the eyes, the mouth had to come from me. That’s a work of art that will never be repeated. Every frame is hand-painted! It’s simply not going to happen again.”

She won her second Golden Globe across Jack Nicholson as a pair of hitmen in “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), the final full film that legendary director John Huston completed before his death.

“It was the last full film he did,” Turner said. “He was sick, but it didn’t mean he was tolerant or forgiving or even kind sometimes, because he still knew exactly what he wanted. But it gave us a lot more freedom to put together a scene and then have him look at it.”

That includes the famous scene where she and Nicholson roll around in bed.

“That was my idea — I called it ‘who’s on top,” Turner said. “The two of them are in bed and they keep rolling over. She’s on top, he’s on top, then she’s on top, then he’s on top — until finally they fall off the bed. That was my choice. [Jack] complained about his back.”

She finally earned an Oscar nomination for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) about a woman who faints at her high school reunion and wakes up in the past.

“Right from the top, the magic starts,” Turner said. “Peggy Sue sits at her makeup table getting ready for the reunion, and the camera pulls through the mirror to the back of the [body] double who is mimicking my movements. You can’t actually see the front and back of a person at the same time, but you don’t question it. You’ve already accepted to allow magic.”

Her prolific filmography goes on and on: Ken Russell’s “Crimes of Passion” (1984), Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), John Waters’ “Serial Mom” (1994), Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), even Chandler Bing’s cross-dressing dad in NBC’s “Friends.”

Still, no matter how much she loves the camera, she keeps returning to the stage, playing Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” earning a Tony nomination for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and receiving high praise from late playwright Edward Albee in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“Closing night on Broadway, I got back to the dressing room [and] there was an envelope on my dressing-room table,” she said. “When I opened it, he wrote, ‘You’re the reason I’m a playwright.’ I have that in a very safe place. He actually did us the honor of saying it was the best production he ever had, which was wonderful to hear because he was tough man.”

As for Arena Stage, Turner made her debut in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“My first job after ‘Body Heat’ was running back to the stage,” Turner said. “Being the center of a film is pretty overwhelming if you’ve never experienced it, so I said, ‘Shakespeare, yeah I’ll do that!’ I played Titania and Hippolyta here in the Fichandler. We had a pool, Titania and her fairies were of the water, and the lovers were of the earth, and there was almost a Plexiglas corridor above. Avery Brooks was my Oberon and Theseus and Mary MacDonald was one of the young lovers. It was a good production and that was my first backflips into the pool!”

She’s since returned to Arena Stage a handful of times over the years.

“‘Red Hot Patriot,’ the kickass wit of Molly Ivins, which I still do because I just love it so much and it’s still so pertinent,” she said. “Then ‘Mother Courage,’ then a couple years ago, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ the Joan Didion piece here in the Kogod Cradle. It’s a tough piece about grief, loss, how you continue living, how you make sense of it. That is why I wanted to do it because I had just lost my mother, and like Joan Didion, I was looking for a way to deal with it and I found her play and the two met together. We’ll see what Molly Smith offers me next.”

Until then, check out next week’s cabaret performance at the Arena Stage Gala.

“It is a great show every year and this year with my doing the cabaret is very special,” Turner said. “The truth is that this is one of the best regional theaters in the entire country, so to support it and support the creativity, the guts that Arena operates under, it’s just thrilling. It’s absolutely thrilling. The great stuff has to come from some place and Arena is one of them.”

Find more details on the Arena Stage website. Hear our full chat with Kathleen Turner below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Kathleen Turner (Jason Fraley)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Arena Stage Gala with Kathleen Turner (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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