STORY WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Say “Kathleen Turner,” and most people will say “actress,” the one with the deep, smoky voice who was in “Body Heat” and lent her sexy contralto to Jessica Rabbit in “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?”
Kathleen Turner doesn’t see herself as being so monolithic.
She is a person of the theater, and though acting, being public, may be the most noticeable of her pursuits, it is not Turner’s only contribution to her art. She is also a director and teacher.
“Anything but a writer,” she says by telephone from New York as we discuss her the talk she’s giving as part of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “Theatre Masters” series 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia.
“I can speak about anything, and that’s what I do,” says Turner. “I find the best way to conduct an evening like this is to take questions from the audience and answer them from my experience. Once I get a question, I can take it from there. As long as I can talk and don’t have to write.” Margaret Engel, who co-wrote a play Turner did for PTC, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” will act as moderator and join Turner in discussion.
The “Theatre Master” session is one more way for Turner to communicate about acting and the arts in general. She says she never wanted to be limited and never considered acting the total of what she could offer in the theater.
“I don’t want to sound as if I’m responding to some Barbara Walters question,” Turner says, “but I think of myself as a tree, a sturdy tree with a sturdy trunk that has numerous branches radiating from it. Each one of those branches represents a different interest or different talent, but they all come from the same place, that same sturdy trunk.
“I love what acting can do. I love what theater can do. I announced I wanted to be an actress before ever saw a play. The arts were at most a passing interest in my family, so I don’t know where I got the idea I wanted to be in the theater. It’s a perpetual mystery. But something drew me to the stage. I lived part of my childhood in London, and when I saw the great theater there, it only reinforced by desire, one my parents did not support and may have been dead set against.
“On any account, I loved the study of human behavior. That’s what acting is, the displaying of human behavior on stage. I also love the range of ideas and stories that are expressed. The study and the stories are endless. They can last a lifetime.
“Which is another thing I like about acting. I can do it when I’m 90, just as I did it when I was 20, and am doing it at age 61. I saw James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in ‘The Gin Game” recently. How remarkable! Cicely is in her 90s. James Earl is 85. I went backstage to see them after the performance to tell them how extraordinary they were. It’s inspiring to see people practicing their art, their talent, their amazing skill into their senior years.
“And making a living. My parents knew our income level and that I’d have to work for a living. That was among their fears, that I would be a starving artist with no practical way to earn my keep. I went ahead with my plans and luckily proved their concern was in vain.”
Movie and theater fans can tick off a slew of excellent Kathleen Turner performances. On film, there’s “Romancing the Stone,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.” On the stages, there’s her marvelous work as Maggie Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on Hot Tin Roof,” Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.”
Whenever Turner acts, she says she also teaches.
“I love teaching.
“Whenever I know I’m going to be in New York for an extended period of time, I teach a course and do master classes at NYU. When I’m on the road, like when I was in Philadelphia for ‘Red Hot Patriot,’ I call a college and talk to the head of the theater department. I ask to work with the best six to eight students in the acting program and do a master class with them.
“You can never learn too much about acting, and everyone benefits from talking to each other about it. There are millions of stories to tell and millions of people to characterize. People make choices every day. The actor shows what motivates those choices and humans operate to get what they want. Or think they want. At age 61, I have to consider all I’ve experienced affects me and how my characters’ experiences affect their choices. It’s fascinating and takes a lot of concentration.
Turner has had obstacles to overcome in her career, and just parents’ objections, which she basically disregarded. For two years, she had to put her theater activities and life on hold as she battled rheumatoid arthritis that caused such pain and debility, Turner could barely speak and was confined to a wheelchair.
“Some new medications help with R.A. but you continue to live with it. R.A. is not in my past. I have it and will always have it. The struggle was overcoming. I was totally helpless for a while. I had to learn to stand, walk, speak, and eat again. R.A. isn’t life threatening, but it was killing my life. People don’t understand all it entails. I fought and regained my strength, but I wasn’t always sure I would. I’m cognizant of that as I look forward to going on with my career for as long as I can.”
In addition to the theater. Turner is also active in various causes. One is Planned Parenthood.
“I will always be grateful for Planned Parenthood for being there when I needed it. People think of it as an organization that does thing[s], but that’s not true. I came to it because I needed education. My father worked for the State Department. We were in London. I was coming of age and knew nothing. My parents weren’t going to speak to me about intimacy. Planned Parenthood provided the information I needed. For that, I shall forever be grateful and be a supporter.”
“Theater Masters” with Kathleen Turner is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Tickets are $15 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philatheatreco.org.