04.17.11

Kathleen Turner's New Broadway High

The critical darling is back with a daring play about meth and gay sex. She tells Kevin Sessums about her own struggles with substance abuse and why she never thought she was sexy.

Take heed: Kathleen Turner has returned to Broadway. More termagant now than sex goddess, she was last seen as Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a bravura display of brute femininity. Before that, her nude scene as Mrs. Robinson in the stage version of The Graduate redefined the term "isosceles triangle" for many of us, taking it from the geometric to the physiographic. As Maggie in a 1990 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof she was more than just a slip of distaff Mississippi flesh. And in Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terrible (a.k.a. Indiscretions) she played Yvonne, the teddy-bear toting diabetic who was in a constant state of dishabille. Each performance had its set of demands—a lightness in one, an unlikely neediness in another. Hell, the very musk of lasciviousness rose from her mid-soliloquy in that first scene in Cat until I could swear it wafted out into the house where it made its way to my Row-L nostrils.

Yet all of her stage appearances in the past 20 years have shared one common thread: critical hosannas. "An actress of guts and daring," wrote Vincent Canby, then The New York Times theater critic, of that 1995 Cocteau turn of hers. "When she opens up and lets fly with that sexy, near-baritone delivery, she threatens the stability of the entire house like no one since Tallulah Bankhead."

Turner and I met the other day in her latest dressing room, this one above Shubert Alley inside the Booth Theatre where she is creating the character of Sister Jamison Connelly, a recovering alcoholic, in High, Matthew Lombardo's drama about the sickness of secrets and our singular routes toward redemption. "I loved interpreting all those previously interpreted roles," Turner told me as we settled into the pristine shabbiness of the star's dressing room at the Booth. "I thought it was important this time though to build some new stuff for the library." Sister Jamison, the character she was still mining for nuances after tryouts at the Hartford Stage and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Cincinnati Playhouse, serves as a substance abuse counselor at a Catholic charity where a priest insists she increase her case load by one extra patient for whom he has a personal interest: a gay meth-slamming teenage hustler, portrayed with a haunting verisimilitude by Evan Jonigkeit.

High is too derivative to be a great play. ( Equus seems to have moved its offices to a rehab facility.) It might not even be a good play. But it is an important one. It could help save lives.

Because of the conversation that was about to ensue, I was upfront with Turner about my own secretive past, as I should be now. I—like the hustler, like Turner's character, like Turner herself—have known the circle of addiction, from, for me, the preying needle to lastly, when lucky, that needling prayer said in a circle of people with no last names.

"I wasn't ready for the consequences of being a sex symbol."

I think the producers of this play should take out ads for High on the gay Internet sex sites where meth use can so easily be found. The combo of meth and sex, however, is referred to as "party and play" on those sites as a kind of online lingua franca, as if reducing drug use to something that is childlike—something akin to ring-around-the-rosy—will make it more innocent. I won't be a hypocrite. I have participated at times in such "play" and it is as far from innocence as I have ever wandered.

We had what they call "talk-backs" after some of the performances before we got to Broadway and we plan to do some of that here also. Hundreds would stay when we had them before. Ed Stern, who is the Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Playhouse, finally said he couldn't handle it anymore. It was too much like being in a confessional. All these stories of addiction were told as lives completely destroyed. I came to the conclusion that I have been really naive. This methamphetamine is the most urgent thing I've ever heard of. And I am told it is the needle that is the death knell if one is not careful. I will figure out how to pass on carefully the suggestion you've made of advertising on these sex sites.

Approach it with the generosity that not only is Sister Jamison's driving force as a character, but also yours as an actress in this production. You stand back in those harrowing scenes with Evan and allow him to command the stage without you drawing focus.

The job of an older actor who's been in the business a long time is to help pass it on. And I don't mean passing on stage tricks or something like that. When I give him the stage that's because that's exactly where the focus should be. It's not a gift. It's what's right. Now I will admit I have acted with other actors who are afraid of giving up the stage to another actor as if it will take away from them. That's pretty insecure. And no names, of course.

One of the roles I wished I had seen you play was Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Arena Stage in D.C. in 1982 right after you finished filming Body Heat. Your two back flips into an onstage pool became the stuff of theater legend around these parts. When Titania awakens from her spell she famously says, "Methought I was enamored of an ass." Have you been enamored of any asses in your life?

No! Lord! I was married for 23 years to one man. Jay Weiss. He's coming to the theater tonight, in fact, to see the play. I love the idea that someone will be in the audience later rooting for me. The fact that we are no longer married doesn't change the fact that we share a love for each other.

And you share your daughter, Rachel, who is—what? Twenty five?

She's 23.

Then she's almost as old as you were when you did Body Heat at the age of 25 yourself 30 years ago. The ad copy on that movie poster read, "Ned Racine is waiting for something special to happen. And when it does ... He won't be ready for the consequences." Were you ready for the consequences of that movie? Your sudden movie stardom? Your status as a sex symbol?

No, no, no. Honestly: no. I wasn't ready for the consequences of being a sex symbol. In a funny kind of way I never have been vain or placed that much emphasis or importance on my looks. They were a tool. They are a tool. And at the height of my attractiveness they worked great for me. I have never liked to look in a mirror. I don't even have mirrors in my house. When Rachel comes over she's always bitching at me that I don't have a full-length mirror so I tell her to stand on the side of the tub and try to see herself in my medicine cabinet.

I never saw myself as sexy at all back then and always thought it was extraordinary that all these men saw me that way. Now, I was quite willing to play along. But I would have this recurring dream in which I would cast a smoldering look and would hear giggles coming back at me. I was always prepared for that to happen on a set or in real life but ... well ... what can I say? It didn't.

Let's move from Ned Racine to Jean Racine. Have you ever done Phedra? I'd love to hear that voice of yours revving on some alexandrine verse.

No, I never have played Phedra. Dammit. That's something I shall look into. Of course, what would be fun would be to do it at the Comedie Francaise but my French isn't good enough. But I could do something in Spanish. I am bilingual. I would like to do that. I would love to go to Madrid and do a play there. I keep talking to Pedro Almodovar and saying, "You asshole! Use me! What's wrong with you? Use me! You asshole!"

Jean Racine was a Jansenist. Though the Jansenist movement caused problems with the Catholic hierarchy because of its belief in predestination, it also stressed the concepts of original sin and human depravity and the necessity of divine grace. Those last two Jansenist precepts are certainly evident in High. You come from missionary stock yourself. Your great-grandfather was a Methodist missionary in China. Do you believe in original sin?

I do not believe in original sin—not at all—but I do put some importance on the presence of grace. I do have faith as vague as that may be for me since there is no deity necessarily to focus it on. I certainly don't believe in any organized religion which I believe is man defining what he wants God to say. So screw that.

This play also calls attention to your own personal struggles with addiction.

I did abuse alcohol for awhile. But that was years ago and there were specific circumstances which are no longer in existence, thank goodness.

Are you talking about your battle with rheumatoid arthritis and the need to deaden the pain of it?

Well, I was really unhappy in my personal life, too. Am I being too open? I just find the older I get the worse I get at lying. I mean I'm really bad at it now. I don't always have to offer all the truth, but I cannot lie. When I got really scared was when I had a public episode where I fell down drunk and I blacked out. It scared the fuck out of me. That was during the run of The Graduate. So when the play ended I was going to go to a rehab center and find out what this whole disease was. So I did. I went to this place for two weeks and I have to say I didn't find it nearly as enlightening as I had hoped. I had nothing in common with most of the people there. People who had killed people while driving drunk. People who were doctors and had killed patients while under the influence and performing surgery. The worst I did was fall down drunk one night. Never missed a show. Never hurt anybody.

Were you a functioning alcoholic? Are you?

Well, until I had that episode. And then I had to stop drinking altogether. But I then had to understand it all and studied the physiology of alcoholism. But at the same time the whole culture of it didn't have anything to do with my life. I thought, OK, I still have to work this out pretty much on my own. So that meant a few years of absolute abstinence just to be sure.

And the anonymity of 12 Step Programs didn't appeal to you?

Anonymity? That's such bullshit. There was no anonymity. I'd hear people as I passed them on the sidewalk say, "Well, Kathleen Turner is in my group." Thanks, guys. Thanks a lot.

Are you still sober?

When I choose to be. I certainly enjoy my wine with meals.

So you're not sober.

Let's put it this way. I haven't an episode of any kind in over eight years. I am very happy actually—with my work, with my personal life. I have no desire to screw up.

Did all the gossip about you in the past hurt? You had to have been aware of people talking about you. The word "bloated" floated about you like so much flotsam.

Well, part of that was the medication for my rheumatoid arthritis. And, yes, of course I was aware of all that talk. It hurt. It hurt my feelings terribly. But so much of that was aimed at my appearance and not my behavior. My choice, however, was to take the medication or not walk.

And when you were told you would have to live the rest of your life in a wheelchair, you said, "Go fuck yourself."

That's right. I did. I said exactly that. And nine operations later I'm back on Broadway.

How is your health?

Well, I do two days a week in the gym. Two days a week Pilates exercise. One day yoga. And next week I'm starting something very exciting with a woman who is going to do an hour of restorative yoga with me.

Are you in pain right now?

At this very moment? Yes. A lot. It has flared. But for six months I was pretty much in remission until a couple of weeks ago. I will have this the rest of my life. It's odd though. When I'm onstage I am free of it. But then the moment I step offstage and they give me a hand to help me off, I go, "Fuck! Aaaggghhh!"

Do you miss your screen career? Movie stardom itself could be considered a kind of addiction from which one has to be weaned when the roles stop coming.

Well, I do have a film at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. It's called A Perfect Family. I play the perfect Catholic wife in it. I don't think I've ever played a Catholic in my life and now I've played two roles back to back about being a Catholic. I hope they don't get any ideas about me and try to approach me about joining up. They'd be so disappointed.

There certainly has been an arc to your film career, from Body Heat to Marley & Me. In the former Bill Hurt longed to hump you and in the latter a large dog did just that in your role as an animal trainer. That's a film trajectory that makes me kind of ... I don't know ... sad for you.

Oh, no, no, no. Don't feel that way. A lot of my growing up was spent in England and there was this show on the BBC with this woman dog trainer. I had a wig made up to look like her and had body padding on to make me look more like her. She would parade around on the BBC and I'd just howl at her. So she was completely in my head when I was doing that part and I kept thinking to myself, "What a gas!" Didn't you think it was funny?

Now I'm the one who cannot tell a lie, Kathleen. It just struck me as sad.

Oh, come on. They sprayed my leg where that dog humped me with female Coyote urine. And they put a little liver up here on my breast so it would knock me down. But I thought it was really funny. And it was certainly, honey, very well-paid.

You were once infamously quoted declaring quite proudly that when you entered a room the only men who did not look at you had to be either dead or gay. Now that you are in what could be described as your career's diva phase the only men who do look at you are the gay ones.

(Roaring with delight and giving me a high-five) That will be my new quote. I'll get a lot of laughs out of that one.

Well, you did play Titania.

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Kevin Sessums is the author of The New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.