Kathleen Turner: Unspoken Treaties

S3 E08

Kathleen Turner:
Unspoken Treaties

Actor Kathleen Turner talks about not bringing characters home.



Among Kathleen Turner’s numerous accolades are Golden Globes for Romancing The Stone and Prizzi’s Honor, an Academy Award nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married, Tony Award nominations for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Most recently she guest starred on The Kominsky Method, Mom and Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. Her film credits include The Man With Two Brains, Jewel Of The Nile, The Accidental Tourist, The Virgin Suicides, among many others. On Broadway, she has starred in High, The Graduate and Indiscretions. Also a best-selling author, she wrote the books Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts On My Life, Love, and Leading Roles and Kathleen Turner On Acting.

NEIL: Kathleen Turner, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.

KATHLEEN: I think this is going to be a pleasure.

NEIL: Oh. Let’s check in at the end and see. What’s something that you find yourself thinking about today, May 16th?

KATHLEEN: Oh my. I’ll tell you, being able to tolerate this isolation. Because I live alone. I have a wonderful cat, thank you very much, but this really means that I … I don’t have a spouse or a kid or something with me. And I’ve had a women’s poker group for about … some of them have played together for over 30 years.

NEIL: Wow.

KATHLEEN: And we get together at least once a month and play poker and eat and have a silly time. And so, we are Zooming together every Sunday evening, but they almost … well all of them have spouses or people that they are isolating with, but it’s hard. It’s really hard right now.

NEIL: I can totally imagine. Are you finding outside comfort in having your cat there?

KATHLEEN: Yes, I do. He’s this beautiful black. A little black cat. He can seemingly pretty much sense when I need him.

NEIL: This podcast, the mascot of this podcast, is my black cat, Beverly. What’s your cat’s name and what color are his eyes?

KATHLEEN: His name is Simon and his eyes are mostly yellow, sometimes into green. But when I went to get another rescue, I’d had one that died, I’ve been told that black cats are hard to get adopted out of superstition, or I have found out, being difficult to see in the middle of the night, especially if you have a dark rug.

High, starring Kathleen Turner on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

NEIL: Yes. Yeah. Often, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I will mistake certain things for the cat. Let’s say I’ve left my backpack on the floor, and the tender way I touch my backpack makes me kind of think about the backpack differently. If only I touched everything as tenderly as the things I thought are my cat. I know you were born here, but you seem like such a quintessential New Yorker to me. Do you feel that way?

KATHLEEN: Oh yeah. I do. I always knew I was coming to New York. I never thought of settling in Los Angeles. And even the time I’ve spent there working, which is the only reason I go, I’m not comfortable. I’m just not comfortable there at all. Never have been. Never lived there, never invested, which people tell me makes a difference. But no, all I ever wanted was New York, which I consider to be as close to the rest of the world as possible.

NEIL: Can you identify what it is about Los Angeles that made you know it wasn’t for you?

KATHLEEN: Oh, heavens. There’s no communication, there’s no commune, there’s no colony. People get to know each other’s cars better than they do the people. They go, “Oh yeah, you’re the black BMW 550,” or something. You go, “Well, yeah.” And it’s so isolating. It’s so lonely. I don’t know how people survive.

NEIL: The experience you’re describing I connect to in my own way powerfully. My work has always been about New York, and I question everything about my life, but I never question New York, even now.


NEIL: But this is the first time in my whole time in New York where I’m finding it unpleasant to be on the street. And how are-

KATHLEEN: It’s hard.

NEIL: Yeah.

KATHLEEN: It’s hard to go out and not being able to see people’s faces.

NEIL: Yeah.

KATHLEEN: I miss that because I love looking at people’s faces and seeing how they use them, and it might give me ideas for a character or something. So now this seeing just part of people, and then the shock of seeing somebody with no precautions, without a mask, without anything.

NEIL: Yeah. I know. It does bring up a whole level of, for me, among other things, a type of not crankiness, but a like, “What the hell are you doing?”


NEIL: In New York, I can often feel pre-COVID, sort of, I appreciate generally how New York relative to other cities, there’s a kind of sense of your body and space. That’s something I noticed in LA, for instance, going into a supermarket. The way people occupied space there suggested that they didn’t fully take in, “Hey, you know what? We’re all sharing this space, so we have to be attuned to the fact that-

KATHLEEN: Oh, I agree with that. Yeah, no, I like the unspoken treaties we have.

NEIL: Thinking about what you’re saying about the masks and not being able to read people’s faces, it makes me realize how much I use … One of my cards is I love mouthing, “Sorry.”

KATHLEEN: Yeah. Mouthing, “I’m sorry.” Yes, I know it. The way somebody moves, holds their lips, you can immediately get a grasp of that person’s personality. Does their mouth turn down at the corners in rest, or does it turn up? When they’re not thinking about it, when they’re not doing anything, what are the signs that their personality is left on their face? I like that stuff.

NEIL: First of all, when you’re wearing a mask and you want to kind of communicate, I don’t know, acknowledgement to someone, do you find you’re kind of making a lot of extra use from the nose up or something?

KATHLEEN: Well, yeah. I think you kind of see when someone’s smiling just from the eyes. I don’t know. Yeah, it turns into a kind of sign language, but you use your body for that too. It’s its own challenge, but I do miss seeing people’s faces.

NEIL: Let’s just launch right into some of these cards. First card is, “I could see when I get toward the end of my life thinking, ‘I’m done with this particular personality, I’ve worn it out.'”

KATHLEEN: It seems to me that I’ve already had several lives. And I expect that this is the beginning of another. I kind of accept that easily, actually. I like change and having to adapt, it’s not frightening to me.

NEIL: Where do you think that comes from?

Kathleen Turner in Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Photo by Teresa Wood/Arena Stage

KATHLEEN: I think I’m a pretty down to earth person, pretty practical, and some of my experiences fighting rheumatoid arthritis for years and other injuries have just made me more accepting.

NEIL: It also seemed like your childhood involved a lot of the need to adapt.

KATHLEEN: Oh yeah. A lot of change.

NEIL: Yeah.

KATHLEEN: Yeah. Yeah. I was the only one of the siblings born in the States, but then we moved to Canada by the time I was three months, and then from there, to Cuba. From Cuba, we had a year or so in Washington, and then Caracas, Venezuela for five years. And then we transferred from Venezuela to London, which was a marvelous thing because it was my high school years, and that’s where I was so sure. I became so sure that this was the career I wanted. Many, many actors have had a kind of transitory background, either in the service, or with their parents being high-level executives, or in the military. And I think it kind of makes for good actors, I guess.

NEIL: Could you break that down? What about that, do you think?

KATHLEEN: Well, I can remember vividly when I went from Venezuela to London thinking, “Well, I can be anybody now. I can be anybody I want to be because nobody there knows me, nobody has any history with me. So how I present myself when I start school or something is completely up to me.” And I thought that was rather exhilarating.

NEIL: That’s interesting. You also in your book talk a lot about the role of empathy in acting.

Kathleen with her first novel, Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts On My Life, Love, and Leading Roles


NEIL: I wonder if having to move around a lot develops empathy.

KATHLEEN: Well, I’ll tell you one thing it does is it takes away some of your sense of control. These things are out of your control, and that’s kind of how I’ve approached the dealing with the rheumatoid arthritis and other things. I don’t control this. Now, if you give up the idea that you control everything around about your life, then you are open to thinking about others and their choices and their needs because you’re kind of advocated here.

NEIL: So as long as we’re talking about thinking about others and empathy, I’d love to talk about this card, which simply says, “Empathy poisoning.” And that comes from a place in me where I found myself often as a kid overwhelmed by the empathy I felt for my parents who were going through some tough stuff, and I found that past a certain point, empathy can almost feel toxic.

KATHLEEN: Empathy poisoning. If anything, I might get that more from the characters that I play than other people. You play Martha in Virginia Woolf for 500 performances and there’s no way you’re going to keep yourself completely separate from her. So I would say that that’s more empathy poisoning to me than other people.

NEIL: So in other words, your empathy with the character can kind of embody itself in you.

KATHLEEN: Yeah. Yeah. Oh yes. It’s like when you’re creating a character, take Martha. At first when you really start to study her, you think, “What is wrong with this woman? She’s sitting around drinking endlessly and ruining the one friendship relationship in her life, what the hell?” And then you go a little deeper and you think, “All right, this is 1962, and no women held any tenured position in any university. All their energies and praise came from the status of their husbands.”

KATHLEEN: She has a husband who has assiduously worked to remain an associate professor for 17 years. She’s ambitious, she’s intelligent, she has energy, and absolutely no way to use it. What’s she going to do? Just host faculty wives teas? And then you start to understand, “Okay, wait a minute now. If I had these endless barriers in my life, how would I fight?” Anyway, you can understand how you would start to really, really feel something for this woman and with her. The rage, I think more than anything. Yeah.

NEIL: At the end of a performance, is there a process by which that empathic connection is released, or is it over the course of a run?

Martha (Kathleen Turner) and George (Bill Irwin) in the U.S. production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Photo by Carol Rosegg

KATHLEEN: Well, I used to believe that I did not bring any characters home. My ex-husband and my daughter have made it clear that that’s not entirely true. Anyway, part of it’s the energy at the end of a performance, say. Maybe you just had a standing ovation of 1100 people. It’s thrilling, it’s fantastic, and you can’t just say, “Okay. Well that’s all right, now I’m going to go home and have a different life.” I have to work it off. I’ve been known to go up and down the stairs in my building just to get rid of some of this energy that keeps me going. I try to just, I don’t know, tire myself a bit, I guess.

NEIL: Since we’re talking about acting, which I’d love to keep talking with you about, next card would be acting. Pretending to notice something when you walk into a room. I could never do that. That, to me, seems like a monumental challenge.

KATHLEEN: But if you wanted to talk about what acting is, I’ll tell you that acting is a very carefully chosen series of communications, both physically and through the text. It is incredibly deliberate and detailed, and never really spontaneous. I don’t do … what do you call it when you get thrown something and the-

NEIL: Improvisation?

KATHLEEN: Yes. I’m not good at improv, no.

NEIL: But how does one perform surprise?

KATHLEEN: Oh. Well, it isn’t just performing. You allow yourself to be surprised. This stuff is half physical, half in the body, and half in your mind making the choices, but then you feel them in the body.

NEIL: You teach acting, correct?

KATHLEEN: I do. I coach, and now I’m starting to teach online a bit, which is very difficult, really, because I can really work on the text. I can really work with them on the meanings and the basic, but I cannot get them on their feet and have them move. Because then I really wouldn’t be able to see them well. And so that, I really miss. I miss being in the room with somebody and looking at them from their feet to their head and going, “Okay, wait a minute. You just said, ‘I hate you,’ and your legs are crossed.” It doesn’t work like that. The body is not saying the same thing your mouth is. So I miss not being able to be in the room with them, but still, we can do good work.

NEIL: Do you feel effective as a teacher? Yeah. Do you feel-

KATHLEEN: Yes. Yeah. I find it very fulfilling. I really enjoy it.

NEIL: See, I teach art, visual art, and I also find it super fulfilling, and I also feel effective, but sometimes when I step back, and I’m curious how this is for you, recommending references and theory. I do believe it works, but I don’t know. I don’t know, I sometimes feel like an effective quack or something like that.

KATHLEEN: Well, heavens to Betsy. I’m not sure that’s our responsibility. We give them what tools we think they can use, but we’re not responsible for what they actually do with them.

NEIL: I love that you’re able to comfortably … to own that. And it may be a difference between teaching acting and teaching visual art in that I wonder if there’s something less mediated, more direct, I wonder, about teaching acting.

Kathleen Turner: A YoungArts MasterClass

KATHLEEN: Well in acting, we have a specific text. Chosen words to work with, which is a structure, and I don’t know that you have that in art.

NEIL: Not really, no. And I think so much of the teaching of art involves almost manufacturing parameters to contain the ideas. The worst thing you can do for a student is to say like, “Make a video,” versus, “Make a video that has to be two minutes long and that doesn’t use sound and that involves some aspect of memory.” Whereas I guess, as an actor, that’s such a great point. You always have the text as a kind of infrastructure for your teaching, correct?


NEIL: I love it. Next card. Actors and animals. They’re both about commitment. I feel like my cat is never fully other than 100% in what she’s doing, and that could just be a question of I don’t know if I’m interpreting her correctly. But it seems to me that actors, to be effective, kind of have to have something akin to that. Do you sense a connection?

KATHLEEN: I do. I do. I believe very strongly in getting commitment. Again, you make your choices, and then you have to fill them. You have to fill them physically, vocally, mentally. I can tell when an actor hasn’t committed to the role they’re playing. It’s very clear to me.

NEIL: And when you look at Simon, are you ever inspired as an actor?

KATHLEEN: I look at Simon and I see just a cat boy. He walks around with this swagger with his ass kind of swinging around and you go, “Oh, you’re a real Butch, aren’t you, cat?” No, I enjoy him that way, yes.

NEIL: Oh, I love their embodied presence. I love the way they walk.


NEIL: You mentioned you can tell when actors aren’t committed. Next card would be actors who are bad at acting, even in the posters.

KATHLEEN: Oh. Wow. Well, that’s very poor photography or choice then. I find still photography very difficult because I feel so fake. I feel staged-

NEIL: Interesting.

KATHLEEN: … as opposed to the actual doing of the character, which feels quite natural to me. So then I really have to say, “All right. The PR people, the photographer they choose, I’ll listen to them.”

NEIL: That’s interesting. So it’s sort of that fact that your character, when you’re performing, unfolds in time.

KATHLEEN: Yeah. He’s moving.

NEIL: Right.

KATHLEEN: And it’s stopped in a poster, in a photograph.

NEIL: So do you have any tricks for that? Are you trying to kind of-

KATHLEEN: No, I’ve never been very good at it. I don’t like being photographed. Just still photography. It makes me uncomfortable to be just still.

NEIL: What’s your relationship to a fear of failing?

KATHLEEN: Oh, I’m going to. I have to. If I don’t risk failure, then I’m not going far enough. If you don’t, and I say this to all my students as well, look, you go to the point of failure, you will have to risk to the point of failure. Now, sometimes that means, uh-huh (affirmative), yeah, you will go over the edge. But at the other times it means that have pushed yourself further and found more than you had previously, and I think that’s our job.

NEIL: Do you feel like in acting, is there the notion of having succeeded?

KATHLEEN: Yes, I think so. I know when I’ve done a good performance when I’ve hit all the marks that I set up for myself. I know when I have done what I hoped and wanted, what I set out to do. I will never forget opening night on Broadway. Well, any opening night on Broadway, but Virginia Woolf, and there were four of us in that play. And when the curtain came down, I was holding onto two of my co-stars, and I said, “Do not ever forget this moment. Don’t ever allow yourself to forget this because they are few and far between.”

NEIL: As a visual artist, you rarely get that experience.


George (Bill Irwin) and Martha (Kathleen Turner) in the 2007 production of the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Ahmason Theater

NEIL: It’s always mediated. I always say I love attention, but I like it kind of bounced off a wall. But what you’re describing sounds so powerful, for lack of a better word.

KATHLEEN: It is. It’s astounding. There’s such an extraordinary phenomena in theater where people sit so close, or they used to sit so close to each other. Total strangers. Closer than they sit in their own homes to people and they start to breathe together and they start to hold their breath at the same time and they laugh at the same time. So in a way, they become one body, one person, and it works for them in that they leave the theater feeling that they were part of something. They weren’t just the individual that walked in that door to begin with. That it was something more than that. And as they become more attuned to each other and more one, they’re easier in a way for me to work with.

NEIL: Is there work that has to be front-loaded in a performance to kind of help create that feeling of coalescent?

KATHLEEN: A lot of it has to do with the actor’s confidence. Because if they see that you feel confident and good about what you’re doing, then they’ll trust more easily.

NEIL: Do you always go out feeling confident, or do you perform confidence?

KATHLEEN: I always think that I’m so much more confident in my working self than in my private self that I’m quite sure the decisions I make as an actor are right. But then take me off the stage and give me a decision to make about whether you want to see these people or not and I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Yeah. And so it’s very difficult sometimes.

NEIL: I’d love to do sort of a quick lightning round of a couple of quick cards. First card would be gratuitous eye work in movies. I notice certain actors sort of try and telegraph a type of subtlety or something by way of a whole lot of stuff going on in the eyes that doesn’t need to happen.

KATHLEEN: That’s interesting. Yeah, I can see that. I don’t know, I guess. To me, for example, it will be too much smiling also. It’s hiding. It’s hiding yourself. It’s feeling like you’re keeping busy and you’re doing something, but in fact, you’re just dodging.

Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom (1994)

NEIL: One of the cards here says, “Friendships that are tenured.”

KATHLEEN: That are what?

NEIL: Tenured.

KATHLEEN: Oh, yes. Well, to me, and this is something that I learned from my mother, for me, women friends. Really strong, interesting women friends are essential. And out of this poker group, we have an investment banker, a gynecologist, a film editor, a retired lawyer. I don’t think any of the businesses are repeated, necessarily. And these are women I’ve met over the years through some reason or another and wanted in my life and said, “Come on. I want you in my life.” I will actually say that.

KATHLEEN: Anyway, my mom, when she got older, she had three or four very, very important friends in her life, and they would check on each other, and they would celebrate birthdays together, and they’d go to concerts together, and they’d volunteer at the library together. And so there was a constant. She didn’t end up feeling that she was that alone.

NEIL: People are less surprised by my age as they used to be. It used to be I would tell people, especially students, I’d say, let’s say 10 years ago, I’d say, “I’m 45,” and there’d be a, “What?” Now, when I tell them I’m 56, they’re like, “That’s about right.” That’s what the look says.

KATHLEEN: No. For years and years, I always played characters older than I was, and it started with Body Heat, that once I was cast, only then did the director, Larry Kasdan, say, “By the way, how old are you?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to be 26.” “No, you’re not. No, you’re not. You’re 29.” It was wrong for a woman to be that powerful that young is what he said. So then for years I played women who were older. I was not 42 when I did Peggy Sue Got Married, for God’s sake. I don’t think it was until Virginia Woolf, where the character is 50, that I actually got to be 50 playing 50.

Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married (1985)

KATHLEEN: And now, I tell you, the thing that I find most extraordinary, I’m turning 66 next month, and I find it fascinating how the looks have changed over the years. How time and everything that contributes to your life has affected how you look or if you care.

NEIL: What is your relationship to caring?

KATHLEEN: Yeah. I don’t. I certainly don’t care as much as I know I used to. I still like to look nice as it were, but no, I don’t set out to knock somebody out, you know what I mean?

NEIL: I’d love to end, if you don’t mind, with two questions I like to ask. First question is, fill in the blank for X and Y. What is a bad X you would take over a good Y?

KATHLEEN: What is a bad … Oh. Hell, why would you? Well, I suppose a bad meal but with good company would be doable.

NEIL: I love it. And what’s something you’re looking forward to when this crisis, as it were, is over?

KATHLEEN: Oh, getting back on stage. Theater is just shut down. I was booked for the fall at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and looking forward to that, and they’ve closed their whole fall season. There’s to lot of figure out how you can get an audience again. And if you can only sell half the seats, how do you survive? Because these companies need full houses. So there’s a lot of figuring out that’s going to be there, and whether we survive or not. And I miss it. I miss being on stage.

NEIL: What’s something that keeps you going?

KATHLEEN: Oh, I suppose a kind of a belief. I’m thinking that there will be something after this and there will be changes to be made and understood, and that keeps me going.

NEIL: That seems like such a wonderful place to end it. Kathleen Turner, huge, huge, thank you for being on SHE’S A TALKER. I so appreciate it.

KATHLEEN: Well, it was good, Neil. You said I’d know at the end.

NEIL: Oh, right.

KATHLEEN: Yes. It was good.

NEIL: Thank you. I really, really appreciate it.

KATHLEEN: You’re most welcome.

NEIL: All right. Have a great rest of your day.

KATHLEEN: I’m leaving the meeting.

NEIL: All right, bye-bye.

KATHLEEN: Bye-bye.