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Kathleen Turner talks The Perfect Family, Body Heat, and her return to cinema

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Kathleen Turner enjoyed one of the all-time great cinematic debuts with 1981’s Body Heat, a scorching, erotic neo-noir that cast her as a femme fatale who mercilessly toys with gullible lawyer William Hurt. A string of unforgettable roles and films followed, including the wacky 1983 Steve Martin comedy The Man With Two Brains and the smash-hit 1984 adventure Romancing The Stone. The latter was the first of three collaborations with co-stars Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito: The trio followed up with the 1987 sequel The Jewel Of The Nile and the pitch-black 1989 hit comedy The War Of The Roses. More hits followed for Turner: the moody 1984 psychological thriller Crimes Of Passion; 1985’s John Huston project Prizzi’s Honor, which pitted her and Jack Nicholson against each other as hired killers in love; the bittersweet 1986 time-travel comedy Peggy Sue Got Married; and the groundbreaking 1988 live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Turner voiced Jessica Rabbit, the ultimate cartoon siren. Motherhood and then rheumatoid arthritis slowed Turner down a bit, and in recent years, she’s gravitated toward the stage, turning in acclaimed performances in The Graduate and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? And while she’s worked steadily, with smaller roles in The Virgin Suicides, Marley & Me, and many others, plus TV appearances on series from Friends to Californication, she hasn’t played the lead in a film since John Waters’ 1994 camp classic Serial Mom. Turner recently changed that; she stars in The Perfect Family, a satirical comedy-drama about a rigidly Catholic mother who must come to terms with her imperfect family when she’s nominated for Catholic WomAn Of The Year.


The Perfect Family (2012)—“Eileen Cleary”
Kathleen Turner: I play this woman, Eileen Cleary, who is a devout, practicing Catholic who believes very much, and has accepted and lives by the doctrines and tenants of the Catholic Church. She is nominated to win this Catholic Woman Of The Year award, which carries with it a prayer of absolution, which would absolve her of past sins. A Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, as it were. She very, very much wants to win this award, but part of the assessment involves her family, and whether they are a good Catholic family. And that’s just not the case. Her son has left his wife and two children and is having an affair with a manicurist. Her husband is a recovering alcoholic, who had many infidelities in the past. And her daughter is a lesbian who is getting married and is five months pregnant. So this is hardly a conformist Catholic family. The conflict is really to find the way for the love they hold for each other, and the compassion, to reconcile with what the Church tells her to believe.

The A.V. Club: What attracted you to the role, specifically?

KT: That conflict. And the fact that she’s a very different character from what I usually do. Truth to tell, what really hooks me and interests me is to do something I haven’t done before. If I’ve done it before and I’ve done it well, I’m very happy, but I have no desire to necessarily do it again. I want the exploration. I want to find out if I do it well.


AVC: This is your first starring role in a film since playing Beverly in Serial Mom, but there are some commonalities between those characters.

KT: There are, actually. I did think of Beverly once or twice when I was doing Eileen. It’s that root of suburbia that, I think, is common ground for the two.

AVC: Also, there’s the obsession with control, with appearances. Everything must look perfect.

KT: Oh my goodness, but they’re such different extremes. [Laughs.]

Body Heat (1981)—“Matty Walker”
KT: Well, I’ll tell you, that whole thing was so thrilling, so exciting to me. When I first read the script, I remember thinking, “My God, nobody’s done anything to this extent before.” This is really groundbreaking, I think, in American filmmaking, the extent of the sexuality and the power of the sexuality that we explored in Body Heat. That was really exciting. I know [director] Larry [Kasdan] and [co-star] Bill [Hurt] and I were these young three guys against the system. It was Larry’s first time directing. It was Bill’s second film, but his first film, Altered States, hadn’t come out yet. It was my first film. So we all just felt like we were this club against the Hollywood machine. It was really quite exciting.


AVC: When you read the script for the first time, did you have the sense of the impact it might have?

KT: Oh yes! When I first read it, yeah, I was a bit shocked, I suppose. Then you start to imagine yourself doing it, and then it becomes possible, and then probable, and then you do it.


AVC: What for you was the key to that character, to that performance?

KT: I suppose the power. That she could make someone do what she wanted done. Her calculations. She’s really quite cold-blooded about it. It’s kind of cool.


AVC: For Body Heat, you lost the Golden Globe for newcomer of the year to—

KT: [Gleeful.] Pia Zadora! Oh, I know, it was a joke for years and years, wasn’t it? It was wonderful. I don’t know, I live in New York, there was a write-up when they were doing Night Of 100 Stars at Radio City [Music Hall], and the joke was “If the ceiling fell in, then Pia Zadora will be a star again.” I know, it’s terrible. I shouldn’t have said that.


AVC: Did you go to the Golden Globes?

KT: Not that year, I don’t think. I think I was onstage in Washington D.C., doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


The Man With Two Brains (1983)—“Dolores Benedict”
KT: Now you’re going to start seeing in discovering my past, which is having done Body Heat and the epitome of the femme fatale, then my next choice was to make fun of it. I mean, Delores Benedict in The Man With Two Brains is a parody of the femme fatale, so I wanted to go in a whole new direction. And after that is Romancing [The Stone], with this very insecure woman who doesn’t believe she’s attractive or has any power or anything, and grows into it. And after that, Crimes Of Passion, to really go against the whole system and the America’s-sweetheart thing that was building up. So each time I’ve taken a film and had a wonderful exploration and experienced success with it, my first instinct is to do the opposite. Which makes it hard to put my whole body of work together, but that’s okay.

Romancing The Stone (1984)—“Joan Wilder”
KT: I think that’s the one I had the most enjoyment on. A lot because we were shooting in Mexico and South America, and I grew up in Venezuela for many years, so I was bilingual, to start with. So I felt very, very at home. Going back down to South America was an “Oh yeah, good to be back” kind of feeling. I was also very useful because they really needed another translator. Some of our Mexican actors—Manuel Ojeda had no English, really—so we had to really work with these Mexican actors for them to be understood. But I love that sort of stuff. I used to be a terrific athlete before I got rheumatoid arthritis, and I would throw myself into all the stunts. I think I got about seven stitches in Romancing. That’s just my idea of fun. And I loved working with Michael [Douglas] and Danny [DeVito].


AVC: Did you realize early on that you guys had great chemistry?

KT: I don’t know if Michael knew that or not. I just knew that we were a great team. We were a great partnership, both in how we complemented each other, and how we enjoyed each other. That kind of enjoyment always comes through.


Crimes Of Passion (1984)—“Joanna Crane/China Blue”
KT: Well, Ken Russell, honey. I mean, Ken Russell, he was a genius. Ken called me a few months ago because he wanted to shoot Alice In Wonderland, and he wanted me for the Red Queen. And we were talking about it just before he died. That was a real shocker. I understand they’re going to go ahead with the film, but for me, the point was Ken. Just to work with Ken. He was absolutely certifiable, the man. But, in truth, a genius.

AVC: That was a very sexual film.

KT: I think that was some of my best work, honestly. That he really challenged me.


AVC: What was it like to be directed by Ken Russell?

KT: Confusing, at times. He drank a lot. He drank from early in the morning on, so as the day progressed, you’d have different levels of comprehensive ability, in terms of what he wanted from his direction. So you kind of had to take that into account, but at the same time, his passions were so contagious, he made you risk more than you normally might with someone else.


AVC: Your leading man in that movie was Anthony Perkins—

KT: Whoa, that was tough. I can say this, because it was all public. He was doing this stuff—I believe it was a form of nitrate that was a step down from amyl. So we’d rehearse, and then just before Ken would roll camera, Anthony would pull out this little bottle and sniff it, and he’d go all red and break into a sweat and you go, “I don’t know what’s going to happen now.” So that was kind of scary at times.


AVC: That’s reflected in the film.

KT: That was really tough. When I came home from that film, my fiancé at that time picked me up from the airport and took me out to our country place, and he told me I slept 22 hours. He said if I got to 24, he was going to take me to the hospital. That was hard.


Prizzi’s Honor (1985)—“Irene Walker”
KT: Right. Huston. [John Huston, director.] Huston, boy. And this was his second-to-last film. He was ill. He was on full-time oxygen, which was actually kind of really cool, in that he’d say to Jack [Nicholson] and me, “Work up something and then show it to me.” He would be resting for whatever he had to do, and I would say to Jack, “Well, what if we…” Or Jack would suggest something, we’d sort of block out a scene ourselves, and then John and the cinematographer would come in and adjust it. It was exciting at that stage in my career, and with Jack Nicholson, to have that much control.

AVC: It sounds like you really trusted your instincts.

KT: I do. I do. I don’t second-guess myself. You commit to it and you do it. Jack is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. Just truly, truly, so good. Many, many times, frankly, you find yourself working with someone and you sort of have to help them, or cover for them, adjust yourself so they’re in the right position for camera. With Jack? Uh-uh. All I had to do was my role. I didn’t have to worry about him at all.


AVC: Was Huston frail at that point?

KT: He certainly wasn’t mentally diminished in any way. His personality and his mind, his decision-making was as powerful as ever. Yes, he was getting a little frail physically. But we used to play backgammon, and I would be beating the pants off him, right, and then right at the end, he would start rolling double sixes. This happened time and time again, to the point that I said, “Okay, he’s cheating.” So for Christmas, I got him a pair of silver dice, thinking that this would be a fancy-enough gift, and I knew they were not weighed, right? Didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Beat me at the last moment every time.


Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)—“Peggy Sue”
KT: Oh yeah. That was [Francis Ford] Coppola. Boy, that was exciting. I think that Coppola and his design team really created—if you look at the film again, the very first shot, when you’re looking at her through the mirror as she’s getting ready to go, and then somehow, the camera pulls back and you see the back of her… So this is a physical impossibility. You’re seeing her face and the back of her head at the same time. The thing is, if you accept that shot, which you do, then you’re accepting a whole realm of magic and possibility. That is just brilliant.

AVC: Your costar was a very young Nicolas Cage.

KT: [Chuckles.] He was very young. It was a little tough at times. Nicholas, it was very important to him that this casting not be perceived as nepotism, so he kind of went overboard in terms of challenging or resisting Francis’ direction, just to be the tough guy. So at times that got really boring. I think at the very end of the film, he apologized to me for causing unnecessary conflict. Well, you know, you get over it. You just do what you have to do.


AVC: That had to be challenging, playing a teenager and also somebody in her 40s.

KT: Yeah, we didn’t use any makeup or anything like that. That was just all the mind and the attitude. Knowing or not knowing something. I’m not good at dissecting my process, I have to warn you. I just kind of do it.


Switching Channels (1988)—“Christy Colleran”
KT: That’s the only film I sort of am disappointed in. I didn’t take it for all the right reasons. I was pregnant, and I thought I probably wouldn’t be working for some time, and I wanted to get in a film before I got too big. But originally, I was to do that film with Michael Caine, which was very, very attractive to me. Then Michael got stuck on Jaws 4, I think it was, where the shark kept breaking down? And I kept getting bigger. So we shot everything we could without that character, but then finally the producer cast Burt Reynolds, who I don’t think was too happy to be brought in like that, not from the beginning. So he wasn’t happy, and that made it hard to work with him.

AVC: Was it just the shooting, or were you disappointed with the final film?

KT: I didn’t think it was cut well. I think we had a lot more good material than was used.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)—“Jessica Rabbit”
KT: Ooooh. Bob Zemeckis, what an extraordinary feat, matching animation and live film. Nobody had done that before. That was just a remarkable process. They kept sending me tapes of how it was going along, and how they were shooting a scene with Bob Hoskins and this sort of metal frame that was Jessica, that would be drawn over in later stages in the process. And then right up to when we had to start doing the breathing of the character, because it’s one thing to do lips and face, but the whole body is the breath, so [I had to] go in and do all the breathing so they could finish the body, and then go back to do the face. It was a fascinating process.

AVC: It was a technological breakthrough, but did you suspect she would become this widespread figure of lust?


KT: [Laughs.] I’m sort of amazed. Half the photos I get autograph requests for are Jessica. [Laughs.]

AVC: How much of you was in that character?

KT: Oh, to me, it was just fun. I was just seeing what I could do with that voice.


AVC: Do you see Jessica as another parody of the femme fatale?

KT: No. I believe she was sincerely in love with the rabbit. They had a good marriage.


AVC: There’s that famous line, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

KT: Well, yes, that was just too fun to pass up.

Serial Mom (1994)—“Beverly R. Sutphin”
KT: Oh, Serial Mom. Lord have mercy, I laughed every day and I ran into a lot of opposition about doing that film. From agents, from people in the industry saying, “You can’t do that. John Waters is a B-film maker. It’ll take away your status. You’ll be relegated to B-films from now on,” you know, this kind of crap. When I first read the script, I thought, “Wow, this could be really funny, or it could be really sick.” So I called John and he jumped on a train and came up to Manhattan and talked me through how he wanted to shoot the film and convinced me that it would be funny, not gruesome and awful.


AVC: It’s sick and it’s funny.

KT: Well yeah, but that’s the thing, it’s got to be funny. Not just some kind of blood-fest thing. I’m telling you, we laughed all the time on that film.