Kathleen Turner on “Body Heat” & Typecasting

The Backlot Podcast: Kathleen Turner

  • Kathleen Turner Introduction & Background
  • Body Heat & Overcoming Typecast
  • 40 Years of Acting Experience
  • Being a Film Director
  • Theater Inspiration Overseas
  • Having a Life Outside of Work
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Kathleen Turner Introduction & Background

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode, we bring you the Oscar and Tony-nominated actress Kathleen Turner.

Kathleen Turner: I hoped and was determined never to be typecast certainly not as a femme fatale because there is a real age limit to that sucker.

Eric: Her list of credits and the directors she’s worked with is well impressive barely even covers it Francis Ford Coppola in Peggy Sue Got Married, John Huston in Prizzi’s Honor, and Robert Zemeckis in Romancing the Stone, just to name a few.

— You’re not too smart are you. I like that in a man.

When I watch you eat –

– scram, split, let’s make a run for it –

– when I see you sleep.

You’re a Mondo Dizmo.

When I look at you lately.

Some men when they get a whiff of it they trail you like a hound

I just want to smash your face in.

I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way–

Eric: Unlike most actors, Miss Turner was only briefly at a school before finding consistent acting work though she may be the only actress to go back to waiting tables after she got her big break in Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy film noir, Body Heat.

Body Heat & Overcoming Typecast

Kathleen Turner: My first year in New York, when I got out of university and moved to New York I had an off-off-Broadway play you know around six months, and then around 9 months I got a soap opera called The Doctors, and then around 11 months I got a Broadway show – a Broadway play. So there I was doing both. So within the first year, I was supporting myself as well as an actor which is not very common frankly what you call the big break I suppose would be Body Heat. But in truth, I was supporting myself by my acting always. Yes, there were stints when of course I’m waitressing and stuff. Even after we completed filming Body Heat I came back to New York and they didn’t pay me hardly anything but I was paying rent in New York and I was paying rent in Los Angeles. So there went my salary pretty much. So well we completed shooting Body Heat and it’s six months until the release you know I went back to waitressing for a couple months just to pay the rent in New York. It seems weird but that’s what you’ve got to do.

Eric: Body Heat ensured that Miss Turner would not be waiting tables anymore. And as with all her work, she looks back on the project fondly knowing she had left it all in the field.

Kathleen Turner: The first time I saw Body Heat. I remember my first thought truly was oh my God there’s a record you know there will be this piece of film long past my lifetime and it was kind of thrilling but it was also extremely frightening the thought that I would be open to anyone’s judgment till the end of time. I mean come on it’s scary. People are going to be judging this for as long as they wish to whether I’m there or not. But it was also quite exciting the thought that I would have left this record which also then brings me to my ethic which is never cop out, never f*****g cop out. I want to be able to look at myself and know that that was a very very best I could do that day. That I never said “it’s good enough” or “I don’t want to do another take.” We got what we need. You know I want to be sure that every time I see a frame of film I mean that that was the best I could do. Even if I look at that film a year later and go I should have done it that way or why didn’t I add that doesn’t matter. I did the best I could. The day I did it and that I can be true to

Eric: Body Heat could have made Miss Turner the go-to performer for femme fatale roles. But Miss Turner chose her next project carefully taking great pains to push herself as an actress and not get boxed in by one type of role.

Kathleen Turner: I hoped and was determined never to be typecast certainly not as a femme fatale because there is a real age limit to that sucker. You know that you only last a few years and then you start to look foolish. Probably my first job after Body Heat was on the stage to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I decided I’m very funny. But of course, no one in the film industry knew that. So then I wondered when I read The Man with Two Brains and I thought, “OK now this I can do. We’ll still have the femme fatale nonsense but I will also be extremely funny.” But of course Carl Reiner and yes they’re willing to have me come in and meet. But you know is she really funny so I have to throw myself around and crawl up Steve’s leg and do all of these things. So after that after a man with two brains came romancing okay she’s sexy and she’s funny but can she be dowdy and insecure. OK. Let’s wipe off all the makeup cut up some sweat clothes go and stagger bump into furniture. Be clumsy oh look. She can do that. So after romancing then I went to crimes of passion because that was fascinating. The idea of working with Ken Russell you know was something that I I always felt that he was a genius and a rather self-destructive shooting himself in the foot. Genius but a genius. So the idea being that if you look at the list of films and in their progression, you will see that each one has a contrasting factor to the one before that. I have never consciously repeated the work that I have just done partly because it’s boring. Just did it did it well thank you very much. Want to explore something else. I mean to my mind if I do not try things that I may not be able to do if I don’t take the risk of failure then I’ll never be as good I’ll never know how good I can be or get better. You know you have to be willing to risk to fail in order to test how you grow. It’s a simple formula to me. So if you look at my films with that thought in mind it’s also a reason why many people have not been able to put together my body of work. It’s like constantly running into people and they’ll say, “Oh yeah. Oh, Prizzi’s Honor. Oh course Virgin Suicides!” And they’re all hopefully, such different kinds of films that that’s why people are sometimes surprised that I was in them all. It’s fun isn’t it?

Eric: The romantic comedy Romancing the Stone directed by Robert Zemeckis who also did back to the Future and Forrest Gump began a terrific pairing up Kathleen Turner with Michael Douglas.

Your chemistry with Michael Douglas is so strong and obviously, it carried on to two more movies.

Kathleen Turner: Yeah we had a good time together but you know you have to remember that people forget sometimes it wasn’t just Michael or me it’s also Danny DeVito. It’s the three of us in those films and because Danny and Michael have an extraordinary friendship it goes back to when they were roommates you know starting out in New York and the two of them together are just you know a terrible threat actually. So it was more the three of us than just Michael and me certainly you do your best to get along with and to create a friendship with whoever you are acting opposite of and hope that that’s a true friendship that it will truly even though you know it is a necessity a little artificial you know that you are only going to be together four months or something you know. And you know there’s a definite end and I myself I’ve always lived in New York so you know and for me when a film ended I’d get on the next plane. So it was kind of like you know School just ended you do try very hard to find common ground to find an attraction toward each other and hope that that develops through the working

Eric: Miss Turner collaborated again with Robert Zemeckis on the live action animated hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Her voice work as a sultry almost obscenely curvy Jessica Rabbit. Turn up the heat on that family comedy

–You don’t know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do.

My honey bunny was never very good behind the wheel. – A better lover than a driver. – You better believe it.

Roger darling I want you to know I love you. I’ve loved you more than any woman’s ever loved a rabbit.

I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.–

Kathleen Turner: You know I have a lot of fun with my voice. And he knew I could do that. I mean the fun that I have when I see or think about Jessica Rabbit is that the truth is that I was tremendously pregnant throughout that. So I would waddle into the studio and in fact the last day I was supposed to record. I went into labor. So I’m in NYU hospital I say call the studio. Tell them I’m not coming in today. I think that you know Bob said he’d never thought of anyone else. He just said you know call Kathleen see if she’s available.

Eric:  Prizzi’s Honor proved to be a unique challenge. The Oscar-nominated gangster dramedy was helmed by John Huston the auteur behind the Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But because of the director’s health issues Ms. Turner and her co-star Jack Nicholson had to carry their weight as performers even more than usual.

Kathleen Turner: We did Prizzi’s honor and it was his second to last film when we worked together. He was already extremely ill with emphysema you know could not function without constant oxygen. So this may have affected his directing because essentially he would say you know to Jack and me do something you like and then show it to me. So in fact I felt like I had much much more input than I had ever before in a film. I mean the whole scene in the bed when they’re rolling. Who’s on top who’s on top. They hit the hardwood and then they roll off the thing with Jack going my f*****g back anyway. That was mine. It took 19 takes I think which is a lot more than I’m used to because to time the camera move with the rolling over was extremely difficult. You didn’t quite know how far you were going to go. You know and as you can see in that shot it’s really quite close. You know so I got to block that one and Jack got to block the scene that starts with having me draped over the side of the sofa. You know and he gets up that obviously was Jack. Anyway that was really quite exciting. And then Huston would watch us run through the scene and tweak it you know make it more make it less. Only one day did he really take over. It was the scene where Jack’s character comes to find her and confront her about her ex husband about this scam that she’s pulled with him. And John kept setting up the shot and we were in a small room and there were no movable walls or anything like that. So we would be ready to go and he’d say No I don’t like it. We’re going to turn this another way. And so we spent I don’t know eight hours probably re lighting and and changing the angle on that scene on that shot. And finally I was I was so frustrated I was so. You know could you just can I just do it you know. And I hear John saying to the cinematographer. Oh I think she’s ready now. I said you s**t. But that was the only time he played me like that.

40 Years of Acting Experience

Eric: Miss Turner credits the longevity of her career. Now approaching 40 years to repeatedly jumping from theater to film and back again.

Kathleen Turner: I always knew that as a woman my starring life in film would be much shorter than my time as a theatrical lead So I never went more than two and a half years without going back to stage because first of all I love it. I love theater more than anything. You can have a lot of fun with the camera you can you can achieve things with the camera that you cannot possibly achieve on stage. On the other hand being onstage and doing a continual arc of acting without interruption is so incredibly alive. And the other side is that as women get older we get more complex and more interesting and filmmakers really don’t write very complex and interesting older women they tend like you know either you’re the love interest for you’re the grandmother or you’re the bitter professional woman you know who had a bad love life. Now on stage they actually tend to write a full character. But I do truly suggest keeping your skills on stage just for the quality of your work whether it be on stage or on film.

Eric: She’s also managed to thrive in Hollywood for so long because she does not let her representatives ever paint her into a corner. She controls her career. Not them

Kathleen Turner: No one makes a decision about what work I do except for me ever no they try that they’re fired. Simple as that. It’s like no I’ll tell you the reason for this. Because when I first when Body Heat for example they came to New York. Larry Kasdan to audition actresses obviously for Manny Walker. I was not allowed to audition for Larry at that point because the casting directors in New York you know said she has no film experience whatsoever. Waste of time. So I went out to L.A. four months later to test on a different film and the casting director around here said you know I want you to come in and read but after I got the film and everything. Larry Kasdan told me later that he had actually first thought of Anne Archer but her agent said to him that she would not audition that either it was an offer or he could walk away. And Anne when I asked her never knew about this could you imagine would kill the asshole. You know No no no no no no no no no no no no no. Nobody decides what I should or should not read or what work I may or may not do

Eric: and to keep herself on her toes as an artist. She has even gotten into directing.

Being a Film Director

Kathleen Turner: I directed a play in New York a couple of years ago Crimes of the Heart and it went very very well. It was very successful. And so I am considering more directing work at this point. It’s a balance I’m still loving acting too much to give it up for directing. So the idea this offer I have to direct and star in the piece is really very enticing. That way I get to do both and I love. I actually love directing. I thought that it might be difficult for me you know to direct my leading ladies because I’d be wanting to say oh no no don’t do it that way do it this way you know. But in fact what I found was there are six characters in the play. Not only was I fascinated by working with the designers you know to create the costume the sets the lights all of these elements when it came to the actors. It wasn’t like directing six actors it was like knowing six characters that I was doing. I mean I felt as though I would act each one of them even though a few of them were men never stopped me before. So I found that quite fascinating. I got to explore each character instead of the individual viewpoint that one usually has as an actor to only be responsible for your own exploration. So I I think directing is really intriguing. I will continue to do that.

Eric: Some performers prefer method acting a technique that involves throwing yourself so fully into character that you feel everything they’re feeling from the inside out. Kathleen Turner is not one of those performers.

Kathleen Turner: I hate the word method. I teach a course at NYU when I have when I’m home. In New York for a semester. It’s called Practical acting. Shut up and do it. Which is basically how I approach acting. Yes you do. Of course you break down the script in terms of the arc of the role because in film unlike stage you’re going to take all these pieces out and shoot them out of sequence so in your own mind you must know where you end this one scene so that when you come back to it you can start on the same level of energy intensity or emotion as you move through that scene where are you going to leave that scene because you already shot the scene that follows that so you must keep in mind. I call them bases if you looked at it like a baseball field or something like this you have to make sure that you touch the emotional and intentional bases that you set the markers you’ve set for yourself as the shooting goes on and that’s your job to find a consistent and I mean you’ll have somebody watching the continuity of when you lit a cigarette or when you lifted that glass fine and dandy. But it is your job to find the consistency of the characters thought intention and emotion. So yes you plot that out in your mind and try and when you get a shooting script you have the right to ask to see a shooting schedule and see what sequence the scenes are gonna be shot and then you can prepare for them in that way as well.

Eric: And by this point just in case you’re not impressed enough. She’s also fluent in Spanish.

Kathleen Turner: Yo viví en Cuba y cinco años en Venezuela. Un en Cali. Mi papá trabajó para en el servicio diplomático y por eso vivimos en much partes del mundo.

Eric: Yeah French and Italian too guys. I know no one expects a gringa to be fluent in another language right. Well actually they don’t expect Americans to be fluent in another language which really we should take personally. Guys do something about. If you have only one language you have only one way of thinking.

Kathleen Turner moved around quite a bit as a child and it was overseas that she first fell in love with the theater.

Theater Inspiration Overseas

Kathleen Turner: In junior high school. I moved to London from Venezuela from Caracas. So I went to high school in London which is also obviously where I had access to such extraordinary theatre. And it was in those days when I was in high school a theatre ticket was cheaper than a film ticket which is why I never went to movies. I just went to plays had lot to do with it actually. And I had started to audit classes at this British acting school the Central School of Speech and Drama. I’d intended after high school to stay another couple of years at this school in London. But my father died very suddenly and I had to take my mother back to the United States. And so then I ended up at Southwest Missouri State University. And I’m talking about culture shock you know I lived in the United States for 12 years and suddenly I’m in Springfield Missouri cause I had a strong British accent. At that point and I held on to it because I was afraid I suppose more than anything but I could remember my first boyfriend said that the first contact he had with me in Missouri was. He said Well you know how do you like it here. And I said well it’s all right. I said but everyone’s rather stupid aren’t they. So you can imagine how popular I was on the other hand I got all the Shakespearean leads anyway. I learned I learned it you know in hindsight he was excellent because it made me an American actress rather than a fake British one. So I mean it’s a pity that we learn the most when We’re so unhappy that being happy doesn’t we just don’t get. We just don’t learn as much do we. When we’re happy however longasand you learn quite honestly. It’s all I ever wanted from the time I was around 12 and which was rather silly because no one in my family had ever been connected to the arts in any way. And at that time I was living in Venezuela so I never saw theatre. I rarely ever saw movies. I just thought that this would be my ideal job would be to be an actress. Then when I was 13 we moved to London and the first night I was there I went to the theatre. I snuck out of the hotel and went to the theatre and I saw Angela Lansbury doing Mame and then he hit me for the first time I could earn a living this way. And of course in England there’s a tremendous respect for acting as a profession as a serious legitimate profession not something that happened to you because you were sitting on a stool in a drugstore. Get over those stupid stories that you were discovered. You know know that it is an art profession you can be trained and you could be paid for. Well as soon as I figured out that they would pay me for that was that that was all I wanted to do.

Eric: Ms. Turner stressed the importance that in the craziness of the entertainment industry it’s crucial to have a normal life.

Having a Life Outside of Work

Kathleen Turner: I think that it is very important to have a life outside of the work I think you have to have friends outside the industry. I think it’s good to have family. I had a 22 year marriage which was almost all good I have a 24 year old daughter who is wonderful. Most of my best friends are not in the business at all. My very best friend is an accountant. I would like people outside my world so that we don’t talk about acting all the time that this is boring. I just did it all day. Do I have to talk about it all night. No thank you. I think it’s important to have a much fuller life than just acting just the work. Explore go to museums man read books about history. Learn as much as you can acting is really very narrow and don’t let it define your life.

Conclusion & Goodbye

Eric: After watching her on screen for decades and even getting to see her on stage as Maggie in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was a real pleasure to hear how Kathleen Turner never let the industry dictate her career. So thank you to miss Turner for speaking to our students. And of course thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As go to our YouTube channel YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me. Eric Conner edited and mixed by. Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time

You don’t know how hard it is being a man looking at a woman looking the way you do.

I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.