LOS ANGELES – When Kathleen Turner, who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, was told by a physician that she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, she “fired that doctor immediately.”
“I am stubborn,” declared the actress in that famous smoky voice, which was good to hear again. In our chat, Kathleen revealed how she got very ill in the early 1990s and fought hard—enduring many surgeries—to avoid ending up in a wheelchair and the “terrifying” prospect of not being able to move well enough to act again.
Kathleen stars as Eileen Cleary, the matriarch of a dysfunctional family, in director Anne Renton’s “The Perfect Family,” with an ensemble that includes Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter, Richard Chamberlain and Elizabeth Peña.
It’s a welcome return to the screen for the talented actress who’s otherwise occupied with her stage career. She’s finishing a national tour of “High,” where she plays, in her own words, “a foul-mouthed recovering alcoholic nun who works in rehab with a 19-year-old meth addict.”
Early this year, she was in LA to star in a one-woman show, “Red Hot Patriot.” “I played the kick-ass Molly Ivins who was a marvelous political humorist, columnist, and a great voice for First Amendment Rights,” Kathleen said. “What I really wanted to do with the show was take it to Washington before the election, so I recently made a deal with Arena Stage. I’ll be performing and shouting Molly as loudly as I can throughout September and October.”
Told that she is a sex icon because of her femme fatale roles in such films as “Body Heat,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The War of the Roses” and, well, for being the voice of Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” Kathleen demurred in her husky voice, “Whoa. That was 30 years ago, darling!”
Now, she’s the proud mom of Rachel Ann Weiss, a singer-songwriter with her first album, “Dear Love.” Kathleen said, “She’s great. I’m a tough professional, so I cannot lie about work. She is fabulous.” Kathleen is divorced from Rachel’s dad, Jay Weiss, but she said the three of them celebrate family events together.
Excerpts from our interview:
We missed you in the movies.
In 1992, after “Serial Mom,” I got very ill with rheumatoid arthritis. For several years, that was my primary concern—to battle that disease, to be able to keep moving. Nine operations and two titanium knees later —and missing many joints in my feet and other areas—I am moving and working very well.
When did your ordeal begin?
It was soon after I gave birth. They do think that there may be a hormonal trigger, because the majority of people with rheumatoid arthritis are women in their late 30s and early 40s, after they have given birth.
Where did you find the strength to go through all the surgeries and everything?
I love acting—it’s what I was born to do. The idea of not being able to move well enough to be a good actor was terrifying to me. At one point, they told me I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life—at which point, I fired that doctor immediately. It took a lot of hard work.
How did your family help you?
My husband helped me hide it a lot. We had these elaborate tricks like, for example, if we had to go out for dinner with people I had business with, if I needed to get up from the table, my husband would be this extraordinary gentleman. He’d say, “Darling, wait.” He’d come around and, while they couldn’t see, he would get his hands under my arms so he could lift me. Because I couldn’t stand up on my own.
As you mature, how has your sexuality changed?
It definitely changes. When I was so ill, my confidence in myself was terribly shaken. I relied very much on my physical ability to be the actress and woman I thought of myself. I’ve been regaining that. But, it took a bad hit. I’m still learning. I like flirting. I’m working on it.
Looking at you now, there’s not a bit of your character, Eileen, in you.
I hated that wig. That was the ugliest damn thing I’ve ever worn—not to mention those clothes.
How does Eileen resonate with you on any level?
Eileen does say in the film that she was afraid that her husband was going to leave her, because she didn’t even know how to drive a car in those days. She has never been a breadwinner for her family. She doesn’t feel she has any skills.
I look at my own mother whose husband died suddenly when I was 17. She had four children with limited resources. She went back to school for a year and got her degree as a legal secretary. She went to work for a law firm and never looked back.
That kind of change is possible. It never occurred to me to not work. I never thought of someone supporting me. And, no one has ever supported me, I’m proud to say. That’s a diametrically opposed viewpoint from my mother’s. She thought that Dad would take care of her for the rest of her life, even though she ended up supporting herself.
Do you ever feel wistful about your dad being gone so early in your life?
Very much. I have a sister, who is the oldest, and two brothers. My father never got to know any of us as adults, which I think is a terrible shame, because we all turned out pretty well. My sister is a doctor of urban sociology and city planning. My older brother is a doctor of psychology and the administrator of the school of medicine at the University of Idaho. I am a doctor of literature. My youngest brother lives in Wellington, New Zealand, and he is a doctor of government administration.
My mother adores it when she gets us all in the same room. She gets to say, “Oh, I’d like you to meet my children—Dr. Turner, Dr. Turner, Dr. Turner and Dr. Turner.” I am so desperately sorry that my father did not live to see that. But, before a curtain goes up, before I go and start a play, I say, “Hey, dad, it’s OK.” I think he’s somewhere there.
“Body Heat” holds up very well after all these years. What was it like shooting that film with William Hurt?
I always got along very well with Bill, unlike many other people before Bill got sober. He’s an absolute dream, but his mind does work differently from many people.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?
You must cherish everyone. All it takes to have a good quality of life is a little time to give everyone who asks for it. It’s the few moments that make the difference.
When I go to the grocery store, I allow an extra 10 or 15 minutes, because people are going to stop me and say, “I like your work.” It’s quite nice.
You’d like to be walking around New York and having people calling out from cars, “Looking good, Turner.” It’s not a bad life at all. Not to stop and not to take that moment to look at that person and say, “Thank you,” might hurt their feelings. Why? Because I didn’t want to take five seconds. How ridiculous. My advice is, stop, and take time to do whatever is needed.
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