London • Here’s a tip: Don’t tell Kathleen Turner what to do.
The 59-year-old actress, whose career stretches from 1980s movie hits "Body Heat" and "Romancing the Stone" to Tony-nominated stage roles, does not like being pigeonholed. Cast early on as a sex symbol, even in animated form — she was the voice of sultry Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"— she’s long refused to be stuck with the limited parts Hollywood provides for women over 40.
But she knows it’s a strategy that brings risks.
"I did ‘The Graduate’ here in London when I was 46, and that was full nudity — for 20 seconds, but it was a big hoopla," said Turner, who is back in Britain with Stephen Sachs’ play "Bakersfield Mist."
"The producer said, ‘Great, we’ll take it to Broadway.’ And I said, ‘No we won’t. Sex in the States is just so screwed up, people’s heads are so weird — I don’t need the fuss.’ So I went off and did another play.
"And then I was sent a film script that described the character as ‘37 but still attractive.’ And that pissed me off so badly I called up the producer of ‘The Graduate’ and said, ‘We’re going to Broadway.’
"So at 48, I was naked onstage in New York. I’m very proud of that."
Turner tells the story with a smoky laugh. She seems like a woman who enjoys a challenge — and has the complex roles to prove it, despite battling rheumatoid arthritis since the 1990s.
She was nominated for a Tony for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on Broadway, and recently played Bertolt Brecht’s "Mother Courage" in Washington.
"I’m attracted to characters that I might fail at," Turner said.
She still takes TV and movie parts, most recently in the slapstick sequel "Dumb and Dumber To." But she finds the process of moviemaking, with its endless retakes and long delays, "boring."
"The interchange between the audience and you onstage is so intense and so exciting that I find I miss that desperately when I do film work now," she says.
In "Bakersfield Mist," Turner plays Maude, an unemployed bartender convinced that the painting she bought for a few bucks is a priceless Jackson Pollock. British actor Ian McDiarmid is the art expert sent to squash or support her claim.
Turner said the play transcends clichés about "the uneducated woman who lives in the trailer and the supereducated elitist who comes from New York" to look at the forces that shape characters and the value of art.
She said she always knew as she grew older that theater would offer the more interesting roles.
"For that reason I never went more than two, 2 ½ years between being onstage," she said. "I saw many film actors who grew terrified of going back onstage. Because it’s a huge risk. There’s nobody to say ‘Cut,’ no editor to fix your performance if you get a little lost.
"There’s no safety net."
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