Highbrow New York theater tends to ricochet from crisis to crisis, be it financial (the Sept. 11 attacks, the Great Recession) or existential (the indomitable rise of the musical). But these days, it’s arguably Hollywood film that’s in panic mode. Confronted with declining ticket sales in the face of the prestige-TV renaissance and seemingly forced to wring every last bit of energy out of Marvel adaptations, it’s turned the act of seeing a film into a sonic and ocular assault. And Kathleen Turner is having none of it.
“Come on, guys,” she says of the endless sequels and reboots. “Give us something besides blowing something up on a green screen. It is so boring, and I don’t know how the actors do it — because half the time, they’re acting in fantasy. There’s no there there! I just find it rather weird.”
While she believes that the rise of independent film has been a boon to the craft, the longtime New Yorker has always kept Los Angeles at a distance.
“The pressure on women was just insane,” Turner says of Hollywood. But digital technology has created a climate that allows for independent work “without the kind of huge financial pressures that run a great deal toward excluding women from leading positions in the industry. Then the growth of the festivals has been a great addition. We’re still completely hampered by the distribution system and so forth, run basically by the studios, but the work that we can do and produce has gotten a great deal freer and open for both genders — or all genders, I should say.”
So things are at least improving in Hollywood?
“No, not Hollywood,” she says. “I’m not saying Hollywood. I said the film industry. No, I think Hollywood’s pretty archaic.”
Much of Turner’s career in recent decades has turned toward the theater instead. She was in Washington, D.C., for a day of activism — “speaking or marching or testifying, one of my usual activities,” as she puts it — when Molly Smith, the longtime artistic director of the Arena Stage Theater asked her to lunch.
“She asked me if I could sing,” Turner says, “and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can sing.’ You have to remember, this is my 40th year in the biz. I came to New York in 1977 and there weren’t any leading female roles that weren’t sopranos. That was never going to be me. That was never going to happen.”
In other words, at the time, Turner never worked to get singing parts, which meant that she became a de facto actor. Still, Smith persisted, and they eventually wound up driving around D.C. in Smith’s Volkswagen as Turner belted out the blues standard “Since I Fell For You,” after which Smith cast her in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.
It was effectively Turner’s debut, and in that production, the character was off-stage for only a few minutes of the three-hour running time. She developed such a rapport with her vocal coach and her musical director that when she returned to New York, she told them she wanted to continue working with them.
“I’ve never really applied myself to singing and it’s just been amazing to me,” she recalls. “I’m not a baritone at all — well I am, I am! But I’m not just a baritone, which is really exciting to me. It’s just been one of the most wonderful learning experiences, and one day we sit down and we‘ve got all these great songs and they keep making me think of all these times in my life. Let’s make a cabaret! It sounds a little naive, but it just came together so — I hate this word but I’m going to use it — organically. Forgive me, but it fits.”
The result is Finding My Voice, a one-woman show of stories and music that Turner describes as “songs that feel good in my body” — which comes to Feinstein’s at the Nikko on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22. If you’re looking for Turner’s signature nerve, you’ll find it. Just don’t refer to it as steeliness.
“Steel,” she insists. “I’ll go with steel, but not steeliness! It sounds so cold.”
Although it’s a cabaret, Finding My Voice doesn’t consist entirely of selections from the Great American Songbook, as there’s one about Planned Parenthood that friends wrote specially for her. (Turner has served as chair of the reproductive-rights organization’s board of advocates for years.) It’s not entirely political, though.
“I avoid the bigger bombshells,” she says.
The president of Planned Parenthood is Cecile Richards, daughter of firebrand Texas Gov. Ann Richards — who was friends with Molly Ivins, the Monterey-born liberal columnist and destroyer of right-wing Texas politicians’ hopes and dreams. Several years ago, Turner played the lead in Berkeley Rep’s production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which she said was slightly difficult because it wasn’t an “impersonation.”
“I’m not pretending to be her in that way,” she says. “To me, I’m creating a character again, but with her words — and her writing is mine. I think that I have a sense of her intentions and her humor and a sense of her personality that I can find in me, and I was very thrilled when I created the piece.
“Oh, I adored her,” Turner continues. “It’s a wonderfully patriotic and no-nonsense show. I mean, she just knew politics inside and out — Texas politics. And any balloon that floated up she was ready to puncture.”
Ann Richards lived in New York while undergoing treatment for the cancer that eventually took her life, and Turner ran into her and Ivins by chance in Turner’s own apartment building.
“They were waiting for the elevator in the lobby when I walked in, and I went, ‘Uh-oh,’ and it just went on from there,” Turner says, declining to reveal what happened next. (It’s in the show.)
Her fearlessness in approaching strangers has yielded positive results at other moments, too. As it turns out, the story that she once told Lauren Bacall that “I’m the young you” is false — sort of.
“It was the other way around,” Turner says. “We were at a restaurant after the theater, and I saw her — and I’m quite willing to go introduce myself to people I want to meet. I don’t play those games of who’s-going-to-notice-who-crap. I went over and said, ‘Ms. Bacall, I’d like to meet you. My name’s Kathleen Turner.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you’re the young me.’ And I said ‘No, there is no Lauren Bacall but you.’ ”
They became friendly, and whenever the two famously husky-voiced women saw one other, they’d engage in a game of “how low can you go.”
“I’d go, ‘Good evening, Ms. Bacall,’ ” Turner says, her voice falling by a full tone with each bit of remembered dialogue. “‘Good evening, Ms. Turner.’ ‘How are you this evening?’ ‘Very well, thank you.’ And I’d say, ‘I’m very glad to hear that.’ ”
Having starred in films like Romancing the Stone and The Virgin Suicides — along with playing the homicidal Beverly Sutphin in John Waters’ Serial Mom — and been in stage productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Turner’s favorite role remains that of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It’s not because Martha is such an unhinged beast; it’s because Turner was in a production where “everything came together as I dreamed it would.” Her most famous onstage moment, however, might be baring all as Mrs. Robinson in a U.K. production of The Graduate. It sold out, but Turner initially refused to bring the show back to the U.S.
“I said, ‘Americans are so screwed up about sex, and it’s absolutely ridiculous,’ ” she told the London producers at the time. “And I don’t need any of this shit.”
But a production note appended to her next role, Tallulah Bankhead in Tallulah, stuck in her craw.
“I get a script from Hollywood that describes this character as ‘37, but still attractive,’ and it pissed me off so bad I called the English producer and said, ‘Fine, we’ll go to Broadway.’ I was 48, and don’t fucking tell me I’m no longer attractive! How dare these assholes — excuse my language.”
Life resumed back in New York, where Turner was on the subway platform when a conductor yelled out her name as his train passed.
“I say, ‘Yeah, hi!’ And I get into the second car and nothing happens. The train’s not moving. The guy’s coming to meet me. The driver left his cabin and he’s coming back through the train: ‘Hi, I’ve always wanted to meet you, I love your work.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, thank you’ — and I get daggers from the people around me — ‘But I really think we should get going now.’ That was a first.”
In other words, she might not be 37, but she’s stopping traffic.
“Yeah,” she says, “I’m stopping trains, baby!”
Kathleen Turner: Finding My Voice, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20-21, 8 p.m., at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. $42-$80; 415-394-1100 or feinsteinsatthenikko.com