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Kathleen Turner at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 2012. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)
Kathleen Turner at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 2012. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)

Johanna Schneller: Fame Game

Kathleen Turner: A bold broad's second chance Add to ...

Kathleen Turner’s relationship with a bag of peanut M&M’s is a pleasure to behold. It’s 3 p.m., we’re sitting on a sofa in the basement of a Toronto theatre, and she’s mid-press blitzkrieg for her play High, about a tart-tongued nun who counsels a gay, 19-year-old meth-addicted hustler. It begins a one-week run at the Royal Alexandra on Tuesday (May 8).

“I need some chocolate!” Turner booms. Back in her hotcha days, in eighties films such as Body Heat and Romancing the Stone, her voice was a sultry purr; now everything she says sounds like it’s being announced over a scratchy loudspeaker. She tears open the yellow packet, digs out a handful of candy, pops some in her mouth and proffers the rest to me, all while chatting away in a style I can only describe as Classic Broad: frank, funny, occasionally bawdy. Frequently, she tosses her head back and emits a laugh like a cannon blast – “HA!” She also swats me on the knee, and at one point, commands a high-five.

This is a woman who enjoys herself, and that includes the M&M’s. Most actresses would apologize for them (“I really shouldn’t”), or make a show of them (“Watch me eat like a normal person!”). With Turner, it’s simple – she wants ’em, she eats ’em. HA!

Conversationally, she’s one of those people who launches into the middle and figures you’ll catch up. At 57, she’s been famous for so long, she just expects you to know what she’s been doing. She’s as forthright about her life’s ups (including two Tony nominations and three Golden Globe wins) as its downs: her 2007 divorce from her husband of 23 years, the real-estate entrepreneur Jay Weiss. Her public battles with the Hollywood establishment (they called her a diva, she called them sexist). Her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, the alcohol problem it led to, and the rehab that helped.

And the arthritis medication that changed her voice and body from Jessica Rabbit (the curvy cartoon she voiced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to the more formidable figure she presents today, clad in black pants and turtleneck, her long blond hair pulled back with combs.

High is a gamble for Turner: It flopped dramatically last year on Broadway, closing after a mere 28 previews and eight regular performances. “I got blindsided on that sucker,” she admits. “Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. When it closed, I stayed in bed for a week.” She thought the play and her character, whose checkered past comes to light, deserved a second shot. So she took it on the road, hitting Boston, Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco and Minneapolis before arriving in Toronto.

“With any type of performing, if people don’t want it, they don’t want you,” Turner says. “There’s really no protection from that. It hurts.” I ask when she learned to get over that. “Never!” she cries. “Never, are you kidding? Because you pour everything into it. It’s almost incomprehensible if somebody doesn’t like it. It’s not a part-time job.”

Reviews from the road have largely been better, and when they’re not, Turner has other projects to divert her: Her one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, about the colourful, Texas-based political columnist who died in 2007, played in Los Angeles for two months, and is scheduled to open in D.C. in September. “I vowed that I was going to get it to Washington before the election,” Turner says, smacking her hands together in satisfaction. “It’s 80 minutes of me, baby. You know how many words there are in 80 minutes?” She’s keen to communicate Ivins’s “belief in the responsibility of your job as a citizen. She says, ‘Do not throw away our legacy out of cynicism or neglect or boredom.’ I feel so strongly about this sort of thing.”

In June, Turner will star in the independent film The Perfect Family. She plays a devoted churchgoer, nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year, who tries to berate her flawed family into living a lie. “Nobody, to my mind, has the right to decide what’s best for someone else’s life,” Turner says. “But trying to do that is so prevalent these days, how could I not want to play her?”

A long-time chairperson for Planned Parenthood, Turner is alarmed by current attempts by U.S. Republicans to curtail reproductive rights. “Women have got to realize that we are significantly, physically at threat,” she says. “When I talk to [the Right] I always stress that we have common ground – we don’t want abortions, either. We want the right to make the choice, of course. But let us into high schools to educate, let us provide contraception to those who ask. Then we both win.” Her eyes light up as she recounts a recent visit to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Los Angeles, where a doctor told her that, though there are protesters outside on the days they offer abortions, there aren’t any on the days they offer vasectomies. “I thought, ‘I should organize that – stop those men!” Turner says. “Would they sit still for that? Unh-uh! HA!”

Over all, Turner is happy. She’s thrilled that her singer-songwriter daughter, Rachel Weiss, has just released her first album. She’s proud that her own work calendar is booked for the next two years. “Pretty swell for a nearly 58-year-old actress,” she says. “I’m giving myself a little more credit for my accomplishments. I don’t feel that I have to prove a lot of stuff. If I haven’t done enough this far, the hell with you.”

If she no longer conforms to conventional male expectations, Turner’s fine with that, too. “I’ve never been that interested in what men thought of me,” she says. “For one thing, I was married for 23 years, and I believed in marriage, so it didn’t really matter if men were attracted to me or not, because it was not a possibility.” But, she confesses, “I’d like a little romance back. The divorce was long enough ago that I’m getting itchy again. HA! But I’m not sure how to go about it. I have this crazy friend who wants me to go online using a false name and picture. I said, ‘What good will that do? He still has to meet me!’ Ha-HA!”

There’s one trait Turner values most: “My endurance,” she says. “I keep a card in my dressing-room makeup kit. It says, ‘You are stronger than you imagine, braver than you know and more cared for than words can say.’ I like that. Because of the doubt that always comes, the ‘Can I get through this one?’ Now I have a lot more trust in myself: I got through it before, I’ll get through it again. And I’ll do it well. I have been tried and tested, and I have passed.”

Kathleen Turner discusses her career at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, May 7 at 8 p.m.

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