Film star Kathleen Turner is no stranger to the British stage, having twice appeared out of town at the Chichester Festival Theatre (in the solo play Tallulah and Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters) and also twice in the West End (in The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Turner is back on the London boards this summer appearing opposite Tony winner Ian McDiarmid at the Duchess Theatre in American dramatist Stephen Sachs’ two-hander, Bakersfield Mist. The play, inspired by real events, casts the inimitably throaty Turner as a California ex-bartender who may or may not own a Jackson Pollock painting worth millions. Broadway.com caught up with the two-time Tony nominee to talk about her love of theater, her personal history with London, the value of art and more.
This is your fifth show in Britain, which might be close to a record for an American actor, particularly one of your standing.
Well, don’t forget that I went to the American School here, so I lived in London between 1968 and 1972. This is where the dream [of being an actor] started. This is where I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve also always liked the fact that acting is regarded as a real career in England, so it feels very satisfying to be working in a place where theater is so much more respected.
Do you find the audiences different?
Not that much, though what I would say is that British audiences are better trained because they go to the theater more instead of it just being an occasion or an event. As a result, I think perhaps they understand better how to conduct themselves in a theater. You’re not going to find someone in the front row eating a hamburger [laughs].
Your current play starts with an intriguing premise: a woman of no particular breeding or education who comes into possession of a painting that may well be an original Jackson Pollock.
Yes, [the character of] Maude Gutman is what we call in America “trailer trash,” though what’s particularly nice about Stephen’s play is that she turns out to be much more complex than you might at first think. I like the idea that you start the play going, “I know who these people are,” only to find that you are deconstructing them throughout the evening.
I like the fact that the painting itself—which Ian McDiarmid’s art-expert character has come to Maude’s Bakersfield trailer home to authenticate—is never actually shown to the audience.
So do I, and to my mind it was never a question of seeing the painting. That would have destroyed any possibility of believing it could be a Pollock because you’re never going to have an actual Jackson Pollock left on stage, so you would immediately go, “That’s not real.” It’s far better to let the audience decide for themselves.
Is the painting that we can’t see an actual facsimile of the Pollock painting “Lavender Mist” that lends the play its title?
It’s a darker version but in the Pollock style.
Are you knowledgeable about art yourself?
I’m not a connoisseur, but I do have paintings that I absolutely love and am happy to have in my life, a couple of which might be considered valuable. But I don’t buy paintings as an investment; I buy them because I want to live with them.
There’s also the nice suggestion within the play that perhaps the value of art isn’t just about the price tag.
Absolutely, and I think so much of the value of art depends on what the owner values. If you value money, then a very valuable painting will be of value to you for that reason, but if you just value the colors or shapes of a painting, then it doesn’t really matter what the price tag is.
You’ve done several one-woman shows over time, but this is your first two-hander. What is that like?
In a way it’s more difficult [than a solo play] because that relationship with the other performer is so crucial, but fortunately Ian and I come from very much the same school and so the priority for both of us every night is to listen—really listen—to one another. It’s about being really present.
Did you have casting approval over Ian?
I certainly could have said no if it had been an actor I didn’t want to work with, but I don’t think I would ever do that without trying to work together. Luckily, that discussion never came up since Ian and I clicked from the start.
This is quite the year for you and theater. You did Mother Courage at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. this past winter and in the fall you will head to Berkeley Rep to reprise your solo performance in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. That’s three different shows in three different cities!
I love the theater more than ever. Sure, I would love to have some more time at home in New York. If and when I pick up another Broadway show, that would be lovely, but you just don’t get that much work all the time in one place. It's important to remember that theater in America is happening nationally and not just in New York.
You spoke a while back of wanting to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by the time you were 50, which indeed happened. Now that you are 60, do you have other roles on your theatrical wish-list?
I’m toying with the idea of King Lear, but unlike some women who have played Lear and have made his three daughters into sons, it’s more interesting to me to keep them as daughters. The relationship between mothers and daughters is much more interesting to me and much less explored than the relationship between mothers and sons.
What about your film work?
I still do things—I’m in Dumb and Dumber To, for instance! But I always knew that as I grew older there would be less and less film work for me. For that reason, I never stopped doing stage so as to keep my hand in and my confidence up. It’s amazing how many film actors I come across who may have done theater years and years ago and tell me that they’re now too frightened to go back to the stage.
As a longtime denizen of Broadway, you must have known Elaine Stritch, who died last week.
I loved her! She was somewhat of a friend, and we would run into each other. She asked me to come to the closing show of A Little Night Music because she said that was going to be her last run. That was awfully nice.
Do you share the commonly voiced opinion that she was the last of a breed?
Oh, I don’t know. Give me a few years!