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INTERVIEW: Kathleen Turner Embraces The Perfect Family

The acclaimed actress talks about her new film about a frustrated Catholic woman and her renewed commitment to the stage.

Kathleen Turner
(© Tristan Fuge)
Kathleen Turner knows how to keep busy. Over the past two years, she's performed frequently in two major plays: Matthew Lombardo's High, in which she plays a tough-talking nun, which was seen on Broadway, in numerous regional theaters, and now hits Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, May 8-13; and the solo show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which will play Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage Theatre, August 23-October 28, having already wowed audiences in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Beginning on May 4, however, Turner is back on the big screen in The Perfect Family. The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, features the Oscar-nominated actress as Eileen Cleary, a suburban matriarch out to win the title of "Catholic Mother of the Year."

"That presents a real challenge for her since her daughter (Emily Deschanel) is a lesbian, her son (Jason Ritter) wants a divorce, and her husband (Michael McGrady) is an alcoholic," Turner explains. "It's funny that two of my three current projects should involve my playing a Catholic because I'm not a Catholic myself. In fact, I don't personally subscribe to any orthodoxy that says this is the only way."

On the surface, Eileen might sound like Beverly, the character she played to great acclaim in John Waters' 1994 comedy Serial Mom, but Turner points out the two women -- and the two movies -- are very different. "It's essential to note that in the last analysis, The Perfect Family is about what makes a family and how this family comes through for each other," she says. "Beverly went to great lengths, including murder to protect her family, while Eileen's a good, truly compassionate woman who lives by a rigid code, surrounded by people she loves but doesn't understand."

To play Eileen, Turner relied on something she learned while working with the legendary film director John Huston on the Oscar-winning film Prizzi's Honor. "It was actually something he wrote in a note he gave to Jack Nicholson: 'Here's a challenge for you, Jack -- just for once, don't wink at the audience.' I find that idea helps me play characters like Eileen, because it's all too easy to comment on someone like her and I mustn't," she says.

Kathleen Turner in High
(© Joan Marcus)
To play the recovering alcoholic Sister Jamison Connelly in High, Turner has relied on more personal experience. In her candid 2008 auto-biography Send Yourself Roses, she described how she self-medicated with alcohol after being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The disease changed her looks for awhile, but thanks to medical advances, exercise and diet, she is not only in remission, but looking and feeling much better. "Still, it's something I will always have and will always have to deal with," she admits.

While Turner isn't turning her back on her film career, the stage is where she is concentrating her energies right now. "I hit New York in the 1970s wanting only to do work on stage, and my main focus now is theater and developing new works," she says. I truly believe that we have to take plays out of New York to help develop new audiences for theater. I love the kind of theater that's being done in places like Seattle, Chicago, and Cincinnati."

Moreover, Turner would like to spend time both on the stage -- and in the wings. She directed Crimes of the Heart for the Williamstown Theatre Festival -- and later at the Roundabout Theatre in New York -- and is anxious to give that another go.

"I want to do some more directing. In fact, I am in negotiations at the moment to direct myself in a new work that will also start out of town, if all goes well," she enthuses. Then, Turner grins and adds: "Don't think that's not a bit daunting."