No man dares date me!
KATHLEEN TURNER ON HOW SHE STILL INTIMIDATES MEN – AND HER BATTLE WITH CRIPPLING ARTHRITIS
Kathleen Turner’s voice is unmistakable. A gravelly purr. A cigarette-soaked rasp. You hear her before you see her. And then the rest of her appears in a black asymmetric top, black trousers, black plimsolls and trademark leonine hair. Almost 15 years ago I met her backstage when she was appearing in The Graduate in London. She was in her underwear, totally comfortable in her own body, having just been seen by the entire theatre nude as the middle-aged seductress Mrs Robinson. Now, 33 years since she first smouldered naked as a conniving siren who wants her husband bumped off in Body Heat, the woman who Romanced The Stone with Michael Douglas in 1984, then divorced him with passion in The War Of The Roses in 1989, still exudes charisma and confidence in her physicality.
But in 1992 she gave up a stellar movie career when she was diagnosed with a form of crippling arthritis and told by one doctor she may never walk again. She changed doctors, and though it became impossible for her to even wear heels – a tragedy for a woman who always wanted to do her own stunts – she reinvented herself in her forties as a stage actor, winning spectacular acclaim for her performances in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway and The Graduate in London.
When the ravaging effects of rheumatoid ar thr itis – a chronic inf lammatory disorder that affects the joints – and the drugs used to control it caused her to bloat and gain weight, her looks were the last thing on her mind. All she was concerned about was surviving. People were cruel and she was accused of being a drunk. At the time she wasn’t, but she admitted she later found that vodka numbed the pain. She said in her autobiography in 2008 that she started using alcohol as pain relief because the drugs were messing up her mind, but it spiralled out of control and she became ‘a nasty drunk’. After passing out while in rehearsals for The Graduate in New York in 2002 she finally confronted her problems, finished the show’s run and then sent herself to rehab.
‘Men don’t dare ask me to date them. It’s sad’
The first symptom of the arthritis was swelling feet. She had to wear her husband’s trainers because they were the only things that fitted her. When she went to the doctor he accused her of being vain and said there was nothing that could be done about it. But that wasn’t the Turner way. ‘I do Pilates twice a week. I do yoga twice a week and I walk as much as I can stand,’ she says. ‘I’m a master of balance. My yoga teacher can’t believe it. I have no toes.’ Rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints so badly that fingers and toes can be rendered totally useless. ‘On my right foot only the big toe works. On the other the joints don’t work, they’re just kind of floppy. Gross isn’t it?’
She can still balance on one leg, she says, and she’s learned how to walk by redistributing weight in her foot. ‘Whatever it takes I’ll do it. I don’t think there’s any amazing virtue to it. I want to keep acting and I want to keep on being an activist. It’s a big part of who I am. I speak about things that are important to me.
‘About two years ago I had another bad flare-up and ended up in hospital again. They give you the drug Prednisone immediately to slam it down. I hate what it does to my mind [depression is a common side effect of the drug]. I hate what it does to my body too. You don’t sleep well. It makes you feel jagged all the time, but sometimes it’s the only thing that works. It ultimately damages bone and muscle tissue so you only use it when you have to. Like everything, it’s a balance.
‘There’s no cure for rheumatoid arthritis and I didn’t think I’d even get to this point. When it blows up my hands don’t work very well. If somebody hands me a glass I’ll drop it. There’s nothing I can do about it. At the time I was diagnosed in the 90s nobody knew much about these auto-immune diseases. People hire drunks in this business, but they don’t hire people with diseases they don’t understand. Time has changed some of that. There are better drugs now, but they lower your immune system.’
Today, sitting in the restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel, we order iced tea and tacos and eat heartily. ‘I have to avoid grain and eat a lot of protein. I can have corn though,’ she says, gesturing to the tacos. ‘But I don’t eat wheat or rye because they support inflammation, or dairy because it does the same. I cook with turmeric and onions because they’re naturally anti-inflammatory. Luckily I love onions. You’re prone to a flare-up if you’re under stress so I have to be careful.’
She was married to property developer Jay Weiss for 20 years, which is long by Hollywood standards, and they have a daughter Rachel Ann who’s now 27. He was devoted to Kathleen when she became ill. ‘We’re still friends and he’s in a nice relationship with a woman I like. He brings her to my shows. But we don’t see each other as double-dating material. That would be weird.’
Why did they break up? ‘We had different ideas of how our life was going. Rachel was leaving home.’ It seems she was the glue that held them together. ‘In a way, yes. I was looking ahead and thinking of a time when I’d be free of responsibilities. I wanted my life to get larger in terms of the world and travel, and he was going the other way. He wanted to hunker down. But he was wonderful when I was sick, really great.’
She’s been single since they divorced in 2007, though not by choice. Men seem to think she’s formidable. ‘They don’t dare ask me to date them,’ she agrees. ‘I’m not invited to date very often at all. Maybe men just don’t consider I’m available
or something. Or don’t think of me as possible dating material. It’s sad. I’m good company.’ Perhaps they’re put off by her confidence and her desire never to show vulnerability? Could it also be that perhaps some part of her is just not open to it? She nods. ‘Rachel said that. I’d hate her to be right.’
Kathleen’s known for one-liners that put men down in the movies she’s done: ‘You’re not too smart, are you. I like that in a man,’ she told William Hurt in Body Heat. ‘Well, I think they should get over that reputation. I’d like a man and I’d like him to be smart and funny. I like the company of men. My mother never married again or had any kind of relationship after my father died. I remember her saying to me, “It’s so nice to be around the smell of men.” Just little things like that. The smell of a man. You realise you’ve missed that.’
Given her recent success on the stage, it’s rather surprising to see her turn up in film again in Dumb And Dumber To, the sequel to the Farrelly Brothers’ ground-breaking 1994 com- edy starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. When she heard the script required ‘an understated Kathleen Turner’ she let it be known that the actual Kathleen Turner may be available. She lets out a booming laugh. Her character Fraida is catnip to men, and even has sex in a broom cupboard. ‘Fraida is a titanic whore and I suppose they thought I wouldn’t want to do it, that I’d be insulted. I think they thought I’d be upset when in the script Jim and Jeff meet this woman and she says, “I’m Fraida”, and they say, “No. Fraida’s hot. Fraida’s smoking. That’s not you.” But I felt quite the opposite, thank goodness. This is where I can say, “Do you know what? I don’t look like I did 30 years ago. Get over it.”’
Of course no one looks the same as they did 30 years ago, but there are so many Hollywood former A-listers whose careers have been based on how they look and who are still trying to keep it up. Not Kathleen Turner. It seems almost a relief to her that she doesn’t have to work at being a pin-up any more and can take on roles she really wants. ‘I think I surprised the Farrelly brothers by saying I’d do the movie,’ she says. ‘I like their humour. None of it’s based on meanness. The current trend in TV shows is all about laughing at someone’s humiliation and I don’t like that, but there’s none of that in the film. This humour is kind of sweet. It wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing but if I haven’t done something before I’ll probably try it, as long as we’re not talking drugs or anything like that. I wore slippers and there were no shots of my feet. The cinematographer was very sweet. He’d say “Feet?” I’d say “No” and he’d reframe the shot.’
She’s never tried to change herself to appeal. She’s never had Botox or nipped and tucked. ‘No one is sexy if they don’t like themselves. I don’t care how they look. When high definition photography came out on film everybody thought they looked fat and the Botox craze started. It’s destructive. You see a perfectly good actor who suddenly can’t move their forehead or their eyebrows.’
Kathleen has never been interested in diets either. A producer once sent her a box of diet food when she was about to take the part of high school student Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986, for which she was Oscar-nominated. ‘I taped the box up and sent it back to his office. It contained diet salad dressing, diet potato chips. I thought, “What the hell is this?” It was male chauvinist c***, that’s what it was. I like to enjoy life. I like food, I like wine. I don’t want to spend 15 hours of my day wondering how I look. For some people, men and women, that’s their primary focus and that’s so boring,’
She didn’t tell anyone she was sick with the arthritis for a very long time. ‘I fear being vulnerable in people’s eyes. I’ve trained myself so that now when somebody says, “I’m going to help you”, I say “Yes” and make myself think of what they can do. My automatic response in the past was “No”. In my family if you needed help it meant you were a failure. My dad was pretty tough.’
Kathleen grew up in Cuba, Venezuela and London. Her father was an American diplomat and the family travelled in interesting circles. When he died of thrombosis just before she turned 18 it shocked the family. He knew he was sick but he hadn’t told anyone. She nods gravely. ‘Well, I’m not going to die,’ she says. Her mother is 91 now. ‘All the women in my family have lived long lives. My grandmother was 100 when she died. I’ve learnt so much from my mother. She’s so gracious. And from my dad I learnt discipline and a sense of responsibility. I turn up on time and I take on everything.’
Her daughter is a musician and they’re extremely close. ‘Her voice is extraordinary. I tell people I’m her mother but I’m not a stage mother. In some ways we’re similar. She’s outgoing, can be quite charming and very smart. On stage she makes sure her guitar is in tune and then looks up and takes a breath and sighs, “I’m on stage, I’m home.” That’s when I think, “Yes all right, that’s my daughter.”’
Does she feel happy at 60? ‘I’m very happy at the moment. I love my relationship with my daughter. I adore her and she adores me. That’s top of my list. I’m happy with the friendships that I know will continue to support me. I’m happy that I’m 60 and have so many choices in work.’ She thinks she has more choices now than she had at 50. ‘I do. I do. I’m edging now into that territory where a lot of us have been winnowed out. The competition’s getting smaller,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe there’ll be more movies because they can be a lot of fun. And I could still do my stage work too, so it’s a nice balance. I could never see myself committing to a TV series for years on end, but I like to pop in and do little characters. The younger generation knows me as Chandler’s dad in Friends.’
She also has a black cat, Simon, a very well- travelled feline who goes with her – East Coast, West Coast, London – wherever she is. Is he black to match her clothes? She laughs. ‘No, although I found him at the ASPCA [the American ISPCA] and I was wearing all black. They had five cats to show me. Simon was first and he came and sat on my shoulder straight away. Someone who worked there said he identified with me because I was all in black, so I said, “If I wear colour is he going to run away?”’ He didn’t, and she laughs that big booming laugh again.
Dumb And Dumber To is in cinemas on 19 December
Kathleen in 1981 and (inset) last year