There’s not, and never really has been, anything girlish about Kathleen Turner. With that famous truck driver’s baritone and her hearty, unapologetic build, she’s always been more of a dame. Today, in her dressing room at the Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Turner honks and snorts and spits her way through an interview. ”Allergies!” she roars, shoving a bottle of saline spray up her pink nostrils. ”Will it kill ya?” she asks, unwrapping a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights. She inhales luxuriously and bits of ash drift down and settle on her impressive bosom.
Turner first barreled into public consciousness in 1981, playing a sexy beast in Body Heat, and later a leggy romance novelist in the smash hits Romancing the Stone and its sequel, Jewel of the Nile. Reduced to weak movies in the ’90s, she would gamely poke fun at herself in a guest-starring role as Chandler’s drag-queen father on Friends. In her last Broadway outing, she played Mrs. Robinson in a poorly regarded 2002 stage adaptation of The Graduate. But she has no complaints about her rogue wave of a career. ”Honey, ha!” she says, clapping her hands and barking with laughter. ”I would have been gone long ago if I couldn’t take it. I would not be here now!” And now she has a Tony nomination for her wrenching portrayal of boozy, broken Martha, a monster role which Uta Hagen originated in 1962 and for which Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar in the 1966 film.
”’Dear Kathleen, You make me happy to be a playwright. Love, Edward.’ Isn’t that grand?” she purrs, pointing to a note taped to her mirror from Edward Albee, Woolf’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. ”I’m framing that sucker, I’ll tell you!” There are glasses of water and Coca-Cola to drink with the roast beef sandwich on its way, orchids from her husband of 20 years, Jay, and a picture of her 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, on the makeup table. Turner waves at her brilliant bouquet of yellow roses. ”Those are from me,” she says, ”because I think I should always have roses.”
The 50-year-old actress takes off her socks and sneakers, revealing a pair of battered feet, gnarled toes all taped together. ”The big toes work!” she says, waving them at her guest. ”But the others have all been eaten.” Turner suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that ravages a person’s joints. ”Dee-duh-dee!” she trumpets, yanking up a black sweatpant leg to reveal a thick 12-inch scar that runs along her new right kneecap. Warned that her knee would soon give out, Turner underwent replacement surgery last fall in preparation for her Broadway run.
After Turner took her final bows in The Graduate, she marched herself off to rehab. ”I was drinking too much,” she says matter-of-factly. ”I never lost any of my life, but I thought it was a real possibility…. Just to drink for the sake of drinking is what I had to stop. Drinking to get drunk, nah, that’s too easy.” Now, in eight shows a week, she plays a wreck of an alcoholic. ”You’d think that having alcohol be such a huge part of my daily life would make drinking more attractive to me,” she laughs. ”But it doesn’t. I find it rather repellent. Martha’s behavior is appalling. Thank goodness that I’m not.” ”I think Kathleen learned that most important lesson for an actor,” praises Albee. ”If you want to play drunk, you better be sober.”