WHENTHE HEAT IS ON

Kathleen Turner is a Hollywood siren, a woman most men only dream of meeting. Michael Bywater was one of them, until she turned up playing Tallulah Bankhead in Chichester ...

1 THE SEX THING

We should get the sex thing out of the way first. One of the sex things, anyway; if you sit in a room with Kathleen Turner for an hour, almost everything becomes a sex thing. I mean, did you see her in Body Heat? Did you see War of the Roses? The bit in the attic? Well then. So: the sex thing. This was my briefing: "Ask her about the sex thing. You know, where she said she could walk into a room and know that the only men who didn't want her, there and then, were gay." So I did.

ME: What about the sex thing?

HER: It's misquoted. It's always misquoted. Originally someone asked me what makes someone sexy and someone not, and I said it's how you feel about yourself. And the quote that they chose to edit was: on a night when I feel really good about myself, when I walk into a room, and a man doesn't look at me, he's probably gay. But the point was: on a night when I feel really good about myself. I was not saying, when I walk into a room, if a man doesn't look at me he's gay. No! [She laughs]

2 MISS TURNER'S LAUGH

Miss Turner's laugh is another sex thing. Full-throated, mischievous, tough, challenging, Rabelaisian. You just know that a woman who laughs like that would be ... look, I am sorry. I am an immature and disorganised man, deeply susceptible to strong, intelligent women with cigarette voices and full-throated, Rabelaisian laughs, particularly when they sit there in a comfy old butter-yellow tracksuit with their hair any-old-how, damn- all in the way of make-up, and they are 42 years old now and the body is not quite what it was but somehow better for that, and those eyes, not to mention the sweetest mouth outside the Gale's honey-works, and those eyes and the laugh and the ... everything. All right? You want journalistic detachment? You want blase and cynical? Go read the tabloids. You want drooling, priapic adoration? Stick around.

3 THE PART

Miss Turner is doing a one-woman show at Chichester, playing Tallulah Bankhead.

HER: Why would I choose to come here? Why wouldn't I? There are excellent production values here, excellent work to be done.

She speaks of Tallulah as though she were still alive.

HER: Tallulah says in the Twenties, "Daddy warned me about men but he never said anything about women." And bang, it was all over town: she's a lesbian. She says there was a whole divine period when she adored women. I think she is intensely sexual but clearly incapable of any relationship. Let me tell you, I went through a period when I was working on the character when I just got incredibly fed-up with her. I started thinking "Oh, grow up, woman, willya?" But now I'm back to liking her again.

4 DRUG PROBLEMS AND ACTING

HER: Cocaine was big in the 1920s. They used to put it in Coca Cola. Do you suppose they put all the caffeine in when they took the cocaine out? D'ya think? Even so, her behaviour was outrageous ...

ME: Could she act, though? Would you call Tallulah a great actor?

HER: I think she was committed to acting, but I don't think she was that great. She herself said so. She says she didn't have that thing on stage ... just couldn't get it. But she said she had it when she played Regina in Little Foxes. She said then that she held the audience every moment she was on stage.

5 WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED, LOVE?

Miss Turner has that thing. There are fine actors who just don't have it. There are people - big, bankable movie names - who have it, but who just can't act. Miss Turner can act and also has that thing. We try to talk about what it might be, but get mired very quickly. She talks about "something to do with communication". I wave my arms around. We stare at each other, and give up.

ME: Okay, we don't know what the thing is, but do your know when you've got it?

HER: You know it. Oh yeah, you do know it. There was an exercise in college where this acting teacher I had put a whole bunch of us on stage and said, "Go on, take the stage", and all these people were fighting for downstage right, you know? And I sort of went a little off-centre in the middle of the stage and sat down on the ground and [drops her voice to a murmur] I just started to stare at my hands ...

(She does so, there and then. Kathleen Turner! Acting! Just for me! I want to get up, go over to her, find out what's on her mind, probably cover her upturned face with burning kisses but that would be unprofessional and Miss Turner Has A Husband.)

ME: And the others lurching around like the photograph in The Art of Coarse Acting. You know, where all these moronic extras are standing around woodenly except for one, who is just a gibbering, thrashing, grimacing blur. And the caption says: The Man on the Left has Read This Book.

HER: I know it! I love that book! I love it! That wonderful story where they're having that card game in this show and they all wrote their lines on the cards... and then somebody shuffled the deck. And they're all, "Oh no, this is yours." "No, that's Henry's".

6 BACK TO TALLULAH

ME: Going back to Tallulah: could you get away with that now? I mean, with Hollywood's very weird moral code?

HER: In Hollywood ... no, that would not be acceptable.

ME: They're always underestimating the tolerance of the public.

HER: They're always underestimating the public, period. She was one of the victims of the Hays office, and the ... you know, there's a little table right there you can pull up if you feel like it, then you won't have to do all this bending around and all this stuff.

7 THE LITTLE TABLE

I am the representative of you, the reader. And I am letting you down. There was a thunderstorm on the way to the theatre.

ME: Hello, Miss Turner, I'm Michael B-

HER: My God, look at you. [She laughs.] You're drenched. And your suit: it's all out of shape. What you want is cotton, like me. It's ... oh you poor baby. Look at your shoes and all.

ME: I made an effort.

HER: To look smart for the movie star, yeah? And then it rained. Hahahaha! Poor thing. Have a cup of tea.

HER (later): You know, I've never seen anyone open sugar that way ... horizontally. Do you always do that? Hmm?

ME: No. I've never done it before. I think I'm over-excited.

HER: It's a character thing ... I tellya, I was walking along the street in New York and I saw a woman open her powder compact and ... [mimes opening compact, silently mouths, "I love you" to imaginary little mirror, makes kissing gesture]. I thought, "Ha! That's going to come up! I'm going to use that!"

HER (later): Oh, look, you just got ash all down your nice shirt. Honest to God, you are the messiest ...

ME: It's your fault (standing up to brush off ash). I'm turning into a disgusting hack, the sort who ...

HER: Watch it, or you'll tread on your pen.

ME (later): What's that noise? What's going on?

HER: It's a dumpster. Collecting the trash. It's OK. I'll shut the window.

8 MISS TURNER IS A STAR

Miss Turner can behave like this because she is a star. Someone who wasn't - someone who was just famous - wouldn't shut the window. They would have an entourage to shut the window. But Miss Turner is a star, and thus has no need of bullshit. There are precious few around.

ME: Are you aware of being a movie star? I mean, in the old sense? Not one of these people who does a couple of films and is suddenly famous, but you think: Hmmm ...

HER: ... Let's wait until the next film ...

ME: ... And in the meantime, pay off the mortgage ...

HER: ...Now! Don't wait!

ME: Exactly.

HER: No. I'm not really aware of it, not on a daily ... but I must say, I'm in a nice place ... I like where I am. I certainly have a bit of notoriety and the name left over from the sensationalism of the 1980s to carry me on. The recognition factor or whatever the hell phrase the market and research department uses [she laughs]. But on the other hand, it comes along with a respect for the body of work, you know? It's a nice balance. Okay, so maybe I'll become a highly respected museum piece.

ME: You'll get one of those terrible Lifetime ...

HER: ... Achievement Awards. Yik. A few years ago I was changing agents ... watcha looking for? Your Zippo? You know, it was right there, you had it. And then it fell down ... And you picked it up ...

ME: Here it is. Down the back of the sofa.

HER: I was meeting all these different agents and this one rather famous agency just kept going on and on and on how they would "preserve my position in the industry". I thought, what you going to do? Stuff me? What is this, you're going to "preserve my position"? It sounds like formaldehyde. No. I did not go with them. [She laughs.]

9 HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED

HER: Nobody talks about the story, nobody talks about a risk ... That's what we talked about, that's what we did. I mean, I don't want to sound like I'm Grandma Moses here but, feeeugh. It's all about the money. It's all about how long you hold it, the interest you get on it, how much you get foreign, yeuch. That's whether or not a film is made, not whether or not the script is good.

ME: What about the new computer technologies? I mean, they'll digitize you and you'll be able to go on acting after you're dead. Immortality!

HER: There is a kind of immortality to it anyway. I never realised that until the first time I saw Body Heat and thought, "Oh God, there's this record", and I was 26. And there'd always be this record, walking, talking, moving ...

(Long silence)

ME: Sorry. I was thinking about Body Heat.

10 THE SEX THING AGAIN

ME: You know what you were saying about the sex thing?

HER: Yeah.

ME: I mean, any intelligent, personable woman, on a good night, can go into a room and know that she could have, say, eight of of 10 of the men in the room.

HER: Yeah! Yeah! YEAH!

ME: Whereas for a man ... if it's a really good night, and he's really lucky ...

HER: ... He might get one. [She laughs. She laughs again.] I wouldn't trade. Woman have a power of choice. Yes. Hahahahah! Tough. Live with it. We're not giving it back.

11 MISS TURNER HAS A HUSBAND

Miss Turner has a husband.

`Tallulah!': Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312), to 12 Jul.

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