By necessity and with a little pluck, Kathleen Turner has happened upon a new career phase.
The husky-voiced screen and stage icon, best known for playing the femme fatale in the 1981 film "Body Heat" and for starring in a string of 1980s box-office hits, still gets the occasional big-screen role. Her new feature, "The Perfect Family," is set to open this spring with co-star Richard Chamberlain. But Turner, 57, whose rheumatoid arthritis is in remission, is not waiting for invitations from Hollywood. She has been helping to shape new plays with parts that suit her talent.
This past January, Turner played a firebrand columnist and pundit in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. She helped shape that script, which was adapted from Ivins' editorial columns.
This spring she has been on tour with "High," an autobiographical drug-memoir play by Matthew Lombardo that previews Wednesday and opens Thursday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.
She originated the role of foul-mouthed drug counselor Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun who tries to help a young man stay sober even as she battles her own demons.
"I find it all exciting and fascinating," Turner said recently from her New York apartment. "I like helping to create new work, as opposed to, say, having [Edward] Albee hand me a new script and say, 'Don't change a damn word.'" (Turner played Martha in Albee's classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in a 2005 Broadway revival.)
For Lombardo, whose Katharine Hepburn-focused "Tea at Five" played the Ordway Center in St. Paul in 2006, Turner was the natural lead for his play. "I was writing this piece for a Kathleen Turner type," the playwright said. "But then I thought, why not go for the genuine article instead of someone like her?"
Character and conflict
When Turner, a double Golden Globe winner ("Romancing the Stone" and "Prizzi's Honor"), first read "High," the role of the nun did not strike an immediate nerve.
"The character and conflict caught my imagination, certainly," she said. "But I did not think it was a workable script. So I got on the phone with Matthew and [director Rob Ruggiero]. We talked through the script and suggested changes. A few months later, I got a rewrite which was closer to what I imagined. So I thought it was time to sit down with them."
Turner said that what excites her about originating a part is the chance to shape it, and to go more deeply into a character than even the playwright could.
"At a certain point in the exploration of a play, the actor becomes more of an expert on the character than the author," she said. "I found myself saying to Matthew, 'This is not a word that she would use. And this rhythm is wrong for her cadence.'"
Now the nun offers a better fit for the actor and is richer in general, Turner added.
"Sister Jamie is an incredibly strong, terribly flawed woman," said Turner. "That lovely, conflicting combination is the essence of what makes her so rich."
That she is playing a nun is somewhat of a surprise for Turner.
"This role is further away from me than most," she said. "I don't understand her religious commitment. I'm not a practicing anything."
She does see a strange connection between Sister Jamison's faith and the addiction she tries to minister to. Both addiction and deep faith involve strong attachments.
"An addict is in this love-hate relationship with his addiction," she said. "I don't believe any addict loves their addiction, but they'll fight to the death to keep it."
Turner said Sister Jamie ranks in her pantheon of stage roles that includes leads in "Virginia Woolf" and Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"Martha was No. 1, and I did love Maggie in 'Cat,'" said Turner. "But I don't do anything I don't love. You can't do it day after day without the passion. And Sister's got passion."
After premiering at Hartford (Conn.) Stage in 2010, "High" had pre-Broadway engagements in Cincinnati and St. Louis. But it lasted for just eight performances on Broadway, which Lombardo, also a producer of the tour, said was ironic.
"We had the shortest run of all of those shows at the time -- 'Good People,' 'Jerusalem,' 'The Motherf**ker With the Hat,'" he said. "And a Tony nomination was not in the cards for us. But we're out here on the road doing great. There's a Spanish production in Venezuela. We're mulling a three-month tour of Australia. 'High' has had the longest life."