With her iconic wit on full display, Turner dazzles readers with her shrewd insights on the craft of acting and charming anecdotes from her own storied career. Touching on each of her roles, she expounds on the lessons she’s learned and describes her journey of discovery in the world of acting.
An epic and intense one-on-one master class in acting from the best teacher imaginable, Kathleen Turner on Acting is a must for acting and directing students of every age, established actors and directors, filmmakers, theater pros, and artists of every stripe.
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About the Author
Kathleen Turner, acclaimed stage and film actress, graduated from American School in London in 1972 and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 1977. Turner made her film debut in Body Heat in 1981, propelling her to stardom and becoming one of the defining roles of her career. She continued to garner commercial and critical success with performances in The Man with Two Brains (1983), Romancing the Stone (1984), The Jewel of the Nile (1985), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), The War of the Roses (1989), and The Virgin Suicides (1999). Turner has also had a long and renowned career as a stage actress with starring roles in productions such as Indiscretions, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Year of Magical Thinking. She currently lives in New York City.
Dustin Morrow is an Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, author, programmer and educator with more than twenty years of professional film production experience and more than fifteen years’ experience teaching at the university level. He was born and raised in western Illinois and received his MFA from the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa in 2003. He is currently a tenured associate professor at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches courses in digital cinema production and film studies.
Read an Excerpt
WORKING WITH THE SCRIPT
DUSTIN MORROW Let's start with where the actor's job begins.
KATHLEEN TURNER It begins the moment I accept the role. From the moment I sign the contract to do the part, I'm into it. Give me the script and let's go.
D.M. I imagine that when you first get a script, you are reading it primarily to get a sense of the narrative and you are reading it for the role for which you are being considered.
K.T. Both, and simultaneously. Obviously I am aware of and sensitive to the role that is being offered to me, but ultimately the quality of that role doesn't really matter if the plot isn't strong. Sometimes I'm offered very flashy roles, roles that could really facilitate pyrotechnical displays of acting, but the stories surrounding those roles don't hold up. If the film is no good, or the play is no good, I don't really see the point. The role has to serve the play, and the play has to serve the role.
Another thing to consider is the tone and tenor of the script. The role might be great, and the story might be strong, but there must be a sense that the story is being told in the right way. Not long ago I was reviewing a script about a family with a mother dying of cancer, and the central question of the script — whether or not to allow the mother to pass away once that became an option — was a compelling one. But the tone was all wrong, it couldn't make up its mind whether to be arch and flip, or to make this dilemma a true crisis, a true moral issue. It stayed away from both. It didn't play it lightly enough and it didn't play it heavily enough. It was too wishy-washy, which is unfortunate, because there was otherwise some good writing there. But if you're going to tackle that kind of material, I think you better have a point of view.
D.M. So when you're on the fence about taking a role, what's the deciding factor for you? Is it meeting the writer and seeing whether he or she is open to experimenting with the tone of the script?
K.T. The next step would probably be meeting the writer and the director. On High, for example, the director and writer came together in the same package. They collaborated on the Tallulah Bankhead play, Looped, and they had a good partnership. So meeting one was meeting the other. But they're very, very different men, and I was impressed by their willingness to listen to each other, to consider each other's viewpoints, as well as their energy, their intelligence, and their commitment to the work. All of those things were decisive factors in committing to it. When I saw how they worked with each other, I knew that I could work with them, individually and together.
D.M. So once you've committed to doing a play, you begin the process of taking it apart, of breaking it down and beginning to understand it.
K.T. It all begins with the words. The words that a character uses give you an idea of the energy and the kind of mind that this person possesses. If her speech is multisyllabic, that's a cold rhythm. Short, choppy words probably indicate that the character is a fast thinker and a decisive person. If the character uses a lot of words with softer sounds, with M's or V's, as opposed to T's or D's or P's, that's also an indication of her personality. The latter is much more explosive and hard-edged than the former, and that gives me an immediate indication of the rhythm of the character.
And of course, it's a collaborative art, and immediately upon taking a role I like to start digging into the script with the director. I don't like to do a lot of work on my own, even on a one-woman show. Actors need sounding boards. I don't sit around and decide how I'm going to do something by myself. That's acting to a mirror. That's not even acting, that's pretending. So I really feel that I need the other cast members and, minimally, the director.
D.M. But there are a lot of actors that work like that, aren't there? It seems that many actors actually can get a little too internal.
K.T. Well, much of what I do comes from age and experience. Someone who is younger or less experienced might be more likely to, perhaps, try and show up off-book. They might try to have everything figured out on day one of rehearsal.
D.M. "Off-book"— meaning they have all their lines memorized on day one.
K.T. Right. And it's a mistake. Going off-book shouldn't be forced, it's something that an actor should do on her own, as part of a natural process of getting to know the character and the script. Going off-book immediately is really jumping the gun. I don't think you should be off-book until you have a sense of the play as a whole. Once you have a clear progression of the ideas and emotions in the play and your character, then the lines become extremely easy to memorize because there's a reason to memorize them.
You can memorize, for example, lines that demonstrate that a character is feeling disillusioned or vulnerable, but until you identify why that person feels disillusioned and vulnerable at that point in the development of the character, the memorization is hollow. Just sitting down and memorizing words, without knowing the "why," is possibly counter-productive. It might get in the way of really being able to allow the words and emotions and thoughts to come together cohesively.
D.M. Are you an actor that marks her script up?
K.T. One of the first things I do with a script, and this has understandably gotten me into trouble with a few playwrights, is take a black magic marker and line out all the stage directions. I prefer to find the movement in the character, so it feels real and true, rather than have my movements dictated to me by the text.
D.M. Interesting. It makes sense — too much stage direction can actually be limiting. It's like the writer is trying to direct from the page. It's definitely bad form in screenwriting.
K.T. During rehearsals for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee looked over my shoulder one day and saw that I did that and boy, was he was not happy. He said, "What if I want you to do some of that stuff?" I said, "Edward, if you see something I'm doing in rehearsal that you don't like, let me know and we will go back to your original stage direction." He harumphed — he was a master harumpher — but he agreed and it worked out fine. He was not big on compromise, though.
D.M. So what do your scripts look like by the time the show goes up?
K.T. Pretty detailed. As we rehearse, I mark them for blocking and technical purposes. Once you get on your feet and start to move around the stage, you need notes. But I don't mark them for sound or feeling. To me, that's inherent in the line, because it isn't just a question of finding the most pleasing sound, it's also finding the sound that conveys the idea best. And that, to me, has always been very clear in a well-written script.
Having said that, I will sometimes mark my script when I'm given notes by a director. I'll mark the opposite page, usually with a keyword that represents what the director wants me to convey, so that on the subsequent pass through the script I will be reminded of what he or she wants me to try for. But I only tend to need that keyword once, if at all, before I've got it. So generally, my scripts are pretty clean.
The play is a complete story to me. The whole thing is in my head. A lot of my directors have said, when they've given me notes, "Don't you want to write this down?" And I just say, "Don't worry, I never forget a note." And I don't. I know a lot of actors need to constantly be scribbling things down, but I'm just not one of them. Again, much of that might have come from time and experience.
D.M. Are you an actor that likes a lot of language? Or would you prefer to play something with less dialogue?
K.T. Most of my work is pretty physical, really. My characters always seem to have a certain amount of physicality, no matter what they're doing. I'm not good at just sitting still.
She's not kidding. In my conversations with Kathleen, she was often moving around in her chair, or making dramatic gestures to emphasize certain points. Not fidgeting, but moving, in a sort of natural performance. To me, this is easy evidence of a true storyteller — someone for whom the capacity and the desire to tell stories is deeply ingrained, as if the story was bursting to get out of her. I saw a lot of this in my extensive work in recording oral storytelling in Ireland. The Irish have a long tradition of storytelling that comes from someplace deep inside — there's nothing anecdotal about their stories. They recognize that every story has the potential to move an audience, to frighten them or make them laugh or make them think. Having seen this onstage (evident especially in plays like High and Red Hot Patriot, where she directly addresses the audience), I knew Kathleen could do this, but I didn't expect to see it in such force in a one-on-one setting. All of which is to say, the woman is a storyteller of uncommon passion.
I have, on occasion, worked toward that stillness as a challenge. When I was doing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, I concentrated very hard on absolute minimalist movement, to have her be as still as possible. Part of the thinking there was that she is almost always a little drunk. Most of the play is set in the evening, so by the time you see her she's been drinking for several hours, and she's extremely careful about her diction and how she walks and sits, because she's scared of messing up. She's conscious of not giving herself away. So she doesn't make any sudden gestures for fear of toppling over. But most of my characters tend to end up on the floor, or thrown over something. It's fun.
D.M. With Martha, there is so much rich language there, but at the same time, you made her a really physical character.
Martha is Kathleen's character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which she played to great acclaim in a blockbuster Broadway production costarring Bill Irwin. Set in one night, the play tells the story of Martha and George, a middle-aged couple who engage in a battle of psychological warfare as their marriage disintegrates. It was authored by the legendary, Pulitzer-winning playwright Edward Albee and first staged in 1962.
K.T. Yes, well the opportunity was always there because she's a woman who has so few restraints on herself that she doesn't really care how she moves. Her natural freedom informed her extreme behavior in terms of movement. Flinging herself around physically is completely authentic to the character, and to her willingness to fling her emotions around. She's unhinged, so why wouldn't that be reflected physically as well?
D.M. So when you do something like Indiscretions where the narrative prohibits you, for at least a good chunk of the play, from being able to move around, is that really frustrating for you?
K.T. Yes, in some ways. That particular play came at the time of a real acute stage of my rheumatoid arthritis. The truth was, I was in terrible, terrible pain almost all the time. And one of the reasons I thought that I could handle that play was that, as a diabetic in the 1930s, the character was largely constrained to her bed.
Kathleen has been fighting rheumatoid arthritis since the mid-1990s. RA is an chronic inflammatory autoimmune disorder that causes painful swelling in the joints.
But the thing about rheumatoid arthritis is that it's not a type of pain that can be alleviated by staying in bed. RA can't be escaped because it lives in your joints. You can't sit down and kick up your feet and expect to feel better.
And of course as soon as we started rehearsal, I couldn't help myself anyway. I found myself flinging around, falling down around the bed. And of course the whole death scene, with the thrashing about the bed, was brutal. And there was that appalling staircase in the second act that made me cry every night. Truthfully. So that didn't work out quite as I had thought. I really sort of thought, "OK, I can handle it. A woman who is in bed most of the play — how bad could it be?"
D.M. Much worse than you thought.
K.T.So much worse than I thought.
D.M. When you learn your lines, do you learn them exactly or approximately? Or does it depend on the play?
K.T. I learn the ideas behind the lines first. When I learn the idea behind a line then the words usually follow naturally. If, for some reason, I consistently have a problem with recalling a line, one that's just not staying with me, then it's usually because there is something wrong with the line. If the line were tracking correctly, I wouldn't stumble on it over and over again. My memory is very sharp, I have absolutely no problem learning lines. And yes, especially with a play, I try very hard to be exact with the language, but if I'm consistently making a mistake on a line, it's because the line is problematic. Playwrights understand how well an actor gets to know her character during the process of developing it, so most of them would agree to that and would revise the line accordingly.
D.M. Wasn't Albee famous for the opposite — for never adjusting a line?
K.T. Famous!? My God — try infamous!
D.M. "You missed a comma, Kathleen!"
K.T. Totally. He came backstage once to tell me that I left out a "Ha!" in the middle of a speech. I said, "Don't worry, it'll be there tomorrow." He's tough.
D.M. He certainly protected his words.
K.T. As he should have. Those are the rights of the writer. If he chose that word, he chose it for a reason and no one has any right to change it.
D.M. But isn't theater really the actor's medium?
K.T. The actor's and the writer's.
D.M. I've always thought of the theater belonging to the actor, television belonging to the writer, and film belonging to the director. That's why I make films, I like to direct.
K.T. Theater is a forum where the writer can have a lot of power.
D.M. I wonder if that's why a lot of writers go into playwriting.
K.T. As opposed to screenwriting?
K.T. Well, screenwriting is definitely looser ... D.M. Often, in film, the writer isn't even allowed on the set.
K.T. Not always, no. But it is understood, for one thing, that you don't have anything like the rehearsal time you have in theater. And on a film set, you're getting script changes everyday due to shooting conditions, budget problems, production politics. Even though you only shoot a couple of pages a day, you shoot it so many times, from so many angles, that if you change a word in one angle, and that's the shot the director likes, then you have to repeat that change for every other angle, because they all have to match. Even when it's a mistake, when you didn't mean to change a word, you're stuck with it.
D.M. Do you enjoy doing improvisational work? I think it's a really useful part of the rehearsal process, but I wonder if it has a place in the actual performance in theater, as it does in many cases in TV and film.
K.T. I wouldn't do it in a performance on stage, that's not really fair to the other actors. Especially if they're not ready for it, or they don't do it as well, or they don't have as much confidence in their ability to go with it. But as a rehearsal tool, absolutely. It can be a great exercise in figuring out what a scene needs, or means. It allows you the opportunity to attack it from an angle that may not be on the page. That kind of improvisation can be very useful.
D.M. Can you give me an example of how you've used it on something you've done?
K.T. With High, in one of the scenes where the young addict comes in and first confronts my character, he has to challenge her authority. So we tried riffing on that idea, taking it to its furthest conclusion. He tried to push me into losing my temper, just disobeying outright anything that I asked him to do. And I attempted to exert my authority over him, to put him in his place. When we returned to the scene as written, the experience of that exercise enriched the text for us.
In Matthew Lombardo's edgy drama High, Kathleen plays the tough-talking Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and rehab counselor who meets her match in Cody Randall, a difficult, hostile young addict. As the two face off, Sister Connelly is forced to confront her own painful history with addiction and, more importantly, her faith. The play ran briefly on Broadway and then in an extensive national tour.
D.M. Have you worked with performers who like throwing you curve balls and surprising you in that way? Have you ever had to deal with that?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kathleen Turner on Acting"
Copyright © 2018 Kathleen Turner and Dustin Morrow.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Working with the Script,
Working with directors,
Collaborating with other artists,
In the beginning ...,
Lessons Learned from Working in Television,
The Man with Two Brains,
Romancing the Stone,
Crimes of Passion,
Peggy Sue Got Married,
The Accidental Tourist,
The War of the Roses,
The Virgin Suicides,
The Perfect Family,
Working with Edgy Material,
Acting in Film,
The Stage Versus the Screen,
Acting in the Theater,
The Intimacy of the Theater,
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,
Red Hot Patriot,
Mother Courage and Her Children,
The Year of Magical Thinking,
The Life of an Actor,
Fame, Aging and Vanity,
Using the Voice,
Advice for Developing Actors,
The Process of Auditioning,
Dealing with Rejection,
Working in the Industry,
Acting and Daily Life,
Looking Ahead and Moving Forward,
A Closer Look at the Film Performances,
Selected Stage Credits,
Selected Film Credits,
Selected Television Credits,
About the Authors,