Kathleen Turner (AP/Evan Agostini)

Kathleen Turner on her soap opera days: "My character was so incredibly dumb"

"So I just asked the writers to make her a drunk," the legendary actress said of her "The Doctors" role


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Kathleen TurnerDustin Morrow
September 15, 2018 11:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "Kathleen Turner on Acting: Conversations about Film, Television, and Theater" by Kathleen Turner and Dustin Morrow. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Dustin Morrow: After you finished your college degree, you moved immediately to New York City to work in theater.

Kathleen Turner: Yes, it was terrifying but exhilarating to move to New York. I drove there the day I finished classes. I had exactly $100 in cash. Period. I was supposed to stay with a friend that first night but she had reunited with her boyfriend. I got to New York at about 3:00 in the morning and slept in my car on the east side, up in the 80s. It was scary—Manhattan wasn’t the Disney playground that it is now—but it was incredibly exciting and I was fearless.

D.M.: And you were able to start working as an actor pretty quickly.

K.T.: Almost immediately. I mean, I had day jobs like every other actor, but I started acting professionally very quickly. I was off-Broadway within five months, on the soap opera after nine months, and was on Broadway by eleven months.

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D.M.: Tell me about the soap opera.

K.T.: I was a regular on The Doctors. Which no longer exists, for which we can all be thankful.

The Doctors was a soap opera set in a New England hospital that ran on NBC from 1963 to 1982. Kathleen appeared on the series in 1978 and 1979. Among the many other notable alumni of the series are Alec Bald­win, Ellen Burstyn, and Ted Danson.

D.M.: No good?

K.T.: Whatever. It was fine. It was just a very run-of-the-mill soap opera. My character was so incredibly dumb that at a certain point I just couldn’t figure out how to justify the words that came out of her mouth, so I just asked the writers to make her a drunk.

D.M.: Ha! That is crazy.

K.T.: So crazy! I’ll tell you the breaking point for me on The Doctors. I remember this like it was yesterday. I was doing a scene where I was giving birth, after a four-month pregnancy of course, and I had researched the process and learned lamaze breathing and everything. After the first take the director, who was a man of course, came up and said, “You’re doing great, I can really feel what you’re going through. But can you just be a little more . . . ummm . . . attractive?”

“Attractive.” While giving birth. That was it for me.

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D.M.: Stick a fork in you.

K.T.: Yessir. Done.

D.M.: Actors who move back and forth between theater and cinema or theater and television always talk about the differences between stage and screen acting, so I thought that instead I would ask you to tell me about the skills that translate, especially since I know that you started in stage and then moved to TV and then to film. What were you able to carry from one step to the next?

K.T.: Moving from TV to film was less of a leap for me than moving from theater to TV. That was a big transition.

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D.M.: How did you get the part on The Doctors?

K.T.: Before I got the regular role on The Doctors, I was getting called in to do day spots on soaps because I have a near-photographic memory. I could learn scripts almost instantly. That made me pretty valuable as a soap actress.

D.M.: Theater and television are wildly different forums for an actor.

K.T.: Coming from the stage, I had always thought of acting as a process of rehearsal, of trial and error, of carefully fine-tuning something until it’s just right. You don’t have that kind of luxury, that kind of time, working in soap operas. When shooting a soap, you come in around seven or so and go through hair and makeup and wardrobe, and then you shoot until around four or so, and at five you do a light rehearsal, or sometimes just a table read, of what you are going to shoot the next day. That idea of creating a performance every single day was new to me, that idea of making choices that you had to implement on-the-spot. That was the most valuable thing that the soap opera gave me.

D.M.: What did you learn from that experience about acting for the camera?

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K.T.: I don’t think I learned a lot about camera craft because it was a soap. It was essentially these huge, hulking, awkward cameras that wheeled around in a cumbersome manner. They didn’t afford a tremen­dous variety of camera angles. And there were several of them shooting at once, so the angle wasn’t as defined or as specific as it usually is when shooting a film. And there were all these terribly artificial soap opera performance demands. I would get a script that would say, “And we slow fade on a shot of Kathleen’s surprised expression.” And I would have to hold this ridiculously melodramatic expression until they finished this agonizingly long fade that would take them into a commercial. It was so stupid and so unrealistic.

D.M.: Well, no one watches soap operas for realism, I guess.

K.T.: Isn’t that the truth! But I did learn a very valuable lesson about how to use my personal experiences in my performances when I was doing The Doctors. There was a storyline in which my character’s mother died, and in reading the script I had this incredible rush of feeling, remembering my father’s death. It was a wave of emotion that I hadn’t felt in years, as he had been dead for several years at that point. It was as though the script had torn open a scar that I thought had healed over, it was hard for me. But I went home and I just thought, “Okay, just hold it together, keep it together, don’t indulge anything until the camera rolls tomorrow and then use it all.”

So the next day we shot this scene in which my character spoke to her dying mother in this hospital room, and I just let it all go. And I was wracked with grief, sobbing uncontrollably almost, and when we finished the show I thought, “Well, that is one of the truest things I have ever done as an actress.” And then I saw the show and it looked like the worst, hammiest acting in history! The lesson learned was that you don’t really want to be 100% real, on camera or on stage really. The performance of a real emotion is different from the actual experiencing of that emotion.

D.M.: For one thing, one is controlled and the other isn’t.

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K.T.: That’s true, and you don’t ever want to be out of control when you are acting. Acting isn’t meant to be dangerous. We were auditioning young men for the role of the addict in the Broadway production of High, and one young man got so physical with me onstage that there was a genuine sense of the loss of control, and I felt for a moment that I was in real danger. He was way too rough with me. You won’t get a part if you can’t control your performance.

That said, I think that I have come closer to using real experiences on stage than in film because I have a lot more space to do it in. But that scene on The Doctors was awful, bad acting. However true it felt to me didn’t matter, it wasn’t about the truth.

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D.M.: So it’s more about verisimilitude, an appearance of truth, than finding an actual truth.

K.T.: It’s about the truth of the scene, not the truth of the actor’s per­sonal experiences.

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D.M.: The compressed period of time that you were talking about, with the fast production schedule of The Doctors, where you have basically a day to make big performance choices—if you are coming out of a theater background where you have a luxurious rehearsal period, then that’s tough to deal with. Do you just say to yourself, “It’s scary but I’m going to commit to this choice I made five minutes ago and hope for the best”?

K.T.: Basically. You have to. Having that experience on The Doctors helped me when I did move on to feature filmmaking, because I learned that on the day, on the moment when the shot was set, you had to be committed to your choices. There’s no do-over if you don’t like what you did on a given shoot day on a film. You can’t just go reshoot something because you were unhappy with your performance, it would be prohibi­tively expensive.

There are times when, if I happen to catch a few minutes from one of my films on TV, I see places where I could have made better choices. But that’s okay. What I am sure of is that I made the best choice I could make on that day, at that time, given the circumstances, given where we were shooting, who I was working with, and how everything had led up to that moment on that shoot day. I’m sure I said, “This is the best I can do.” So I am happy with all my film performances, because they represented my best effort on the days I shot them. It does no actor any good to sit around bemoaning mistakes or missed opportunities. Move forward and be proud of what you’ve done.

D.M.: I have heard from actor friends who’ve done them that soaps can provide valuable experience as an actor. If one of your students was considering going into soaps, what would you tell her?

K.T.: I’d tell her to do it, but not for too long. No actor should stay on a soap for more than eighteen months. The trap that actors on soaps fall into is they lose the desire to explore because they get into the habit of thinking that the first choice is the best choice. And that’s a very danger­ous habit for an actor. Soaps don’t foster exploration in the acting process.

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D.M.: Did they have teleprompters when you were doing The Doctors?

K.T.: Ah, yes, “teleprompter acting.” On The Doctors, they used cue cards, but it was the same basic thing. There was this guy, Bobby, who had these big white cards that he’d hold up just off-camera. I never used them, as they so obviously impede a performance.

D.M.: That seems like it’d be terribly distracting.

K.T.: You can always tell when an actor is using them, their eyeline is all wrong.

D.M.: As a kid I can remember watching Saturday Night Live, which is where I first became aware of what cue card acting was, because the cast would always be looking over their co-stars’ shoulders instead of into their eyes.

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K.T.: It doesn’t work as acting, but on a broad sketch comedy show like that they can kind of get away with it. Plus, on that show the sketches are being re-written right up until the minute they are performed live, so often you just don’t have time to memorize your lines.

D.M.: Saturday Night Live must have been incredible fun.

Kathleen hosted Saturday Night Live on January 12, 1985, and on October 21, 1989. Her musical guests were John Waite and Billy Joel, respectively. Both episodes include multiple sketches spoofing Kathleen’s sex symbol image and her voice. On her 1989 episode, she performed a now-classic sketch with Phil Hartman in which Hartman played an egg and Kathleen his human wife.

K.T.: Are you kidding? Absolutely, it was great fun. The entire cast and the writers were incredibly creative and playful.

D.M.: Anyone who hasn’t seen you in the “Eggman” sketch with Phil Hartman should get themselves to YouTube immediately.

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K.T.: Ah yes, the Eggman! That was a funny sketch!

D.M.: Hartman was a great loss. He was so talented.

K.T.: He had a lot of charisma and range. He was the glue that held that show together for many years.

D.M.: Actually, I think that was his nickname among the cast and crew, “The Glue.”

K.T.: I’m not surprised. His work on that show was underrated, he was easily one of the best cast members they had.

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D.M.: Do you find live television to be really stressful?

K.T.: Not really—it’s no more live than theater is live. Of course, the audi­ence is usually much bigger. Make a mistake and rest assured that some yahoo recorded it for prosperity and that it now lives online until the end of time!

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