Editor's Note: This book excerpt contains profanities and may not be suitable for minors.
Veteran film and stage actress Kathleen Turner reveals much about herself — the breakup of her 20-year marriage, her close relationship with her daughter, her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, and what it's like to work with legends like Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, William Hurt, Steve Martin, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston and others — in her new memoir. Here's an excerpt from “Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles”:
I am fucking exhausted. Wonderfully, joyfully exhausted, and filled with such extraordinary happiness and gratitude.
Those were my feelings after the two closing London performances of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on May 13, 2006.
People ask, “How can you do that — two grueling three-and-a-half-hour performances one right after the other?” The four of us actors — Bill Irwin as George, Mireille Enos as Honey, David Harbour as Nick, and me as Martha — joked that it’s actually one six-act play on days when there are two shows, since we’re all on stage during most of the show. I liken the energy and the skill this takes to being an Olympic athlete. Which is quite a feat for someone whose feet have sacrificed most of their toe bones to rheumatoid arthritis. That’s why I padded around the stage in those funny soft little slippers.
I never feel tired when I’m onstage. Offstage before and after, I wonder how the hell I did it. But onstage, it just doesn’t happen. The exhaustion doesn’t hit me until the very, very end when I, or rather Martha, is on the floor and George asks, “Are you all right?” and Martha says, “Yes ... No.” Then I can allow myself to feel the body pains, to feel the mental pain, to feel the heart pain, of the character.
There’s a moment in the curtain call after we’ve all taken the first bow together. Bill and I step back and Mireille and David take their bow. Then Bill and I step forward to take ours. The sound crescendos; it comes in this huge wave. It feels as though it pushes me back physically. It’s such an amazing feeling that it takes my breath away. And I just start to beam. I feel so grateful, so grateful, to us, to them, to me, to God, that we have this incredible experience in our lives. All of us: the audience, cast, and crew. Even the critics — everyone says it’s the first time the London theater critics have all agreed and given rave reviews to any play. The audiences jumped; they were on their feet applauding us almost every night. It has been a tremendous, absolutely amazing reward for the effort we have all put out and, yes, somewhat of a redemption for me.
I look out at the audience and return the waves of their love and appreciation with a full heart.
When I first read this play in college, I knew I wanted to play Martha someday. I was thrilled by Martha’s recklessness, how she has no thought of consequences. Like the way she slices through George, contrasting his inadequacies in sharpest detail to her own “necessary greater strength.” She’s dangerous as hell but also very exciting and rather endearing.
Or at least I was convinced I could make her endearing. Even back then, I was sure I had the skill to make audiences love the characters I played. Heavens, I was twenty, and I believed I could do anything and that Martha would be a fitting challenge for me when I turned fifty. I always kept this idea in my mind.
Fearlessness at twenty springs from not knowing what challenges lie ahead. Fearlessness at fifty comes from having wrestled with life’s challenges and learned from them.
Many challenges good and bad, steps I’ve deliberately planned or opportunistically seized, choices I’ve made, risks I’ve taken, came between the idea and the reality of playing Martha. Each of them helped to form me, to teach me, to prepare me.
The Right Moment to Tell My Story
People say to me all the time, “Oh, you’re such a regular person.” And I wonder, As opposed to what? An artificial construct?
Just before I left New York for the London run of Virginia, this book started — as many good things do — over tamales, jicama salad, and a margarita (light salt) at Zarela, a favorite Mexican restaurant. Gloria, who has been a good friend since we worked together at Planned Parenthood Federation of America — she as its president and CEO and I as chair of its Board of Advocates — said she wanted to write my biography. She told me I had a lot to say. I was rather embarrassed at first by the thought of that much emphasis on myself. It seemed too egotistical.
Then I thought about something I’d heard, that the object of our lives is the growth of our souls. And I feel that my soul is finally in a place where I can contribute. This particular moment in my life is a good time to take stock of all that. So I said I would like to be the practical, regular person that I am, and share my life lessons that might be of service to others. Finally we both figured out that I couldn’t share my lessons very well without telling my story too.
I feel about this book like I feel about my acting roles. Send Yourself Roses is my truth as I see it. But every story has many truths. Take from mine whatever you will.
I do have stories to tell, and I believe in the power of sharing them. Many come from my film and stage work. I’ll explore how my roles have broken new ground for women, how they’ve spanned sexuality from a femme fatale to a woman playing a man playing a woman. I want to share my passion for service. And I’ve had personal tragedies, rocky relationships, out-of-control drinking, and snarky critics to contend with. I’ve come back against all odds from a debilitating illness and being told I’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, to which I said, “Go fuck yourself.” I’ve experienced the joy of motherhood and the sadness of infertility, a happy marriage that eventually became a necessary separation. I’ve learned from it all.
But what you know isn’t enough, babe: what counts is how you use it going forward.
I like where I am now and what I have achieved. I’m doing the best work of my life. I can see all that has come before: the obstacles overcome, the risks I’ve taken, the choices I’ve made, the great, great opportunities I’ve had, and the lessons about life, love, and leading roles that these experiences have taught me.
I don’t want to be twenty again. I’m having that creative surge women often get when we pass fifty. I feel at the top of my personal and professional life.
So I’ll take it from the top. Not the beginning, but now, smack in the middle of my life, or so I expect, since the women in my family have good longevity. It’s the perfect vantage point to look back at what I’ve done so far and to look forward to see exciting possibilities I might create for my future — and those that might come my way.
The Freedom to Go OnI gave myself a special treat the day after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? closed in London. I checked into the Lanesborough. It’s a beautiful spa hotel, with wonderful service, near Hyde Park. I booked a facial and a massage in my room. I went to the hotel, washed my face, put on a robe, and that was it for the rest of the night. I didn’t go back out; I didn’t put on makeup or get dressed again. I watched a movie, had dinner in the room, read a book.
I melted into the bed. Maybe the exhaustion sharpened my perceptions because I felt so vulnerable to my feelings. They poured out of me, as though I’d removed my skin with my stage makeup.
I feel different, better, about my personal life as well as my professional life. So much confidence comes simply because I have reached this very good age. Women my age today are forging new ground. Society stops defining us by our reproductive capacity, sexual attractiveness, or other traditional measures, so we become liberated from stereotype. We are freed to grow into our full selves.
I couldn’t have allowed myself to feel so positive in the past. When I was at the height of my film career, I didn’t have the kind of respect I now have from the theatrical community. I hadn’t yet proved that I have the chops for the stage. But now I have a stature I’ve never before enjoyed.
Virginia Woolf herself observed that when her Aunt Mary left her enough money to live on, her financial independence meant she “need not hate” or “flatter any man.” She said this was of even more value to her freedom and autonomy than the right to vote.
True enough. I feel fortunate to be in a generation of women who have had the opportunity to support ourselves and be in control of our own finances — with or without Aunt Mary — throughout our adult lives. Our mothers might have defined themselves as working wives if they had careers outside the home. We have been working women. And I think we’re much more interesting after we’ve been out in the world, even if we’ve been a bit battered by it from time to time. No, we’re more interesting because we’ve taken our knocks and learned from them.
I feel optimistic about my life today because I’ve taken chances over the years. I’ve taken my own dreams seriously enough to act on them. I’ve accepted opportunities that have come my way without having to plan or plot for them. But I also have a long-term idea of what I want, and then I take chances on doing the things that seem to fit my talents when they come along. I take chances that move me toward my goals.
That openness to fortuity would drive other people mad. They’ll say, “Okay, what will Kathleen be doing this time next year?” Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing. Maybe it’s not written yet, or maybe I’ll feel like doing something else for a while. I have learned to wait until the choice becomes inevitable. I used to drive my soon-to-be-ex-husband, Jay, rather crazy because he’d always want to know the shape of the time to come. And I could never give him that.
I was brought up not to think too much of myself — that wonderful WASP tradition. So it knocks me out when an actor I respect — for example, Donald Sutherland or Dame Judy Dench — comes up after the show and says, “That was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen.” I don’t know what to say. It is just staggering to me. I’ve admired their work for so long, it’s difficult to think they accept me as one of them.
So I say, “Thank you.” I’m much too polite to reject a compliment like that — my God. It’s a thrilling thought; it makes me smile out loud. And it does change things.
Acting is the study of human behavior, but you don’t have to be an actor to share these experiences. And there’s absolutely no end to the study, because every year you learn more, you build on the information, the understanding you’ve achieved. This study of human behavior is just fascinating to me. And to find the qualities or the elements that strike chords within me and others is endlessly interesting.
Soaking in the elegant tub at the Lanesborough Spa, I looked back at all these things that came before in my life. I looked forward to my future with the excitement of embarking on a new stage of life. I felt the satisfaction now ... and the freedom to go on from here.
And then I got up at six the next morning to catch my flight back to New York.
Kathleen Turner Is a Verb
I’m happy to be back in my city. I’ve been identified more and more with New York over the last few years, though I’ve been here since I drove here from Baltimore, straight out of the University of Maryland, in 1977. I’d skipped the graduation ceremonies and told them to send my diploma to my mother in Missouri because I was going on to my future. I had a whole hundred dollars in my pocket, and I thought I was rich.
There are so many things I love about New York: I leave my apartment early to walk over to the gym, about seven-thirty a.m. The same garbage men are there who have seen me since I moved in to that apartment. They know I’ve had two knee operations since then, so they’re used to seeing me with a cane or crutches or walker. They ask, “How’s it goin’, how ya doin’, how’s your leg? You don’t have a cane — this is great.” I say, “I’m healing, everything’s terrific.” Then I walk on up toward Broadway, and while I’m waiting at the light, the 104 bus stops. I take that line often because it goes up and down from the theater district. The driver swings open the door; he goes, “Yo, Turner, you’re lookin’ good. How ya doin’?” I say, “I’m doing great, thank you.” And I’m thinking, Okay, garbage men love me, bus drivers love me — it’s just fantastic. New York is like a small town, because people, all kinds of people, are so friendly and it makes me feel like they’re proud of me.
Being back home, routines become comfortingly normal again. I like the little things. I like grocery shopping. I like going to the pharmacy; the pharmacist is my friend. He’s known me for ten years. These are the same stores I’ve been going to year after year after year. Makes me feel at home. I like planning meals and cooking for family and friends and for myself. I do not like cleaning. I’ll vacuum if I have to, but that’s about it. I don’t like people fussing about me, though. All this business about having a car standing by for when you might need it is just another person to take responsibility for. I’d rather go out and get my own taxi and not have anybody else tied up in it. I think that’s a real waste of my energy, and I don’t want people handling my life, always knowing where I’m going, what I’m doing. It’s none of their business. In fact, I’m downright stubborn about that. Stay out of it — I’ll handle it, thank you. Please, for heaven’s sake, I’m a New Yorker.
From my bedroom I can see both the sparkling Hudson River and the lights of the city. I wake up every morning to this beautiful light on the buildings and I think of what a magnificent accomplishment New York is. Since 9/11, my connection to the city has become even deeper. I think people associate me with New York more strongly too because of my involvement with the 9/11 rescue and cleanup efforts. I felt it was my responsibility to do what I could. I actually flagged down a fire truck and convinced the firemen I could be of use. So they took me to where I could help organize the clothing for the rescue workers, and I made myself available to speak to the media when they needed me to tell people what supplies and volunteers were needed.
As soon as I got back home from London, I started on a new fitness program. I had gotten out of shape and gained weight there, where I didn’t have my normal workout regimen. The eternal struggle, you know. It gets to be more of a challenge each decade. I call my trainer “my little Italian Nazi.” Her name is Suzie Amatuzi. The new program is an incredible workout. I’ve only been doing it four days and I already feel like I’m 50 percent back.
“I already feel like I’m 50 percent back.” Now, that’s a real Turnerism! I waste no time.
And I had no time to waste even if I’d wanted to. It’s been a rapid-fire week since I returned, between spending time with my daughter, Rachel, catching up with friends and the charitable organizations I support, and slipping back into my household routine in my apartment. I love having an apartment where I can see so many facets of the city I love. The busier rooms — my office and the living room — are all in the west part of the apartment, with the calmness of the river affecting them. My grandmother’s deep blue parlor rug is in my living room. It was just like new when I got it because she never let anyone into her parlor, but I use it constantly.
After Jay and I separated and he moved out last year, I had the walls painted colors, some that excite me, some that give me a peaceful feeling. I delight in the vibrant blue, gold, and red furnishings of my slightly chaotic apartment.
It’s always slightly chaotic with a teenager in the house. The minute I got back to New York, my daughter got sick. Usually when I finish a long run or a big job, I break down and get sick. But I haven’t this time and I think it’s because my kid needed me every day. When she gets well, I know I’ll go under.
“You know, kid,” I said to Rachel this morning, “you are really busting my chops here. Every day it’s something.” And she goes, “Well, it’s not my fault.” I said, “Well, no, it’s not your fault. You got sick. And then you twisted your knee. But you know what — I’ve been waiting on you for days now. Taking care of you. Making your food. Bringing you water. Honestly. Getting you to the doctors, getting the doctors to you.”
It was a funny thing, though. Last night she said, “I can’t believe how painful this knee is. Next time you say your knee hurts, I’m going to do anything you want.” I said, ‘Yeah, sure, thanks, kid. That’ll be a cold day in — August.” But I know she means it. She’s a great kid: bright, funny. She has a good sense of humor. She’s quite irreverent. She’s very empathetic, with a great sense of other people. She will see that someone is needy or timid and immediately respond to their needs. It’s a marvel to me that we have raised such a great young woman and that she’s so ready to be launched into the world.
My shrink told me she wants me to start dating soon. I’m not ready for that yet, even though Jay and I have been legally separated — after twenty-one years of marriage — since before I left for London in January. But then, I haven’t had sex since last August. Geez, so maybe I should think about this.
I have spent the week making the rounds to see all of my many doctors. My family doctor, Bert, is a wonderful, blunt, rather nasty-minded guy I’ve been going to for years. Always giving me trouble. He said to me, “So, you’re over fifty now, huh? Well, let me ask you something. You’ve done everything you set out to do with your life, right? You’ve had an international career, you’re highly respected, you have a wonderful kid, you have had a long marriage. But you’ve got another fifty years ahead of you. What the hell are you going to do now?”
At first my heart just plummeted: “I’ve done everything I set out to do? That’s crazy. And I don’t know what I’m going to do next. So there!” But then Bert said something rather wise: “So now, honey, it’s not about proving anything. It’s about the quality of your life.” And I thought, Yeah. Yeah, that I can live with. There will always be an element of having to prove things because I have the need to constantly prove myself, even if only to myself. But truly, it is about the quality of my life from here on out. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone else. This realization is very liberating, very exhilarating.
Taking Risks, Making Choices, Looking Forward
Soon I’m going to do a TV role in Los Angeles, one written for me in the sitcom Nip/Tuck, about plastic surgery. I will play a very successful phone sex operator — no, excuse me, she regards herself as a phone sex artist — Cindy Plumb, who “can make you come in English, Spanish, Japanese, or Mandarin. You may be alone, but you’re not on your own.” But alas, Cindy’s voice is getting lower as she gets older and her clients don’t like that. So to get back her girlish voice, she is seeking a vocal cord lift. It’s a comedy, of course, yet it sets me to thinking about how voice is such an apt metaphor for women in this world.
And then I’m going to a spa in California for two weeks to really zero in on the body work. “Listen, honey, you might have to travel with me this summer,” I tell Gloria, who is trying to corral me to work on this book. “Come with me to the spa; we can get a lot of work done there.” Gloria says, “Sure we will.”
I’ll also try my hand at directing at the Williamstown Theater Festival later in the summer to build my experience as a director. But I like not knowing everything that will happen next in my life even though I have many strong ideas about what I want to do. I like taking chances. Risk is what life is about to me. The main thing is, I don’t like to repeat my successes.
Jay and I will be selling our beach house in Amagansett, toward the eastern end of Long Island. Until then, Rachel will want to be there off and on. Her idea of a great time is to play guitar all day. I have to drive her to her appointments this week because of her knee. She’s not supposed to drive. So that will knock out the massage I’d planned. Well, all right.
When I’m gone, Rachel can stay with Jay. Or he’ll stay with her at my place and I’ll come back to dog hair all over the place and broken dishes. Jay got the dog. He asked me if I would mind. I said, “Are you kidding? Take him!”
Rachel will be going away to college this fall. I’ll be back in time to help her choose things to take, pack up, and move to school. I’d love to do that. And then I get to clean out her room. Oh, God, you wouldn’t believe this room. It’s appalling. I said, “Anything you leave — it’s gone.”
Sometime after I take Rachel to college, I’ll go check out Italy to see if I want to live there part of the year. I’d like to have an outpost in Europe, where they have far greater respect for older actresses than in the United States, not to mention better roles. And I’ll teach my course at New York University, which I call “Practical Acting: Shut Up and Do It!”
After I have worked so hard to get here, I find it wonderful and amusing at the same time that it seems to me as if it took a long time to become known and accepted as an actor. But to the outside world it seems as if it happened all of a sudden.
For in acting as in life, there is no real test with a scorecard of your ability, of your skill. If you write, if you paint, if you play music, there’s a definitive sort of test. You have to be able to master the instrument or produce a product. You can’t follow a score unless you know how to play that violin or trombone. But there’s no such criteria that so easily defines the capability or the skill of an actor. I mean, somebody likes you, somebody doesn’t. It’s all very subjective — so anybody can say he or she is an actor, and many do. This makes many actors doubt their own absolute ability and their own real worth.
You gain confidence from the doing of it, as you successfully communicate through your acting time after time after time with your audience. And you learn how to give yourself affirmations for the work that is meaningful to you, despite what others might think or say. That’s the kind of confidence I’ve been feeling since we opened Virginia Woolf in New York. I can finally accept that I am extraordinarily skilled at this job. I have earned my place.
But I do wish I had half the sense of security in my private life as I have in my professional life about my choices and priorities. When I’m acting, I know with certainty whether an action is right or wrong: Is that the right tone of voice? Is that the right gesture? Is that the right emphasis on the thought? Am I building the character successfully in terms of the movement of the story? I can be absolutely sure that, yep, that’s perfect. Leave that just as it is.
And then I can come offstage and not know how to talk to my child. Should I have a firm voice here or should I use an understanding one? Do I put my foot down or do I let it go?
When I make decisions for a character, things are always very clear to me. When I make decisions for myself, my personal life, I often don’t feel sure at all.
Except about this: The best role is always ahead.
Excerpted from “Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles” by Kathleen Turner. Copyright 2008 Kathleen Turner. Reprinted with permission from Springboard Press. All rights reserved.