Kathleen Turner Talks Catholicism, Theater and Her Big Screen Comeback

In "The Perfect Family," the actress tackles her first big screen leading role in almost two decades

Kathleen Turner is back onscreen this week with “The Perfect Family.” Surprisingly, it’s the first time the actress has tackled a lead role since the 1994 John Water's comedy, “Serial Mom.”

In the new comedy-drama, Turner, 57, plays Eileen Cleary, a devoutly religious wife and mother who has been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year in her small town parish. Problem is, she may not get the prized title if the church finds out that her unwed, pregnant daughter (Emily Deschanel) is actually a lesbian, her son (Jason Ritter) has just left his wife and kids for the local manicurist, and that her marriage to a recovering alcoholic husband (Michael McGrady) is on the rocks.

The outspoken actress – she’s pro-gay marriage and on the board of People for the American Way (a progressive advocacy group she describes as, “protectors of the first amendment and watchdogs of the religious right”) – phoned in to chat (in that unmistakable, husky voice) about balancing doctrine with real life, her passion for the theater, and staging a timely play in Washington to coincide with the upcoming Presidential election.

There are a lot of really big themes in "The Perfect Family," was that part of the attraction of getting involved?

Oh yes, right from the very beginning. You think of the incredible conflict between someone who believes so totally in the [Catholic] doctrine and yet tries to live in the real world. It almost seems impossible that one can inhabit both, and as the movie unfolds it is clearly not possible. So what happens is the character has to reassess, has to change, has to learn. And that is absolutely the number one requirement of any character that I would be interested in doing – they have to go through a process, a change.

A lot of these themes - family, religion, gay and women’s rights - were mirrored in the recent Republican primaries…

They were highlighted, certainly, during the primaries. But we didn’t time the release of this film in order to coincide. We were going to do it no matter whether it was an election year or not.

It’s turned out advantageous though.

Well, yes. It is very reflective of what is going on in our country and that is only helpful. I don’t mean just for the film, but for the people who see the film.

What do you hope audiences will take away?

Well, one of the things that comes through strongest to me is the sense of compassion, the real love this family has for each other. You can’t deny that type of love. And that is very, very important to me, the affirmation of that. And I would hope tolerance – to whatever degree – would be something that we can convey to audiences.

In the film your character tells her son, “Who cares if you are happy. You need to do the right thing.” Do you think many people wrestle with a similar belief?

If they’re strongly religious I imagine it is a real difficulty for them. If they are not – the son is not devout – I think that it just doesn’t make sense to them. It is interesting to me to examine and explore a person whose faith or belief is so strong in an organized religion that it supersedes almost everything else. I can’t say I understand it, but it was interesting exploring it.

This character and your recent role as a nun in the Broadway production of “High” were both devout Catholics. Were you raised in the religion?

Heck, no! I didn’t know a darned thing about it. I had to go through all this reading before the film. I had to find out what the Catholic doctrine was about. I really was eager to learn. Happily so, thank you very much.

But it doesn’t have to be Catholicism; it’s the doctrine that is the key here. It’s any church or any organized religion that says: this is the only way. I just think that the Catholic structure is more familiar to us. I would put Islam in there, I would put Judaism in there – any orthodox religion would fit this model. It’s the issues themselves about the struggle, between following the dictates within your personal relationships.

This is one of the first big screen leading roles you have done in quite some time.

Yes, I have been so wrapped up in my stage work. That’s been where my focus has been going the last few years. I got the chance to do “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and develop two new plays. I’m also taking a one-woman show called “Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” to Washington before the elections. It’s excellent timing – she’s a very humorous, liberal woman. And you know, that is important to me.

Some people have described you the same way.

Well I hope so. I hope so. But it takes years to develop new projects, especially for the theater. And that has been my focus for … well, I don’t know where the time goes.

Is theater work more satisfying to you these days?

Yes, very much. Being on stage is something you really share with the audience and the other actors. Film-making, not only do I find it on the whole now rather formulaic – so many of the storylines or scripts that I read are so predictable or follow a set pattern or are remakes of TV shows – but the material itself is not very challenging. And the process of film where you act for 20 minutes, stop while they reset the lights for an hour or two, act for another 20 minutes (the same material) and then you sit down again while they reset the lights. Stage to me is so alive, so immediate.

Looking forward, what do you have booked following “Red Hot Patriot”?

After that I will be doing another piece of theater where I will be starring and directing. That’s the next challenge. I have directed – and Lord knows I have been the lead in many pieces – but I haven’t directed at the same time. So I am really excited to try that one out. I can’t tell you too much about it yet because we haven’t finalized contracts and all that stuff, yet.

How does your approach differ from acting to directing?

I see everything in a lot more detail now. Experience does add up. It really does. And certainly when you work as a director you are responsible for the entire production, not just one character. In a way it is the details of the sets and the lighting and costuming, and then having the actors meld to the intention of a scene. When it all comes together it is just, 'Ahh!' It’s just quite thrilling. I find it is like acting all the characters at once.

"The Perfect Family" opens in limited release and on demand Friday, May 4. The DVD will be released June 26.

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