For Kathleen Turner, playing columnist Molly Ivins onstage is a chance to embrace a real-life character she describes as “amazing, delightful, sensible, and smart.” The actress, 58, is famous for her performances in such films as Body Heat and Peggy Sue Got Married but has focused mostly on theater for the last decade, earning a 2005 Tony nomination for her performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Turner stars in Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins by Bethesda journalist Margaret Engel and her twin sister, Allison Engel. We caught up with her to discuss her activism on behalf of Planned Parenthood, her favorite ever role, and the joys of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.
The timing of this show seems to be auspicious.
The timing is intentional, honey. You bet. I vowed that what I really wanted to do was to bring this to Washington before the election. Because it’s not just a fun evening—although of course Molly was an extremely funny woman writer—but it’s level-headed, it’s politically savvy and insightful. A real illustration of how politics could work.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
Basically reading Molly’s work. It isn’t an attempt, I don’t think, to imitate anyone—I have no idea really what her physicality was like, except for what it had to have been. I’m a little younger than Molly but not by that much, we’re the same generation, pretty much. I think the biggest challenge was, out of the wealth of material that she wrote, the hundreds of columns and books, to be able to boil it down to an essence.
Would you say that your political views are aligned with Molly’s?
Very much so, yes. I don’t think I could do the other side. Someone actually asked me once if I’d be able to do Sarah Palin. I said, “I don’t think so, no.”
It’s basically a one-woman show. What are the challenges of carrying that for an hour?
Do you know how many words there are in 80 minutes? I’ve never counted them because I’m afraid to. There is a lot but the time flies when you’re doing it, and I think it flies for the audience as well. But it was intimidating in the beginning, to get at ease and to feel confident about that amount of material.
You did A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Arena in the ’80s.
I did, in ’81. We called it quite a “splashy” production, because I played Titania and Hippolyta, and we had a sunken pool in the set, so I kept diving and disappearing under the stage. It was great fun.
What do you think of the new facility?
I came down last year to help with the tributes for Edward Albee, and I got the tour. It’s just great. I’m so thrilled that our regional theaters can just be so well-supported. Because we don’t have a national theatre like other countries. This is the lifeblood of American theater here.
You attended college in this area.
I was at the University of Maryland-Baltimore my last year. There’s nothing better on earth than those steamed blue Chesapeake Bay crabs.
You’re chairman of the board of advocates at Planned Parenthood. Will you be testifying in Congress while you’re in Washington?
I hope so. I am certainly going to be speaking up, and I have received some very, very flattering requests as a speaker. Of course, they have to be luncheons because I’m onstage every night. I will certainly use whatever opportunity I’m given to try and speak up on women’s issues.
You’ve done some fantastic work in the theater.
I’ve been having a great time. Know what else I’m doing right now? I’m directing and starring in—for the first time, I’ve never done the two together, so it’s a new challenge—The Killing of Sister George. Which I start up at Longworth in New Haven immediately after I finish Molly Ivins at Arena.
Which role, theater or film or TV, would you most like to be remembered for?
I hope there are many, many to come. But I suppose, to date, I would have to say Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, because that was a role that I set my sights on when I was very young, about 20. I said, when I’m 50, this is where I want to be. And it became true, and I must say that it was everything I hoped we could have it be. I think Albee himself was extraordinarily pleased.
What do you look for in a role now?
As always, the character. And I have to confess, more and more as I get older, humor. I don’t think I have any stomach for great tragedy anymore—it just doesn’t appeal to me. I keep wanting to make people laugh. It’s the uniqueness of a character that draws my imagination. I find myself starting to think, “Well, why does she do that,” or, “How would I do that,” and then it gets fun. And once it starts getting fun, then I’m hooked.
Red-Hot Patriot is at Arena Stage August 23 through October 28. Tickets ($40 and up) available via arenastage.org.
An abbreviated version of this article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.