Kathleen Turner has been a film star and stage star, vamp and tramp, comic and deadly. It's been a long, dramatic arc for Turner, whose voice now is both as warm and furry as whiskey and as hard as the shot glass that holds it.
For the past six weeks at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., she's been playing the lead character in Mother Courage and her Children, the 1939 play by Berthold Brecht. Mother Courage is a war profiteer and a mother, a peasant without a country trying to calculate her chances of survival.
Brecht's play is considered one of the great dramas of all time, a staunchly anti-war broadside that showcases one of theater's great female protagonists. NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with Turner about tackling the massive part in an ambitious in-the-round production — and about her long career.
On the character of Mother Courage
Well, it's the Thirty Years War, which is one of those examples of insanity that we [humankind] are constantly creating. When something like war starts, stopping it or finding avenues to resolve it are almost impossible. This is still clearly quite true today. Mother Courage, to me, is an eminently sensible, practical — and I think loving — woman, [a] mother. Interviewers have said to me, "Well, didn't you find it difficult to play such an awful person?" And I say "What?"
She is not a landowner. She doesn't have a position in any kind of society. She has to [turn to] whatever skills were available to her — which in this case is marketeering, essentially, black-market work. [It is] very respectable, and a very positive sort of business for her to have as a woman with three children. I think she's done quite well to set herself up in this business.
On what courage means to Mother Courage
She lost her older son. He was impressed into an army. When they were on the road, he was taken by a recruiting sergeant and impressed. She hasn't seen him for two years. And she comes upon him at the camp of this commander-in-chief who is rewarding her son for having killed some peasants and captured some cows to feed the troops. And she says, "He must be a rotten general, because he needs his men to be brave. Let's face it, whenever the heroics are called for, it means somebody has screwed up. Think about it. What is courage but a failure of planning? That's all."
On whether she felt intimidated by past performers in the role of Mother Courage
Honestly, I make a point to never see a production of something that I think I might do. Though I ran into Olympia Dukakis when in December we were doing a poetry reading together ... at Town Hall in New York. And she said, "I hear you're taking on the Mother." And I said, "Yeah." And she said, "Well, I've done it seven times ... so I'll tell you this. Think of this as your first time." I thought that was kind of helpful.
On people's expectations of the play
I run into this kind of attitude. "Oh, it's Brecht. It's about the Thirty Year War. It must be grim." And [I] go, "You know what? Come and laugh with us. Because you will."
On whether she plans to continue pursuing stage acting roles
Well no, I still want camera work. Although I much prefer stage. I find filmmaking very slow, kinda boring — unless I'm directing it, which is a whole different thing. But I truly am of the philosophy that I have to find projects that I might fail at doing. Because if I don't, then I am just repeating what I already know I can do. And secondly I won't ever know what I might be able to do. Now the risk is failing, you know. But that is the price of finding out what more you can do.