Turner Channels Molly Ivins In 'Red Hot Patriot'

Sep 6, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 10:04 am

Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Kathleen Turner stars in the play Red Hot Patriot. In the one-woman show, Turner plays the sassy newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, whose liberal wit first drew attention during her coverage of the Texas Legislature in the 1970s.

Hundreds of newspapers subscribed to Ivins' nationally syndicated column, where she was known for making fun of politicians and criticizing presidential action. The show uses many of Ivins' own words and quotes from her columns to tell the story of her life. Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007 at age 62.

Turner says that although she did not seek out this role, "knowing [Ivins] and knowing what she stood for, that made it irresistible," she tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Turner talks about the role and the challenges of playing a political character.


Interview Highlights

On playing a political character

"I have to confess that it's right up my alley ... not just her humor but also her positions and her values. I was asked if I could portray someone else, say, oh, someone like Sarah Palin. I said, no, I really didn't think I could do that. As good an actor as I am, I really just couldn't get behind that one. ...

"I'm here because I planned it this way, to be doing Molly right up until the elections, to have her voice out there, you know? But I would say that when it comes to more fictionalized pieces of theater — Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or other performances that I have done — I don't think that I have to necessarily agree with the character's values."

On why she took this role

"Molly is a liberal, absolutely, and believes very much in liberal values and believes in the community and the rightfulness of the American people. But more than that, she speaks of the responsibility and the right of being a citizen. And what I would hope and ... what I try ... to do in many ways is to galvanize people a little to become more active."

On acting in a one-woman show

"It's lonely up there. I mean, at least, what I can do, what I do get to do, is really engage the audience as sort of a part of the show.

"Now, it's a lot of fun playing with other actors, but you kind of pretend, of course, there's that fourth wall. So you sort of don't even acknowledge the people out there looking in. You just concentrate on the people you're on stage with. So I don't have that luxury. But the audience gives me enough to play with."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

While the Republicans and the president - and the Democrats are out of town, Washington, D.C., has another option for political theater. Kathleen Turner's performance as Molly Ivins whose liberal wit first came to notice in her coverage of the Texas legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

KATHLEEN TURNER: See, I would denounce some, son of a bitch in (unintelligible) as an egg-sucking child molester who ran on all fours and has the brains of an adolescent pissant. Next day, some bitch come up to me, throw open his arms and say, baby, you put my name in your papers.

CONAN: Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in "Red Hot Patriot" at the Arena Stage here in Washington, D.C. Actors, we want to hear from you. Who's the real person you would most like to play? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Kathleen Turner is with us here in Studio 3A, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

TURNER: Hi. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And in your heart of hearts, would you rather be in Charlotte than on stage tonight?

TURNER: No. No. Actually, I think I'm doing a lot better for liberal and women's views here on stage than I could be there.

CONAN: You're enjoying yourself in this role.

TURNER: Very much so. I have such fun.

CONAN: And obviously, you didn't write this play but...

TURNER: No. Margaret and Allison Engel, sisters and journalists, wrote it.

CONAN: And however, this is something a role that you must embrace with full heart.

TURNER: I do. I do. I have to confess that it's right up my alley in terms of her - not just her humor but also her positions and her values. I don't - I was asked if I could portray someone else, say, oh, someone like Sarah Palin. I said, no, I really didn't think I could do that. As good an actor as I am, I really just couldn't get behind that one.

CONAN: You think of George C. Scott, though, as Patton, someone who - you certainly did not endorse.

TURNER: Indeed. Yes, well, perhaps I am just simply a different kind of actor.

CONAN: Good. I was going to ask you if you inhabit a character like that, how important is it that they be close to you - your values, your morality, your politic?

TURNER: Well, in this case, it is because it is a political piece and it is about the values, and it is pre-election. I mean, I'm here because I planned it this way, to be doing Molly right up until the elections, to have her voice out there, you know? But I would say that when it comes to more fictionalized pieces of theater - "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or other performances that I have done. I don't think that I have to necessarily agree with the character's values. No.

CONAN: When you did "Virginia Woolf," for example, you're in a cast with a lot of volatile other people. You're not carrying the whole thing yourself.

TURNER: No. It's such - it's a blessing. I tell you. It's lonely up there. I mean, at least, what I can do, what I do get to do, is really engage the audience as sort of a - as part of the show. Now it's a lot of fun playing with other actors, but you kind of pretend, of course, is that fourth wall. So you sort of don't even know acknowledge the people out there looking in. You just concentrate on the people you're on stage with. So I don't have that luxury. So - but I - the audience gives me enough to play with.

CONAN: The only other actor in the play doesn't say a word.

TURNER: No. He's just a figure that sort of comes and goes, rather mysteriously.

CONAN: And the play is almost like a scripted stand-up.

TURNER: Well, she did write this way. I mean, she did write stories, and the stories had punch lines and, you know, punctuation points in her - when she was making her point. So this is very much true to - and 70 percent, I would say, of this piece are Molly's own words, you know? But to that, we have added the circumstances of her life and her history.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And her family. She starts out writing a column about her father who's clearly an important figure in her life.

TURNER: Very much so. And the fact it was she and her father disagreed drastically and emphatically, almost - I mean, she says, I hate his world and he hates mine. He was a big oil company, gas man, far, far right Republican, everything that she wanted to fight against.

CONAN: And in some degree, you get the feeling that a lot of what she did or at least started that way was rebellion.

TURNER: Very much so. She says - at one point, she says, you know, I wish I could tell you that I write and I do these things because I can't help myself. But the truth is it's mostly backtalk I wish I'd said to my father. Yeah, I think that was probably her first - her first instinct through the rebellion to find other values and other positions, and then she grew to believe in them most strongly.

CONAN: And throughout, though she showed such joy...

TURNER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...in everything she did.

TURNER: Yeah. I think that's one of the things I love most about doing her and about her. I had the opportunity to meet her a few times. One time in particular, we really had a little time with her and Ann Richards, which is a funny story. But I - she says, you know, celebrate the sheer joy of a good fight. And I have - I think she tackled everything that way.

CONAN: You mentioned Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas and a friend of Molly's and...

TURNER: Oh, close, close friend.

CONAN: ...and there's a wonderful line in the play where Molly quotes Ann Richards getting calls from the ACLU about a...

TURNER: Yeah. I love that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...nativity scene.

TURNER: Oh, I don't want to give it away now.

CONAN: Oh, well...

TURNER: No, no. Come to the play.

CONAN: Got to come to play.

TURNER: Yeah.

CONAN: All right. Are there other people, other living people you would be interested in playing? I know, for example, a friend of yours, does Governor Richards.

TURNER: Right, Holland Taylor, who is a very, very dear friend, yes, has - but she has written this play as well. I have to give her full credit for the fact that she created this piece as well as performed it. I, no, I never - never really entered my head to search out people that I would like to portray. Molly just kind of happened to me. And having, you know, knowing her and knowing what she stood for, that made it irresistible.

CONAN: We want to hear from other actors. Who is the real person you'would mostly like to play? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. I'm sure we have a message from Hal Holbrook saying Mark Twain is taken.

TURNER: Yes, that's right.

CONAN: Let's start with Dan. Dan on the line with us from St. Francis, Minnesota.

DAN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

TURNER: Hello.

DAN: Hi. Yeah, I think Joe Biden would be a great character to play.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Yeah. You're right. That's a good point.

DAN: I'm honestly saying this. I believe he's a - his losses in his early adulthood. I think he lost a son, used to take the public transportation to work, serving on the Armed Services Committee and vice president and maybe someday a president. I think he's a true patriot and quiet a character, and he gives a lot of leeway to an actor.

TURNER: And he has a good story, you're right.

DAN: He does have a very good story.

CONAN: Yeah. He did take the Amtrak every day to...

TURNER: From Delaware.

CONAN: ...from Delaware to Wilmington. So anyway, thanks very much, Dan.

DAN: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Here's an email from Alan(ph) in San Francisco, and he writes: Will the show be taken on the road, specifically, will it be played in San Francisco? I love Molly and actually got a chance to hear her in action in a conference several years ago. Love you, Kathleen. We saw you in "Virginia Woolf."

TURNER: I am - I imagine I will continue to play Molly on and off for a while. This particular production here in Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., was, you know, came about because I wanted very, very much to bring her here, to Washington before the election. But, however, the day after I finish this piece here, I'm directing and starring in another play...

CONAN: In...

TURNER: ...in "The Killing of Sister George...

CONAN: At the Long Wharf, right.

TURNER: ...at Long Wharf. We'll build it there and then bring it into New York City in the spring. So I don't know when I'll pick up Molly again, but she's a piece I think I could pick up from time to time all over.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe(ph), and Joe's with us from the Badlands of North Dakota.

JOE: And hi, Neal, and (technical difficulty) Turner.

TURNER: Hello.

CONAN: Are you having trouble with your cell phone there?

JOE: And perhaps, I'll - I'm in the Badlands where Teddy Roosevelt was a young man, and it seems I've gotten lost.

(LAUGHTER)

JOE: Well, here we are. Maybe we're picking up now.

CONAN: Yeah. We can hear you now.

JOE: I've traveled the country for six years as (technical difficulty). Audiences adore him. They know (technical difficulty) his rough rider persona, his (technical difficulty) legacy. And it's a delight to fill in some of the details that is (technical difficulty) adventurous life, a life he (technical difficulty) his life(ph).

CONAN: And we're still having trouble with the phone, but you're playing Theodore Roosevelt...

TURNER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...in theaters or in schools or where? Obviously, in the Badlands. We're going to have to...

TURNER: I think we lost him.

CONAN: ...give up. But bully for him.

But there are so much interest in accuracy. As you go through this play, did you make sure that these were Molly's words, and this was true to her life?

TURNER: Well, I know that my writers, Margaret and Allison Engel, were quite, quite careful about making sure that the facts surrounding her life, which is the structure that we gave this piece, were - are accurate. As to the exact wording, I believe, yes, they are direct quotes, a great many of them, and I try really hard to make sure I get them right.

CONAN: Because it's easy to sort of adlib a little bit.

TURNER: Well, you don't want to paraphrase somebody who writes like Molly Ivins.

CONAN: Let's go next to Colline(ph). Colline with us from Kansas City.

COLLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

COLLINE: I think Dorothy Parker, the columnist and witticist, I believe she was in the early '20s.

TURNER: Yes.

COLLINE: And she is hysterical, and she was so progressive. What a feminist. That at dinner party, she was asked to use the horticulture in a sentence. And she said, you can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINE: Very progressive woman of her time, and I think she's an intriguing. And I think those costumes would be beautiful to wear.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Then you get to go - say you're a member of the Algonquin Round Table so...

TURNER: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINE: Exactly.

CONAN: Can't play in The Bronx though. The Bronx, no thonx. Thanks very much, Kathleen - Colline, rather.

COLLINE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Kathleen Turner, the actor is portraying Molly Ivins in "Red Hot Patriot" at the Arena Stage here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This from Teri(ph) in Commerce Township, Michigan. I would love to play the suffragist Lucy Stone in a one-woman show. My husband and I played Lucy Stone and her husband in a two-person show in which we read the letters that led to their equal-partnership marriage. The world needs to know more about Lucy Stone. Her feud with Anthony and Stanton kept her largely out of the history books. So...

TURNER: Well, that is interesting. I don't know much about her, but I can see how if she were in a divisive relationship with Stanton and, you know, the leaders then of the woman suffragette movement, yeah, she could be kind of push to the side.

CONAN: You're doing this show, as you say, specifically in Washington, specifically during the election season as we're in the run up to November 6, yet this is a show - are you preaching to the choir here?

TURNER: No, no because it isn't really - I mean, yes, Molly is a liberal, absolutely, and believes very much in liberal values and believes in the community and the rightfulness of the American people. But more than that, she speaks of the responsibility and the right of being a citizen. And what I would hope and what we try - what I try, I should say, to do in many ways is to galvanize people a little to become more active.

CONAN: And what kind of reaction have you gotten?

TURNER: Well, fantastic, actually, just fantastic. People are cheering and on their feet and yelling at me, yes, sister.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: You know, really, one Sunday, I said, wait a minute. Are we in church now?

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin. Kevin with us from Boulder.

KEVIN: Yes. I'm acting with PHAMALY, the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League in Denver. And if I could be anyone, I think it would be Bill Clinton.

CONAN: And why Bill Clinton? I mean, obviously, there's a lot there too.

TURNER: Did you watch his speech last night?

CONAN: Yeah, he's a tough act to follow.

KEVIN: I missed his speech, but I'm going to watch on the Internet.

TURNER: Oh, you've got to.

KEVIN: Oh, yeah. And he just have so many complex and nuanced efforts and tensions in his life, and they're still evolving, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Oh, yeah. He's still going strong.

KEVIN: The problem is I have trouble with his voice.

TURNER: Oh, well, you have to work on that.

KEVIN: That's right. I will.

CONAN: And it's so recognizable. You got to get a reasonable approximation.

KEVIN: Got to nail it, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

KEVIN: I'm not good at that.

CONAN: Yeah. It's interesting. It was - thanks very much for the call. And "Good Night, and Good Luck," doing Edward R. Murrow - again a very famous voice - and doing it beautifully, reading those lines beautifully, but not as well as Ed Murrow read them.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It's a tough act.

TURNER: Yeah, but that was a good piece of filmmaking, yeah.

CONAN: It was a good piece, yeah. It's interesting. Did you get - do you get out of your show early enough to see President Clinton last night?

TURNER: Yeah, yeah. Because it's a monologue and we don't have intermission, it's just about 80 minutes. And so, yeah, I've been racing home to turn on MSNBC and catch the speeches. I was - I've been able to catch - I got to see Michelle's and I got to see last night from about 10 o'clock on, which encompassed, of course, all of President Clinton. And I'm hoping...

CONAN: And talking on and on and on and on.

TURNER: Yeah. I've got no problem with that. I'll tell you, he was - he did something that I felt had not been done up to this point, which was really assume that not only are we interested, but we can understand what he's telling us about what happens to this amount of money, where it goes and why. And so often, I think like many other people, I feel, what, do you think I'm an idiot that you don't even bother to tell me details? Or are you assuming I can't understand the complexity here? And he gave us the privilege and - of assuming that, yes, indeed, we do.

CONAN: There was an interesting moment. One of our staff members is working on the election special, on the convention special and said, she had a transcript of his speech, which was provided ahead of time, and fascinating to watch him speak and see how he deviated from the printed text and then got around to all his points.

TURNER: Well, you know, I caught a glimpse of Hillary Clinton today, this morning, also. She said very much the same thing, that she watched, you know, she watched it on her computer. And then she looked at the speech that had been sent to her and she said, you know, it's just Bill.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And, of course, you don't have that privilege. You've got to get the lines right.

TURNER: Yes.

CONAN: Well, good luck back on stage. And you are playing Molly Ivins for how long?

TURNER: Through October 28.

CONAN: And then up to New Haven and the Long Wharf Theatre.

TURNER: And the next piece, yeah.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, good luck and delightful to have you on the program with us today.

TURNER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Kathleen Turner is here with us in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, in this hour, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at how scientists track viruses from West Nile to hantavirus to swine flu. Join us for that. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.