05/04/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

Kathleen Turner, 31 Years Since Body Heat

More than three decades before playing an uptight Catholic mother in The Perfect Family (out in select theaters today), Kathleen Turner was eating the 1980s film world alive and wiping the floor with men after her debut as a femme fatale in Body Heat -- but she says she's a better actress since being what she calls the "hot, young thing" of Hollywood.

When I ask her about seeing herself now in 1981's Heat and then in Family, she lets out that famous husky laugh ... and then pauses to reflect on her long career.

"I look at Body Heat, and I see this striking woman," she says. "But I see acting mistakes. Now I see a subtlety that I like that I've acquired over the years."

In her newest picture, Turner plays Eileen Cleary, who isn't a femme fatale, but she manages to kill every mood and emotionally strangle loved ones with her precisian viewpoints. According to her, the beautiful sketch of familial bliss is smeared because her children aren't residents of her moral Shangri-La: her married son (Jason Ritter) philanders and her pregnant daughter (Emily Deschanel) is about to marry her girlfriend. Even after Eileen's recovered alcoholic husband (Michael McGrady) leaves their marriage because he's had it up to here with her constant exasperation, she tightly yanks up the ends of her mouth and expands her eye sockets in that anxious "nothing to see here, folks, move along" sort of way; she can't let Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) -- who has nominated her for Catholic Woman of the Year -- find out any of this. Running against her lifelong antagonist (Sharon Lawrence), Eileen can barely keep a lid on her fizzy jar of reality, leading to deceit and all kinds of ugly hypocrisy. Yet, with the subtlety she's assuredly acquired, Turner presents this character with a comical likeability that will satisfy rather than turn off audiences.

Last week, I caught up with Turner to talk about going from Broadway to movies and back again, crawling up Steve Martin's leg to get a part, Warren Beatty pursuing her and why she took on Eileen:

You've said theater is your first love. Why didn't you stay exclusively in theater? What was it about Hollywood that lured you to the screen?

It wasn't Hollywood; it was the work and the exploration of camera work. I always felt that film kind of happened to me. The real truth about what happened was I was happily in New York, I was doing my plays, I was on Broadway, and there were three women casting directors who, unbeknownst to me, were having a competition as to who would put me in my first film, and one of them, Wallis Nicita, cast Body Heat, so she won. ... I spent all my time when I was off camera on Body Heat ... next to the director and the cinematographer and everyone and saying, "Why, why, why? Why this camera? Why this lens? Why this angle? Why this light? Why this?" You know, trying to figure out how filmmaking was done so that I would do a good job on my side. Luckily, it was [Lawrence] Kasdan's first time directing, so he was asking so many questions, I could just stick close to him and learn as he did.

What expectations did you have about Hollywood coming from the stage? What did you think it was going to be like?

I have never lived [in Los Angeles] or Hollywood. I come for the job; I get on the first plane home to New York because that's the way I like to live. I like to live in a city, I like to be able to walk, I like to have friends who are not in the business, which are most of my friends. [In Los Angeles], it seems to me that, and it's always seemed to me, that the world of filmmaking or this industry is so inclusive, it's so... you don't get outside it much, you don't meet people from other fields, you don't walk out on the street with other professions or different levels of income or different backgrounds. It's very isolating. I've always felt very isolated [in Los Angeles].

Hollywood as filmmaking Hollywood, oh, at first, of course, I thought it was thrilling. I was the hot, young thing, so, you know, Warren Beatty is calling me up, and all these incredibly powerful, sexy men ... I'm happy to say I've resisted all of them! [laughs] It was pretty heady stuff, you know? But at the same time it was never real to me -- and, of course, since I didn't want to live [in Los Angeles], and I didn't invest any time here, I never fell into it. One of the first things I learned when I was working here was to always drive myself to any dinner or any restaurant or any place like that because you would be trapped! In New York, all you have to do is get on the street and get a taxi or the subway! Here, you're really stranded if you don't have your own transportation, and I did not like the idea of being beholden to anyone.

Early in your television and movie career, you seemed to be the one who men had finally met as their match...

Ah, ha ha!

...Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, William Hurt were among many who played against your strong and sexy playfulness. How did you consistently offer this rare mix, which men pined for, without alienating women?

That's an interesting question. I have never felt competitive to women, nor do I think they felt competitive toward me. I never bought that myth that women are so backstabbing or backbiting or whatever it is. I've always found women to be really quite supportive of each other, as well we should be, given the way this world is sort of around all these white men that control so much. Anyway! [laughs] That's another topic! I like the fact that you used "playfulness" because I used to have this big argument with John Huston that I maintained that sex is funny, and he would say, "No. No, no, no!" 'Course, he was definitely a bit misogynistic, definitely chauvinistic, definitely another generation, but he demanded and insisted that humor would dilute sex, dilute the power of sexuality, and I kept saying, "You are so wrong."

When did you first realize that you were funny?

I've always been funny! Every step of the way you have to prove yourself. I do Body Heat, right? So that's, like, a big, big femme fatale. So then I think I want to make fun of that. So The Man with Two Brains comes along, and I think, Perfect -- this is, like, a parody of a femme fatale. But Steve Martin and Carl Reiner say, "Yes, but is she funny?" So I have to go in, and I have to fall down on the floor, I have to trip over things, I have to crawl up Steve's leg and make 'em laugh, and they say, "Oh, okay, she's funny."

Then, I wanted to do a woman the opposite of that, maybe insecure, maybe unsure of herself and not thinking she's attractive at all, so along comes Romancing the Stone, and they say, "Yeah, well, she can be funny and she can be sexy, but can she be insecure?" Okay, here we go again: Go in, put on some tattered, old sweat clothes and stuff, stumble around, and be vulnerable and insecure. "Oh, okay! She can do that too." Every step of the way it seems I'm still having to prove what I can do. By now perhaps [I've proven it]. In any case, finally, I think people started to put it together. As [Laurence] Olivier used to say, "It's called acting."

In The Perfect Family, Eileen is totally repressed. She battles her family's choices and behaviors but mostly battles herself. What drew you to play someone like her?

Essentially, that incredible conflict. How do you completely embrace the teachings of an organized religion like Catholicism? And I don't think it has to be just Catholicism. I think almost any rigid organized religion will do; this is just the framework we use. How do you accept that, follow that, accept whatever it says, and yet live in the world with other people? I just don't get it. You're bound to exclude other people. You're bound to shut yourself off from so many things, and then to have it be the people you love most in the world. Wow. How do you live with that? [Eileen screwed it up], but she also learned and [her family] did too. See, the compassion worked both ways: they showed up for her.

How did you get into Eileen's head and start to view people with such judgment?

This was one of the things I wanted to explore: I don't really understand how someone just, you know, is told, "This is how you behave and these are the rules," and says, "okay, yes." This really doesn't make sense to me. But if you are that kind of person, if you do agree to that contract, then what do you do? How do you live? How do you react? That is what I wanted to explore. I think we found some truth in that it fails. The construct fails. You cannot maintain that kind of rigidity and be true to the essence of a religion like Christianity.

Among the roles you've played over the years, which ones were closest to who Kathleen Turner really is?

I would really have to say [Romancing the Stone's] Joan Wilder, because, look, I didn't come into this world thinking, Oh, I'm sexy and I'm powerful, I can do anything I want. Uh-uh. Uh-uh. Uh-uh. Nobody's that way. Oh, my God, if they are, then they're an arrogant idiot! So, having to find the confidence, having to find and build a sense of self is what we do. It's what our passage is. So, Joan rings very true to a lot of me, [who] does not walk around thinking, Oh, I could handle this. She's like, "Please? Can I handle it?" [laughs]

How did making The Perfect Family change your way of thinking when it comes to praise? Like Eileen, you've been in the running for awards. Oscars, Golden Globes...

I think the only award I really, really, really, really wanted was the [2005 Tony] nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [on Broadway] because I thought that was some of the best work of my whole life thus far, and it was a job I had dreamed of for years and years. So I really did want that one, but it's such a ridiculous construct that you can put five people, or however many, who are being celebrated for their uniqueness up against each other. It doesn't really make sense: who's the best unique? I think I just wanted it so much for Virginia Woolf because I had so many years invested in that woman. But it's okay...but [the awards system] doesn't work. It's a nice way to recognize people, but there is some truth to the saying that being nominated is enough.

So you feel it's enough.

Well, I do, actually. I do because I don't think there is a winner, per se.

The Perfect Family is directed by Anne Renton. Watch the trailer here.