Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart—the comic southern-gothic story of three sisters in Hazlehurst, Mississippi—won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, became a movie a few years later, and, on February 7, reappears at the Roundabout as the first play directed by Kathleen Turner. Fresh off her grueling run as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Turner mounted the show with much the same cast at the Williamstown Theater Festival over the summer. Sarah Paulson, who costarred in David Leveaux’s 2005 production of The Glass Menagerie and Aaron Sorkin’s late Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, plays the middle sister, Meg. The pair spent a recent rehearsal break talking about acting, directing, and women’s roles.
You two have some history together. Friends at Last, a 1995 made-for-TV movie about a divorcing couple…
Sarah Paulson: It was my first on-camera job—oh, I think I’d done an episode of Law & Order. Kathleen Turner: You had. S.P.: I played Kathleen’s daughter. It was nerve-racking. When you’re just out of school, and you get to work with someone that you’ve always admired—it was very intimidating. I was barely 19 or 20. K.T.: I’m supportive. S.P.: It’s the voice that makes everyone think that she’s scary. Kathleen’s a pussycat. K.T.: Unless you’re an incompetent idiot, and then I’m really pissed off.
And I guess Sarah wasn’t an incompetent idiot?
K.T.: Not at all. S.P.: It was my first experience ever working with anybody who’s famous or an actor of note of any kind, and she was in a lot of pain… K.T.: The arthritis was really bad, so I’d have to go off during lunch and get my joints drained. They’d pull out this yellow liquid.
Sarah—is she as demanding of her actors?
S.P.: Oh, she’s tough. You can’t be late, and there’s no goofing off in the corner. If you’re in the room, you’re focused. K.T.: In Williamstown, we had something that I’ve done before: the Fuck-up Fund.
The Fuck-up Fund?
K.T. Yeah. If you’re late, or your phone’s ringing during a scene, then you pay a buck into the Fuck-up Fund. And then at the end of the run we buy a bottle.
Nice. Are other parts of how you direct influenced by your being an actor?
K.T.: I think you’re more aware in many ways of when to push, when to let it stew. I’m an advocate of the faucet school of directing.
What’s the faucet school?
K.T.: When my husband and I were renovating a brownstone, and I was agonizing over the hardware in the bathroom, he finally said to me, “Just buy a faucet. If you’re not in love with it, we’ll change it later. But get something that works now.” And so that’s my theory of directing: We need to have something that’s workable enough that we can move through. Otherwise, really, you just keep stopping yourself all the time. For many actors it’s a kind of avoidance, or maybe insecurity, that they fixate on little things. You need to get to the little things after you’ve found out why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
Sarah, is it different to be directed by someone who’s usually an actor?
S.P.: It’s obvious that she’s an actor first. In Williamstown, I had a mini-breakdown one day. I couldn’t figure out how to do the scene when Meg comes back from being out with Doc, and she comes into the room with all this brightness and energy. It’s hard to do—it feels a little exposing. I remember trying a couple of things that weren’t working, and I think I just hit my threshold of feeling like a fool, and I got emotional. And Kathleen was very gentle about saying, “It’s okay. We’ll take a break and come back to it.’’ [To Turner] I wonder, do you watch us and think, Just do this! K.T.: Yes. [Laughs.] I try to keep my mouth shut, for a while at least.
Why? You’re giving direction…
K.T.: No, no. As an actor, you have to feel conviction yourself. So I can say, “All right, what if you were to do this?”—which probably means that I think that’s right. But they’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay. S.P.: And you’re very good at not pushing. She’ll say, “Just try it, if it doesn’t work, we’ll let it go.”
Kathleen, what do you like about directing rather than acting?
K.T.: Directing is so interesting. There’s all these props, designs for the set, costumes—I can’t wait until we get into the light, because I adore lighting. As an actor, very often you don’t concern yourself with other people’s actions, because it’s not your business. It’s all my business now. [Laughs.] But the last ten years, I’ve wanted to stay onstage, because as you get older as a woman there are more great roles. I mean, Martha—I waited 40 years to do her.
Sarah, your role has been played by Mary Beth Hurt and Jessica Lange. Is that tough? Harder than one made famous by Uta Hagen and Liz Taylor?
S.P.: [Laughs.] Not to slight anyone, but I think Kathleen might have had it rougher. K.T.: Actually, the film of Virginia Woolf—I never saw all of it, just glimpses. But I hated it. It was almost humorless—they cut it badly. I actually think, after doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then Virginia Woolf, that part of my mission in life is to correct Elizabeth Taylor’s performances.
Here you’ve got a female author, a female director—
K.T.: Almost all female designers—
Plus three female leads. This is quite the chick-power production.
K.T.: I’m a little worried… S.P.: When we all get our period! It hasn’t happened yet, but, boy. Everyone’s gonna sync up, and it’s gonna be a nightmare in here. K.T.: The other day, Beth, the playwright, started to write something in her script, and up to that point she hadn’t done anything but watch. And you should’ve seen the faces on the actors. S.P.: “She hates it, she hates it, she hates everything!”
Did you find out what she wrote?
K.T.: Yeah. She wants to change the word davenport to sideboard.