Kathleen Turner: Relishing Raunch in a New Era

The "Body Heat" star's found a new over-the-top alter ego on "Californication."

Oct. 16, 2009 — -- Once a sex symbol, always a sex symbol.

To be sure, Kathleen Turner today looks a lot different from the siren who made movie goers sweat in 1981's "Body Heat." Stalled for years by rheumatoid arthritis and the alcoholism that ensued, the 55-year-old actress has been to hell and back.

But in Showtime's raunchy, rowdy, David Duchovny-helmed "Californication," the girl prove's she's still got it -- the power to enthrall audiences with her throaty drawl, the ability to make all other characters fade into the background when she steps into a scene.

Of course, it's hard to focus on anything else when Turner's Sue Collini, a middle aged Hollywood agency exec. with the mouth of a porn star and the sexual appetite of a college co-ed, sucks the finger of her favorite foot soldier and object of desire, Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler), and shoves it in her skirt with nary an explanation but a breathy groan. What she does say in the series can't be printed here. Collini is over the top and out of line, and Turner loves it.

"I like doing outrageous things. I seem to be sort of making speciality of it, being this crazy middle aged woman," she told ABCNews.com. "When I'm doing something, I don't think about what other people are going to think about it. Just doing it is where I get my kicks. Then of course, to see it with other people, you realize how out there it is."

The "out there" factor drew Turner to "Californication," much to the delight of series creator and executive producer Tom Kapinos.

"I've grown pretty cynical at this point but when I come up with a character, there's a prototype in my head, and for Sue Collini, I thought 'Oh, Kathleen Turner,'" he said. "And when you're doing TV, you think Kathleen Turner and you end up with someone far down the list. But we called her, and the deal closed within a day. I figured I'd have to call her and plead and promise that she wouldn't be having sex with animals or something."

Nope, though maybe it helped his case that "Californication" hasn't broached bestiality (yet). Turner was hungry for a role with meat, something she said is hard to come by for middle-aged women in Hollywood these days.

'Californication' Character Parallels Turner

"If you don't have stage training, you're truly limited. They don't write good roles for women. If you're not immediately identifiable as the ingénue or sex symbol, they don't know what to write. Write a character? I mean, a character? Who has thoughts and feelings and opinions? They don't know how to do it."

With Sue Collini, Turner's found a role she can dig into, and a character that mirrors some of her favorite qualities.

"She's ballsy, which I like. I would give myself credit for that. She's unapologetic; I'll go with that one too. She has a good sense of humor, and I like that."

Turner's funny as well, with a dry, self-depreciating wit that no doubt evolved as armor necessary to survive in the acting industry for so long.

She blew up with "Body Heat," which still maintains its status as one of the sexiest movies ever, but after rising to the A-list and starring in a handful of movies, including "Romancing the Stone" with Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito and its sequel, "The Jewel of the Nile," she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and her career screeched to a halt. Told she would end up in a wheelchair, Turner went on an aggressive course of drugs that ravaged her mind and body. The woman who once said "On nights when I feel great about myself, if I walk into a room and a man doesn't look at me, he's either dead or gay," became unrecognizable to her fans. As the disease worsened, she turned to alcohol.

"When you're in chronic pain, It's very hard to realize the effect it has on your mind as well," she said. "It's a constant depressant. It really mucks up your thinking. If you go to a restaurant, is the bathroom downstairs? Because I can't go there if it is. So yeah, you try a lot of stuff, in my case, excessive drinking for a while to kill pain. And it does, it does kill pain, but it causes even more."

Turner's arthritis went into remission after years of treatment; it took longer to kick the drinking. She acted throughout -- notably on Broadway in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and on TV playing Chandler Bing's gender-bending father on "Friends." (Her comment on that role: "That was silly wasn't it? I had never been a woman playing a man playing a woman before. It was amazing!") But after wrapping filming on "The Graduate" in 2002, she checked into a Pennsylvania rehab center, and kicked the habit for good.

Turner: 'Damn Sexy' 'Till the End

She's thrilled to be working again in better health, but oh, how things in Hollywood have changed. Megan Fox is hot and all, but they don't make 'em like they used to.

"One of the things that's happened over the last ten years is a kind of mean spiritedness about sex, sex being used as a weapon, instead of a glorious celebration of it," Turner said. "There's a mean spiritedness to humor now too. I just don't think that's appealing."

"I think a lot of these young actors and actresses are in a really tough position," she continued. "I always managed to keep my private life quite private. You never saw pictures of my daughter or my home. I don't know that they can do that anymore, so they're constantly on stage, as it were. I think that pressure must be awful. And I think they're too skinny. I do, I worry. I have a daughter and when she was growing up, I was like 'You look great, don't listen to any of this s**t.'"

Asked if she saw a younger version of herself in any of the industry's rising stars, Turner chortled and said she "would never be so arrogant as to think that. Everyone is themselves, everyone is unique." She herself intends to keep playing the part of the sensual seductress so long as she's given a set or stage.

"I'm not ready to say a middle aged woman no longer has sexual drive or appeal. That's really offensive. We're damn sexy, man."