In the new HBO series White House Plumbers, veteran actress Kathleen Turner, 68, plays Dita Beard, the foul-mouthed lobbyist who ended up entangled in some dirty deals with the Nixon administration. The five-part series, premiering May 1 and featuring Woody Harrelson as E. Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy, tells the true story of how Nixon’s own political masterminds ended up toppling his presidency.
1. Dita Beard was quite a character. Was she fun to play?
It was terrific. I loved it. I will never forget running through the airports with Justin Theroux pushing me with an oxygen tank and a cigarette. I have to say, I had an absolute ball doing White House Plumbers, but the most extraordinary thing to me is how this is all factual. These guys actually thought they could do this crap and not be caught. ... It just seems insane.
2. Had you worked with Justin or Woody before?
No. I knew Woody. We met several times. We were next door to each other in theaters in London. He was doing [Night of the] Iguana and I was doing [Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf? … I didn’t know Justin, and I was very, very pleased. … I’m not content to meet people for the first time on set when you start working with them. So I’ll go to their trailer and I’ll meet them in the makeup trailer or I’ll find a way to just be with them before. Well, Justin came to my trailer. I didn’t even know he was on set yet, and he came to my trailer and said he wanted to introduce himself. Good on you, man. One of the things I’m trying to teach — I am teaching more and more — is a kind of tradition and courtesy and the way you treat other actors and people in the industry with respect, whether they are above or below the line, because … it makes for so much of a different atmosphere on set or backstage. Really, truly, it can add so much to the production value.
3. Where are you teaching?
I’ve taught at NYU and other master classes at other universities, but I got more serious about it during the pandemic. We set up Zoom sessions, and that way I could do [classes for students in] L.A. and New York. Although the poor L.A. people had to start acting at like 8 a.m., which personally I would not be able to do, but God bless them. … All last fall I was teaching one week a month down at University of Virginia with their graduate acting students. And this year, I’m going to teach down at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is something I really want to develop more because it’s the community of the faculty I like; working with young people, I love. I’m really, really excited about it.
4. Are the students a little starstruck when they first see you?
You have to give them the first half hour to get over their nonsense.
5. Growing up, you moved often and lived overseas because of your father’s career in the foreign service. Was any country your favorite, and do you speak any foreign languages?
I speak Spanish, some French, some Italian. Romance languages. Give me a week in Paris and wine, and I’m doing pretty well with French. I love Italy. I love Spain. I really do. Andalusia, the southern portion of Spain, is just enchanting to me. I find it magical. A few years ago my daughter and I took a vacation, and we rented a car, and we just drove all over Andalusia. We based ourselves in Córdoba, which is a beautiful city, and just had the best time. This past June we took a couple weeks in England. We hadn’t been back to Europe in two years, which was tough because [typically] I go every year to Europe. We had houses out in the countryside, in Wales. We shopped at farmers markets and farms and made our own meals mostly and drove around the countryside.
6. Back at home in New York City, what’s a perfect day off?
Good book, a lovely restaurant, some good wine and food, a walk along the river. I love the Hudson River Park. They’ve done such a beautiful job there. I like walking down to the tip, to the harbor. It’s like the rest of the world is out there. That’s one reason I always wanted to live in New York, because it’s as close as I can get to the rest of the world. L.A. never felt like that.
7. What shows are you watching these days?
I watch a lot of news, I must confess. Probably too much. Certainly in the evenings, the BBC and PBS and stuff I’m rather religious about. … I’ve been watching Shrinking; I was watching She-Hulk: [Attorney at Law on Disney+]. I love that actress [Tatiana Maslany]. She just cracks me up.
8. Do you have a favorite acting genre?
I have to confess, making people laugh pleases me most. I’ve been doing [my one-woman show] Finding My Voice in Arizona, Virginia, New York. It’s autobiographical, but it’s also about my politics, my beliefs and then songs to highlight the text. It makes me very nervous at times because I’ve written it. It’s not a script that I’m hiding behind. Everything has to be true. True, period. I just love it. I love the people. I love the feeling I get from them. At one point I say, “Every day I am astounded by the affection that has been given to me over the years, and I hope people know it is returned.” And I sing “On My Way to You,” and it’s a lovely feeling.
9. In Finding My Voice, you are very open about your health struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. How have you persisted over adversity?
When [growing up and living abroad] we used to get all upset about having to go back to Venezuela, go back to Cuba, go back to other places [after] we’d be home [in the States] for a while. [My grandfather] listened and he’d nod and he’d say, “Well, you just have to, don’t you?” That really comes down to that. Oh God, I don’t want to. It hurts too much. I don’t think I can handle it. Well, you just have to.
10. Looking back, what would you tell your 20-year-old self?
That I was on the right path. Everyone [saying] “It’s too iffy” and all the endless, endless doubts and my family [saying] “There’s no sure income. There’s no sure security.” They’re family, they worry about this stuff. Yeah, OK, I understand. I will take it into consideration, but no. I just simply never thought I would not make a go out of this career. Honestly it never hit me.
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