Kathleen Turner is so convincing as the boozy, acerbic Martha in the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that the New York Times critic actually apologized for doubting she could handle the role. The truth is, a year ago she couldn't have. More than a decade of rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged her joints, and a growing dependence on alcohol led to rehab in 2002. After a knee replacement last year and a new course of drugs (several years ago she was a paid spokeswoman for a pharmaceutical company), Turner, 50, is storming through eight shows a week—and even working out with her husband of 20 years, real estate developer Jay Weiss, 49. (Their daughter Rachel is now 17.) In her dressing room before curtain, the actress spoke to People correspondent Natasha Stoynoff about feeling, for the first time in years, "like a person, a real, normal person."
When did you first notice the signs of the arthritis?
During the filming of Serial Mom in 1993 [my shoes] got smaller and tighter and painful. I found I couldn't get into any of my shoes at all. I got into my sneakers, unlaced. So I go to this top podiatrist in New York City, and this guy takes X-rays and says he sees nothing and says, "Why don't you buy bigger shoes?"—as if it was a vanity issue.
Did it get worse?
What this disease does is...you always hurt. Always, always, always. Lying down doesn't help, standing up doesn't help. It also gives you a low-level fever and a sort of flu all the time. You are always fighting yourself, always feeling like you are losing.
Was it hard for your family?
My daughter was about 4 or 5 when all this really hit the fan. And I was sobbing one morning, I was in the bathroom and got out of the shower and I had a plastic bottle of moisturizer, and I couldn't squeeze it. I couldn't make my hands work. And she comes in and she says, "Mommy, Mommy, what's wrong?" And I said, crying, "I can't...I can't work my..." and she said, "Oh, I can!" And she took the bottle from me and got it all over me. You don't want to look so helpless in front of your child. You want to be a fortress. But at one point, she was feeding me because I couldn't hold a spoon. She'd want to jump off the swing set, and she'd say, "Catch me?!" And I'd say, "No! No! I can't!" I never thought I would show her such weakness. The other thing that was terribly difficult was, my husband and I very much wanted another child. But you cannot take those drugs and get pregnant. And by the time I got off them, it was [too late].
Until recently you took heavy steroids and a form of chemo for your arthritis. How did they make you feel?
Sick as a dog. And bloated. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. They make you depressed and angry. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd be in a rage. I looked like some kind of walking drunk.
Some colleagues at the time speculated you were drunk. Why didn't you tell them about your illness?
Remember, 10 years ago nobody knew what autoimmune diseases were. Can you imagine these young men in Hollywood going, "Oh my God, she's sick!" How many times have they hired actors who have been drunk or drug-addicted? How many times have they signed contracts and waived insurance [for that]? But not if you're sick. I didn't dare say anything.
You've said you did develop a drinking problem during this time. Why?
I discovered that alcohol kills pain. Medicines don't work, but alcohol does. I did it consciously for a while to kill the pain. But then I began to accept it just as drinking. Never before a show; if anything, on an off night. Even when I got the new medicines, I was in the habit of drinking too much.
You checked into rehab in 2002. What was the turning point?
I had a blackout. I was safe, but I didn't know what had happened. And I'm a little bit of a control freak. I didn't like that at all.
Do you drink at all now?
I have a little champagne on New Year's Eve. I'll have a celebration on my birthday. But at the end of the night I don't say, "Let's have a cocktail." It's tough sometimes. [But] I don't want to blur my reality.
Was cutting back difficult?
No. The reasons are very clear. I've beaten the rheumatoid arthritis to an extent. I've beaten all the odds against marriage. I have a kid who is sane, funny, good and smart. I have a wonderful life. Wouldn't that be dumb to risk it?
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