Kathleen Turner has played insane women (murderous mother Beverly Sutphin in John Water's Serial Mom) and insane women (Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). So her turn as Eileen in The Perfect Family—a perfect Catholic wife and mother who is trying to keep her lesbian daughter's relationship and deadbeat son's failed marriage under wraps—keeps you on your toes, wondering when something kooky is about to happen. But instead of breaking out into a rage, Turner contains that intensity, and we see a conflicted woman who is trying to come to terms with how her religion's rigid dogma can work in her own complicated life.
The onscreen portrayal of a lesbian relationship may also seem so authentic (Emily Deschanel is gorgeous as Eileen's daughter) because there is a network of lesbians that have made the film happen, not least director Anne Renton and the producers (who are also a couple) Jennifer Dubin and Cora Olson.
We sat down with Turner and Renton to discuss how the film came about and why no one should mistake Eileen for that crazy wannabe perfect mother, Beverly Sutphin.
Out: So how did you and Anne come to be working on this film together?
Kathleen Turner: In a project like this, which is an independent film, you don’t have a lot of time and you don’t have a lot of money. It’s really about the people that you’re working with. It’s starts always with the story, with the script, but who you’re gonna be working with is a difference between a good film and a failed film in this type of pressure cooker. And I liked Anne tremendously: she’s smart. She knew what she wanted And she was even-tempered. No small quality. And after they did the rewrites that I asked for, it was pretty much that they used everything that we talked about. Then it was put up or shut up.
Were you looking for an indie film to make?
KT: No I was trying to fit in, man. We just had one month.
So where was the film shot, L.A.?
Anne Renton: Yes, but hopefully you won’t know that. We went to Pasadena and wanted suburbia.
KT: We went way the hell out.
AR: Well to find their house, that was quite a challenge.
KT: Boy was that place crappy.
AR: Oh my god.
KT: It was awful.
In what way?
KT: The quintessential suburban home. And when the set designer got done with all the gray, greens, browns. [Snorts]
AR: Well, we couldn’t really find Eileen’s house at first. That house [we used] was on the market and they let us come in and shoot and said, “Do whatever you want.” Our production designer, frankly, did a fantastic job because the house really was perfect for the character.
I did think that was well done: The sort of suburban suffocation that is felt in the film.
KT: Well, I don’t know. I like this woman very much. When I think of the level of fear that she’s lived with for so many years. When she finally says toward the end, “When I married your father I didn’t know how to drive. I’ve never brought in a paycheck in my life. When I thought he would leave me with two small children, what could I do?” I think that’s a constant fear for many women. What the hell do they do if something happens to the man? I would be terrified. I think those kind of choices happen a lot. I don’t think fundamentally they are always religious.
You certainly brought a nuance to her. The sort of confusion she’s dealing with, that we could see played out on your face.
KT: I like Eileen very much. And like so many women, her intentions are very, very good. She doesn’t set out to hurt anybody. Or even be overly judgmental. And the love she has is very clear. But the conflict of, How do you follow this rigid doctrine and apply it to real life, that’s tough.
Was the Catholicism confusing or something you understood?
KT: I didn’t know much of anything about the Catholic church: the rules and regulations and all that stuff. To me, it isn’t about “Catholic.” It’s any church that is exclusive and says, “This is the only way.” Catholicism is a very familiar contract.
AR: Yeah, a lot of people know about the tenets of that religion. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but I grew up in that kind of environment. Not Catholic, but where: This is right, this is wrong. This is sin, this is not sin. So when I read the script, I immediately got it. Even if some of traditions don’t exist in other religions, but the essence does.
So neither of you is Catholic?
KT: No, we’re ignorants.
OK, I do have admit, I love the movie Serial Momthat you did with John Waters. And there were moments in this film—when you were driving the car or on the phone—that I thought of you in…
You know Beverly Sutphin is insane. You do realize that? Right?
Yes, I know but we wonder if she’s going to snap because we have…
There are hints of the suburban mom that evoke each other. With her listening to her Barry Manilow… Beverly is so insane. It didn’t worry me too much.
I just think that when…
They’ll flash to it? Well, they’ll get over it.
You’re right. But you have done such daring movie and stage roles. This is something quite different from some of your other iconic characters, did it pose its own challenges?
It was its own challenge. I had to really assiduously avoid a lot of the forcefulness, a lot of the, you know, sort of inherent, thoughtless power that I sometimes bring along with me. I had to really to think of keeping that out of her. That was an interesting challenge in itself.
Obviously as a man with a mother, I read my own experiences into Eileen and her actions in the movie. And I think others will to. But do you think it will appeal to women and mothers more since the mother-daughter story is very important?
AR: You know what’s really interesting? We’ve done screenings at festivals and in other countries. And I had a woman who is friends with our writer, saw the film at Tribeca (I don’t know if I’ve told you this story, Kathleen.) This woman wanted to meet me and tell me how much the film impacted her. Her daughter is lesbian, and she had not been unable to accept her daughter’s partner. And didn’t really have a relationship with her daughter’s partner. And she was crying when she talked to me and said, “This film just made me stop and think: What am I doing? And why am I doing this.”
KT: That’s a lovely thing.
AR: She said she would have missed this aspect of her daughter’s life. I’ve had young people come up to me—even in Korea—someone stood up and said, “Did you know that Korean mothers are just like this?”
KT: The mother-daughter thing is probably the strongest relationship because it’s also the one we see the most of. But I think ultimately it’s about the family. When the family shows up for her. You can’t question the family’s love. To me that’s the strongest aspect.
The Perfect Family opens on May 4 in New York, May 11 in Los Angeles and is available On Demand
Watch the trailer below