She's A Killer -- Kathleen Turner, The Feisty Actress With The Smoky Voice And Killer Smile, Talks About Her Work, Her Life And Her New Role As A Tough-As-Nails P.I.

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. - The Hamptons are just oozing into happy hour when Kathleen Turner kind of twirls into her local watering hole.

In Hollywood, she is one of the most bankable actresses, a post-modern, old-fashioned sultress who first steamed up the lens 10 years ago as Matty Walker in "Body Heat" and has spent the better part of the decade as the keeper of the Bacall flame.

But here on Long Island, where she has summered every year for almost as long as she has been a star, Turner's just another good customer.

That she has two movies opening this year - "V.I. Warshawski," a detective thriller from Disney that opens tomorrow, and "House of Cards," a tear-jerker coming in the fall - seems to matter less than finally being on vacation.

"I'm off for the whole summer," she says wrapping her smoky voice into a bow of a smile.

She spent last summer on Broadway, where she got a Tony nomination as Maggie in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Before that it was "The War of the Roses," another successful teaming with Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito. Now come these two films, low-profile projects with virtually unknown directors.

It is a surprising move even for an actress who has delighted in taking chances with her career and potshots at her image.

Turner looks less like a vacationing star than a schoolgirl who has cut afternoon classes to hang out with her friends.

Her voice is still throaty, from years of training and more years smoking her favorite brand of Canadian cigarettes. In a world of Madonna and Linda Hamilton Nautilized physiques, the 37-year-old Turner is a welcome throwback to a time when stars had colored hair, capped teeth, killer smiles and it was the legs, not the pectorals, that the camera loved.

She seems like the kind of woman who found out she could make a lot of money in a skin-tight dress in front of a camera, but is happiest sitting here in her baggy sundress and sandals killing an hour before she heads home to throw something on the grill for her husband, developer Jay Weiss, and daughter Rachel, 3 1/2.

But about the movie. . .

Turner, an avid reader, was familiar with the hard-boiled but self-deprecating private eye Vicky Warshawski created by novelist Sara Paretsky and quickly signed on to the project.

She did many of her own stunts, one of which gave her a broken nose. "I'm such a klutz," she says, laughing. "But I think it's better if you do your own stunts - it's more powerful, you can get the camera in closer."

Turner and director Jeff Kanew resisted studio pressure to soften the film, particularly some of its violence - in one scene Turner's Warshawski is literally punched in the face, and in its shootout ending she dispatches the bad guys.

"There was a lot of pressure to change things," she says. "But I said, `No, I'm not going to make all those safe choices.' I didn't spend two hours building a heroine to have someone come along and say, `Let me help you now.' So they backed off."

For Turner, the interest in "V.I. Warshawski" seems less a passion to do this particular movie than an opportunity to create another protagonist similar to her earlier characters: Joan Wilder, Barbara Rose, Peggy Sue, Matty Walker - independent, feisty, funny, resourceful women who show as much intelligence as they do leg.

"Yeah, she is sort of in my tradition, although a little less glamorous," says Turner, raking a hand through her hair. "Or maybe she's just less stylized, more modern day, more current.

"I didn't want to be sensationalistic so audiences will say, `Oh, a woman is doing all that,' or `Oh, a woman is getting punched in the face.' At the same time, that scene where she gets hit is really the reason I did the film. I'm tired of women being used for effect."

Which brings Turner to a discussion of roles for women in Hollywood these days.

For someone whose film career is due in no small measure to her Bacall-like image - she once said that any man who wasn't attracted to her "on the nights that I'm `on' must be gay" - Turner seems blithely unconcerned about her future opportunities in front of the camera.

"I think as you get older you do more theater," she says flatly. "The more interesting roles for women are in plays and you look forward to the time you are not the love interest, which means you have a man protagonist and you are the second banana.

"The roles for women like that are much stronger in theater and I think that should translate into film. I mean, there is such a strong body of women actresses working today, and we make them (studios) so much money, that they have to write for us. It would be stupid not to provide me with material. So I assume that is happening."

Despite Turner's refusal to live anywhere but New York, she has no immediate plans to return to the stage.

"Broadway is such a big commitment," she says frowning slightly. "Rehearsals and a minimum of six to eight months on stage."

Instead, Turner says she is awaiting the possibility of "Warshawski" sequels.

"We'll wait and see how the release goes. But there is a lot of other ground we can cover (in future films) - her relationships, other stuff from the books.

"That was one of the problems I had with `Romancing' - we explained everything about (Joan Wilder) in the first movie so the only thing left to do was run around and get in those situations."

Getting into those adventuresome situations is second nature to Turner. She is fond of pointing to her peripatetic childhood spent in Venezuela, Cuba, Canada and Britain - she was born in Missouri to a career diplomat - as the reason for her career as an actress.

"I think a lot of actors have that background," she says. "Learning to present yourself to a new school, or in my case, a new country."

That world came to an abrupt halt with her father's death in 1971 while Turner was still a high-schooler in London. The return to Missouri was less than smooth; in her short hair, clunky boots and British accent Turner was yet another outsider.

This time, instead of assimilating, she took refuge in the theater department of Southwestern Missouri State University (where she studied alongside Tess Harper and John Goodman) and later at the University of Maryland.

She moved to New York upon graduating in 1977, intent on a stage career. Nine months later she had a part in a Broadway production, Albert Innaurato's comedy "Gemini."

But the big break was landing the role of Matty Walker in Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat," a move that rocketed the unknown actress into a series of film roles: a steamy siren in Ken Russell's "Crimes of Passion," Joan Wilder in "Romancing the Stone" and Peggy Sue in Francis Ford Coppola's time-warp comedy, "Peggy Sue Got Married." The latter brought Turner her only Oscar nomination.

Although she earned notice teaming again with Douglas and DeVito in the black comedy "War of the Roses," it was "Cat" that propelled Turner back into the public eye.

"I don't think you can really control your image or your roles. You do something because it was the best thing at the moment. I just have more control over what I pick now. I mean after I did `Body Heat,' I had to go back and waitress."

Just when you think Turner might be almost unbearably breezy about her success, she turns serious.

"I am funny. I am very funny," she says with the wriest of smiles. "But every two years or so I do a really angry person - Joanna in `Crimes of Passion,' Barbara Rose in `War of the Roses.' It seems to be a kind of release.

"I think women have a lot of anger and with a lot of reason. We spend an awful lot of time not pleasing ourselves but being aware of other people's needs and expectations. . ."

Suddenly she leans forward.

"Want to hear my new theory of marriage? My seventh anniversary is approaching in a few weeks and it's great, we're just doing great. I never thought I would get married because I didn't know what kind of man would put up with a woman who got more attention than he did, but Jay is great."

She is urgent now, anxious to convey this suddenly discovered secret.

"Being in love is an adrenaline high and you just physically can't do it all the time. So you ease off and maybe the person starts to irritate you, but then they turn around and you see their hand on the table or maybe their leg in shorts or the back of their head and, ohhhh, there you start all over again, only the greatest thing is. . . you don't have that fear that you're doing it alone. So you get to do it over and over again.

"Falling in love safely?" she says, widening her eyes as if one of the modern-screen sex goddesses can't quite believe she doesn't have to keep seducing us all again and again and again.

"Falling in love safely? What can beat that?"

Copyright 1991, Hilary De Vries. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.