With one of the best-known voices in Hollywood, Kathleen Turner has enchanted fans ever since she broke through as a movie star in the 1980s. Turner has enjoyed a wildly varied career on stage and screen thanks to her husky vocals – not to mention her rare acting talent.
The origin of Turner’s unique sound, which has only grown more gravelly over the years, has drawn speculation. In fact, Turner has taken great efforts to create her signature raspy voice. Gifted with a deep voice since she was a youngster, Turner brought her voice down to a lower pitch and gave it even deeper resonance by using a trick involving pencil erasers. Here is how the voice of Jessica Rabbit came to be.
“Elusive hint of a Latin accent”
Turner was born to a military family in Springfield, Missouri, in 1954. One of four siblings, she grew up all over the world, spending her childhood variously in Canada, Cuba, Venezuela and England due to her father’s work in the US Foreign Service. As a result, Kathleen grew up with an unplaceable accent – and when she made her 1981 film debut in Body Heat, critics were quick to notice the voice.
Critic Robert Ebert noted Turner’s “elusive hint of a Latin accent”, but many more noted the smoky quality to the actress’ speech. Washington Post critic Gary Arnold wrote in 1981 that Turner had a “husky-voiced urgency”, while Janet Maslin wrote that Turner had a “perfect monotone”.
Thanks to the success of Body Heat, Turner soon became a much sought-after leading lady, starring in a number of 80s hits including The Man with Two Brains (1983), Romancing the Stone (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and The War of the Roses (1989).
The role that truly championed Kathleen Turner’s voice, however, was Jessica Rabbit, the animated femme fatale of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Turner’s voice preceded her; she became known not only for her unique sound but also her strong-willed personality on set.
When Barbra Walters introduced Turner for a 1989 TV interview, she noted: “There are some people who find Kathleen Turner’s self-confidence a little off-putting… Most of the men I know say they could just listen to the sound of her voice if she didn’t have anything to say. But she has plenty to say.”
“It was always low and it’s only gotten lower”
When Turner hosted Saturday Night Live in 1989, she opened the show by lip-syncing to the far higher-pitched voice of cast member Victoria Jackson, joking that she was finally able to use her “real voice.” But Turner’s voice was never entirely natural.
In a 2005 interview, Turner revealed the trade secret behind her deep and resonating tones: “So you put little ends of pencils at the back of your back teeth and it forces a little more space. You get used to opening the oral cavity more and you get resonance. I don’t actually do it anymore, but the idea behind it was that everything is a muscle in here and the more you can stretch it the more resonance you’ll get.”
Turner has noted that she is recognised by her voice “more often than my looks…If I speak, heads turn in my direction. I think my voice has taken on a persona of its own. It was always low and it’s only gotten lower. But my voice is an asset… I’m rather thrilled with my voice.”
When Turner met actress Laura Bacall – who was also renowned for her deep voice – she reportedly said to the older star, “Hi, I’m the young you.”
“I can sing ‘Ol’ Man River’ in the original key”
Turner is also a skilled singer, though she never performed in any of her 80s and 90s hits. (Though Turner lent her speaking voice to Jessica Rabbit, Amy Irving stepped in to sing for the character.) “I never thought of myself as a singer,” Turner said when promoting her 2018 stage show Finding My Voice.
“I actually have perfect pitch, but when I came to New York aged 22 every lead in anything was a soprano and that was never going to be me. I can actually sing ‘Ol’ Man River’ in the original key. I think I’m one of about seven women who can do that!”
While Kathleen Taylor’s voice has been widely parodied and imitated, only one impersonator has impressed her. In a 2018 interview with Out Magazine, Turner noted, “Sarah Paulson did one [Turner impression] on a late-night show. She went hard and heavy. I thought, OK.”
In 1992, Turner briefly took a step back from acting, due to the rheumatoid arthritis that has affected her career to this day. Turner has since spoken about the severe pain she suffered and the damage it caused to her career. Turner began abusing alcohol to cope with her illness, and though she has recovered from addiction Turner never again reached the heights she did in the 80s and 90s.
In recent years, Turner’s voice has featured in episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill and Rick and Morty. Famously, Turner also played Chandler’s trans ‘dad’ Charles Bing/Helena Handbasket in Friends, a role that Turner now says she wouldn’t take but which again utilised the actor’s deep, almost masculine tones.