Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock and Roll and eight-time Grammy winner, spent much of her career on the music stage. But the industry legend — who died Wednesday at 83 — had serious acting aspirations she says were limited by not just how few roles there were for Black women in Hollywood at the time, but the type of parts she was being offered.
That includes the leading role in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, which featured Whoopi Goldberg and saw the actress-comedian score an Academy Award nomination. (The Tony-winning stage musical of Alice Walker’s famed book, about a Black woman living in the 1900s South, is getting a movie of its own out this December starring Fantasia Barrino and Halle Bailey.)
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In a resurfaced 1986 interview with Luce Cinecitta, Turner speaks about why she turned down the role, telling interviewer and Italian television host Serena Dandini that it reflected “too much back on my life with my ex-husband” (Ike Turner).
“I mean, I’m talking always to the press about my life and now to do a movie? I’m just dragging myself down. I’m trying to forget the past because it’s done. It’s over. I finished that part of my life, and I’m not going to do a part that will remind me of what I’ve lived already,” she said at the time. “I think Steve understood that I couldn’t do it for that reason, finally, after I really expressed what it was.”
Turner also turned down other parts in Hollywood after her memorable role as The Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s 1975 film Tommy. Turner said she and David Bowie were ultimately up for the part, with it going to her. But when she took it, she didn’t know she would be playing a character who uses sex work to lure her victims. Still, she said, it was her “first feeling of representing something else and taking the load even.”
“I took the part because I got the chance to be this mad woman and doing all these things, and when they gave me the needle, I went, ‘Oh, I’m promoting drugs!’” she said, laughing. “Then I said, ‘Oh, well, but this is acting,’ because when you’re acting, you’re just portraying the lives of anything or anyone.”
Turner, who said Russell initially had reservations about her before seeing her perform, said she was so excited to do the role, which required about a week’s worth of filming. She would go on next to star in George Miller’s Mad Max sequel, Beyond Thunderdome, a role she loved because it let her be physical.
“She was a warrior woman first,” said Turner, adding that she was looking for roles as a woman like those in Terminator and Alien. “It is the warrior woman parts that I want. I want physical parts. I want to drive the machines, to do the fighting. I want to be physical. I still need that excitement.”
Instead, Turner said that despite “always” wanting to act since she was a child, “no one asked” her then or before Tommy. “There were no parts for Black women,” she told the interviewer. “Today there are because the movies…you just need to be a good actress. But in the earlier ’60s and ’70s, there were no parts for women, for Black women.”
And even when the scripts started coming in, she said she was repeatedly offered roles as a “hooker.”
“Really street, really hooker. No madwoman, no machines, nothing but just straight hooker. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to just be on the screen just for the sake of being up there. I wanted to do something that people would remember me for. Something that I would enjoy and be proud of,” she explained. “I look back at Acid Queen now and I sort of flinch when I see how horrible it was. Still, people liked it and they remembered it. So I just didn’t take any part because nothing came in that was right until Mad Max.“
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