By Angela Churm
A very special thank you to Kate Mulgrew, who despite the demands of her one woman show, "Tea at Five", a very busy schedule, and vocal problems, took the time to do this interview for Totally Kate.
And thank you to Angela Churm for conducting the interview for the
I had the privilege of interviewing Kate Mulgrew on Friday, March 1st, 2002 during a trip to Hartford, Connecticut where she was appearing in `Tea at Five` a one-woman play based on the life of Katharine Hepburn.
I am indebted to Kate for giving me this interview even though she was suffering with vocal problems at the time. As always she was extremely generous with her time and very gracious. Thank you Kate.
(The interview appears here in its edited form. The author retains copyright of this material. Copying or reposting in any form is not permitted without permission.)
Where some words are indistinct ( ) denotes this.
ANGELA: When you need to stop you just say stop. I donít want to put any demand on your voice.
KATE: Ok fine.
ANGELA: OK, letís start. The play first. What I was thinking about a one-woman play, even before I heard about the voice problems, I thought ĎTea at Fiveí must be very demanding physically and emotionally. And I just wondered what kind of special preparation you have to do?
KATE: ( ) I warm up you know. Itís very important that I warm up my body and my voice. Which I do every night before every performance. I usually get to the theatre three hours early, and that takes an hour, and that needs to be done constantly of course. I have to watch what I eat. And most importantly I have to watch the rest because unlike other vocations my whole day is directed towards those two hours on stage. I mean thereís really nothing else. And those two hours are complete immersion. Itís very difficult to explain this to someone whoís not an actor, because when you are totally immersed in something, it requires every part of your being and so in those two hours I would say I am working at a level that would match probably a typical person's eight hour day.
ANGELA: I can understand that, Iím a writer.
KATE: Oh yes. It requires the same kind of intense concentration. And so Iím very usually tired. You know, perhaps itís the adrenaline or something. And it is very challenging to my voice because Iím using a very strong - and I hope effective vocal transition from act one to act two.
KATE: Which is notÖ.
ANGELA: Because of the difference in ages?
KATE: Yes absolutely, from 31 to 76, and this of course has to be carefully watched and monitored because itís not the best thing I can do to my vocal chords. But itís not the best thing Katharine Hepburn did to hers either. So in order to affect this very - what I hope is a very natural transition, I have to trick my voice. So thatís why Iím relaxing during the day Angela.
ANGELA: Yes I can understand that.
KATE: And thatís why I ran into problems the first week. We did nine performances.
ANGELA: In seven days!
ANGELA: Thatís a lot!
KATE: And itís just - my vocal chords just couldnít take it. They are after all up a level.
ANGELA: Yeah itís too much.
KATE: And the Doctors said this is crazy you know. I guess itís pretty standard practice that most one-person shows play six performances a week butÖ
KATE: Little did we know right!
ANGELA: Right. Well Iím so pleased you were able to continue, at least it means I get to see it.
KATE: Oh good well Iím delighted.
ANGELA: Was there a specific point when preparing to play Katharine Hepburn that you found some characteristic or idea that enabled you to get inside her head?
KATE: Was there a specific point?
ANGELA: Because sheís a real person obviously. Was there a specific point when you thought Iíve got it, Iíve got her?
KATE: I would say that when I began the research, which I did months before I started rehearsal, I could already feel that the older Hepburn was going to visit me probably more immediately than the younger Hepburn. Why I do not know. Iím 46 years old myself, so I rest immediately in the middle of these two women.
KATE: But for some reason, perhaps thereísÖabout theÖsheís more reflective of course in her later years. And we have come to learn so much more about her by then for some reason I found that transition just more easy to make, and then all the other attributes. I donít want to give too much away here, Angela, you know.
KATE: Itís all just secret stuff of actors. (Laughing) Itís the 31-year-old who continues to be a challenge to me. And I think itís because at 46, I have either forgotten, or deliberately chosen to forget the agitation of 31.
ANGELA: Yes I know exactly what you mean.
KATE: Do you hear what Iím saying?
ANGELA: Iím 43.
KATE: Yeah? And you know when we move away from that weíre really rather happy to move away from it.
KATE: And so itís firing a particular discipline for me to refocus on what that was like in my life because if I am correct about myself, I too was agitated at 31. Found it an uneasy and unpleasant feeling, and I think that weíre just inclined to embrace more heartily that which we loved, so as I move into my older years Iím having much more fun in my life. Iím more philosophical; Iím more whimsical. I let it ride. At 31, not unlike Hepburn I too was very ambitious and unlike Hepburn raising two very small children and trying to keep a marriage alive juggling a lot of balls. So, thank God for the challenge though of her, because I love that. Every time I go out there I see what I can find in her at 31.
ANGELA: I think as you get older you do get more reflective anyway. And certainly for me it becomes more important to have fun y`know.
KATE: Well of course, if weíve learned anything weíve learned that weíre going to die.
ANGELA: Thatís right.
KATE: So you have to live well, and easily.
KATE: You know Angela it doesnít really matter what you and I do, the worldís going to go on.
ANGELA: It continues.
KATE: So to do what we do excellently, then give it away, let it go. All right?
KATE: Tomorrow will come whether weíre in it or not.
ANGELA: Absolutely and so much time is spent worrying in anticipation of whatís going to happen.
KATE: Oh itís an over-exaggeration of our own importance, for absolutely nothing. So I think if you realize that, which at 31 we donít and at 76 we do. Life becomes altogether more palatable.
ANGELA: Funnily enough, itís strange that you say that about being 31. I suppose for meÖI was 31 when my Mum died, and that kind of, well didnít kind of, it made me realize that weíre all mortal, and thereís thisÖ
KATE: Oh yeah?
ANGELA: It changes your perception. It changes everything.
KATE: It does change your perception. And I too had, you know, tragedies when I was young. But I think that itís built into the, not only DNA, but the human make up, that at 31 weíre not supposed to be thinking that way. Weíre still of child bearing years. And the human animal is designed not to go that way.
KATE: Thereís too much to be done. And thatís why it is I think a particularly tricky period, especially in a womanís life, where sheís trying so hard to doÖto grow up emotionally and become a fine and rather sensitive human being. At the same time sheís making all these horrendous decisions like: Am I going to be a mother? Am I going to be a good wife? Am I going to y`know, be a passionate career woman? What am I going to do? Which at 76 thatís all settled.
ANGELA: Yeah thatís true. Different perspective.
ANGELA: Yes totally. Well, I look forward to seeing that - the transition between the two.
ANGELA: Do you have any plans for taking "Tea" on the road?
KATE: Yes theyíre talking about it right now.
ANGELA: Oh great.
KATE: Theyíre talking about taking it into New York.
ANGELA: Oh thatíd be wonderful.
KATE: Though we have to see how my husbandís race goes of course.
ANGELA: Oh the campaign absolutely.
KATE: Yes, so the general electionsÖthe generals in November. And around that time I think itíll be determined whether we take it into Broadway, or Lincoln Center, Sunday/Monday. Theyíre right now talking and nothing is firm soÖ. ( ) Itís really ( )
ANGELA: Itíd be fantastic if you could.
KATE: But I think I`d like to bring it back to Hartford first to implement some changes the playwright wants to make, warm it up a bit.
ANGELA: I suppose it develops does it? As you go along?
KATE: Oh yeah sure. Yeah this is the first run and then we try it out again. Try to make up for these matinees for people. I feel so badly about them. (Here Kate was referring to the cancellations).
ANGELA: Aw, Iím sure people understand though.
KATE: They do understand but nonetheless I still feel badly. Some people have made quite an effort to come. Iím very, very aware of that.
ANGELA: Yeah. Well itís nice that you are but Iím sure people do understand.
ANGELA: On that subject really, thereís obviously a number of people coming to see this play who discovered your work through Voyager and well I wondered really whatís it like living with the Star Trek phenomenon? How has it impacted on your life?
KATE: I have never noticed it as clearly as I have during this play.
KATE: The unbelievable support. I mean this was the turning point for me as Captain Janeway. You can put that in bold print.
I have been dazzled by not only the unconditional support by the people who are coming to see me. And theyíre coming to see me I think because they loved Janeway, but I know that they are, y`know, discerning. Theyíre also coming to see the actor and that is so gratifying to me I cannot possibly articulate it.
ANGELA: Thatís wonderful.
KATE: Iím just delighted.
ANGELA: That is wonderful.
KATE: That is really the single happiest thing I can say about this whole Star Trek thing because you wonder what impact youíve made, or influence youíve had. ( ) is born out in this kind of display of great ( ) allegiance ( ) great good fortune.
ANGELA: Thatís really nice. Watching Voyager and Janeway it seems to me that some of the most powerful moments Iíve seen you play have been in silence, without dialogue, when you convey such strong emotions, such depth, without the need for words. An expression, a quirk of the mouth, but mostly itís in your eyes. And you can tell when thereís something behind an actorís eyes. As your audience that never fails to move it, as a writer it fascinates me. And leads me to wonder what are you thinking about in those moments? Whatís going through your mind?
KATE: Well Iím thinking what I should be thinking. Which is why youíre thinking what youíre thinking.
KATE: I mean you just said it Angela. This has always been my conviction, that the audience is very smart. They are your equals in every way.
KATE: If you are not thinking what you are supposed to be thinking they are not going to be with you. So what you are seeing behind my eyes is Janeway absolutely.
ANGELA: Itís real.
KATE: Whether sheís devastatedÖreally trying you know totally concentrated on what it is she must be concentrated on. Which is why you find it compelling.
ANGELA: Right that makes a lot of sense.
KATE: Total sense. But itís true of any conversation when you meet somebody or of any dinner party.
KATE: If somebody is present to you youíre immediately galvanized. And electrified by that conversation. You know instantly if youíre being dismissed or you know, sort of, you know how some people are in conversation, theyíre there but theyíre not there.
ANGELA: Yes, and you can always see that in their eyes actually.
KATE: Right. Itís the actorís job to bring her whole intelligent being into that performance.
ANGELA: Well you do that incredibly well.
KATE: Thank you.
ANGELA: It really does come across on screen. Iíve never seen you on stage actually so I canít wait to see you on stage, Iím really looking forward to the performance tonight.
KATE: Me too.
ANGELA: You had a cameo role in `Nemesis`?
KATE: I did.
KATE: It was over in under an hour soÖI play an Admiral giving (Picard) his orders. You know not a great deal to be said about it. It was fun.
ANGELA: That tickled me actually. Admiral Janeway giving orders to Captain Picard.
KATE: About time. (Laughing) Donít you think?
ANGELA: (Laughing) Absolutely.
KATE: Yeah and Patrick was laughing too off camera.
ANGELA: I bet he was.
KATE: Yeah. (laughing).
ANGELA: This week Iíve managed to watch Endgame for the first time, just before I set off. I have to say I absolutely loved Admiral Janeway. I thought she was a superb character, a natural progression from the character of the Captain. But she was different. How did you go about creating that?
KATE: Well again the same thing happened as is happening with Hepburn. I just finished talking to someone else about this. I loved her. I think thatís the key. When you love the character then slipping in is a lot easier.
KATE: And I think in the case of Admiral Janeway I just slipped right into her.
ANGELA: She was wonderful.
KATE: And I was able to fashion something about you know - that would sort of make a statement about the transcendent Janeway. This older Janeway has a twinkle in her eye.
ANGELA: Oh yes.
KATE: She understands philosophically the parameters of life and death. She understands the beauty of sacrifice. Sheís both epic and whimsical, and I think the quintessential human being. The Spartan soldier that I have always loved in Janeway.
ANGELA: Like I said, I did think she was a natural progression. She was totally believable as an older Kathryn Janeway.
ANGELA: What I found fascinating was the interaction between the two. Between the Admiral and the Captain. There was a marked difference between the way Captain Janeway behaved and the way Admiral Janeway behaved.
KATE: And yet you could see in those moments that she would become that.
ANGELA: Oh yes.
KATE: You see. Thatís why I think it was so fascinating. You can imagine what it was like to play; of course I never got to play against myself. (Laughing).
ANGELA: The character of Kathryn Janeway seemed to me to be I suppose a literary heroine in a sense, on a classic quest. There was a heartbreaking sense of isolation in her. You had her dedication to duty. She possessed great strength, enormous courage and carried herself with grace and dignity. Sheís the kind of leader I think you would follow off the edge of a cliff within five minutes of meeting her. I think she motivated people to be better than they thought they were.
And whether you are aware of it or not, I think you have those qualities too. Let me explain what I mean by that. Just before I came away I got an email from a fan, I donít know her, but she describes herself as a middle aged lady, she asked me to thank you for reminding her that itís not too late, not just to dream but to do. Sheís tried things and learned things and done things she never would have if she hadnít been caught up in the spirit of Voyager. You have become a role model for many women. Women who aspire to the qualities you demonstrate.
Does that sit comfortably with you?
KATE: Well I think itís imaginingÖItís very important what youíre saying. It means I have to take responsibility for having that kind of influence. The fact that I do is rather daunting sometimes, but not nearly so daunting as it is pleasurable when itís effective. You understand what Iím saying?
ANGELA: Yes absolutely.
KATE: I think the whole game of life is moving one another..right?
KATE: And if one is placed in a position by happenstance or destiny to be able to do that then it is entirely our responsibility to do it as well as one can. And also I think the profoundly great thing about life is that we, as these pawns on the vast chessboard of life can meet through these serendipitous circumstances and be brought so immediately, emotionally in touch with one another. And that we can spark something in one another. Itís truly a remarkable thing. A great, great gift.
ANGELA: And when that connection is made itís very powerful.
KATE: Yes it can be.
ANGELA: And it can sort of be a launch pad for people.
KATE: And thatís what I go back to when I say that regarding my, you know, fans of Voyager, it is never anything so much as it is very moving to me. And thatís what to me really makes me feel quite privileged. Itís a marvelous opportunity isnít it? For instance here we are talking now, ordinarily we never would.
ANGELA: Thatís right.
KATE: Have this opportunity. So you see how it all moves?
ANGELA: Well ordinarily I wouldnít have gotten on a plane and come across the Atlantic just to see someone. Probably wouldnít have done it to see anyone else actually.
KATE: How amazing.
Kate then asked a few general questions about me with which I will not bore you.
KATE: How good of you to come I must say that. Thank you.
ANGELA: No need to thank me..I ÖreallyÖitís about collecting moments.
ANGELA: One of the things Iíve noticed about you Kate, and one of the things that certainly touches me, is when Iíve seen you interacting with fans, no matter what time of day itís been, no matter how hard youíve been working beforehand..and I did see you work hard in BlackpoolÖmy GodÖ4,000 autographs in a weekend. That was absolutely incredible, and I felt so sorry for you.
KATE: (Laughing) Yes that was a bit of madness.
ANGELA: Absolutely amazing how you managed to do that. But Iíve never ever seen you behave with anything other than graciousness and dignity. Youíre so kind to people and thatís what really strikes me.
KATE: Itís very nice meeting them.
ANGELA: And itísÖI donít knowÖweíre all human and there must be times when you get tired, upset or irritable, but that never comes across. I donít know how you do it actually.
KATE: Thereís plenty of time to do that. Behind closed doors - do you know what Iím saying?
ANGELA: Ah yes right.
KATE: Itís not my responsibility to show you that. That is just a private place and I always think that is part of this field, itís part of my choice as a public person, as an actress. Without you I have no craft, do you understand?
ANGELA: Right yes.
KATE: Youíre an endemic part of itÖdo youÖI have toÖI mean the audience is immediately elevated to me to a very important if not crucial place. And I understand that always. So what would IÖwhy would I be anything less than absolutely as gracious as I could be? I suppose there will be moments in my life but as long as I can contain them.
KATE: I donít buy that. When I see it I donít like it.
ANGELA: No I donít. Iíve seen it in other people; Iíve never seen it in you. It really is amazing to me. But like you say you have to do it in public.
KATE: Well itís part of the discipline of the craft we choose. And particularly when it involves other people I think that the single most devastating thing you can do is give your problems to other people. They donít need them. And frankly the less you can concentrate on them yourself the more youíre stable.
ANGELA: I believe that.
KATE: And theyíre not nearly as big as one always thinks they are. Theyíre actually quite insignificant. So other people dispel that immediately for me. Theyíre there, theyíre more important than anything else. Makes it easier.
KATE: So there you have it.
ANGELA: So how would you describe your philosophy to life then? Your approach to life? Because I guess that itís changed over the years like most people's have.
KATE: Itís changed. I think that itís very important to live with moral courage and if you can dress this moral courage with whimsy, laughter and grace youíre in pretty good shape. But the key word in my entire symphony of life is empathy.
KATE: Empathy will save one from anything.
ANGELA: It helps you relate.
KATE: Well if I can put myself in your shoes Iím ok, because then Iím in your shoes.
ANGELA: You can understand.
KATE: Then weíre together. You understand?
KATE: Itís when we start to isolate ourselves and believe ourselves not to be partÖor to be better than, or something like that, that it all becomes quite dangerous.
ANGELA: I think if you do isolate yourself it gives you a bit of a skewed perspective and you start to be too much in your own head.
KATE: Aha. Empathy is really nothing more than that itís a beautiful beach you know composed of millions of grains of sand and we all have to be you know the best possible grain of sandÖdonít we?
KATE: Thatís life.
ANGELA: Thatís a lovely way of putting it.
KATE: It is, it is. Itís very simple and itís also very true.
ANGELA: So what does faith mean to you then? What does the concept of faith mean to you?
KATE: I think faith probably means a lot to me having been raised an Irish Catholic. It is going through many changes, as it is want to do, as I myself evolve and develop and make different choices in life. I would say that Iím not the devout Roman Catholic that I once was, nor would I say that I have left my Christian roots or ever be able to do so. I believe itís mystical. Itís part of my bones.
ANGELA: That thereís something more.
KATE: I certainly believe in the soul. And the enduring qualities of the soul. The unspeakable courage of the soul.
ANGELA: Do you believe in life after death?
KATE: I would have to say that Iím at a point in my life where Iím deeply reconsidering this. And I think before I posit an opinion I would need to have a few more years of thinking. I probably read too much Angela.
ANGELA: Oh no, I read a tremendous amount.
KATE: And I need to put some of this literature away and go back a bit to childlike ways which were always very embracingÖparticularly ChristÖI donít think I..you know..I`m not sure. It is so vast and beyond me that IÖwhen it comes to some decisions about thisÖIíve come to no absolute concrete conviction.
ANGELA: I think thatís actually a good answer. To me itís about the journey and weíll know at the end.
ANGELA: At the end of the journey.
KATE: We certainly will.
ANGELA: And weíre not there yet so how can we know?
KATE: Just take the journey.
ANGELA: Itís the journey that matters.
ANGELA: Just to wind this part of it up Kate, you must meet people all the time who form an opinion of you or think they know who you are based on a role youíve played, Mary Ryan, Kathryn JanewayÖHow difficult is it for you to findÖ.
KATE: I never think that theyíve formed an opinion of who I am.
ANGELA: Do you not?
KATE: No. I really donít. I think that that would be presumptuous of me. I think that they have an opinion of me as an actress and that then it is my ( ) choice, or usually my compulsion to reveal myself to them in person.
And thatís the fun of it. Thatís the joy of itÖand IÖ( ) people are so good Angela. People are so good. Theyíre always longing to see the good in the other you know, and so absolutely devastated when itís not there. So I just think that those moments of communion - however brief they are they should be as fully realized as possible, and thatís of course my little aim. Although Iím not so great when I get very very tired.
ANGELA: I can sympathize with that.
KATE: I mean I have a real chemical problem with fatigue, some people can punch through but I`ll be honest I really need some rest you know. My brain ( ).
ANGELA: You work incredibly hard. You worked incredibly long hours.
KATE: I did on VoyagerÖthat was aÖthat was a test.
ANGELA: So that must have been difficult for you.
KATE: Well Iíve got some good DNA. Constitution of a horse. Iím a good hard worker. Itís when I get pulled in a million different directions that it becomes difficult.
ANGELA: And the demands on your time.
KATE: The demands on my time but also the unspoken hardships such as the separation from my husband and Öright nowÖ my kids. All that. Thereís a great solitariness in a one-woman show. I donít have other company membersÖ.bit lonelyÖso all that plays into I think the psychologicalÖsome kind of discipline I have to construct for myself.
ANGELA: That must be really hard.
KATE: Itís hard but itís interesting. Iím learning. Iím learning a great deal.
ANGELA: The very fact that you are getting lonely sometimes, and you do feel a bit isolated up here on your own.
KATE: Well I think itís important to feel that so Iím having a very fascinating time. Fascinating to see why Iím feeling that. Itís very good to feel that. We are alone. And very seldom in life do we realize it as directly and profoundly as Iím feeling it in this experience.
ANGELA: Oh Kate!
KATE: And I think itís very good you know.
ANGELA: So youíre looking on it as a positive not a negative?
KATE: Oh absolutely.
KATE: Oh absolutely. It is the life of the actor. It is the ( ) life of the actor.
ANGELA: But how do you cope with that? When you do feel lonely, when you do feel a bit isolated?
KATE: I reread the script. (Laughing) I reread the script.
ANGELA: Focus on the work?
KATE: Yeah, all right yeah. (laughing) Yeah I do.
ANGELA: Thatís interesting to meÖthe loneliness part.
KATE: Loneliness can drive most people crazy.
ANGELA: Itís dreadful when you feel isolated.
KATE: But again it goes back to oneís philosophy. We are alone, and I think itís wonderful to be able to have that.
ANGELA: And yet we spend most of our time trying to run away from that.
KATE: Indeed we do. Hence all the problems in the world.
ANGELA: So how would you describe yourself Kate? Away from the fans, away from the stage, away from the public eye? How would you describe yourself?
KATE: Iím a basically extremely happy person.
KATE: Very happy. Iím that silly person who wakes up feeling you know - terribly good almost every day. As the day unfolds it can get a little rocky sometimes, but usually with a song in my heart. You know I was blessed with a great family. My marriage is so joyful to me. I am constantly aware of my inexpressible good fortune in life. Itís only when I get tired which I did last week that I can become sad, melancholy, in the Irish way, and a little confused you know, about priorities and all that sort of thing.
ANGELA: I think tiredness does that to you though.
KATE: Yes indeed. So I caught up a little bit yesterday and today. This afternoon I`ll do some more. Iíve not really had a chance to get a good night's sleep since Iíve been here.
KATE: Yeah and thatís also contributed to the vocal problems. I have to really stop talking in order to rest them soÖthe Doctor said to me, he said, last week (laughing), you have to stop talking during the day (laughs)ÖGood luck!
ANGELA: Not easy.
KATE: Good luck!
ANGELA: Well I`ll wind the interview up there Kate. I donít want to overtax your voice.
KATE: Ok, fine.
ANGELA: Thank you so much for your time Kate.
KATE: Indeed and you. This was very pleasant.
ANGELA: And like I said. I know youíve been having problems with your voice so I really do appreciate you taking time out to do this.
KATE: Truly my pleasure this was great fun.
ANGELA: Thank you so much.
My thanks again to Kate Mulgrew. Her intelligence, her grace, her depth of character and her willingness to discuss some fascinating issues made this a wonderful interview to do. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Copyright © 2002 Angela Churm
Angela's 'Tea at Five' Review