In the role of Mary Ryan on the premiere episode of Ryan‘s Hope, she was first seen striding jauntily down a New York City street. Her smile was bracing, and she merrily waved to a neighbor before entering her father’s pub.
Immediately, attention was diverted to this vibrant vixen whose manner bespoke a fiery, determined, sassy independence and self-confidence. Mary Ryan had made a dynamic entrance, and had established herself as a consummate life-embracer; a woman without a trace of timidity; a heroine quite unlike any ever seen in soapland.
In the Stratford, Connecticut, American Shakespeare Theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s evocation of American life, Our Town, this past summer, the same actress was seen as the primly starched and pinafored, starry-eyed, bittersweet heroine, Emily Webb. Emily is a warm, benign, honeyed girl, who, nonetheless, was imbued in this performance with a determined, teeming vigor that was absolutely riveting —and ultimately haunting, because Emily doesn’t realize the potential of that vigor until her life has ended.
Both roles, Mary and Emily, are performed brilliantly by one actress. Amazingly, in the company of seasoned professionals in both shows, the actress is the pivot, the center of attention. It’s amazing, because the actress is a novice who prior to these two shows, never appeared in any thing other than regional and college productions. In less than a year in the big city of New York, she landed two prime, star roles. She is ‘this year’s Cinderella Darling.’
Going backstage after a performance of Our Town, I expect to meet mellow-soft Emily. Instead, I am accosted by the bombarding exuberance of Mary Ryan.
Kate Mulgrew doesn’t look like Mary Ryan this day, though. Her hair is pulled back in a severe knot, and she’s dressed in a casual striped shirt, flaired white denim slacks, and three-inch high clogs. The face looks slimmer, younger, than on screen or stage. The broad, prominent bone structure, the ample mouth, the patchwork of freckles are heightened by the creamy complexion that’s cleansed of make-up.
She comes on strong, Kate Mulgrew does. I’ve never interviewed an actress who is so initially overpowering. Her attitude and her manner of speaking are devastatingly abrupt. I find myself timidly shrinking in her presence, because whether consciously or unconsciously, she poses a rather direct challenge to match her assured manner. She’s slightly impatient with anything less than her own forcefulness. And yet, at the same time, she comes off somewhat forced. She is not bothered by this interview, but neither is she eager. Clearly, she enjoys talking, but she is also guarded, revealing exactly what she wants you to know and not a bit more. She is not an open book, and accustomed as I am to meeting the usual, underwhelming soapland Mary Poppins, Kate Mulgrew poses a problem: why, in spite of her often strident manner, do I ultimately find myself loving her?
“It’s been an absolutely phenomenal year,” she says, flicking an ash from the ever-present cigarette clamped between her slim fingers. “It all happened overnight, literally. I’m twenty years old now, been to college two years, and was in New York, straight out of Iowa, for a little over a year. I was studying acting with Stella Adler when I got an agent. In two weeks time I got the role in this show and on Ryan‘s Hope. The schedule is maddening this summer, because I go into New York to tape the soap, then return here at night to do Our Town. But you know? I couldn’t be happier. It’s fantastic. This is what I want. I’m really in heaven."
“And I’ll tell you why this happened to me: First of all, because God loves me, and you can print that. And secondly, because I love the work so much and because I really want it. It’s pure and simple. People know immediately how serious you are; how serious your intentions are. I think that’s true about everything in life. I’ve been training for a long time, since I was a little girl. Always, always wanted to be an actress, and I am, you know?”
I mention something about how enthusiastic the creators of Ryan’s Hope are about the character of Mary Ryan and the ideal actress they feel they’ve cast in the role.
“I was amazed how terribly close Mary is to me. In fact, I really had to laugh about it, because they really did find Mary Ryan; they were really looking for me.”
The similarities are amazing. Kate Mulgrew was raised in Dubuque, Iowa, the second oldest of eight children in a Roman Catholic-Irish family. Her father is a “back-room” politician, an organizer and Democratic leader, who numbers among his acquaintances the Kennedy clan. Although Kate’s mother is not a career woman (“she couldn’t be with eight kids”), she’s a portrait painter who’s “terribly creative in anything artistic.”
Kate’s parents raised their brood in an “intellectual,” almost snobbishly elite atmosphere, tinged with a unique liberal-conservative outlook.
“I was brought up to believe that stuff like chewing gum, dressing like a slob, watching television, and doing what everybody else does somehow limits, somehow stifles individual ability. Around the house, it was ‘Read a book. Don’t watch the tube; it dulls the mind.’"
“I’m a product of my environment, and I’m terribly grateful for what I learned. Many times, I thought it was a little too strict; I felt that they were pushing something. On the other hand, my parents exposed us to other environments. Travel was a big part of my life. They were always pushing all of us kids to get the hell out of the house, you know? Sent us all off when we were quite young. I went to England and stayed with an aunt when I was twelve, and my father made me work in order to have the money to go. Later, when I wanted to take acting lessons, I had to wait on tables in order to pay for the lessons. We were affluent, I suppose, but whatever we wanted had to be earned."
“Anyway, that exposure to different environments — of meeting a range of people, of going to parties and places, and simply seeing —taught us how to talk, you know? My parents made it very clear to us that children are boring unless they know how to listen and how to give in a conversation."
“Sure, I’m very close to my family. There’s been a lot of tragedy which makes us close. In a family that size, people are bound to die a lot,” she says simply. “Cancer seems to be a common affliction in my family; they’re dropping like flies. My aunt in England died of it; I had a sister who died five years ago; and another one has about another month to go. Yes, there’s been a lot of tragedy..."
“And, you know? Maybe that’s why I want to act in all the great Irish plays. I’m a hundred percent Irish. I understand them; I know all of their misery."
“You want to know a true thing about the Irish people? This is a good clue if you ever meet someone who’s very Irish and if you want to be their friend or lover: The reason the Irish are so expressive most of the time is that they’re terribly out people. Not necessarily out-going, but out. Everything is out: they drink a lot, smoke a lot, play a lot, scream and dance, and the Irish have a great streak of melancholy in them. Because believe me, when they’re all alone and the chips are down, there’s a great sadness in the Irish psyche. It comes from our breeding, from the heritage we come out of, and there’s also a great deal of guilt. Most creative people are guilty anyway, and I’m Irish Catholic on top of that, you see? Very egotistical, and very guilty about that, too. There’s a certain desire to be in the deep as opposed to the shallow. The Irish people will avoid mediocrity at all costs, at all costs, even at the expense of their own sorrow. A lot of self-sacrifice, too, yes."
“There’s a very fierce passion, and at the same time it’s not a particularly healthy passion. I’ve often thought, ‘Why can’t I be more free? Why can’t I be really more honest and get out of the ego thing?’ And then you get very sad. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why they hit . . .“ and she trails off, gesturing ‘the bottle.’"
Kate’s gestures are flailingly animated. Her face is constantly in motion, punctuating her verbal italics. She’s straddling a chair, but her body seldom reposes, never relaxes.
“Are you not honest?” I ask.
“I’m a very honest person, but many times I’m not as giving as I could be. I‘m very giving in my work, but with people and in relationships well, sometimes I’m tough with, and on, people. Also, I like to be loved.”
I find myself slowly relaxing. She’s opening up, I think to myself. She’s really going to tell me what she’s all about. And a shiver of delight and anticipation runs down my spine.
“I think I know what you mean,” I say. “You come across very quickly, very strong and vibrant, almost frighteningly so.”
She laughs freely, openly. “That’s my honesty, you see? And my desire that you should know the right things. There are certain secrets, of course... . I’ve often been accused of hiding something. People close to me say, ‘We can go so far with you; we can get only so close to you, Katie, and then. .. .‘ Which I don’t fully understand, but I think it’s true, because it’s happened so consistently in my life."
“Of course I’m very aware of it. Someone can spin through to a certain point, and it’s really nice and clear. But when they reach my protective shell….. I’ll give you a good example. In a love affair for instance, I love that person and allow that person to love me, but when it comes to really shaking Katie up or asking Katie to do something big, something important, like leaving my career or even asking ‘Could you?’ I just won’t do that. Won’t even give up part of it. Won’t do that. Won’t. Won’t budge. And that’s a bad thing, because the truth is that I know that the theater isn’t the most important thing in the world. Certainly not to me. What’s important is that other person, you see? That’s the eternal quality. As they say in Our Town: two by two. What you’re going to do with the person standing next to you is what’s important, because a hundred years from now, it won’t make any difference what you did as long as you loved; as long as you cared for someone else. And it has to be a person, absolutely. That’s what the world is about: people. It’s not an art form. You’ve got a heart, and you must give it a hundred percent so that by the time your shot is over, you’ll know you did that. And that’s the joy, you know?”
And that’s a rather succinct analysis of the dilemma a performer encounters, because the career motivation, especially in Kate’s case, is so all-consuming. Not that she would have it any other way at this point in her life.
“You ask if I have ambitions, and of course I do. But I would make the statement that I’m probably happier with myself. Because, you see, I’ve always had a goal in mind. People are always very happy when they have something in mind and it’s clear as a bell. Then, there’s terrific happiness in pursuing that goal. There is no hesitation in my saying that I want to be a great actress, that that is my goal, that that is what makes me happy every day of my life. If I never succeed, I never succeed,” she shrugs. “But you see, it’s not the success that is the goal.”
Before we go outdoors for a photo session, Kate opens a bottle of liqueur and offers a glass to her visitors. She talks briefly about her apartment in Manhattan and her bachelor girl status: “I’m single, and not at all involved with anyone right now. Couldn’t if I wanted to. Anyway, for the longest time I had this terrible complex, because I didn’t think any man was approachable. You see, my father is the epitome of what a man should possess for me. He’s very good looking, absolutely divine, and has a phenomenal intellect. Haven’t met one like him.”
Outside the theater, she admits a few things of note: that she did appear in a commercial for MacDonald’s, “the anniversary special where I sang and danced”; that she has also acted in musical comedies in stock productions and that they are “fun and thoroughly enjoyable,” but not really work; and that the theater is her love, and television work is “fascinating and challenging, especially the technical aspects of it.”
Asked if she has watched herself on Ryan’s Hope, she winces, “A friend video-taped the first two episodes, and I watched it and made the decision never to do that again. I’m so critical of myself, and I found myself wondering, ‘Who is that awful girl trying to be an actress?’ I just knew there was so much more I could have done.”
I think Kate Mulgrew underestimates her efforts on Ryan‘s Hope. She’s one of the most vibrantly exciting actresses to arrive on daytime television in years. To say that she is remarkably good or even brilliant in the role of Mary Ryan would be inane and inadequate.
But then, as she waved goodbye and flashed an affecting, warm, exuberant, and yes, genuinely friendly smile, I realized that—as billboards often proclaim—Kate Mulgrew IS Mary Ryan.
And that’s just splendid, you know? See why I love her?