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A Beautiful Mixture of Wit, Charm and Ambition!
"Everything Always Looks Better At The Top!”
Kate Mulgrew is proud of being different. “I was always an unusual and interesting girl,” confides the young actress, who plays Mary Ryan on Ryan’s Hope. “I always knew that I wanted to be an actress. Because of that, I think I missed my girlhood. There was a constant thing driving my being which forced me to be more sophisticated than the other kids. I knew I had a place I was looking for, so I didn’t have time to fool around.”
In parochial school in her native Dubuque, Iowa, Kate recalls that, “I had my own group of friends, but we had the reputation of being odd, aloof. We weren’t members of the popular set. Everyone knew who I was—I was big in plays, and I made myself known in general—but I wasn’t in the country club group. I was always in that class, but not that mold.”
The lovely young woman had what she remembers as a decidedly unlovely adolescence; “I was very unattractive,” she says bluntly, “rather heavy, braces on my teeth; I just didn’t give a hell of a lot of attention to my appearance. What I did pay attention to was my vocality. I read a lot, talked a lot. I spent most of my time with my family.”
Kate’s family still lives in Iowa, which the actress admires as “a divine setting.” But, much as she loves country living, Kate is adamant that her warmly secure childhood would have been the same, “even if we had lived in Timbucktoo. What was important was the specialness of our family unit. My mother has always been my best friend. My parents had eight kids; six of us lived. And it was wonderful—a world of its own. There were problems, of course, but none of that desperate sort of rebellion. I remember for instance that at the end of the school day everyone wanted to rush off in their Chevies . . . but I just wanted to go home.
At home, there were firm rules to be followed. Kate’s contractor dad and artist mother expected obedience from their children. “My father was very strict, very chauvinistic,” Kate reveals. “He was very one-sided, very sure that he was right. He gave me a hard time about a lot of things, like losing weight.” Her mother, on the other hand, did all she could to bolster Kate’s sometimes flagging self-image; “… she made me feel that I was more interesting than anyone else,” the actress confides fondly.
That special sense of uniqueness has followed Kate into adulthood. She says that she wants to be at the top of the acting profession, “because it looks a lot better than the bottom.”
“No,” Kate says immediately, turning serious, “It sounds infinitely trite, but I have a feeling... that I’m made for the top.” There is another long pause as the pretty actress gropes for the words to explain her deepest motivations; “I am a natural competitor. I want to be best at what I do.”
Becoming still more candid and analytical, Kate continues. “But I once did have some sort of revelation; when you’re born with a longing, you do everything you can to satiate it. Unfortunately, there are some times eternal longings which can never be satisfied. I could be star of stage, screen and television and still not be satisfied. And this is my misfortune, because I could be spending my time with something else on my mind.”
Practical Ms. Mulgrew is quick to comment that she isn’t unhappy with her present daytime star status. “I’ve never lived this comfortably,” she says bluntly, but she does forsee doing more work in the legitimate theater and perhaps films in the future. “I plan on becoming a great actress,” the young woman comments tartly. “I want to be in the theater because I love it. Oh, I’d never complain about the money I’m making on the show now, because it’s a hell of a lot of money for me to be making at this point in my life. But this medium doesn’t give me the satisfaction of an audience, which I’d like. My father likes the fact that I’m on a soap opera, I suppose. But my mother isn’t crazy about it. She wants me to be a great actress.”
Along with her mother and father, the most important person in Kate’s life is her boyfriend: “He’s my lover!” she exclaims precisely describing director Ben Levit. The couple met last June when Ben directed Kate in a production of Our Town at Stratford. They have a comfortable, supportive relationship, without the formality of marriage or the intensity of living together. “I like the feeling of being protected that Ben gives me,” Kate admits, “but it’s pretty obvious that I like to take care of myself. I can talk myself blue in the face about wanting to be taken care of, but when it comes down to it, I’m a very independent person.
“In some ways, Ben is a chauvinist, but not like my father,” Kate says confidentially. “Ben sees things from all angles. My father only saw his own point of view; he was the man, and that was that. But Ben is very just, very fair. I don’t know if he’ll admit that he’s a chauvinist. He’ll probably deny it, but I think that he wants to be a ‘bigger’ human being; bigger mind, bigger heart. Maybe I think that he’s a chauvinist because I trust him to take care of me.”
With such happy memories of her own childhood dancing through her thoughts, it’s predictable that Kate would have some kind words for family life, but she herself isn’t ready for the commitment entailed; “I’d like very much to be married,” the actress, who is in her early 20s, admits with unusual seriousness, “I do want to have a husband and a family, and I firmly believe in the institution of marriage, but not now, not for myself now.”
If she and Ben do go to an occasional party, Kate doesn’t have any trouble being “outgoing and gregarious, even though that isn’t the kind of evening I’d seek out.” Although she characterizes herself as “basically a watcher,” the actress is aware of a sort of “primal competiveness which materializes in the thick of things, when I have to compete whether I want to or not.” Back in her childhood, with a bunch of athletic brothers, Kate would always find herself running a race or something, even if my real desire was not to do it. But I’d try anything, except for something totally out of my realm, once.” That same competiveness shows up in Kate’s work, her social adventures, her determined plans for fame and fortune in the near future.
Kate has starred on Ryan’s Hope since last summer. “I like Mary Ryan very much. I’m playing myself, after all; they wrote the part around me,” she says. Kate had been considered for the role once, ruled out as too young, but was signed up immediately when she came down and read for all the producers last July. “It all happened so quickly,” she reports. “They just took one look at me, had me read for about two minutes, and I got the part.” Her three years of study at Stella Adler’s Studio—Kate has been in New York since 1973—her talent, and her slim, pretty good looks all made Kate Mulgrew the young success she is today. And yet, despite the tangible evidence of her desirability, Kate confesses that, “In my mind, I’m still what I used to be; a rather unattractive girl, trying to compensate for her looks by being glib, bright and outgoing.”
If Kate could do anything to change her life—apart from the already mentioned need to be an acclaimed actress—she would hope for more inner serentiy. “I grew up a Catholic,” she says slowly, “but I no longer practice, although I do consider myself a Christian, and I do pray. But I still lack a certain calm, a certain center, which I always try to achieve. I am an anxious person, and anxiety breeds impatience. No,” she responded in answer to my question as to whether she’s tried yoga or meditation, “I just try prayer and thought.” And, anyone who’s spoken to Kate for any length of time must add, a great deal of self-analysis and criticism.
One quality of hers that the actress has always felt set her apart from other people is her sharp, clever sense of humor. She describes it as “tough, bold; it’s a glib sense of humor, not a warm one.” Throughout our interview, Kate will brandish that poking sense of fun in unexpected ways, momentarily inventing an imaginery daughter for herself; pretending to consult her boyfriend about how many brothers and sisters she is to say she has; laughing uproariously at less than hilarious questions. “I know,” Kate admits, “that my laughter is often not what might be called normal laughter—it’s hysterical laughter.”
Pressing the actress on this statement of her behavior, I ask whether she feels that her sense of humor is a defense against her vulnerability. She throws an affirmatively appraising glance in my direction and nods assent. “Yes,” she reveals, “not many people see that, but humor can quite often be my greatest defense. If someone attacks you, you can oppose them with wit.”
I asked Kate if she herself felt lonely. She answered in a subdued voice, tugging out emotion; “I’m not lonely, I’m alone,” she replied. “How can I say it? I’m alone. I’m really alone. Ben? He’s another human being; you can’t melt into someone else. I’m alone. . .” Her voice trailed off reflectively.
Feeling loneliness and apartness is something most of
us can identify with. But, much to her credit, Kate isn’t willing to sit
back and allow those aching emotions to overtake her. The young actress
is constructively wrestling with her own need to feel a part of something
larger than herself—to satisfy her singleness by forging a pattern of meaning
and interest in her existence. For Kate Mulgrew that means becoming “a
great actress.” And, taking into consideration the young woman’s ability,
ambition and charm, she will probably succeed.