By Liz Seymour
This Elegant Actress Has Learned A Few Things About Living
|The apartment building overlooking the Hudson
River is one of the grand old survivors from the turn of the last century,
its hushed lobby rich with gold and blue and polished marble. I take the
elevator up to a small vestibule and ring the doorbell. On the other side
of the door, footsteps approach, and I can hear the tail end of a conversation
rendered in a deep, compelling voice with a sustained vibrato: “I do so
want to talk to you. I’ll call you back, I promise.” The knob rattles and
the door opens to Kate Mulgrew, famous to millions of Star Trek: Voyager
fans as Captain Kathryn Janeway. Her hair is pulled sleekly back, and tiny
pearl pendants are in her ears. She’s standing as straight as a ballerina,
telephone in hand. “One of my dearest friends,” she announces, “just fell
Kate Mulgrew and I have a date to spend the afternoon talking about love, friendship, and the adventure she calls “jarring, disturbing, saddening, and galvanizing all at the same time” — life after 50. Kate, who turned 50 in 2005, has experienced many of the bittersweet losses and gains that come with the middle years — the death of her father, the transition of her children into adulthood, a happy second marriage, and most poignantly, her mother’s decline into the twilight of Alzheimer’s disease. “My mother’s expectations for me were great,” she says. “She fully expected me to be able to fly through life. When I decided to be an actress, which I did when I was young, she was wholeheartedly behind it. Now I don’t have her anymore.”
We sit in a long living room filled with overstuffed furniture, oriental rugs, family photographs, and books. Colorful oils of pensive-looking women painted by Kate’s mother fill the wall opposite the sofa. A framed aerial photograph of a handsome gabled house, Kate’s childhood home, hangs over the sideboard. Kate — her full name is Katherine Kiernan Mulgrew — grew up a long way from New York. She was the second of eight children in a loud, funny, active Irish-Catholic family from Dubuque, Iowa.
Kate’s grandmother died in childbirth, a fact that deeply colored Kate’s relationship with her own mother. “My mother looked for and wanted a mother,” Kate says, “so when I was born — after she endured the first years of my life — I was quickly made into her friend and then shortly thereafter the mother. It’s not the natural progress of the mother-daughter relationship but I think it helped my mother, and in many ways it saved me because it forced me very early to find my craft and my feet.”
Kate pauses and goes on. “I had a childhood. I had seven brothers and sisters, we lived in the country, I ran and I played —you know, I did all that, but it seems to me that from a very young age I wanted to please my mother in a grown-up way. Oh, I was certainly naughty and irreverent and all the rest of it. And I loved boys and I was always sneaking out...and I took wine from the dinner table. But my longing to please my mother was unusual, I think. When she would have a dinner party, which she did often and well, she would ask me to read a poem or recite something or show everyone how I imitated this or that person. You don’t want to do that. It’s really totally against the grain in a young girl, to approach a dinner table full of twelve strange adults. I remember thinking ‘I hate this but I’ll do it for Mom. It will be over soon, like the dentist.’ ”
As a young girl, Kate wrote poetry. That led to a revelation. “I recited some one day in front of a group of nuns, and when I looked up they were all weeping. I thought what a shocking and wonderful response to just my voice, or whatever it is I’m lending to this poetry.” Kate had found her craft. Her mother brought home biographies of great actresses, Kate got an after-school job to pay for acting lessons, and she entered speech contests. “Before I knew it, I was off to the races.” After playing every lead role Dubuque had to offer, she finished high school early and came to New York to study at NYU and with the notoriously demanding Stella Adler. (Kate names Adler, along with her mother, as her two greatest role models.) Ambitious and confident, Kate left NYU in her junior year and almost immediately landed a two-year-long role in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Her next major role was created with her in mind: Mrs. Columbo, a spin-off of the popular Peter Falk series. (The show is still seen occasionally in syndication as Kate Loves a Mystery.) Kate was all of 23.
“When we’re young, we hurtle ourselves through life in a kind of capsule of confidence,” Kate says, settling into the sofa and readjusting the pillows behind her. A confident 21-year-old Kate had told a reporter from a fan magazine, “If in ten years I’m not a great actress, I’ll be surprised.” But life is not quite that simple, particularly for women in professional theater. The decade after Ryan’s Hope and Mrs. Columbo was filled with work. And after she married director Robert Egan in 1982, it was filled with family (son Ian was born in 1983 and Alex in 1984). But the great roles eluded her.She made guest appearances on Cheers, St. Elsewhere, and Murder, She Wrote; she starred as the head of a clinic on the short-lived series Heartbeat. There were some high-profile moments: a Tracey Humanitarian Award for playing a struggling alcoholic anchorwoman on an episode of Murphy Brown, a comedic turn as Billy Crystal’s dreadful ex-wife in Throw Momma from the Train, and appearing as Hedda Gabler in repertory at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. But her career came second to raising children, and as Kate moved into her mid-30s and beyond, the opportunities narrowed.
In 1993, Kate and her husband separated (the divorce became final in 1995). At 40 — the age the phone traditionally stops ringing for Hollywood women — Kate was on the verge of selling her house and downsizing herself and her two sons to an apartment. Then, miraculously, the phone rang. Kate had read for a role in Voyager, a new series in the Star Trek franchise, but had lost out to Genevieve Bujold. Two days into shooting the pilot, Bujold backed out and the role of Captain Janeway, Star Trek’s first-ever female lead, went to Kate.
Captain Kathryn Janeway was entrusted with the responsibility of piloting the USS Voyager and its crew 70,000 light years across the uncharted Delta Quadrant and back to Earth, outwitting Klingon and Borg and discovering new planets along the way. The competent but sensitive Janeway was an immediate hit, spawning fan sites, fan debates, and fan lists. Suddenly Kate Mulgrew was one of the best-known women on television. As the Voyager battled its way back to Earth through season after season, however, the homeward mission took on a certain irony for Kate. Eighty-hour workweeks kept her away from her teenage sons and interfered with a growing romance with Tim Hagan, a politician from Ohio who Kate had met through her mother. In early 1999, Kate caused a minor ripple in the universe by announcing to a group of TV critics that she was ready to abandon ship, but pressure from Paramount, along with some concessions, kept her on the starship’s bridge. She and Hagan married in April of 1999; in 2001, the Voyager finally made it home.
Even before the Voyager had entered the Alpha Quadrant, Kate was reading for her next project, a one-woman stage show about Katharine Hepburn written with Kate in mind. Tea at Five opened in early 2002 in Hartford, Connecticut, and toured through 2005. When the Star Trek series ended, Kate sold her home in Los Angeles; she now splits her time between her apartment in New York and the Ohio country home she shares with Hagan. This past April she went to London for a three-week appearance in The Exonerated. When time permits, she works on writing a memoir, beginning with what she calls “the most evocative and provocative relationship in my life” — her relationship with her mother.
The phone rings again. It’s another friend calling to confirm a date later that afternoon. We put on our coats and ride down the elevator together. “I think the great mistake women — and I would qualify this by saying especially career women — make is that they don’t develop what they need early in life to support them when they reach this point,” Kate says. “Because the next 30 years must be spent as an entirely different person.”
Here’s Mulgrew’s advice:
1. Develop a Philosophy. “I mean that,” says
Kate. “Nurture yourself, encourage a curiosity and wisdom that puts other
people before yourself, so that at 50 it isn’t shocking when you realize
that you’re not the center of the universe. I find that that part of life
gets easier. I’m not nearly as self-concerned as I once was. That girl
is almost gone. Two important words are ‘let go.’ And two even more important
ones are ‘forgive yourself’ — I know so many women in their 50s who are
frantic with what to do because they forgot to ask the question: ‘Who am
2. Nurture Your Friendships. “If you have
only one friendship, it’s sufficient so long as it’s real,” she says. “But
you must bring to your friendships the same focus and devotion that you
bring to your love relationships. I think Samuel Johnson was right: Friendship
is the single greatest unconditional gift in the world.”
3. Laugh and Cry. “Laugh that kind of laughter
that comes from your gut and that can only be shared with a friend you
really love,” says Kate. “So cathartic.” And so is crying. “Be not afraid
to weep — be not afraid and celebrate it. Suffering is as much a part of
life as happiness. If you can’t embrace it then you’re pretty much in the
4. Find Smaller Passions. Kate calls augmenting
your smaller passions with your larger ones as “satisfying the anxious
corners of your mind” — finding those personal pursuits that are not tied
to a career or a family. “I’m an actress. It has been the banner of my
life, but the phone is not ringing for those roles that I played for many
many years,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s the same with family. Very
early on when I had my kids, I realized that they, too, with any luck,
would go on a journey of their own. What was I going to do?” Kate satisfi
es that corner of her mind with cooking, with reading, and with writing.
All of which leads to…
5. Create. “I think the single greatest pleasure in life is losing yourself in the creative process. It beats everything else. It’s what great saints must feel like all the time. When I am totally present to it, when I am lost in my absolute focus, it’s great,” says Kate. “Learn how to ask questions and be unafraid of your own curiosity. Get to your true authentic self, and have the courage to silence those other voices. They’re demonic, and they’re negative. The voices say you should be doing this or that, or be this or that, and pretty soon you’re so crowded with cobwebs that the authentic voice is no longer recognizable. But it’s there.”
LIZ SEYMOUR is a contributing editor to US Airways Magazine.
Illustration by AndrÉ Metzger