January 20, 2002
Mulgrew is no stranger to pressure. Early in her career she landed
roles for both the soap opera, Ryan's Hope and the American Shakespeare
Festival in Stratford, Connecticut on the same day and she performed in
them both. Mulgrew followed in Peter Falk's very large footsteps
to star in Mrs. Columbo at the age of 23. When she first walked onto
the bridge of the starship Voyager, she was simultaneously replacing a
departing actress, continuing a franchise and launching a new network.
And Mulgrew's latest effort is about another famous Katharine. A
stage production about the life of screen legend, Katharine Hepburn performed
in Hepburn's hometown. No pressure, right?
(Clip from rehearsal)
Elliott Forrest: Kate Mulgrew, it's good to see you again.
Kate Mulgrew: And you.
Elliott Forrest: Thanks so much for being here.
Kate Mulgrew: We met in a booth last time.
Elliott Forrest: Yeah, well, actually I say together again. We were three thousand miles apart doing a radio show. That's another story.
Kate Mulgrew: It's always fun in a booth.
Elliott Forrest: You are about to do this play about Katharine Hepburn. When was the last time you did a play?
Kate Mulgrew: It's been eight years.
Elliott Forrest: Is that daunting to you when you think about that?
Kate Mulgrew: Yeah, it is a daunting prospect and I approach it with no little trepidation. But I think that that's appropriate because I approach it also with terrific excitement. We're talking about an extraordinary personality in the life of Katharine Hepburn. An epic personality. And this play, as written by the extremely, exceedingly clever and talented Matthew Lombardo is pretty unprecedented, I think, in its approach. This is no vanity piece, Elliott. Nor should it be. I think her life --- we should honor her with a little more depth than that. So it spans her life. Act I --- it's a one woman play --- I'm 31 years old in a bathing suit. Would you like to have a drink? And then in act II, 76. And it is the perfect, I think, reflection of everything that went into her definition of herself and it is my personal conviction that she created herself.
Elliott Forrest: Well, there's a line in there about creating Katharine Hepburn along with one of her acting coaches. What was that about?
Kate Mulgrew: Her speech coach, Frances Robinson-Duff. It was about becoming a movie star as opposed to, I think, just another sort of maverick and very interesting actress. She wanted very, very much to be a great movie star and a great actress. This marriage is at best tenuous, isn't it? You get one or you get the other in life. But to have achieved both, she had to redefine herself and she did that, I think, with an extraordinary kind of courage and chops, I would call it. (does Hepburn voice) I don't think many people really (own voice) you know, if you think about how she speaks (Hepburn voice) and she does speak like that, I mean, that's right there in the throat. (own voice) I think she worked on her voice. I think she worked on her deportment. I think she worked on her already excellent and fine and questing mind. A very bright woman. Voracious reader. But she presented herself to Hollywood as a package they simply could not say no to.
Elliott Forrest: We got a little taste of it there. I take it you spent a lot of time listening to her and working on this voice.
Kate Mulgrew: I haven't. No, that just sort of has always come rather naturally to me, which is why I think Matthew Lombardo wrote this play with me in mind. I've often been likened to her. I, myself have found her intrinsically controversial. So, as an actress, I'm approaching this from a very different angle. There's no mad love affair that Kate Mulgrew has going with Katharine Hepburn. If anything, I would like an examination of her inner life. The sub-text is what is important in this play.
Elliott Forrest: Did you ever meet her?
Kate Mulgrew: No, I didn't.
Elliott Forrest: And did she have to sign off on this --- the fact that it's being performed in her hometown---
Kate Mulgrew: No. We are not dealing with the Hepburn estate and I think ostensibly, that's all right.
Elliott Forrest: You don't think there'll be --- I mean the first question really is is it all true in the story? Is it stretched, or---
Kate Mulgrew: It's all true. It is honorable. It is committed. If anything of a negative nature were to be said about it, it would simply be that it can be brutally honest. Particularly in her relationships, which we don't know a great deal about. And I think that's the way Miss Hepburn wanted it. I think that if she were well enough, which she is not, I think, presently, to see this play, or to read it, she would be well pleased. She understands the irony of life and also the goodness of life. I think she would have appreciated nothing more than this celebration of her life.
Elliott Forrest: What would that night be like for you if she were able to make it to a performance?
Kate Mulgrew: I don't know if I could do it. That's pushing it. Isn't it? (Hepburn voice) Who is that girl on the stage, for God's sake?
Elliott Forrest: She'd be coming back to talk to you.
Kate Mulgrew: (laughs) She would.
Elliott Forrest: I hear this voice and you say 'I haven't really worked on it that much yet.' You know, a lot of people do impressions of Katharine Hepburn. I'm curious --- your approach to the voice, also the fact that she is 31 at the beginning and 76 at the end. How do you plan to put that together?
Kate Mulgrew: Well, it won't be an impression. There won't be any imitation here. From the inside out, as I said, and I think at 31, she's vastly different than she is at 76 in every conceivable way including vocally, emotionally, philosophically. I think the voice is probably--- there's a tension in act I that doesn't exist in act II. She's learned to embrace absurdity. She's let go of her sort of iron need to control and to win. But what is terrific about act I is her spirit, and we have to see that throughout. Her indomitable, marvelous Yankee spirit which is why America loves her so much.
Elliott Forrest: We also get to learn so much more than we knew before. I mean, like you, you have a huge stage background. Most of the fans of Star Trek probably don't know about your stage background, but we also get to hear about Katharine Hepburn's stage background in this.
Kate Mulgrew: Indeed, and not only that, but how her life in the movies paralleling her life in the theater and her need to be both a great actress and a great movie star and the energy involved in this. And the sheer --- it's almost a battle cry, act I. In my imagination that's how I see it. She's box office poison in Hollywood. She's been in the beach cottage, the family cottage, for three months.
Elliott Forrest: I just want to back up. 31 years old, she's---
Kate Mulgrew: Box office poison.
Elliott Forrest: Poison. She's outta work. Can't get a job.
Kate Mulgrew: Right. Now we have an exaggerated sense of what that must have been like in 1938. She was box office poison to herself, but she was still a great movie star, right? The roles just weren't being offered and instead of allowing that to devastate her, she does something we don't often see an actress do of that notoriety. She goes to her family's cottage in Connecticut. She's quiet and at the same time it is as if we are waiting for that bomb to be dropped. And it does at the end of act I. I'm not going to blow that surprise.
Elliott Forrest: And neither will I.
Kate Mulgrew: You know she will not give up, but right underneath this extraordinary display of, I would say mettle, is a vulnerability that Lombardo has uncovered and that's the beauty of the play. I always feel that when I watch her. Don't you? I believe that is the story of the woman. Just underneath the steel is a great cushion, I think, of softness.
Elliott Forrest: So many of the movies she made, 40's and 50's and later, we didn't hear her be foul mouthed in any way, but in the play, she's pretty salty.
Kate Mulgrew: She is salty. Matthew and I have talked about that.
Elliott Forrest: What was your reaction to that?
Kate Mulgrew: I have said salty is good. Vinegar is not so good. I think some of the language needs to be moderated a little bit. I'm not sure she would have used exactly some of those words. But we know that she has used other of those words. I know this for a fact. So, I think what the audience sees, indeed how she was, she could be equally gracious, you know. Both things will be shown, but as she goes deeper and deeper, particularly in reviewing her life with Spencer Tracy, I want everybody to see the kaleidoscopic emotional Hepburn. What she really felt about this guy. In the play, she reveals to us, although she seems to be talking directly to him, the extent of his alcoholism, which was a betrayal. Her absolute sort of indentured servitude to him is that love. His inability to ever even discuss with her the possibility of leaving his wife, which I never thought was viable, from his point of view. His devastation over his son's illness and I think the long and wearying trial of that love affair. And yet she adored him.
Elliott Forrest: A lot of anger in that section.
Kate Mulgrew: And in her. And you will see it in that section, but that anger is the absolute by product of the great despair we often feel when we are magically in love as she was for all those years.
Elliott Forrest: So from a private person where did the writer get that and is he fairly sure that's the way she felt, or is this the play now?
Kate Mulgrew: You know what? That's what makes a great playwright. Right? And that's why I'm so grateful to Matthew because I couldn't write it and he managed to put this on the page. It's almost as if he understood her flip side. And this will also be the great challenge, so I am very much looking forward to it.
Elliott Forrest: It's always a dumb question to ask actresses about memorizing lines but doing a one woman play. 40 pages. I mean it's one thing when you've got some give and take. You've got some lines and somebody else has them. Does that part of it --- do you think about that?
Kate Mulgrew: Let me just answer that by saying I have for seven and a half years had to memorize 30 pages of dialogue a night. Technobabble. It's not even remotely a problem. The problem is bringing to life what the playwright intended. So, for me, not at all, that should just flow. And it will if we hit the mark.
Elliott Forrest: And the fact that you're the only person onstage. Is that daunting at all?
Kate Mulgrew: That is rather frightening. But I think that the job of the actress is to forget and to embrace the character and I trust with the director's help and with Matthew's great guidance and some courage on my part, this will come to fruition.
Elliott Forrest: You did The Philadelphia Story onstage, so it's not the first time you've crossed paths with Katharine Hepburn roles.
Kate Mulgrew: I was very young when I did Philadelphia Story, but I was three months pregnant when I did Philadelphia story, which is an interesting thing. I think it's a very, sort of clever thing that Michael Wilson is doing at Hartford stage, opening his season with Philadelphia Story and then in the middle of his season, this.
Elliott Forrest: One of the things that came out, and it's interesting to see all the people--- you know about Spencer Tracy. One of the people in her life that I didn't really know about was Howard Hughes. I thought maybe you'd give us a few brief words---
Kate Mulgrew: Well, they were lovers. Did you not know they were lovers?
Elliott Forrest: No. I gotta start reading more gossip books.
Kate Mulgrew: They weren't lovers for long, as she says in this play. He was deaf. He had a problem hearing, but he was very rich, very eccentric, and it was he who gave her Philadelphia Story. Bought the rights for her. So clearly he had a great fondness for her, but it's a wonderful thing and a very wise thing that they never married. It would have been a complete disaster.
Elliott Forrest: I can't have you here without talking about Star Trek just a little bit. You wrapped up the season last year, I guess. Is that a bittersweet thing for you? Were you glad to see it go? Was it sad? What was it like?
Kate Mulgrew: I was ready.
Elliott Forrest: You were ready.
Kate Mulgrew: Seven years is a long time and a wonderful run for a television series and a great privilege for any actress and terrific from beginning to end to play the first female captain, but I'm now ready for the next chapter. But certainly, probably the most memorable chapter of my life. My entire world turned upside down while I was doing this series, but I learned a great deal and I loved Captain Janeway.
Elliott Forrest: And will she be recurring somewhere else? Films or something?
Kate Mulgrew: Well, an interesting thing just happened to me, Elliott. I was in London last weekend and Patrick Stewart and I were on the stage and someone asked if we would ever be in the movie together. And I said no, no, I think not, Mr. Stewart has that market covered and he said 'I know something you don't know. So I think that this may be possible that he and I will be together on the big screen.
Elliott Forrest: It must not surprise you at this point how people love this franchise and love these shows and want to see it continue and want to see you play this character. It doesn't surprise you anymore, does it?
Kate Mulgrew: No, but it's always sort of thrilling. You know, you don't get that kind of unconditional support and be compensated for it at the same time --- beautifully. It's been a nice combination.
Elliott Forrest: Nice combination. Kate Mulgrew, good to see you.
Kate Mulgrew: Thank you.
"Tea at Five" will run from Feb. 7 to March
10 at the Hartford Stage. You may order tickets by calling the box office
at (860) 527-5151 or visiting their website at www.hartfordstage.org.
Rehearsal Footage from Tea at Five
Rehearsal Footage from Tea at Five
Rehearsal Footage from Tea at Five