Totally Kate Talks with Kate Mulgrew at Dragon*Con

September 5, 2009

Atlanta, Georgia

Many thanks to my transcriber!

Please feel free to share the link but do not repost the interview. 

I had the good fortune to spend an hour or so with Kate Mulgrew when she was in Atlanta for Dragon Con. Although I had a few questions in mind ‘just in case’, our interview quickly became more of a conversation, covering a wide variety of topics: 

Totally Kate:  I was wondering – when you did the role in the video game…remember that?

Kate Mulgrew: Yes.

Totally Kate:  Dragon Age.  How do you get into it?  Do you have the whole story laid out?  How do you do a character for that?

Kate Mulgrew:  Well they send the script, and of course it’s on the page.  And then you work with the director - in the booth.  And this director was very good, and very, very clear about her otherworldliness and her…her strength.  It should be deeply frightening.  And you know I love to be deeply frightening!  So… that’s it.  And you know when you’re in the booth – when it’s a recording session, it’s a lot easier.  You’re not… it’s right there … my imagination soars. 

Totally Kate:  Do you have just one story?  Can’t people pick different… did you have to do different stories?  Veer off?  Like if they make different choices…

Kate Mulgrew:  Not this character. 

Totally Kate:  You just had one story.

Kate Mulgrew:  No. She’s the evil one and she’s … just evil.  To me though – you know this about me by now, don’t you - whether it’s a video game or a cartoon, or even a … whatever.  I don’t think of it in those terms.  I just think in terms of the character.  So I went right into her. I’ve forgotten what her name is now, but it was fun!  It was fun, but it was exacting. ‘Cause they knew exactly what they wanted. 

Totally Kate:  How long does that take?

Kate Mulgrew:  I think this one took a little longer than… I’m usually pretty fast in the booth.  You know, I was in there for a few hours.  Yeah.  Certainly.  Yeah.  Fun!

Totally Kate:  What about The Best and the Brightest? What’s going on with that?

Kate Mulgrew:  Now The Best and the Brightest was really fun.  I have to tell you that.  I loved doing that. It’s an independent, as you know.  So whereas they had the funding to shoot it, shopping it now is another thing entirely. But I suspect it will have a very interesting life of its own. Because Richard Schiffrin is behind it, and Josh Shelov the writer director is really gifted.  And we all felt that.  And for an independent, I had every… my whole sense was that this was above the cut, you know?  We were treated beautifully.  It was wonderfully organized.  The writing I thought was very, very clever. This is about despicable people behaving despicably and then behaving well.  Do you know… it’s everybody’s favorite story about a bunch of awful New Yorkers and then how wonderful they turn out to be.  I met Amy Sedaris, who I just fell in love with.  I’ve spent some time with her since.  Chris McDonald plays my husband, and I liked him enormously. Neil Patrick Harris is terrific.  Terrific.  And everybody.  Jenna Stern. Wonderful company.  Wonderful time!

Totally Kate:  She's on Twitter.

Kate Mulgrew:   I don’t even know what Twitter is.

Totally Kate:  That’s where I got that one photo.  Is that a poster from the movie? It’s like ‘Trust this Woman’, or something?

Kate Mulgrew:  Warm, approachable.  Oh yeah. Yeah.  What’s Twitter, now?

Totally Kate:  Twitter is… you can only do 140 characters, and you just kind of say whatever you’re doing, or….

Kate Mulgrew:  What do you mean?  I don’t understand.

Totally Kate:  Well, it’s on the computer, and it comes up, and you follow people. And you get their Tweets.  Or on your phone.  And they just write… I don’t know… ‘I’m going somewhere,’  ‘I’m doing something,’ ‘or I just did what’… or you can post photos.  I know it’s… I haven’t really gotten into it yet. The only thing I use it for is updates for the site. ‘Kate’s doing something.’  Because 140 characters is not enough to say anything.  I guess I’m more long winded!

Kate Mulgrew:  I don’t follow…!

Kate told me she is doing another Alzheimer’s event in Minneapolis in October, and has been doing a lot more writing, including essays on Alzheimer’s and a forward about Captain Janeway for a book about popular culture.  She told me she had been invited down to Guantanamo, but had jury duty at the same time and couldn’t go, which disappointed her. She said that she’s been invited again, and that there will be another screening of her recent film, ‘The Response’ at the Pentagon.  She also told me she’ll be getting an iPhone within the next couple of weeks. When I responded that I had one and she'd love it she said 'but you're a brainiac' and that she feels ‘so thick about all that’!

Kate spoke sadly about the recent deaths of several of her friends, including Paul Avila Mayer who she met when she was nineteen years old, and who along with Claire Labine gave her her first role on Ryan’s Hope; Frank McCourt; and Mother Columba, who was a dear and beloved family friend and confessor. 

Kate Mulgrew: … and then Teddy.  I remember sliding down the banister with Teddy Kennedy when I was twenty years old. 

Totally Kate:  Really?

Kate Mulgrew:  Yup.  At a Christmas party. Laughing hysterically!  He’s always been so good to me.  You know, he’s one of Tim’s closest friends. 

So, I feel like everything’s changing a little bit.  The winds have shifted, and it’s time for me to do something to give back.  I love acting and I’m passionate about it, but I have a funny feeling about this Alzheimer’s series (a proposed radio program dealing with Alzheimer's with Kate as host) .  I have a funny feeling that this is what I need to be doing. I need to be doing it, and I need to be doing it forcefully and directly.  I said to Harry Johns (president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Association), ‘You know, we have something here, Harry.  This is a viable, fantastic thing.’ Now it may seem outsized to you because we’re asking for some money, you have to subsidize...  But this is what this disease needs now, in this market.  So I have a feeling everybody’s going to come through, and I’ll start that very soon. 

And now I’m teaching acting at Fordham, which is wonderful. Wonderful.  And I love to teach.  I didn’t want to do it until now.  I turned them down last year. And…

Totally Kate:  So is that once a week or…

Kate Mulgrew:  Every Monday.  It’s called ‘Scene Study’, but it’s acting.  And I think I’ll have about sixteen to eighteen students.   And I’ll just break them down – I teach the Adler method.  There’s no real method to it.  As Hepburn said, ‘Acting is thinking.’ Intelligence.  But I’m a kind of a … I’m a natural teacher for young people – because I don’t tolerate nonsense.  I recognize laziness and lack of talent immediately, and then I just tell them to go away.  And the good ones I really work with.  You know… a teacher can only do one thing well, and that’s inspire.  It’s not calculus.

Totally Kate:  Right.  You can’t… if the talent’s not there you can’t put it there.

Kate Mulgrew:  So it’s all… I’m looking forward to everything.  But it’s all different.

Totally Kate:  I know you’re on the board of directors for Stella Adler…

Kate Mulgrew:  Working like a dog!  So our gala’s coming up.  October 19th.  That’s a big night.  We’re honoring Elaine Stritch, Whoopie Goldberg, Debra Wasser, Suzanne Shank and Bennett Zier.  I’m very passionate about this.  This was my conservatory.  And they have an outreach program for inner city kids that otherwise will disappear if we don’t get this funding. 

Totally Kate:  And that’s in New York, right?

Kate Mulgrew:  Yeah.  Black tie.  Big night.

We spoke a little bit about Kate’s husband, Tim, and her concerns about his health, a discussion which led quite naturally to her new television show, Mercy:

Kate Mulgrew:  I play the mother, Jean Flanagan.  She’s a working class Irish woman.  My husband is played by Peter Gerety.  He’s a wonderful character actor.

Totally Kate:  Was he on The Black Donnellys?

Kate Mulgrew:  No.  But did you see Public Enemies with Johnny Depp?  He played his lawyer – he was fantastic in it. 

Totally Kate:  The name just sounds familiar…

Kate Mulgrew:  It’s the story of our daughter, Veronica Flanagan, who has been a nurse in Iraq.  And she comes back to live with us, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.  But she’s a crackerjack nurse, and probably should be a doctor.  And works at the hospital called Mercy.  And we see her behavior in that hospital.  Her prowess as a nurse, her acumen as a medical person, and then her absolutely fractured private life.  So the mother and the father are alcoholics – but of the highest order.   I have my little leopard print pants on, and my high heeled slippers, and I’m always made up…

Totally Kate:  Are you like the Housewives of New Jersey?!

Kate Mulgrew:  Yes!  Exactly that!  Of Orange County.  And I make my vodka smoothie at seven o’clock and then I go to my spinning class!  But I smoke and I drink… so it’s all that! It’s an Irish Catholic family.

Totally Kate:  It sounds like fun!

Kate Mulgrew: It’s fun and the writing is fun.  But I don’t have that much to do, so… it is what it is. You know?  I’m ‘the mother’ now.  But this too shall pass – soon I’ll be the sexy grandmother!

Totally Kate:  There you go!

Kate Mulgrew:  I’m not worried about it.  I mean I’m so happy to be able to shoot it in … it’s in Secaucus, so it’s half an hour over the bridge or through the tunnel.  And that’s what I want – I just didn’t want to go back to L.A. 

Totally Kate:  I guess there’s not a lot of stuff done in New Jersey or New York…

Kate Mulgrew:  No. There’s not a lot of stuff going on period.  So the fact that we got picked up is terrific.  Just enjoy it, you know?  As I said, do this and the rest of it… it’s good.

Totally Kate:  Now you’ll be teaching and doing that…

Kate Mulgrew:  I’ll be teaching and if this host… this (Alzheimer’s) radio show goes, that will be very important.  And if not, and even if, I’ll still look for a good play. 

Totally Kate:  Can you do a play at the same time?

Kate Mulgrew:  I can do a play.  Kathleen Turner and I are talking about doing something together.  She wants to direct me in a piece.  It’s a one woman piece, and it’s called “Le Voix Humaine”, “The Human Voice”, by Jean Cocteau.  And it’s one woman on the phone saying good-bye to her lover for the last time. She’s desperate not to say good-bye, but he’s done – he’s going to marry someone else. It’s about sixty minutes.  And she’s just slowly bleeding to death.  But Kathleen said to me two weeks ago when we were having a drink, she said, “I’ll direct it and you’ll act.” I said, “We can do this.”

Totally Kate:  Would that be in New York?

Kate Mulgrew:  Yes. This would be very, very provocative.  Very titillating. You know?

Totally Kate:  That sounds really interesting.

Kate Mulgrew:  Doesn’t that sound interesting?  Yeah.  I think so too. I think so too. So we’re going to see where we can go with that. 

Totally Kate:  That would be good.

Kate Mulgrew:  Yeah. Very good.  Come up and see that!  And I think very exciting that it would be directed by an actress whom we all think of as sensual, passionate, right?  Don’t you think it’s a good match? 

Totally Kate:  Is she doing well?  Didn’t she have some…

Kate Mulgrew:  She has arthritis.  But she’s treating it.  And she’s a singularly uncomplaining, tough Irish broad, and she’s not going to let this get her down.  She’s a very gifted director, so we’re going to shop it and see what we can do.  We’ll probably workshop it.

Now Matthew Lombardo has written a play for me – a new play called “High”.  It's about a recovering alcoholic nun who is the head of a Catholic rehab center and is sent a young heroin addict to sponsor. It's her mission to not only help him get clean but to find God and the spirituality that lies within him. Within all of us really, So that’s the story – it’s actually quite good. So we are looking at some options right now as far as where to have the world premiere.

So all that – all of those things will happen within the next few weeks to few months.  And it just feels like that…. Life feels exceedingly full. 

Totally Kate:  All this dark stuff and drama – do you want a comedy?  What do you like doing better?

Kate Mulgrew:  You’re right. It is a little dark.  You’re right.  It is dark, isn’t it?  I think it’s nice to strike a balance, isn’t it?

Totally Kate:  I mean, you haven’t done comedy for a while.  Do you like… I think you’re very funny!  I mean you are… I’ve seen some of those… remember Man of the People you did with James Garner?

Kate Mulgrew:  Yes. Yes. Yes.

Totally Kate:  Very funny!

Kate Mulgrew:  You’re right. Mercy is that way.  She’s outrageous!

Totally Kate:  She’s the comic relief?

Kate Mulgrew:  She is the comic relief, yeah.  That’s it.  Yeah.  And I hope that they develop it a little bit, but it’s about the kids… Veronica, you know.  It’s about the young people.  But yeah, I’d love to do a comedy if it came along. 

Totally Kate:  Would you like a play?

Kate Mulgrew: Yes. Not a knee slapper, but a light comedy.  I’d love to do some Noel Coward – wouldn’t that be fun?

Totally Kate:  Witty.

Kate Mulgrew:  Something witty, yes. Something light.  A soufflé. Yeah. Yeah. I’m getting ready to do a play.  But you know my reps get very tough on me about things, and they want me to do television and they want me to do that… so now I’m doing it all.  I did the movie, I’m doing the series, let me go back and do a play now. Right?

Totally Kate:  Right!  Multi…whatever!

Kate Mulgrew:  Tasking! Yeah.  Multi-acting!

Totally Kate:  Talking about dark, when you did The Black Donnellys, at the end, if they would have gone on with that… you weren’t dead, right?!

Kate Mulgrew: No, no, no… well that’s why it was a cliff-hanger. No.  I was going to live.  And then they were going to have real revenge while I was lingering in the hospital. I think that was their idea but we never got there, did we?

Totally Kate:  It was interesting…

Kate Mulgrew:  It was interesting, but it got gruesome and they lost the plot.  They should have stuck with these boys needing to avenge their father and then their mother and they would have had a great story. But they lost it… cutting people up and throwing them into barrels and all that stuff…

Totally Kate:  That was kind of gory…

Kate Mulgrew:  It’s too much.

Totally Kate:  Is there any show that got cancelled that you would really like to go back and do again?

Kate Mulgrew:  In my life, you mean? There was a little one that I loved called Heartbeat. And I was so sad when that was over because I… all that stuff, I dug.  Being a doctor.  Being a pioneer in obstetrics. Being a founder of the clinic.  Struggling always with her personal life. Struggling always with who she is.  I mean it’s my kind of leading lady – do you know?  She was great.  She was great.  What was her first name?

Totally Kate:  Well they changed …

Kate Mulgrew:  Joanne.

Totally Kate: They changed her last name.

Kate Mulgrew:  From Springsteen to what?

Totally Kate: Halloran?

Kate Mulgrew: Halloran. Or something like that.

Totally Kate:  From one season to the next her name changed.

Kate Mulgrew:  And we only had two quick seasons, right?

Totally Kate:  It wasn’t full seasons, I don’t think.

Kate Mulgrew: No, like a year, or thirteen/thirteen maybe. I loved it.  That was a regret. Yeah.  That’s the only television I regret.  Because I did Voyager long enough to make up for everything else. 

Totally Kate:  I think seven years is…

Kate Mulgrew:  A long time.

Totally Kate:  I think after that you would get really tired… I mean as much as you would love a character…

Kate Mulgrew:  Well I marvel at people who keep doing it, like Shatner.  But I think what happened to me in those seven years was absolutely singular.  As Tariq Hassan said to me last night at dinner, and Bruce Boxleitner – I was the first woman, and whether or not that’s ever going to be understood in my lifetime, I felt it in the moment.  The impact of that, and the obligations of that.  And raising those two little kids.  I was… I was on it.  I put in more time… I felt that I just barely made it through. And I tried to do it all excellently.  So it was working on all cylinders for seven and a half years in the end.  And then I went straight into “Tea at Five” so … I look back at that decade of my life and I would have to say to you… I still have vestigial … when you say to me ‘what was that like?’ I can feel that exhaustion.  It’s not like I… that’s very familiar to me. (Snaps fingers) When an alarm goes off at four o’clock in the morning I just have a… a reptilian response to it.  I worked harder than I will ever work again in my life. Or before.  It was 150% of my capacity.  As an actress, as a woman, and as a mother.  And I think when you live through something like that – talk about a vortex - I understand what I’m capable of, but there’s a part of me that wants to live my life.  You know I couldn’t get… many, many days I went to work in the dark and went home in the dark.  Many, many days.  Four thirty on the road, and midnight on the road.  And I never saw daylight.  Or that sliver of daylight when I would have twenty minutes at lunch. Many, many days when I couldn’t get to my sick children. Many, many days when I was thrilled with the work on the soundstage. Right?  But it was this confluence of events that I tried to rise to, because I knew I was the first woman. That’s what I always try to share.  I knew that, and the women knew that, and particularly women in science.  And that resonates to this day. 

Totally Kate:  I don’t think they developed it enough, sometimes, towards the female fans.  Because I think there was such a huge potential there. 

Kate Mulgrew:  Well you can’t fight city hall, right?  You have to pick your battles.  We won the war.  They put a woman in the seat. That was big.  Huge.  In a time where they stood to lose billions of dollars – Paramount.  They took the shot.  So we had to compromise – of course we did.  Did you think they were going to give us carte blanche in feminism and all the rest of it? No. I fought hard.  I put my foot down when it came to sex. I put my foot down when it came to humanity and all the rest of it.  But I knew I couldn’t fight certain things. I couldn’t fight – you know – their needing to bring in sex, their needing to do all that.  But they needed to do that with other characters, which they did.  And I tried to just hold. And I tried to develop her as a wonderful, complex leader and scientist.  And… I think I did.  Women always say it to me.

Totally Kate:  Oh yes. 

Kate Mulgrew:  Smart women.  All the time.  So that’s the most important thing.  But unlike most people, I didn’t just sort of go from acting job to acting job.  I was suddenly thrust into this. 

Totally Kate:  And you did hardly anything else during it.

Kate Mulgrew:  There was nowhere… what else could I do? And call myself a mother?

Totally Kate:  You did one T.V. movie…

Kate Mulgrew:  I did that.  And that was a mistake – my son never forgave me for that.  I should do seminars on… you know the men had no… men just don’t have the guilt. I think Patrick Stewart did a movie every single hiatus!  But he had young children… it’s just not the same.  I had to be with my boys.  I’ll write about this one day!

Totally Kate:  So you’re going to write that elusive book!

Kate Mulgrew:  I’m going to write it, but I’m a little young to write it!  I need to make sure everybody’s …

Totally Kate: Dead!

Kate Mulgrew:  Okay… Yeah… and not going to get hurt, you know!

Totally Kate:  Yeah!

Kate Mulgrew:  ‘Cause when I write about it, I’ll write the truth.  I won’t write it to sell, I’ll write it to tell!  And I want to write it well.  Sell, tell, well!

Totally Kate:  There you go!

Kate Mulgrew:  Because it was an extraordinary time. So I would never make the… as I wrote in this forward to this book about iconic figures and their impact on popular culture – I said, ‘You know… Captain Janeway – playing that was an entirely different thing because I knew the boys club was being infiltrated.  I could just feel it. And then going to… Mrs. Clinton’s invitation at the end of the first or the second season or whatever it was.  The importance of all that stuff.  Big. Big. Big decade in my life. 

Totally Kate:  Do you find it strange that you come to these things and people only know you as Captain Janeway? 

Kate Mulgrew:  I don’t think that that’s generally the case.  And no, I don’t, because that’s why I’m here.  I don’t confuse that.  I mean that’s the whole Sci Fi fantasy thing.  I’m here for that.  But most of them always say, you know, “I’ve watched you since Ryan’s Hope, or watched you since Mrs. Columbo.  They understand the value of the career. 

Totally Kate:  Yes.  You know… women… I mean you have a huge fan base of women.  You brought some of those women in to Sci Fi.  People that never watched Sci Fi…  I mean I never watched Sci Fi and suddenly I’m watching Voyager

Kate Mulgrew:  It’s great though, isn’t it?  It’s great.

Totally Kate: … and coming to conventions…

Kate Mulgrew:  I know.

Totally Kate:  … if you would have told me however many years ago…

Kate Mulgrew:  You!?  How about me?!  But that’s what I’m talking about.  That’s great!  I mean I think that’s great.  And I think it’s mattered.  And I think that your helping me with the website has made a difference to a lot of women.  I mean I’m told that.  I’m talking about female scientists.  It’s all… it’s all part of a piece, you know.  And I just think it’s valuable.  I think it’s… I do.  I deeply do.  I know it is.  You know, this will be written about when you and I are dead. 

Totally Kate:  Like you say, you can’t evaluate it…

Kate Mulgrew:  You can’t see it – you can’t see the forest for the trees, but when we’re older, perhaps, we’ll see … we’ll look back and see that my work and your help and all that comes together to focus women in a new way… socially and culturally. And we’ll see this curve, you know?  I hear it.  I sometimes even hear it out of the … out of my left ear, and people don’t even know I’m there.  I’ll be mentioned, or the genesis will be mentioned, and I’ll just think, ‘There it is, you see… that’s it.’  And I love that.  I mean I had no idea.  I thought I too would just have a career.  I love to act.  If you could have told me when I was twenty-one, ‘Guess what, you’re going to be a big Sci Fi…’, I would have said, ‘No way.  And I don’t want to be!’

Totally Kate:  Yeah… everybody changes!  If you look back at the person at twenty-one, and the person now, would you tell that twenty-one year old person to do anything differently?

Kate Mulgrew:  Oh yes.  Oh yes. I certainly would.  But it’s too late for that.  We know everything when we’re twenty-one, don’t you know that?!  And we’re invincible when we’re twenty-one.   I think what age has taught me is … no judgment.  It goes so fast. It’s over. I was a little… I could be tough when I was young.  Critical.  And now I just think, ‘That’s great.  Do what you need to do.’ Right?  Try to stay within the confines of your own morality and integrity.  Try.  Don’t be dragged by money, or influence, or greed or any of that stuff.  Forgive myself more. A self judge is the harshest one of all. And live it. I mean I’m fifty-four now.  It’s going to go fast.  So… to try to be as total, and as I said to you at the beginning, now I think it’s really time to give back, if I can do this.  If I can live my life, but find my way to help in a very practical, practicable way, now is upon me. So I’ll focus on the Alzheimer’s and I’ll do the Adler thing, and Guantanamo, in a sort of ancillary way, which is interesting because the poor President is struggling, isn’t he?

Totally Kate:  Like you say, we don’t know the answers and I don’t know if he knows all the answers…

Kate Mulgrew:  Well no, of course, who does?  We’re difficult people.  Very critical, Americans. Of our leaders.  Very critical. And then when they die…. I watched that whole thing about Teddy for a few days.  I thought, ‘Where were you guys when he needed you?’  I think the mysterious thing about Teddy, if you could ever say such a thing, and I don’t mean … Chappaquiddick ruined his chances for the Presidency for once and for all, as it should have, right?  That was just too dubious about that girl. And too sad.  First of all, Teddy never recovered from that.  But it placed him summarily in the Senate, where he became a lion. The greatest senator of all time, I would say. 

Totally Kate:  Well they say of the three, he actually did more…

Kate Mulgrew:  Of course he did.  He passed more bills…

Totally Kate:  His name’s on…everything. 

Kate Mulgrew:  All of it.  And now Teddy’s gone… I can’t believe it.

So… that’s all that’s going on. It’s a lot, huh?

Totally Kate:  That’s a lot going on! Like you say, you are very, very busy.

Kate Mulgrew: I’m busy. Yes, I’m busy.  And I feel good about it.  I feel good. 

Totally Kate:  It’s what you want to do.  I don’t see you as sitting around!

Kate Mulgrew:  No!  I don’t sit around.  I can’t sit around!  Yeah… I need to get in there.

Totally Kate:  I don’t think you’re happy if you’re not acting.

Kate Mulgrew:  No.  This is a funny little moment – we’ll have to watch this moment and see what happens.  I would say in the next couple of months everything will reveal itself. Stuff’s going to happen.  I know stuff’s going to happen. And you’ll be the first to know!