(National Public Radio)
Weekend Edition Saturday
with Scott Simon
March 16, 2002
Scott Simon: We're going to introduce a voice now. A voice that's commanding, but capable of 'come hither'. A voice that can make you stand up straight, and yet curl your toes.
KATE MULGREW: (As Katharine Hepburn) "An actor can have a flop hit, flop flop hit flop flop. I suppose one could survive a flop hit flop flop hit flop flop hit flop. But one can never, ever have what I have. A hit flop hit hit flop flop flop flop flop flop … flop.
Scott Simon: That singular voice can only belong to Katharine Hepburn. And maybe Kate Mulgrew. For most of Miss Mulgrew's career, as a young actor on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope", as the brainy Boston City Coucillor on "Cheers", on stage as Hedda Gabler and then these last seven years as Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager", critics and fans have seen a wide streak of Kate Hepburn in Kate Mulgrew. Kate Mulgrew as Kate Hepburn has finally happened. Miss Mulgrew is portraying Katharine Hepburn at the Hartford Stage in Hartford Connecticut in the one woman play "Tea at Five" by Matthew Lombardo. The play's run has been extended through March 17th and will pick up again April 8th through 13th. Kate Mulgrew joins us now from Hartford, and thanks so much for being with us.
KATE MULGREW: What a pleasure to talk to you Scott.
Scott Simon: Have you felt a sense of identity with Katharine Hepburn over the years because of the superficial and maybe not so superficial similarities people have so helpfully pointed out?
KATE MULGREW: I have not. And I think that this is particularly interesting. I wouldn't say that I felt an antipathy towards her, that would be too strong. But when you're likened to someone as frequently as I have been to Hepburn you develop a sort of dismissive feeling about it. "Thank you very much, yes, I'm like Katharine Hepburn, that's terrific, and let's get on." But the key, and the thing that I've found which has been most compelling to me and moving to me is I never thought that I would love her. However if you're going to be total, in this kind of a play you do have to love. And it's a peculiar feeling because she's not particularly lovable.
Scott Simon: Hmmm. I've got to ask you to follow up on that. She's more admirable than lovable?
KATE MULGREW: No question. As all icons are. You see glimpses of her vulnerability in all of her pictures and some of her documentaries and even some of her writing. But glimpses. And one wonders immediately is she playing? Is that acting? Is that just part of the fascinating Hepburn that she wanted so desperately to create. The reality is that she was deeply vulnerable and that is all together a different thing to realize on the stage. It cannot be played, it must be felt. Particularly, I would say, in act two where I am seventy-six and in a very reflective mood, and at certain points in that act I have to go very deeply indeed into her, her history, into her childhood – the death – suicide of her older brother, much loved brother Tom. Her, I would say, very complicated, complex relationships with her parents. And again at thirty-one. The vulnerability of the agitated and very frightened thirty-one year old actress who is now 'box office poison' in Hollywood.
Scott Simon: We should explain. First act – the two acts, act one and act two are separated by about forty-five years.
KATE MULGREW: That is correct.
Scott Simon: The first opens in September of 1938 after she has won her first Oscar, but is considered as you said 'box office poison', and the second is in February of 1983 and she has suffered a car crash.
KATE MULGREW: That's correct.
Scott Simon: What movie was it that broke Katharine Hepburn's losing streak?
KATE MULGREW: It was "Philadelphia Story". Changed everything. First she did the play, and then they… and of course in her contract she said if they want to make a movie out of this it's going to star 'yours truly'. And I will choose my leading men and I will, in essence, produce this film. And that's exactly what she did.
Scott Simon: It seems to me that I've been told over the years that it's sometimes more physically demanding to play an elderly character as you do playing the older Katharine Hepburn, than it can be to play a younger one, maybe against all expectations.
KATE MULGREW: Curiously enough in this piece, the young Kate is physically much more demanding and the old Kate is vocally much more demanding because I am capturing, or trying to capture her voice. And it's a trick Scott. I have to trick my vocal chords. And Hepburn herself settled her voice (imitates Hepburn) 'right in the middle of her throat. It's right in her larynx you know, so I have to do that for an hour and it sometimes very difficult because' I can't rely on my diaphragm, I have to go into my throat and I have to look for the energy to come from someplace else. So that's been quite a challenge, but a great one.
Scott Simon: Speaking as an actor, what made Katharine Hepburn so compelling. Do you have a new appreciation for that now?
KATE MULGREW: I do. You know she often said 'it was my job to be fascinating. To make this creature fascinating'. So she, I believe, stepped outside of herself from the very beginning, and worked on herself as a business. And that is how she addressed herself when she marched into Hollywood in her trousers and sandals. No actually, her four inch heels, so she could tower over those 'vulgar moguls' as she puts it. And I think that that is how she led her life. And of course, you know as well as I do that what she has been masterful at is concealing her private life. She has allowed only what she thinks is palatable to be exposed, and the rest will forever be hidden in her heart. And I really believe that it is in her heart alone that the truth lies buried. I have tried so hard to get to the essence of her relationship with Spencer Tracy.
Scott Simon: How would you characterize that long standing relationship with Spencer Tracy?
KATE MULGREW: Ummm… I can play it so much better than I can articulate it. Isn't that always the way? Ambiguous. She would say he was the great love of her life, and yet I believe that the intimacy of their relationship was probably rather short lived. He lived with and honoured his wife Louise Treadwell until the day he died. So I think for Hepburn – she wanted desperately for the world to think that this was a great love affair so I think that is probably where it should rest.
Scott Simon: In the end, what do you end up loving about her?
KATE MULGREW: John Tillenger the director called it feistiness. But I say – I say 'chops'. You know she is self deprecating in her suffering. By God she is going to go down with her secrets buried and her mettle intact, and that is what she did and I think she did it with power, no little grace, and as I say again, vulnerability which as you know is the revelation of the human heart.
Scott Simon: Thank you very much for speaking with us.
KATE MULGREW: Thank you Scott.
Scott Simon: Speaking with us from the studios of WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Kate Mulgrew. Her run in "Tea at Five" in which she plays Katharine Hepburn at the Hartford Stage through March 17th, this Sunday, then picks up again from April 8th to the 13th.
Listen to the interview on NPR's website
Direct Link to interview - need realplayer
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