Faye Sholiton: What was it about Katharine Hepburn that made you want to play her on stage?
Kate Mulgrew: It was the script itself. I’ve all my life been likened to her. What was unusual was the play that Matthew Lombardo wrote: its structure, its polarity, its excellence. I’d never attempted a one-woman endeavor. (Of course, I never attempted to shoot myself, either.) I had to overcome the years of repressed feelings I had for her. I always thought we were antithetical in our views, our politics. I found almost all of that to be untrue. Once I engaged in her story, I began to fall in love with her. Most important was her vulnerability, which is hard to unearth, particularly in her personal relationships. She’s very protective of her privacy... The affair with Spencer Tracy, for example. It was nobody’s business but hers. I discovered that her life was like those Russian dolls: every time I opened one layer, there was always another one.
What are the physical challenges in playing this particular role?
Standing on stage for two hours by myself. No ensemble to support me. Vocally, I have to go an octave higher than my own voice in the first act; an octave lower in the second. It’s the only way to capture that extraordinary quality she had. It’s also the sheer concentration involved. There’s no fallback, no net. When you’ve got an ensemble, you’re looking at someone else to help you. In this case, no one else exists.
Hepburn repeatedly states in her autobiography how “lucky” she’s been. Do you think she’s been lucky?
What’s important is that she thought she was lucky. Kate Mulgrew’s opinion is not important. I have children, marriage, a lot of the stuff she didn’t have. The actor’s job is to neither judge nor exalt a character. If she thought she was lucky, she was lucky.
What, then, was behind her success?
She was feisty. Had true grit. We’re living at a time in America when true grit is scarce. We’re living in a time of fear, and Hepburn did not believe in fear. The audience is delighted to sit for two hours and leave their day of madness to remember what it is that formed this country. People like Katharine Hepburn, and her mother, a dedicated suffragette. Americans love spunk. Behind that spunk was an iron will and true courage. She was singularly uncomplaining. She could be extremely willful, sometimes brutally direct. But she needed that Spartan kind of courage to survive, and to excel.
Which of her many colorful quotes would you put on a refrigerator magnet?
“Never complain. Never explain.” Unfortunately, most of her sayings are not quotable on refrigerator magnets, with children around the house.
What are the dangers of playing a woman who is so well known, and who is still alive?
That the Hepburn estate would not be pleased. But we played Hartford, their home town, to sold-out houses. Of course, people will argue about the structure, the context of the play, that it doesn’t cover enough. You’ve only got two hours. We had to cover the extraordinary parts of her life, what shaped her as an actress and a woman.
And what shaped her?
She was driven. She had a father who would accept nothing less than perfection. I’ve often thought it was because of her relationship with her father that she never settled down with husband and family. A lot of women nowadays try to do it all - and end up in the clinic.
What has been the response of the Hepburn family to TEA AT FIVE?
Absolutely terrific. But I couldn’t let that make me fearful. You know, I’m at an age now that most of my little nagging fears are gone. I’m 47 years old. I’ve had a wonderful career. This is forcing me to go deeper than I could during all those years of television.
What intrigues you about the choices Hepburn made, both personal and professional?
(This matter of choice) resonates for me, as it does for a lot of women who had strong fathers. In her effort to please - or prove herself to - her father, she proved herself to herself. And she loved to act. She was no slouch. She went all over the world playing Shakespeare. It was a challenge for her, and she proved it every time.
Speaking as Mrs. Tim Hagan, what about your own personal and professional choices? How have those worked for you?
This is the time for me to assess what is really important in life. I’ve been (to borrow from Hepburn) “unbelievably lucky” in encountering this man whom I love so deeply and admire so much. It’s not every day you fall in love with someone who is running for governor. And to find someone who is so decent... We’ve been very fortunate in this roll of the dice. You change your life, and you don’t look back.
Even when that change occasionally involves a moving van?
Home is now Olmsted Township. We have an apartment in Manhattan. We are hoping for a home in Columbus.
If Katharine Hebpurn sits on your shoulder now, what does she tell you?
“Don’t look back. Go forward.” And strangely enough, it’s the young Hepburn saying it! “Live your life. No regrets. Don’t be a baby. Be as total as you can be.”
And what does Kate Mulgrew reply?
“Whatever you say, Miss Hepburn. You’re running the show.”
Thank you to The Cleveland Play House
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