Palm Beach Post

Taking tea with Kate Mulgrew 

Thursday, December 18, 2003

 By Leslie Gray Streeter
 Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

"You have to eat more of these," Kate Mulgrew insists, pushing a fancy three-tiered tray of dainty tea sandwiches toward her companion.

When a former starship captain orders you to try an egg salad sandwich, you do what you're told. After all, Mulgrew's established herself by playing formidable women such as Ryan's Hope's plucky Mary Ryan, Star Trek: Voyager's Captain Kathryn Janeway and now the legendary Katharine Hepburn in the one-woman Tea At Five, currently at West Palm Beach's Cuillo Center for the Performing Arts.

In the play, Mulgrew's Hepburn welcomes the audience for a juicy chat over a late-afternoon tea. Recently, we met the actress for an early-afternoon high tea at cozy Egyptian-themed Reading Etc. in CityPlace. Over a cup of Earl Gray tea and some elegant munchies, the Iowa native talked about her similarities with the great Miss Hepburn, the struggles of balancing career and family and the utter sinfulness of warm blueberry scones.

Question: Do you enjoy the whole fancy high-tea experience?

Answer: I love high tea -- I'm Irish. My first splendid memory of being a young actress in New York is having high tea at the Plaza Hotel. I was poor -- very poor -- and a gentleman took me there for tea. There was a pianist and a violinist. Wonderful. (She leans over to peruse the aforementioned fancy spread, and tries a little cucumber one.) This is my favorite part of high tea -- the sandwiches. Absolutely marvelous.

Question: Tea was apparently a ritual for Katharine Hepburn as well.

Answer: She would bring a basket of tea things to sets with her. On the set of The African Queen, she always brought a Thermos of tea with her, which was no small feat in the African jungle. But she had her tea, and the men (on set) were drunk all the time. (Laughs.) They said the alcohol killed the bugs.

Q: I've read that you've been compared to Hepburn since early in your career. What do you think you have in common with her?

A: (Laughs.) My rather opinionated approach. And people have always thought I was from New England, even though I'm from Iowa. The most startling (similarities) are the parallels in our private lives. They're very stunning.... She felt the repercussions of her brother's death early in her life, and I had two sisters die when I was young. That absolutely does shape us. I'd say you make up your mind, when your heart's broken like that, what you're going to do with your life. I was the oldest daughter out of eight children, and there's not as much freedom to examine your feelings as the youngest ones have. I had to support my mother in her grief. If I can put it in a nutshell, I would say (Hepburn and I) grew up very fast. We had to. We then replace our missing childhood every night. (Laughs.) It saves on therapy bills.

Q: What are your favorite Katharine Hepburn roles?

A: (The title role in) Alice Adams. She was remarkable at a very young age. And then Eleanor of Aquitaine (in The Lion In Winter), or Rosie in The African Queen. She brings a modern approach to everything she does.

Q: Speaking of modern women, Capt. Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager was certainly a pioneer. I'm sure you had very loyal fans from Ryan's Hope, but I understand Trekkies are on another level.

A: I was forewarned about the fans. Patrick Stewart (who played Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation) said to me, "You have no idea." Trekkies are legion. The Ryan's Hope fans were pretty contained, but the Trekkies are amazing. They don't just see my play once -- they see it 10 times. I've made friends among them, who've followed me all over the world. And I've found out that a lot of these (fans) are the same women who were watching Ryan's Hope at home with their babies. We grew up together.

Q: How did Voyager happen?

A: I didn't get the part! Genevieve Bujold, the French-Canadian actress, got it and quit after the first day. She had no idea what it was going to be like, with the costume and the sets and everything. She was like "Adios, Adieu!" (The Voyager producers) had seen me before, with three other actors. (Accepting the role) was a real "shot-out-of-a-cannon" moment. I got the part on a Thursday and started on Monday. And I knew all the while how high the stakes were, that the success of the show rested on me. I had to learn all the techno-babble, to learn a whole new language.... I made it mine. I was the first female captain; (Janeway) never lost her femininity, but she wasn't girly. I know there's a kind of person who regards Star Trek with a jaundiced eye, but they dismiss the incredible amount of work it takes. I defy any actor to do that.

Q: Soap operas are also notoriously hard on actors.

A: I had my best friends on Ryan's Hope; Claire Labine, the creator and writer and Nancy Addison (the striking veteran soap actress to whom Tea At Five is dedicated). She died last year. We had a great friendship. But soaps are a walk in the park compared to Star Trek. Ryan's Hope really wasn't enough work for me, where Star Trek was more than enough.

Q: In the play, your Kate Hepburn talks about how the hard work necessary to be a successful actor may preclude having a family at the same time. You've done both.

A: It's very hard. She gave up a lot. I was not prepared for the sacrifice that goes with it. I think my children (Ian, now 20, and Alexander, 19) have suffered. You can only do what you can do in a moment. There were times where I said to myself, "I can't see my kids today. They will cry, and there will be stormy fights. But it's all I can do."... I would like to kiss my husband (Ohio politician Tim Hagan) for more than four days in a row (before having to go back to work). But I do have a very good life.

Q: Tell me about the process of becoming Katharine Hepburn onstage.

A: What I wanted to do was not to do an impersonation. There are a number of drag queens around this country who do that every day. I (wanted) to capture the complexities of this maverick, self-directed Yankee who, at the same time, sat at the feet of a married man for 27 years, a man who never told her he loved her. There was much expected of her, and (because of her choices) she could afford to become a huge star. It was all about her. She said it herself. But that's what it took to be Katharine Hepburn, who still ranks as one of the most important people in the 20th century. (She stops to take a blueberry scone.) This is wicked! You're going to have one of these?

Q: Absolutely. You're enjoying being Katharine Hepburn. Are you enjoying West Palm Beach as well?

A: The people here are treating me nicely, and let's face it -- who's going to complain about the weather? We've been over to The Breakers, which is probably the most opulent place ever, and Bellagio here at CityPlace. The enjoyment factor is considerably higher here, as compared to New York. You can relax a little here, jump in the pool. And the people seem to really love (the play). It's the perfect target audience, 50 and up. They all remember her, so (the wives) are not dragging their really resentful husbands with them.

Q: So you've played a soap icon, a Star Trek icon and now a Hollywood icon. Who's next?

A: Someone less iconic, perhaps? (Laughs.) How about Medea?