The Beat
Puget Sound Public Radio
KUOW 94.9
Seattle, Washington
May 24, 2005
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Megan Sukys:  Truly great actors create characters so real and iconic that it can be difficult for people to separate the person from the performance.  Kate Mulgrew has had that experience, having brought to life Captain Kathryn Janeway on the series Star Trek: Voyager.  In recent years, though, Kate has tackled another larger than life character, a fellow actress with a powerful presence, Katharine Hepburn.  Kate has taken the stage, inhabiting the famous 'long drink of water' in the one-woman show "Tea at Five". Kate is now performing at Seattle Repertory Theatre and joins us today to talk about taking on a legend to whom she has so often been compared.  Thanks for coming in, Kate.

Kate Mulgrew:  Thank you very much Megan.

Megan Sukys:  Katharine Hepburn was so unique and had such a strong personality that she became in recent – in her later years – a real target for parody. How do you tackle such a huge character without veering into caricature?

Kate Mulgrew:  I think she was a target for parody all her life, wasn't she?  You're talking about the drag queen syndrome.

Megan Sukys:  And also the Saturday Night Live and …

Kate Mulgrew:  And I mean that in the nicest possible way, Megan!  It's night and day.  This is not an impersonation, this is a realization for lack of a better word.  And never the twain shall meet.  I mean, one is … the true unearthing of a character /slash/ person, as best as I am able to find her, and I have used all my imaginative skills as well as all my research and creative skills to bring her to life.  As I believe she would have liked to have been brought to life. Now who knows?  She could have sat there for all I know and said (in Hepburn's voice),  "Get that bloody girl off the stage she's appalling."  But I think she would have said, "Yes, that's interesting, she found my artery."  And I believe that that is her vulnerability - which has been the key ingredient for me, and was missing in the recipe for a long time, so I was… you know… at…at great odds in the beginning in rehearsal, and frightened.  Because it's one thing to bring to life a huge character - quite another a person.  And let us not forget that she was alive when we opened in Hartford - which is her hometown - three years ago.  So the challenge was great.  But the deepest, I think, and most exacting and arduous part of this whole process was to honor her in a way that she has heretofore not been, not really been honored.

Megan Sukys:  In what way?

Kate Mulgrew:  The soul.  You think of Hepburn and you think of her  - her jib.  And you think of her crack, and you think of her grit.  And you think of her … flintiness and you think of her very keen intelligence.  And you think of her wit and you think of her dexterity and you think of all of that.  But you never think of her sadness, vis a vis her courage.  And these are the two components that I've tried to marry.  Because I think that in fact that is what shaped her. You know she was very young when she found her brother Tom – he'd hanged himself – she cut him down herself.  And in that action, and in that moment she changed her life. Dr. Hepburn was a very interesting man – Tom Hepburn. Wonderful doctor – a pioneer in urology.  And Mrs. Hepburn was as you know, one of the first feminists – bright as a whip.  They did not wish to acknowledge the suicide, forcing the young Kate into a maturity she could neither own nor understand.  And also, asking her to suppress an intense agony, I think, which we call grief.  So in the inability to express that grief, she found something else. She found courage. And she found acting.  And these two things not only saved her, but made her the bullet that she became.

Megan Sukys:  You say that you would hope at least that Katharine would say "Yes, that's me."  Do you think Katharine wanted people to understand who she was inside?

Kate Mulgrew:  No. I think she was fiercely private for very good reasons.  That family legacy was not a - that was not a joke and is not to be taken lightly. These were not people who were deeply self-examined emotionally.  Intellectually yes – you could talk about anything – you could talk about anything at all.  Except grief.  "And Daddy why don't … you know I can't seem to get past this depression" or "Mommy what am I going to…"  No. Verboten.  So I've tried to I've tried to bring to light this aspect of her without for one moment discouraging or coloring what it is that made her so compelling. 

Megan Sukys:  Which is?

Kate Mulgrew:  I say this and I hope you understand it and I'm sure you will.  If you look closely at any of her films, which I hope you will do soon. The next time you get an opportunity, watch and you will see that right behind the eyes and directly under the chin, meaning right under the flint and also the intelligence is a sadness.  Her eyes are almost invariably full of tears.  (In young Hepburn's voice) And so you see that, you know.  But right behind it is "I'm never going to marry you or anybody else.  She is not yar."  But you could… and then one second later … watch the scene in "Alice Adams" where the violets are wilting in her hands and nobody's asked her to dance.  Just take a good look and you see… it makes me go… and watch her "On Golden Pond".  (In the older Hepburn's voice) "You're my knight in shining armor and you're going to get on that horse and you're going to go, go, go."  I mean you just… it's just achingly tender. And I think when you bury tenderness it's probably a bit like what happens when you mine for some exquisite and rare mineral.  When you find it, it's just appallingly wonderful, you know.  So her emotion is so surprising every time.  And that's what I've tried to find.

Megan Sukys:  You're listening to The Beat.  Today we're talking with Kate Mulgrew.  You may know her for her iconic performance as Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek:  Voyager, she's taken on another larger than life character in recent years, Katharine Hepburn in the play "Tea at Five", now on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre.  And Kate, you've given us an example of really the most distinctive part of Katharine Hepburn to anyone, her voice. Katharine herself had to work at that voice.

Kate Mulgrew:  Uh huh.

Megan Sukys:  It was created.

Kate Mulgrew:  Uh huh.  It was.  It was calculated. Now, to what measure and what extent - I've drawn my own conclusions. And I've taken a bit of license with it. I mean I know that she took her voice lessons and that Frances Robinson Duff was tough on her and said you must have a very distinctive and unusual voice.  But it is my personal conviction that Hepburn concocted her voice out of the ragbag of her family inheritance, which would be her father's southern - I mean Dr. Hepburn had a little bit of that and the Brahman thing which was very much that – you know Massachusetts – they never close their mouth and they never… and the English.  She was very much an anglophile – she loved all that.  So if you put all of them together, what you get is that (Hepburn's voice). And that was the young Hepburn.  And that's how she talked, and nobody'd heard it before.  She walked into Hollywood – nobody'd dreamed of this remarkable thing.  She used that, she used her height.  She used her body – that's the 'long drink of water', which of course always makes me ashen because I'm not really a 'long drink of water'… which isn't to suggest I'm a 'thimble full of milk either' but…!

Megan Sukys:  (laughs)

Kate Mulgrew:  She was very studied in her physicality and in her vocality.  Later on, of course, it just became what it became.  She was a big smoker and I think she developed some polyps on her vocal chords and (in the older Hepburn's voice) that's why you get that later on a little bit, you know.  And of course it was very unusual, but that's what that was about. 

Megan Sukys:  And as I mentioned before about the caricature, that those who take it, take the end product of what she had – the voice, the actions, the physicality they see and that's what they imitate.  For you as an actor inhabiting Katharine Hepburn how do you find it and recreate it from scratch to make it authentic?

Kate Mulgrew:  That's almost impossible to answer. I have to be honest with you.  How do I?  I don't know.  Why do we have babies?  How do we have babies?  I don't know! I mean, I really don't.  Of course there's a technique. Of course there's a craft. I learn the lines, I research the character, I watch the movies, I read the books.  Every bit of documentation has been gone through a zillion times. I have a rehearsal process of four weeks.  I study and I think and I – you know – dwell on her.  But in the moment of alchemy, I cannot quite articulate that to you, nor should I be able to.  Because it's the very thing that gives me the profoundest joy. 

Megan Sukys:  Is the alchemy?

Kate Mulgrew:  The mystery.  The secret. And actually the secret of my relationship with her, which nobody else gets to share in quite the same way that I'm sharing it with you because I'm actually stepping out of my shoes and into hers – giving you her, vis a vis me. 

Megan Sukys:  You talk about relationship with her.  You didn't know her in real life.

Kate Mulgrew:  I didn't know her in real life and I didn't like her. I didn't like her very much.  I thought she was strident. Opinionated.  Selfish, self-centered woman. I didn't see anything particularly generous about her. These are the qualities to which I'm naturally attracted.  And I didn't like her politics particularly – you know – very, very radical, very pushy. And of course I was compared to her a lot.  Looked a little bit like her. Sounded a little bit like her. 'Oh, you remind me a little bit of Ka … oh…'  I wanted to be myself, Kate Mulgrew.  So all that was tiresome to me.  However, the day comes when I read the play. And a light goes off.  I like the play. And then the day comes when the rehearsal begins. And then begins something not unlike a love affair.  Which always takes one by terrible surprise, you know.

Megan Sukys:  What did you most fall in love with?

Kate Mulgrew:  Her vulnerability. See… to this day, and I'm doing it… this girl had the courage of a lion, because to put aside your brokenness and replace it with such an extraordinary fullness requires a kind of tremendous courage that one doesn't see any more. And that's why I say you shall not meet her like again.  Because that's the thing when you look at "African Queen" and you look at "Lion in Winter", that's so big – it's big – it's epic and she was going to be the best and she was going to suffer on her own time and of her own accord and there was – she was going to owe no one an apology or an explanation, and by God, that's the way she sailed out. 

Megan Sukys:  Do you think that in any way Katharine represented women of her generation?

Kate Mulgrew:  Absolutely not!  Why do you think she is so remarkable?  There was only one.  Only one!  There was only one Eleanor Roosevelt. Only one.  Only one Marie Curie.  She … she … she walked in to the world at a time in this country when a girl like that was a freak.  And right under the freak was a thing called a thoroughbred you'd never seen run a race like she was going to run it.  She… she… she… dazzled.  But they were scared, Megan.  Ginger Rogers didn't scare L. B. Mayer, you know. Joan Crawford didn't frighten David Selznick. But Hepburn did.  She walked in "How do you do, how do you do, let's get to work. What's this - I don't like this – no, it doesn't make any sense, I think it should be rewritten, would you do that. I'm not going to … " Boom, boom, boom.  And when it came to the money, she said "You don't like it, I'll buy myself out." And she did.  "Here's $250,000, I'm out."  Nobody had had it before, nobody could do it before.  She knew who she was.  And you know, this is a Mulgrewism, because – and  I'm fond of saying this all the time - I think she knew she was going to die – "Life is fast, call your own shots." Call your own shots from the get go. 

Megan Sukys:   I would imagine in order to take on the role you had to find the connection that the two of you had. The similarities that you could find between you and Katharine Hepburn.  What were the differences that you found? The most startling differences between yourself and Katharine Hepburn?

Kate Mulgrew:  Oh those are easy.  I very much need to be … to be loved by someone who loves me back. Deeply.  I could not have slept with a man for 27 years without some proclamation of love. 

Megan Sukys:  You're talking about Spencer Tracy.

Kate Mulgrew:  He didn't even tell her that he loved her, let alone ask her to marry him.  I needed children.  Not that they've done anything but sort of exhaust me! {laughs} But I needed them.  And they have deepened me.  I'm more feminine than Hepburn.  Not more feline, but more feminine. I'm softer.  I'm more tender. I reveal more.  I'm probably more generous with myself.  My friendships are very, very important to me.  And I think that life is too short to be lived… to be lived in a bubble that is so intense.  I think that what mattered to her was this persona – this celebrity.  She wanted of course to be known as a great actress, and she was.  And she was a great actress.  But I would suggest at a tremendous cost.  Now I'm not playing this, I'm sharing this with you.  That's my guess. That's great, cut, print, that's a wrap. But then you get in the car and you go home, and there's nobody in the kitchen except your paid secretary of 45 years. But you pay her.  And it is at her side that you prepare the dinner.  And it is with her that you eat it. Then maybe you play a game of Parcheesi with her.  That's it, baby. I want to be with my kids. I want a man to look at me and wink at me and grab me. I want that.  I need that.  I need that in order to be happy.  Her happiness was, "When I wake up tomorrow I'm going to kill them when I do that scene."  Well… not enough. 

Megan Sukys:  Katharine Hepburn became a creation of hers, a persona that she could not get out of.

Kate Mulgrew:  I don't think she… not only did she not want to get out of it, I think we have to be careful in suggesting that she became it. It was her. It was her. You know this is a kind of – without getting too philosophical about it, and why should we, it's not philosophical – we are what we become, whether we concoct it or not. It's ludicrous to suggest otherwise.  She was what she was, and what she wanted to be. And that's the grandness of Hepburn. 

Megan Sukys:  Looking at this play, bringing Katharine Hepburn to life, is there something that all of us can take away about Katharine?  More than just celebrity voyeurism – seeing what this larger than life star was behind the screen.  Is there something more about her life? 

Kate Mulgrew:  Well I try to impart that by telling you about the vulnerability, and the great courage that she had in displacing her grief with a kind of great energy and focus. I love people who say … who have suffered and who say, "So what, who doesn't?"  You know.  She… she… she had an expression: "Never complain, never explain." And she didn't.  She lived her life without apology and she lived her life with great personal extravagance and I think 'how did she do all that when all that was happening?'  Her love affair with Spencer Tracy, and her family and her parents and her brother.  Where did she take all of that and how did she surmount it?  I think she … she's just the most sort of fascinatingly complex person I can think of.

Megan Sukys:  And has your experience bringing her to life changed you?

Kate Mulgrew:  Well I hope that it's made me a better actress.  I always hope that it makes me a better human being, although I'm not too sure about that!  I get very intense when I work, and I'm afraid that sometimes in my intensity I can be short-sighted in that regard. It always infuriates me because kindness is of the essence and sometimes I forget it. It certainly has helped me hone my craft.  It's helped me with – deal with loneliness. It's a very lonely thing to be a one-person show. Touring.  You know I'm all by myself, and I've had to readjust my thinking about loneliness. I find there's still no (simple) way to grapple with it.  And … I'm very good at room service!  It's been good.

Megan Sukys:  Kate Mulgrew.  She brings Katharine Hepburn to life in the play "Tea at Five", it's on stage now at Seattle Repertory Theatre, running through May 29th. If you'd like more information on the show, check The Beat home page at  Thanks Kate.

Kate Mulgrew:  Thank you, Megan. 

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Tea at Five Schedule & Past Performance Information