WAMC - Northeast Public Radio
Week of May 19th, 2003
Many Thanks to my transcriber!
Mary Darcy: Welcome to 51%. I'm Mary Darcy.
Jeanne Neff: And I'm Jeanne Neff. This week on 51%:
Kate Mulgrew: The wallflower. The working class girl who can't make good, who wants so much to be asked to the dance – that's Hepburn. She's right there.
Jeanne Neff: From the Milky Way to the Great White Way, Star Trek's first female captain, Kate Mulgrew, has come to Broadway in "Tea at Five", a one woman show about the great Katharine Hepburn. She joins us with a look at this pioneering legend of the silver screen.
Mary Darcy: Actress Kate Mulgrew is perhaps most famous for creating Kathryn Janeway, the very first female commander in the history of Star Trek. But recently she's won praise from theater critics for her role as another famous Katharine – screen legend Katharine Hepburn. Kate Mulgrew plays Kate Hepburn in a one woman show called "Tea at Five", currently running at Broadway's Promenade Theater. Once described as 'box office poison', Katharine Hepburn, who recently celebrated her 96th birthday, eventually rose to be named the finest screen actress of the twentieth century.
I spoke with Kate Mulgrew recently about Kathryn Janeway, Katharine Hepburn and the new play, "Tea at Five".
Kate Mulgrew: I think I should begin by saying, most unusually, this play was written for me, and exclusively for me. Captain Kathryn Janeway inspired it in that Matthew Lombardo, the playwright, who was a great friend of my now deceased best friend, was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager with her one day and said, "That girl has to play Katharine Hepburn." And Nancy said, "You write it and I'll arrange it." And so he flew to Miami and wrote it in three days and she sent it to me, and I immediately recognized not only the excellence of its construct, but the compelling nature of the polarity that he had, that he had drawn.
Mary Darcy: We see her at two points in her life in the play. At thirty-one and at seventy-six.
Kate Mulgrew: That's correct.
Mary Darcy: Why were these two times in her life the chosen points?
Kate Mulgrew: Thirty-one. That's after having been labeled box office poison in Hollywood. Which shows her in a very wonderfully playable state, certainly for the actress. Very agitated. Deeply unnerved by the fact that she'd been essentially exiled from the town that she had - she thought so beautifully mastered only seven years before. And she is back at her parent's home in Fenwick eagerly waiting to hear from her agent about whether or not she got the role in – of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind". And of course we all know what happened. That is the moment we're looking at in terms of her extraordinary agitation as a thirty-one year old.
And then, at seventy-six, just after she'd had that very bad car accident in which she almost severed her right foot, shows her in a far more reflective and self-deprecating attitude ready to talk about the things that have so defined her. The suicide of her brother, her love for Spencer Tracy and her very, very complicated profound, and I think shaping relationship with her father, Dr. Hepburn. So all of this is revealed.
Mary Darcy: What kind of preparation went into getting ready to play Katharine Hepburn?
Kate Mulgrew: That was rigorous, Mary. That was… I had to be extraordinarily vigilant. Because it's not as if I could create this character out of nothing. All of the research was there so I… I dove into it. And into the archives as well in Hartford. I studied every single film – some of them I've seen as many as probably fifteen times. I've read every piece of literature ever written about Katharine Hepburn, including everything she has written about herself. And the ancillary books – John Ford, Spencer Tracy, L.B. Mayer, David Selznick. Hollywood in the thirties, Hollywood in the forties. That was just the first six months. And then in the rehearsal studio itself was the triple challenge of the first act – girl. For some reason the older the older Kate visited me earlier on, with much greater ease – that's almost been like a kind of strange mystery, because one would think that the older Kate would be so demanding, but she is not. She just came. It's the young…young Kate, with the hard palate and that sort of fluid stride. The voice that she both made up and had coached for herself. That combination Yankee, Southern, Hartford thing that nobody else had heard before – certainly not in Hollywood California. So that took time. But once I got under her skin, and I did so by finding a hook, which a lot of actors do, and in my case it was Hepburn's vulnerability, which allowed me to go where I needed to go.
Mary Darcy: Interesting. Because vulnerability is not a quality that a lot of people would associate with Katharine Hepburn right away.
Kate Mulgrew: No, that's true, but it is exactly why she is as interesting as she is. And if you think about it for even a minute, you'll see that that's true. Just under the surface, just behind the eyes, always was her great vulnerability. This vulnerability was put into place of course when she was thirteen years old and found her brother Tom hanging from his attic room at Aunt Mary's house in Greenwich Village. She cut him down. That changed her forever. That never healed. Neither did it go away. Her brother was always with her. Always with her. And if you watch her in a movie like "Alice Addams", you see the wallflower – the working class girl who can't make good, who wants so much to be asked to the dance – that's Hepburn – she's right there. Tears are never very far. And the tears – the grief – is real.
Mary Darcy: The film that really turned her career around was "The Philadelphia Story".
Kate Mulgrew: That's exactly right.
Mary Darcy: And there you really see both sides of Katharine Hepburn.
Kate Mulgrew: You're absolutely right Mary, you do. Particularly regarding, I think, her relationship with her father in "The Philadelphia Story". How unforgiving she was towards him, and how… how self-righteous. And that's when he says, you know, well, "You're just a frigid statue, you don't have a heart," her own father told her that. So that is beautiful in "The Philadelphia Story". But I think that she was determined to come back in that as a glamorous actress, and as a multi-talented, extremely unique creature. As a fascinating creature, as she put it herself. And that's what she achieved.
Mary Darcy: Now you've been compared to Katharine Hepburn for much of your life.
Kate Mulgrew: I have been. Not chronically, Mary, let's be honest about this. Who is it – I think somebody said I'm not physically the 'long drink of water' that Hepburn is. I'm shorter and I lack that totally patrician look. But it's comparable enough to have elicited regular and… and vociferous responses to that end, yes. And frankly, it wasn't all together pleasant all the time. I was an actress in my own right and to be likened to her was sometimes irritating.
Mary Darcy: Very often an actor will say that they share something in common with the character they're playing. Is there some part of you in your portrayal of Katharine Hepburn?
Kate Mulgrew: Yes, of course. When an actress doesn't tell you that, she's either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid! Because we have to draw from ourselves, Mary. And the more closely allied we are, in fact, the more challenging it can become. I can name the vulnerability. I can name the parallels of grief and loss in my early life, in my own family. I too am one of a number of children – I'm one of eight, she was one of six. My older brother I adored, his name was Tom. Hers was a Tom. Much the same family dynamic. Strong. Good looking. Powerful. Patriarchal figure – my father. And a dramatic, remarkable champion in my mother. And I think much of that was the same for Hepburn. But I would say most, most notably, early grief probably catapulted us both into an early maturity, which is what feeds that kind of strange drive to become… want to become an actor, and in her case, a great movie star.
Mary Darcy: Great deal of courage and persistence in the way that you pursued your careers as well. You went off to NYU to study acting and from what I've read, didn't take classes the first year. Just jumped right into…
Kate Mulgrew: (laughs)
Mary Darcy: … It, didn't you?
Kate Mulgrew: You know, I'm going to have to watch what I say. My father is still alive. He will come and shoot me! I was not ever a good scholar - I'll be very honest with you about that. I was so madly in love with the theater that I spent my entire time at the conservatory. So why my professors passed me in my academics, I'll never know, but they did, God bless them.
Mary Darcy: And it paid off. You went on to play Mary Ryan, in "Ryan's Hope", eventually roles like Mrs. Columbo, and Kathryn Janeway. How did Kathryn Janeway change your career?
Kate Mulgrew: Well of course Star Trek is not known to be the phenomenon it is for nothing. And…however I was not fully aware of the ramifications of taking that role. I was the first woman to play a star ship captain – a Starfleet captain and it was a pretty extraordinary accomplishment within the confines of the Star Trek community. I found myself responsible, very suddenly, not only for creating this character who could not at all be like her predecessors, who had to be something new and different, but the role model too, was extremely clear to me, and quite exacting over the years. At the end of my first season of Voyager I was asked to speak at the Kennedy Center. The First Lady, Mrs. Clinton asked me to come. It was celebrating women of science. About fifty or sixty of the most – foremost – renowned female scientists in the world. Also in attendance were a number of girls who had been chosen as the head of their class – girls from M.I.T., Harvard – all over the country. I spoke, albeit very badly, because I know so little about science - I certainly knew less then. But I told them that I was very passionate in my approach to Janeway. That I would do my very, very best to bring a great character to fruition and that I hoped that I would not let them down as scientists. And a young girl approached me, and she said, "I just want you to know that I was all set to go into research in astrophysics. My father and my mother who are both scientists encouraged me to go into the field of research because I was a woman and they felt that if I attempted NASA or anything else more directly in the field I would get hurt or I would be rejected. But I was sitting watching Voyager one day for the first time with my mother, and I looked at her when it was over and I said 'That woman and Hollywood are trying to tell us something. It's time. I'm going directly to NASA, Mom.'" And she did.
Mary Darcy: What an incredible feeling that must be for you…
Kate Mulgrew: I mean… that's the kind of thing… to get a letter six years later to tell me that she was, you know, down there, was… it's just extraordinary.
Mary Darcy: A real connection there between the arts and the sciences.
Kate Mulgrew: A great connection. And I also went about my business very differently than I think the men did before me. It was my goal to… to reach the women by giving them a full and a fully realized woman. Flawed. Vulnerable. Contentious. Passionate. Scared. Brave. All of it. And so that's what I fought for. And that's what they saw.
Mary Darcy: And for seven years you played Kathryn Janeway.
Kate Mulgrew: I certainly did, madam!
Mary Darcy: How does the Broadway life compare to doing a weekly television series?
Kate Mulgrew: Well first of all, there is no comparison. One is extremely immersive and focused – that's the theater. That's four hours at night, but your whole day is about those four hours. It is a… it is a total process and a complete commitment. Television is the same, but it's much longer and it's very staggered and very fractured. I could have as long as an eighteen – twenty hour day on that series – cut, print, cut, print, cut, print. So I never got the art that I get in the theater. As a craftsman this work is, is the more challenging and more, as a result, rewarding.
Mary Darcy: And it's just you out there.
Kate Mulgrew: It's just me, but it's that inexplicable alchemy that happens when you walk into a dinner party of strangers. And right away, you know there's somebody there. You just know it. And before the evening is out you've made a plan to be in their life forever. This is what happens often in the theater – in the dynamic between the actor and the audience. If the audience lets themselves go, and if I can be honest enough, and courageous enough in bringing them in. Which is what's happening more and more. I mean it's not without great trepidation that I sometimes walk out there, Mary, because I never know what I'm going to find. But it's increasingly joyful for me and I'm finding her to be, strangely enough, one of the great loves of my life. This also, I think, is the… is the trick to a fully developed character. You can bring a character to reality and do a pretty good job of it if you like them well enough. But if you love them, they help you. And that's the secret, that's the mystery. I get emotional talking to you about it – isn't this crazy – and I walk on stage and do it every day. Her young spirit so crushed, but unbowed. She shot herself like an arrow of courage into a town that wanted nothing of her. She changed convention forever. She was without apology or regret. And right underneath it, you know, beat the heart of a very young, Spartan girl who wanted to be loved – who wanted to be needed.
Check the Latest News Page for a link to listen to this interview and a special offer on 'Tea at Five' tickets!