Host Ed Bell
91.3 FM - WLRN
Florida Public Radio
October 31, 2003
Many, many THANKS! to my transcriber!
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…Ed Bell with you here on WLRN.
You might remember our next guest performing as Mary Ryan from the ABC T.V. drama Ryan's Hope, or perhaps you'll remember her role as Mrs. Columbo, or maybe Captain Kathryn Janeway on the Star Trek: Voyager series. Whichever role she appears in, Kate Mulgrew brings a great talent and discipline to her art. A highly awarded actress in television and film, she is recently returned to the theater in the Matthew Lombardo play, Tea at Five. It's a tour de force presentation – an intimate look at the late, legendary actress, Katharine Hepburn. Tea at Five begins its South Florida premiere this weekend at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach. I spoke with Kate Mulgrew and asked her about her various roles, particularly her seven year run on T.V. as part of the Star Trek dynasty.
Kate Mulgrew: It's very difficult to encapsulate what was a most remarkable chapter in my life. Certainly you can understand that playing the first female captain of a Starfleet vessel was a pretty extraordinary feeling. And I certainly always have regarded it as a privilege. And looking back, of course, what I will cherish until I die are the profound friendships that evolved as a result of that series. It was just a … a really amazing time in my life.
Ed Bell: You have also played many other roles. You were Mrs. Columbo – we all loved that series.
Kate Mulgrew: Thank you.
Ed Bell: Tell us about some of your fond memories of playing Mrs. Columbo.
Kate Mulgrew: Well Mrs. Columbo was sort of a fluke because Fred Silverman, who was then head of programming at NBC, plucked me from a daytime serial I was doing called Ryan's Hope, thinking that the character of Mary Ryan would, you know, translate into a … into a very successful sort of companion for Columbo. And so they made me his wife. I was however, only twenty-three at the time, playing thirty-seven. So that was a bit of a difficulty. And I think if they'd just called it Kate Loves a Mystery from the get-go we wouldn't have encountered the problems that we did. But I had a wonderful time with it. I mean I really thought it was a fabulous idea. Fred Silverman was a genius when it came to programming, and this was his idea. And you know… sleuthing about. And despite the fact that I was in the shadow of one of the all–time great actors, was nonetheless absolutely delightful.
Ed Bell: Other great television roles included Heartbeat and Cheers, and your guest appearance on Murphy Brown, for which you won a Tracey Humanitarian Award.
Kate Mulgrew: That's right. That was a… I played an alcoholic anchorwoman – my family of course laughs and says 'how appropriate'!
Ed Bell: (laughs)
Kate Mulgrew: We're Irish Catholic, you understand. But… I really found that fascinating because sitcoms have always been a bit … dicey for me… I don't know why. Perhaps because I haven't done a great many of them. But I got to play a sort of dramatic part within the confines of what was supposed to be quite funny. And so it all ended up to be very poignant and … much to the heart of what I think is a terrible disease in our culture and certainly in our industry.
Ed Bell: No stranger to motion pictures, you starred in several feature films – with Richard Burton, Rip Torn, and Pierce Brosnan. Also the very funny Throw Momma from the Train with Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal. Any fond memories of that appearance?
Kate Mulgrew: Nothing but fond memories! I mean I … I cannot tell you how terrific Danny DeVito is. In every sense of the word. This is a very genuine, extremely good man with a fine and exceptional character. And between he and Billy Crystal in makeup at five o'clock, I was lucky to even… to be poured onto that set by eight. They had me in such hysterics. They could riff on anything! I mean they did… JFK talking to Herbert Hoo… I mean talking to … it was just… it was an outrageous and sort of, I think, one of those moments in time where you realize that this will never come again. And I love nothing as much as I love a good laugh. So…it was terrific.
Ed Bell: Wonderful black comedy, Throw Momma from the Train.
Kate Mulgrew: Yeah.
Ed Bell: Now living out in California, making appearances on T.V. and in films, was it an awkward transition to come back to New York and step up on the theater stage again?
Kate Mulgrew: No. Exhilarating. It was daunting, but exhilarating. And what I've wanted so much to do for the last eight years. You know that the rigors and constraints of a television series are such that it didn't allow for anything else. I mean all I could do was go to work and raise my kids. So I harbored this hope all that time of getting back to the theater, which I love so much. And the fact that Matthew Lombardo wrote this play for me, and did it in three days time, and flew down to Miami and sent it me at Paramount and I loved it immediately – I recognized its excellence and the fact that it all evolved and unfolded as it did, I think is just… I took it as a serendipitous message about the theater.
Ed Bell: Well I think it's marvelous that you spent about seven years as Captain Kathryn Janeway on the Star Trek: Voyager series and then brought all those Trekkies into the theater, with this new role as Katharine Hepburn starring in Tea at Five. Did you find that unusual?
Kate Mulgrew: I've always found it unusual. I've never encountered this kind of unconditional allegiance. And I can tell you very frankly, and very straightforwardly, without them I highly doubt that Voyager, not to mention Tea at Five would have had the respective successes that they've had. Theirs is the kind of support that is very intelligent, it's very devoted, and they care very much that the actor who is portraying the character that they love, continues to take risks and to grow. So I've considered that a great honor – this relationship with those fans.
Ed Bell: Now as you mentioned, Kate, Mr. Lombardo wrote Tea at Five with you in mind – I believe that was after watching some of Star Trek shows.
Kate Mulgrew: That's right. He was watching it with my best friend, who's now dead. But they sat up together and he said, "She needs to play Katharine Hepburn." And my friend said, "Well, write it." So he did.
Ed Bell: I also understand that you kind of grew up being considered very Hepburnesque?
Kate Mulgrew: I was compared to her often… likened to her often. Particularly when I was thin! I'm not nearly the Yankee that she was, you know. And very few people have that… her vocality as you know is (in Hepburn's voice) very, very unusual. But I find her… she visits me. I don't know how else to articulate it. And I've tried very hard to do so coherently. She just visits me. I understand her. And if one were to say what is the hook … what is the mysterious hook – I would have to say that it is her …a deep and curious understanding of her vulnerability, which was the taproot of her being, and of her existence.
Ed Bell: I understand during rehearsals that a quote/unquote 'crazy love affair' began between you and Katharine Hepburn.
Kate Mulgrew: Yes. I think that any actor will tell you that it's almost impossible to do a very good job if you do not love the character that you're playing. So I approached this project with some little trepidation because I had a sort of natural antipathy towards her having been compared to her so often in my life. And all of that dissolved as I was awakened to, not only the parallels that we share, but as I said to you, this… this profound sweetness. There is a tenderness there, which I have grown to love and respect.
Ed Bell: And I understand that you purposefully wanted to separate yourself from the family so that you would have a fresh perspective on your character?
Kate Mulgrew: No, I didn't purposefully do that. It just happened that way.
Ed Bell: Ah…
Kate Mulgrew: I've never encountered them. I've never met them. I've never sought them out, nor they me. And I… I would just say that in retrospect I think that's probably stood me in good stead because distance is a very good thing for an actor to have.
Ed Bell: Uh huh. Gives you a fresher perspective, perhaps?
Kate Mulgrew: I think so. Gives me my own. The imagination can take flight without the encumbrances of … of reality.
Ed Bell: Do you take many liberties with the person that was Katharine Hepburn? Might you say something on stage that perhaps Katharine Hepburn might not have ever said in real life?
Kate Mulgrew: No. I've been … I think that I have been as faithful as I possibly can be to who she was. This is not a vanity piece, but it is by no means an impersonation. We are not having fun. This is the story of what drove her. And I said to them from the very beginning that if it is not a tribute, I don't wish to bother with it because she was such an extraordinary woman. Her life needs to be honored, but it also needs to be understood. And I think that we have managed those two things in this piece.
Ed Bell: Kate, tell us about what might be some rigors of essentially a one-person show. What does an actor go through…
Kate Mulgrew: Well life becomes very circumspect. Very disciplined. Everything that one enjoys ordinarily speaking, has to be curtailed. I have to watch my voice – I can't speak very much during the day. I have to watch my diet – I can't eat very much. I have to get to the theater very early to warm up my vocal chords and my body, because she's very agile as you know, and in Act 1, quite young. So in order to fulfill that dexterity I have to get the old instrument warmed up. So all of that and then on top… not to mention the … the mountain that one has to scale in being on the stage alone for two hours and honoring the text… should pretty much be self explanatory! I don't know why I'm doing this!!
Ed Bell: I bet because you love it!
Kate Mulgrew: Yes, indeed I do love it. I think all creative people would agree with me that when you're concentrating, for some reason you're free, and everything else that causes any kind of anxiety disappears. And so for those two hours I'm … I'm fully alive. And for that I am willing to pay a pretty heavy price… with the greatest of pleasure.
Ed Bell: (Announces the times and dates for the play). Kate, thank you so much for your time and good luck to you.
Kate Mulgrew: I thank you, and take care of yourself. Bye, bye.
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