Mulgrew is Kate for 'Tea at Five'

By Jayne Blanchard


 January 19, 2005

Actress Kate Mulgrew spent much of her acting career chafing from comparisons to Katharine Hepburn. An actress could do worse -- say, reminding people of Thelma Ritter or Pia Zadora.

"I wanted to be known for my own merits, and when I was younger, I found Hepburn unattractive -- a tough, strident broad," Miss Mulgrew says in a phone interview from her New York home during a holiday hiatus from "Tea at Five," a one-woman show about none other than Katharine Hepburn. The biographical play is appearing at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre through Sunday.

After playing various roles, most famously Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain in the "Star Trek" series, Miss Mulgrew decided to embrace her fate. Not to mention the auburn hair, the angular cheekbones and the flinty, husky voice she shares with the legendary film star.

"Now that I'm older, I love it when people say I resemble Katharine Hepburn," the 48-year-old actress says. "Even though I never met her, I think of her as an exquisitely vulnerable human being."

Miss Mulgrew was a natural choice for Matthew Lombardo's play, which played off-Broadway in 2002 before touring for two years. The first act depicts Miss Hepburn at the ripe old age of 31, smarting after seven straight flops and being labeled "box office poison." The second act finds her at age 73, musing about her 27-year relationship to the married Spencer Tracy, semiretirement, and her turbulent childhood.

Although Cate Blanchett's dazzling turn as Miss Hepburn in the film "The Aviator" touches on her affair with Howard Hughes in the 1930s, "Tea at Five" concentrates on her on- and off-screen union with Mr. Tracy.

Miss Mulgrew's attitude toward Miss Hepburn softened after she started reading "everything I could get my hands on" about the actress. "I had 32 books, about 40 movies and numerous television interviews to draw on," she says. "The preparation process was almost like forensics. The more I read and saw, the more respect I gained for her. She never complained, never explained. For her, it was all career, and she understood that kind of ambition comes with a price tag."

Some people might say Miss Hepburn's single-minded dedication to her craft was a selfish choice, but Miss Mulgrew does not agree. "I think she knew that you could not have it all -- a great career, marriage and children. She was not self-indulgent at all, just smart about her choices. Her acting came first, love second."

Miss Mulgrew also feels that Miss Hepburn's boundless energy and ambition were a way of coping with a tragic event in her childhood. When Miss Hepburn was 14, her older brother committed suicide, and she found him hanging from the rafters. She cut him down and was forbidden by her father to talk about it.

"She buried it deeply, but she never escaped the grief. I lost two sisters, and I know what it's like -- it's a black hole," Miss Mulgrew says. "And I think it is why she took on Hollywood and acting so courageously -- what did she have to lose?"

Miss Mulgrew learned about Miss Hepburn during her research, but she says she got to know the actress intimately by playing her for nearly three years. "I found out things about her that never came up in my research -- many of them very mysterious and having to do with living your life with fearlessness, grace and courage."

Miss Mulgrew initially believed that "Tea at Five" would appeal to people "of a certain age" who remember the screen icon's performances in "Little Women," "A Lion in Winter" or "Pat and Mike." Yet a majority of the audience is made up of Trekkers, many of whom follow the tour around the country.

"The 'Star Trek' fans have been fantastic; they have seen it so many times," she says. "They love their icons -- Hepburn, Captain Janeway."

In looks and mannerisms, Miss Mulgrew may resemble Miss Hepburn, but the parallels stop there. "I have defined myself differently because I have children and am married," she says. "I always wanted children, and I struggled with juggling acting roles and raising a family all my adult life. Hepburn never had children, never married the man she wanted. In order to have Hepburn's kind of acting career, you can't have kids."

After the tour ends in the spring, Miss Mulgrew is doing another very un-Hepburn-like thing. She's taking a long break.

Miss Mulgrew's husband, Ohio politician Tim Hagan, suffered a serious heart attack in September and is recuperating. "It's my turn for sacrifice," she says.

"I have a marriage to attend to, and it is time for me to reassess my career. I don't need to work all the time now, but I suspect something will come up when the time is right."