Actress Kate Mulgrew’s deliciously rich voice is truly hypnotic. Like Kate Hepburn whom she is portraying in Matthew Lombardo’s play Tea at Five at the Pasadena Playhouse until October 2, she exudes an extremely eloquent intelligence and an aura of self-confidence that is quite endearing.

Don Grigware interviews

Kate Mulgrew

Having left an indelible imprint on TV characters such as Mrs. Columbo and her award-winning  Captain Kathyrn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, Mulgrew has her mind focused 100% right now on Kate (Hepburn, that is!), but to my amazement she had not always been a Hepburn fan.
 
DG: Had you really wanted to play Katharine Hepburn?
KM: No, never!  
DG: Oh, my, that’s interesting! Was the play written expressly for you?
KM: It was. Matthew Lombardo had seen me in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager and thought I was very reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn.  
DG: You are!
KM: He wrote the play in three days and sent it to me.  
DG: You never thought that you looked like her?
KM: No, I did not.
 DG: What excited you about the play?  
KM: You haven’t seen it yet, have you?
DG: No, I haven’t.
 

Photo by: Jean-Marie Guyaux.

KM: Well, I think writing the polarity of her life - Act I, when she’s young, and Act II when she’s older and more reflective, was very compelling. I loved the way he constructed the play.

She’s beyond being simply a movie star or even an icon in our culture.  She represents much more, particularly to women. Therefore, I was very eager to find out what it was about her - her inner life - that drove her so mercilessly toward this extraordinary accomplishment.  

DG: What, in your mind, sets Hepburn apart from the other members of la crème de la crème of the acting profession and also as a woman?

KM: Obviously, her very calculated and beautifully realized self. She made a point of being something that had never been seen before, in Hollywood certainly. It’s what happened to her when she was young that defined her. In my opinion, the death of her brother and her very complicated relationship with her parents, who were very unusual people, but strong-willed, very opinionated people that expected a great deal of Kate. At the age of 14, when her brother Tom committed suicide she was catapulted into a maturity that she did not really own. And this defined her. If you look very carefully at her work, particularly what I would call her more excellent work, you will see that her vulnerability is very, very present just beneath that Yankee grit.

DG: I assume that most of these important facts from her life are included in the play?

KM: Of course.

DG: What is left out?

KM: It’s impossible to concentrate a lifetime into an hour and fifty minutes on the stage. But I think we’ve tried to hit the points of great importance and significance - again, what it was in her childhood, her love affairs, notably that with Spencer Tracy, which of course is of great curiosity to everybody, and how she lived out her life. What was important to Hepburn was her privacy, and at the same time she wanted very much to be the world’s greatest star. She accomplished both of these things: a juxtaposition one would not necessarily think could be achieved in one lifetime. One has to also conclude that she herself was an enormously complicated and intriguing person.

DG: Any gossip included in the script, fun things?

KM: A few things about Leland Hayward. Other actresses who were up for Gone with the Wind. Act I is about her waiting for the phone call to be told that she got the part of Scarlett, which she really thought she was going to get. We see her in her family living room in Fenwick (Connecticut); she’s really frantic because no other work has been
forthcoming and she’s been recently labeled box office poison, so she’s put all of her eggs into this very precarious basket and we get to see the very unsettled, young, driven and ‘full of herself’ Kate in Act I – and then the far more self-deprecating Kate in Act II.

DG: Have you read A. Scott Berg’s memoir Remembering Kate? 

KM: I did, of course.

DG: She had said that Henry Fonda was very cold and that it was impossible to get to know him during the filming of On Golden Pond. Anything about that in Tea at Five?

KM: No, nothing about On Golden Pond. There’s just way too much material, and I felt that we had to try to truncate it in as many ways as we possibly could until we shaped it to accommodate large areas of her life, but not every single movie can be mentioned.

DG: How did you prepare to play Kate Hepburn?

KM: Very carefully…and with a great deal of trepidation.

I was not a great lover of Katharine Hepburn. I was afraid that my natural antipathy toward her would unbalance the play and perhaps my performance. Then, of course, I fell in love with her during the rehearsal process – which is the great gift in this craft of ours… that such a thing happens.

That’s when character actress and material come together with such joy, because I really did fall in love with her when I found out where I thought her vulnerability was. I began with an almost breathless excitement to undertake the investigation of her interior life. So that was exhaustive…and is ongoing. And I’ve been playing it… for almost 3 years. (her voice is laced with gratitude and satisfaction)

DG: I know, and you’ve been winning a lot of prestigious awards (including the 2003 Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite Solo Performance).

Did any members of the Hepburn family come to see the play when you performed it in Hartford and New York ?

KM: Indeed they did. Her niece Katharine Houghton, her brother-in-law Elsworth Grant, and her sister. They came, and it was a mixed response, as you can imagine. They lauded my performance. They were dubious about the text. They were just being very fiercely protective of their relative, and I understand that. That’s the Hepburn way, and I understood that we were putting that at risk when we made it into a public vehicle. But, for all of that, I think it’s a very honorable piece. At least in my heart, it’s a tribute to Katharine Hepburn.

DG: I remember reading a review in which the critic stated that Hepburn would love it.

KM: That was a wonderful thing to read. I think she would have had an appreciation for it.

DG: Let’s veer away a bit from the play and talk about the Alzheimer’s Association, which I’ve read is very close to your heart. Tell me about some of the research you’ve done and what you’ve learned.

KM: I’m lucky enough to be married to a public official who lives in Ohio and we’re very familiar with the Cleveland Clinic and many of the doctors there. When I became a national spokesperson for Alzheimer’s, I worked with neurologists… Carl Hubbard, most notably, I suppose. There have been a lot of other scientists who have been very helpful to me. It changes all the time. I’m not going to fool you. Just when we think we’ve made some great discovery, we find that it won’t work either because the clinical trial is too risky, or 9 out of the 10 mice didn’t do it, or something.

So…we need a lot of money. A lot of money. And of course we need stem cell research. It looks like there’s going to be some kind of a breakthrough there, but it’s very slow going, because research is very, very expensive and very dogged and very… as you are well aware, trial by error is the thing and it will take some time before we can absolutely approve this vaccine. We have the vaccine, but it’s only been tried on mice. It has to be tried on people, and that takes money. That’s what I’m trying to do, raise some money so other people don’t have to say goodbye to their mothers the way I have to. It’s been an awful way to say goodbye to somebody who has shaped my whole life.

DG: Bless you! Talk a little bit about the Star Trek years.
Are you satisfied with all of that?
KM: I’m proud of it. It was difficult; it was hard work. I’m proud of the work because I think I made some little difference in women in science. I grew to really love Captain Janeway, and out of a cast of 9, I’ve made 3 great friends, I managed to raise 2 children. I think, “It’s good. I used myself well.”

DG: Be more specific!

KM: I used myself constitutionally. I was not afraid of the rigors of hard labor. I trusted my imagination. I pushed my brain. When I thought I couldn’t possibly deal with my kids another day, I did it somehow. I looked at every scene and said, “This looks like it could be mediocre, so how do we make it not mediocre?” The intention every day was to walk away from the day having turned it into something a bit better than one thought it was going to be. And, I must say, I did feel that way after 7 years.

DG: A weekly TV show must have had some good scripts and some bad ones.

KM: That’s correct!

DG: When you read a play like Tea at Five, you must see a difference in the quality of the writing.

KM: It’s a different genre. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. But I thought that most of the writing on Star Trek: Voyager, when we weren’t thoroughly exhausted in every way, was pretty superlative. Matthew’s written one play, and to his credit, it’s a good one. These guys turned out good material every single week - almost. So, I have nothing but the highest regard for them.

DG: Any role on stage that you have longed to play that you still haven’t?

KM: I’m going to play it. I was supposed to play it this fall, and it fell through because we couldn’t find the right actor. (Shakespeare’s) Antony and Cleopatra. I must have her before it’s too late.

DG: Where are you going to do it?

KM: I think CSC, Classic Stage Company in New York City .

We couldn’t find the right actor in time, but I’d rather not do it if the Anthony is not going to be right.

DG: So, it’s not a done deal.

KM: No, not yet. And… there’s talk of taking Tea at Five to the West End in London . I’m at a point in my life now where I’ve worked for almost 33 years. My own self-reflection is giving me great personal satisfaction. Just having the time with my sons, my husband and my friends is almost unspeakably joyful.

DG: What is it about Cleopatra that turns you on the most?

KM: Talk about complicated and talk about excelling. She was the first woman of her time to speak 7 languages. She was witty. She was quixotic, mercurial. She was bold…very brave. She was a great diplomat and a great warrior. She was sexy, and also funny looking. She was full of opposites and she wove them into a gorgeous fabric of a human being. There will be no one like her again.

DG: What advice would you give to a young actor about his or her career?


KM: I would say, “You must really measure the depth of your commitment.”  You have to be honest, because if you’re not completely passionate about it, I would ask you to find a different way. This is a hard life. And it is only a good life, if you are madly in love with the craft. But if you go into it thinking that you’re going to be a big star and you’re going to make a lot of money, you’re going to be miserable. It’s only the work that lifts you up, and so few of us get to work all the time.  

Kate Mulgrew’s fierce passion for the art of acting and for living itself is reminiscent of the other great Kate whose persona she assumes nightly in Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five, directed by John Tillinger, at the Pasadena Playhouse at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena . For more info, visit: www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

And for more on the Great Kate Mulgrew, visit:

www.totallykate.com