STAGE TO SCREENS: Kate Mulgrew and Bobby Cannavale Chat About Stage and TV

By Michael Buckley
March 16, 2003

This month we discuss stage and television with two actors appearing Off-Broadway.

They are: Kate Mulgrew, who's been winning raves as Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five, and whose TV credits include "Ryan's Hope," "Mrs. Columbo," "Heartbeat," "Man of the People" and "Star Trek: Voyager," and Bobby Cannavale, who's in the new Suzan Lori Parks' play (which premieres March 16 at the Public Theater) and was formerly a regular on "Kingpin," "100 Centre Street," "Third Watch" and "Trinity." If you've already seen Kate Mulgrew in Matthew Lombardo's Tea at Five, there's no need to say how wonderful she is as Katharine Hepburn—seen in 1938 (Act One) and '83 (Act Two); if you haven't yet visited the Promenade (76th Street and Broadway), do yourself a favor and go. Mulgrew bonds with the legendary actress. When she enters as the younger Hepburn, the effect is remarkable, but Mulgrew's second act transformation—as she turns from stoking logs in a fireplace—draws gasps.

I tell Mulgrew that Hepburn is my favorite actress, and she says, "Well, she's mine now. She wasn't before." Mulgrew's research was "extensive, and it's ongoing. It doesn't end. I read every conceivable piece of literature I could get my hands on. I've not only read every life of Katharine Hepburn, as well as her own, but also the lives of [Spencer] Tracy, John Ford, L.B. Mayer, [David O.] Selznick, 'The World of RKO' at that time—anything and everything that may have shaped her. I've seen every [Hepburn] movie at least five times; some as many as seven, ten, I suspect—'Philadelphia Story' certainly, every documentary, rare footage that I've been lucky enough to find in the Hartford library." Was there a point where Mulgrew felt that she developed a lock on her character? "No, and I hope that I never will.

"The audience is my partner and determines my performance. That dynamic is crucial, and every night [the performance] takes a different form. The older Kate, of course, is more accessible. It's the young Kate that was the real challenge. My challenge to myself was to show her inherent vulnerability—just under that confident veneer.

"I went way back and very deep into her family history. I read all about her mother and her Aunt Edith, both of whom were remarkable people. The Hepburn house was unconventional, to say the least. Instilled in her at a very young age was a vibrant, maverick curiosity, which is what imbued every performance she gave with an extremely unique kind of life—never before seen in Hollywood. While this is no vanity piece, it's my deepest wish that this is a 'tribute' to her in the best sense of the word."

Matthew Lombardo created the play for Mulgrew. "God bless his wonderful Italian soul. He knew my best friend, who has now died. They were very close. One night, they were in bed watching me on 'Star Trek: Voyager,' and he said, 'She has to play Hepburn. What if I wrote it, do you think you could get her to read it?' My friend said, 'Yes.' He went to Miami and wrote it in three days and sent it to me at Paramount. As you can imagine, it's gone through a hundred and fifty-two revisions. Then, [director] John Tillinger came on board, and Michael Wilson at Hartford Stage optioned it." The play went from Hartford to Cleveland to Boston to New York.

The player started out in Dubuque, Iowa, the second oldest of eight children. At 12, she decided on an acting career. "I read 'The White Cliffs [of Dover]' by Alice Duer Miller to all the nuns at a council meeting and they all cried. And they were singularly not to be moved before that time. I looked at them and thought if I can break this impenetrable wall, this is for me. Fortunately, I had a mother who believed in me and a father who cautioned me. I was fueled in the best way. I left home very early."

Mulgrew ventured to New York, where she studied with Stella Adler. "How lucky was I to have had her! It shaped me as an actress." Mulgrew's big break "on television" occurred when she played Mary Ryan, Helen Gallagher's daughter, on the popular soap opera, "Ryan's Hope." A lot of people "still recognize me from that role [which she first played in 1975]." Many others identify Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway in "Star Trek: Voyager" (1995-2001).

In 1979, the actress was cast as "Mrs. Columbo," playing the never-before-seen wife of Peter Falk's character. When people weren't attracted to the series, her name was changed to Kate Callahan and all references to her husband were dropped. The title was changed to "Kate the Detective" and then to "Kate Loves a Mystery." Mulgrew laughs at the memory. "They were desperate to find a niche for it, but I'm afraid that the public is smarter than we think."

A 1988-89 series, "Heartbeat," concerned women doctors, and was a project that Mulgrew "loved, but of course everything you love and most cherish goes under." She based her characterization on "my real-life doctor, Karen Blanchard. I followed her around for two months. I went into surgery with her. She was a real OB/GYN pioneer. I think if I hadn't acted, I would have loved medicine." She enjoyed working with James Garner in "Man of the People," but the 1991 sitcom was short-lived.

Prior to Tea at Five, Mulgrew's most recent New York stage appearance was in the 1993 Roundabout revival of Black Comedy. "The company was fabulous—the divine Nancy Marchand, Peter MacNicol, Brian Murray, Keene Curtis.... I had the time of my life that summer."

Married to Tim Hagan, Mulgrew has two teenage sons, Ian and Alec Egan ("19 and 18"), from her first marriage. In conclusion, I ask what Mulgrew's favorite Katharine Hepburn movie is. "I have a few. The young Hepburn showed her absolute chops in 'Alice Adams' and 'Morning Glory' [Hepburn's first Oscar of a record four]. She put her heart on her sleeve [in those]. Magnificent! Of course, she was stellar in 'Philadelphia Story,' but one expected that of her. For the older Kate, it's neck-and-neck between 'The African Queen' and 'Lion in Winter.' Just divine!" And speaking of "just divine," wait till you see Kate Mulgrew in Tea at Five.

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The new play by Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Topdog/Underdog, is entitled Fucking A and set, as stated in the Playbill, "in the middle of nowhere." The action involves an abortionist (S. Epatha Merkerson), a whore (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the island's mayor (Bobby Cannavale), his wife (Michole Briana White), a convict (Mos Def), and a butcher (Peter Gerety). There are 10 songs, some very brief, which add a Brechtian tone to the piece.

Bobby Cannavale (Cah-nah-VAHL-ay) says that he's "a huge fan" of the playwright. "Her work makes me think so deeply. There's very little art that can make me do that. I certainly don't get it from television. I get it from very few films, sometimes from music. But as far as theatre goes, she does it better than anybody, for me.

"It's so hard to talk about her work, or to describe what the play is about. It's unlike anything I've ever worked on. I get something different from it every night. I have a definite connection with her work; I love what it inspires inside of me, and I don't need [the play] explained to me." Cannavale plays The Mayor and also appears as a prison guard. "The Mayor represents power, the government. [The character] started out as sort of buffoonish. I always knew he was going to be larger than life. I think it's very interesting that the dumbest person in the play [the Mayor] is running things. In the end, he's a very dangerous person. He believes in everything he says—very much like what we're living in right now."

The previous night, Cannavale sat in on a "talk back" between the playwright and the audience. "It's the most I've ever heard Suzan-Lori speak. I do most of my work with Michael [Greif, the director]. If you have any questions, you can ask her, but Suzan-Lori never sat down and said, 'This is what this play is about. This is what I was thinking about here.' Last night, people wanted answers. Somebody asked, 'What is your statement? What are you trying to say about abortion?' She said, 'I'm just showing you this character and what she does. I don't write to preach to anybody. I just write to show.' Four hundred people in the audience are going to see different things—and that's the beauty of theatre."

In the play, Cannavale sings "My Little Army," a song directed to his sperm. ("I salute the men of my little army...") I inquire if he intends to record the number. "People say, 'I didn't know you sang.' I say, 'Neither did I.' I would love to record it. [Laughs]" While he likes "to do everything," Cannavale prefers the stage. "TV and film are over so quickly. Particularly on TV, you don't tend to get very good direction. There's not the ensemble feeling [with actors] like there is in a play. During three weeks of rehearsal, you build a trust. In this play, I'm learning from Michael, Epatha, Mos. Theatre is best for that. Without it, I'd have no education."

Theatre figured into Cannavale's life at an early age. The oldest of three, he was born in Union City, New Jersey. "I went to Catholic school. I was an altar boy; I joined the choir and a theatre group. I did my first show at eight. I played Winthrop in The Music Man. When I was ten, I was in Flowers for Algernon. Doing plays was the only thing I wanted to do. I was in a lot of trouble when I was a kid. I was expelled from school. We moved to Florida; that's where I graduated from high school. I didn't go to college. I came to New York and got involved with the Circle Rep. Lanford Wilson saw me in a play, and that's when our friendship started.

"Before it folded, Circle Rep was my education—watching Lanford and Craig Lucas and Tim Mason and Paula Vogel. I learned from them." Another learning experience was Noel Coward in Two Keys, which Cannavale did at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor (N.Y.) in 1996. "I learned so much from Tony Walton, who directed it, and from Bebe Neuwirth, Leigh Lawson and Dee Hoty, who were in the cast. For years, I did theatre and worked in bars. I thought I wasn't the right type for television. When I was doing The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told in Williamstown, [writer producer] John Wells saw it. He put me in 'Trinity' [a 1998-99 NBC series]. For eight episodes, I played a tugboat operator who was having an affair with Charlotte Ross. When that was cancelled, [Wells] wrote a part for me in 'Third Watch.'

For the series' first two seasons, Cannavale played police officer Bobby Caffey. He left (after a junkie friend fatally shot his character) "because I wanted to do something different. I didn't want to play one role [for an extended time]. I felt it was time to go." Prior to his current assignment, Cannavale's most recent stage work was Two Sisters and a Piano "at the McCarter [in Princeton, N.J., in 1999]. They brought it to the Public. I was dying to do it [there], but I had to do 'Third Watch.' Paul Calderon played the part."

In 2001, Cannavale returned to series TV to play ADA Jeremiah Jellinek in the A&E cable series, "100 Centre Street," working for a year with his father-in-law, Sidney Lumet. "He's so good—a really, really, really great director. He knows exactly what to say, doesn't get in your way, and believes in rehearsing."

While appearing Off-Broadway in The Normal Heart, Cannavale noticed his future wife in the audience. "I saw her during the curtain call, rushed outside to meet her and ask her out. We got married five months later." His wife, Jenny, is the daughter of Lumet and the director's third wife, Gail (Lena Horne's daughter, now writer Gail Buckley). The Cannavales have a son, Jacob, "soon to be eight," who has often accompanied his father to work. "He knows it's about make believe, and that appeals to his imagination. He just loves that that's what Daddy gets to do. He wants to do it, too. He says, 'I want to be a director and a poet.'"

In February, Cannavale played Chato Cadena in "Kingpin," the six-part NBC series about a Mexican drug cartel. He brought his son to a looping session. "Turns out the scene I'm looping was one in which I get my ass kicked, then I get raped, and then I stab these guys. There was nowhere to put Jakey, so I told him, 'These guys beat Daddy up, and then I get them back.' He said, 'Cool!' One of Jakey's favorite movies is 'Hedwig [and the Angry Inch],' and he loved 'Moulin Rouge.' I'm very broad in what I let him watch, as long as I'm watching it with him."

When his son asked the name of Daddy's new play, Cannavale told him that it was Fucking A. "He said, 'That's a bad word.' I said, 'You shouldn't say it.' He said, 'Okay. What's it about?' I said, 'It's hard to explain, Jakey. Even if you were big, it would be hard to explain. It's about power, and mothers and sons, and about love, and how strong love can be.' By then, he was bored. [Laughs]"

Aside from playing the Mayor, Cannavale is focusing "on the Tennessee Williams [Festival] that they're doing [summer 2004] at Kennedy Center." I ask if he's interested in a particular play. "I want to do Streetcar; I've wanted to do it for the last four years." As Stanley? "Or Blanche—what do you think?" We agree that he's better suited for Stanley, and he wouldn't have to dye his hair.

"I'm always much prouder of things I do in the theatre," concludes Bobby Cannavale. "There's a lot of luck involved in television. A lot of times people want a look, or somebody with a name, or somebody who'll appeal to a certain audience. It's out of your control. But with theatre, you come in and audition—as I did for Michael [Greif] and Suzan-Lori Parks. I feel really proud that they wanted me. It's just the top of the world to be in this play!"

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END QUIZ: Katharine Hepburn starred in a 1979 TV version of "The Corn Is Green." Who played Miss Moffat in an earlier presentation (1/8/56) on "The Hallmark Hall of Fame": a) Lynn Fontanne; b) Eva LaGallienne; c) Bette Davis? (Answer: Next column, April 13)

The Feb. 16 question was: Who played El Gallo in the TV version of "The Fantasticks" (NBC, 10/18/64): a) Robert Goulet; b) Elliott Gould; c) Ricardo Montalban? The answer is c.

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.