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

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16 Mar 2003

Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn in <i>Tea at Five</i>.
Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five.
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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