When Kate Mulgrew describes the "flint" of Kate Hepburn, she knows whereof she speaks—she's pretty flinty herself. Her voice, that crisp, patrician instrument she used to snap orders as Capt. Kathryn Janeway on TV's Star Trek: Voyager, comes cutting through the receiver during a recent phone interview in as emphatic a manner as Hepburn's holler ever was.
Or maybe Mulgrew just refuses to break character: When asked to explain how she becomes Hepburn for the one-woman tribute Tea at Five (at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through Sunday, May 29; 206-443-2222), she finally tires of the inquiry and dryly suggests, "I would say that if you have to write something, say that Miss Mulgrew cannot quite articulate this. And she is reluctant to do so because it is a big mystery."
Well, anyway, she could articulate a lot of other things about her craft and the current show, which was written for her by playwright Matthew Lombardo. But we'll let Mulgrew do the talking— she's good at it.
Seattle Weekly: What do you think it was about Katharine Hepburn that made her who she was?
Kate Mulgrew: She changed all the rules. Hepburn said to [MGM studio boss] Louis B. Mayer, "This is the way it's going to be, or I'm out the door." And she walked! She had the courage of her own conviction. She played like a man, she walked like a man, she dressed like a man, and she was a beautiful and very exciting female.
Is it daunting to play her?
Certainly. But, I mean, if they'd offered me Ginger Rogers, I don't think I'd have taken it. Do you understand? It's so absurd to play someone who actually lived, but if you're going to, you should play someone worthwhile. And I think that the mystery is ongoing with Hepburn. What made her tick? Who was she? Maybe even Hepburn didn't know.
So tell me about Tea at Five.
It's in two acts, [the first in] 1931, [when Hepburn is] being labeled box-office poison and waiting to see if she's going to be the next Scarlett O'Hara—which, we all mercifully know, she was not. And then in Act 2, [it's around] 1976, and she's far more reflective and self-deprecating. So you see what defines the young Hepburn in Act 1—her extraordinary ambition, her drive. And you understand why she was the star she was after all is revealed in Act 2—the death and suicide [by hanging] of her brother.
But she didn't really accept that it was suicide—
Her father did not. But she cut [her brother] down. Are you kidding? All of this is in there: her father's denial of the suicide; her father's reluctance to admit that she wanted to be an actress. If she was going to be an actress, she had to be a great actress, very tough. And I think, of course, she did it all over again with Spencer Tracy, and this 27-year allegiance to a man that had no intention of leaving his wife for her.
What take do you have on their relationship?
She loved him, and she was devoted to him, and I think of all the men that she knew and loved—and they were a considerable few—he knew her. When Tracy looked at Hepburn, he saw her. She recognized that immediately. Of course, it both frightened her and thrilled her. That's why he could subdue her so. He was [her father], he was [her brother], he was everything inaccessible and beloved that she ever knew.
What kind of research did you do?
It's ongoing. The research never stops. Initially, I read every book I could on her life—every biography, every autobiography, every anthology piece of work, the life of Tracy, the life of [director] John Ford. I've watched each of her movies at least five times, some as many as 10.
What were you looking to capture from the movies? There's always a danger playing someone else—which, frankly, I think even caught Cate Blanchett, as brilliant as she was in The Aviator.
She's a wonderful actor, but she went for the broad strokes. She didn't have the time. I mean, hats off to her—at least she went for it, right? I've had so much more time. It's the best I can come to realizing whom I really believe [Hepburn] was, as a young woman and as an old woman. Who knows what happens between the actor and the character? Many wonderful secrets are shared between us, and then it comes to life.
But do you start, for instance, by studying vocal inflections?
No, see—this is always difficult. My process isn't as technical as all that, especially when it comes to Hepburn. Let me just tell you this: I realized that I was dealing with a huge icon and a star. My mission was to honor her in the most vulnerable and genuine way I could. This involved, maybe, watching Alice Adams and just trying to understand what she was really feeling. Why, when the cameras close in on Hepburn, do we want to cry, when in fact she's got that flint and that grit? She can be very steely, and yet you want to weep. That's who she was. Her heart was very, very close to the surface, and she spent most of her time trying to conceal it, and therein lays the powerful chemistry between Hepburn and her audience.
So how do you avoid the trap of—
There is no trap of impersonation. I've never allowed it. It's not in my thinking.
You'd think it would be an easy thing to happen.
No, it's easy for drag queens. It's easy for drag queens because she's so broad, but it's hard for an actor, and much more rewarding, and I think that's why the audience responds to this piece—because I think that they think they're seeing Hepburn and not some crazy cardboard imitation of her.
Is it a completely different process than doing television?
No, I felt the rigors of television pretty mightily, during Star Trek especially. Television is the most arduous of all forms, no question about it. We're not meant to stand on our feet for 17 hours. I mean, snippet after snippet after snippet of what appears to be Japanese but is in fact techno-babble. That was quite extraordinary, what I did for seven years. I was bone tired.
Does Tea at Five get Trekkie audiences?
Oh, all the time. They come from all over the world—some have even seen it 40 times. They stay three or four days a week. They come from Germany, England, and they've made friends over the Internet. I am their connecting dot, and they just love it.
That's a little freaky, isn't it?
You could call it freaky, but I'm not complaining. They're wonderfully loyal.
Does the audience make it new each time?
Yes, and so do I. That's my job. And I'm pretty well compensated for it. So I'm not about to go out there and phone it in. I loathe actors who do that. They should be lawyers.