Fans loved Kate Mulgrew on Ryan’s Hope, Star Trek and now as Galina “Red” Reznikovnow on the Netflix smash hit series Orange Is the New Black, but her own life has really been her greatest starring role.
This month the fiercely articulate Irish American actress has produced the critically acclaimed new memoir Born With Teeth (Little Brown), laying bare the private and public triumphs (and failures) of her life and career.
Mulgrew, 59, grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, the oldest girl in a chaotic but brilliant Irish Catholic family of eight who knew, she writes, “how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil.”
When she was 12 she told her mother Joan that she was interested in acting, and straight away her bohemian mom brought home biographies of great actresses, sending her determined daughter to summer acting schools to learn her craft.
Having decided what she wanted to do, Mulgrew’s ascent to stardom was pretty immediate. At 17 she traveled to New York City to study acting. Early on she was cast as Mary Ryan on the ABC soap opera Ryan's Hope (she played the part for two years, becoming a household name in the process) but at the same time she continued to perform in Our Town onstage in Connecticut – juggling TV and theater roles in a pattern that has continued through her career.
Perhaps best known for her groundbreaking turn as Admiral Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek Voyager, which ran from 1995 to 2001, Mulgrew has for decades portrayed powerful women in roles that were often ahead of their time.
These days, when not filming her role in Orange Is the New Black, she lives in a grand penthouse on Riverside Drive on the West Side of New York, with views of the Hudson River and far away New Jersey.
Her hallway is adorned with posters, photographs and paintings from her life in art. This is the home of someone who knows who she is and what she stands for, so it's no wonder her memoir does too. Meeting her feels a bit like meeting Katherine Hepburn (whom she's played, of course), a true star of the stage and screen.
Straight away I ask her about her many trips to Ireland and her sense of her Irish heritage, two things she makes plain in her book. Mulgrew is forthright. “Interestingly, if you're the right kind of Irish, if the legacy or the lineage is the right kind it stays with you generationally as well,” she tells the Irish Voice.
“I'm three or four generations removed but I feel quite Irish. When I go there I'm immediately transported back. It doesn't move the way other cultures move, it's steeped in something else. It's why the great poets come from Ireland, I think.”
She has formidable literary skill herself, as she makes clear from the first page of her book (I defy anyone not to fall for her from the first lines). But she still doesn't have the confidence about her debut that many other writers might.
“Having not practiced this craft before, one goes into it with a certain amount of trepidation,” she admits with a laugh. “But you go into it with abandon at the same time because I thought, I have nothing to lose. The story was so well lodged in my heart and in my memory that a lot of it came very fluidly.”
It reads very fluidly too. Mulgrew shows you what happened on her journey and what it sometimes cost her with a restraint and discretion that seem demur by our reality TV soiled standards.
Born With Teeth is not a gossipy tell all. It's the autobiography of a uncommonly eloquent soul. The surprise is that it's currently finding a major audience in these emotionally flashier times. Given that Mulgrew carries herself with such self-evident dignity what, I wonder, made her decide that the time was right to write her memoir?
Her response is characteristically candid. “My age -- I'll be 60 at the end of this month -- the death of my parents, which allowed for the book. I would not have written it when they were living because I would not in any way have unsettled them.”
If she was going to tell her story, she was going to tell the truth. It took all these years for the right conditions, she says.
“After they died I went to Africa and I met a man at a party who was a literary agent. We had very animated conversation and at the end he said, ‘I know you are an actor but do you write?’ I replied, ‘I am but I'm in the closet about it.’ He said, ‘Send me 50 pages, nobody has to know.’”
When he read them he asked to represent her and they were off to the races Mulgrew says. Her book covers a lot of ground, but its greatest strength is its willingness to reveal what Mulgrew calls “all of the shadows.” One of them is the unplanned pregnancy when she was just 23.
“What I've done here isn't very Irish. I've come forward. It's always tricky when you come forward,” she says.
“The reality of my having gotten pregnant at 23, that moment was so epic, and it formed and influenced every other moment of my life as I grew. It made me think there will be other women who will not mind listening to this, who might be relived, who might be lifted up by this.”
Mulgrew believes that to hold a secret is not a good thing. “It threatens to form into a malignancy doesn't it? Especially when we are talking about a beautiful life, which is what my daughter Danielle's is.”
After the child was born it was immediately taken from Mulgrew while she slept under sedation in the hospital. She had already signed the adoption papers, which meant she had to get up and physically search for the infant, begging the help of a kindly nurse just to view the little girl through a glass screen for a few stolen moments.
“That's how the church did it. The laws were changed shortly after Danielle was born but in my time they were rigid. I believe that if Catholic Charities didn't tell me outright lies, there were discrepancies.”
When she finally encountered Sister Una, the nun who held the papers to her adoption, at an upscale gala two decades later she had had enough.
“I felt madly urgent now, with a need as ferocious as any I've ever felt, that she must help me now and that there was no time left and that the nonsense was over. Twenty years was long enough.”
And to her credit the nun did help. Danielle was then 20, which meant she was of age, and searching for her mother herself.
“With such economy and efficiency was this whole thing done. The nun went back to her office, sent the papers to my daughter and sent the papers to me. Within two weeks we had met,” Mulgrew reveals.
After 20 years of private investigators and unanswered pleading it was finally done. “The worst sin that Ireland created was that they so devastated the mother, convinced the mother that she was dirty. There's something about sex and the Irish that ties into the antiquated notions, the rigidity of the whole thing.”
In Born With Teeth Mulgrew also talks about her mother’s generation, about her dance with JFK who whispered to her that she'd missed her chance to wed him, and about the never let them see you cry Irish stoicism that she determined to unlearn in her own generation.
“Something happens to people who don't let go,” Mulgrew says. “I think you have to be quite careful. It happened to my mother. There's only so much you can repress.
“They were members of the greatest generation. They were very stoic. I used to see that with her great friend Jean Kennedy Smith. Full of laughter all their lives, but I never saw either of them weep. They were best friends since they were seven years old. They'd do mad things together. But the rule was you do not cry. Unlearning that lesson has been part of the memoir.”