Kate Mulgrew is going where no woman has gone before — and she’s loving every nanosecond of it.
Mulgrew, 40, stars as Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain of a Star Trek vessel on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager, the latest installment of the hot sci-fi series. The program premiered to rave reviews last January, and has become a favorite not only among Star Trek devotees, but with families — and a certain First Family — as well. (More about that later.)
Mulgrew, a classically trained actress who’s comfortable doing Shakespeare or sitcoms, is relishing her journey on Voyager. “I love to work hard, so I thrive in the demanding environment of a weekly series,” says Mulgrew, whose last venture in television was the 1991 sitcom Man of the People, co-starring James Garner.
One of the most challenging things about the role, she says, was learning the Trekkian technobabble — vernacular that’s now become second nature to her. “I can’t work a computer and I don’t have a clue what to do with a fax machine,” she says, “but I have the kind of brain that has no trouble speaking fluent science fiction phrases like ‘evasive pattern Delta four’ and ‘ready the tricobalt devices.'”
Mulgrew, however, wasn’t the first choice for Janeway. She lost the role to French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold, who walked off the set after two days on the job, supposedly because of the show’s rigorous schedule — though stories abound that she had problems with her costume, hairstyle and mastering the dialogue. (Other actresses reportedly considered for the role included Patty Duke, Kate Jackson and Lindsay Wagner.)
When Bujold bolted, Mulgrew auditioned a second time. “I knew those other actresses weren’t Janeway — I was,” says Mulgrew. “I wouldn’t have even minded going bald for the part!” (A reference to Captain Picard, the bald character played by Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
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Mulgrew typically works at least 12 hours a day. Her demanding schedule lasts for the 10 months the series is filming — giving the single mom a full two months off with her kids.
As grueling as her schedule is, Mulgrew feels that, ultimately, her two sons, Alexander, 11, and Ian, 12, benefit from her work. “The arduous hours are manageable because I am so happy with what I’m doing,” she explains.
“In thinking about it and talking with other working mothers, I’ve realized that this is what makes or breaks it. If you’re genuinely happy with your work, your children enjoy a mother who’s fulfilled.” (Mulgrew divorced the boys’ father, director Richard Egan, in 1993, after 11 years of marriage. Although she has custody, Egan “visits them often.”)
The actress has a housekeeper who watches the kids after school and helps keep things running smoothly. When Mulgrew and her sons are together, they cherish quiet moments at their home in Los Angeles. “I cook as often as l can, and dinner is our time to talk about school, their friendships, their dreams,” she says.
Breaking new ground
Voyager is the third series to be spun off from the original 1960s TV series, Star Trek. But putting a woman in command of a starship almost didn’t happen.
Paramount, the company that owns the show, reportedly balked at the idea. The producers persisted, and as critics have since pointed out, Mulgrew infuses Janeway with an irresistible take-charge quality — sort of a young Katharine Hepburn in outer space, complete with Irish features and a throaty, resonant voice.
Aside from leading the 140 members of Janeway’s crew, Mulgrew is responsible for upholding three decades of tradition and a multimillion-dollar empire of TV shows, movies, novels, computer games and scores of other products. Indeed, so popular is the show that even First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea, who Mulgrew met at the White House earlier this year, are fans.
“The First Lady told me Star Trek was the one program Chelsea won’t miss, and that she watched it with her,” recalls Mulgrew. “She asked if I knew how important I was as a role model. She said, ‘It’s wonderful to see someone at the helm who I would like my daughter to become.'”
A woman of substance
Mulgrew credits her own parents with helping shape her into the self-confident woman she is today. She was born in Dubuque, Iowa, the eldest of eight children, to a contractor father and an artist mother.
“Coming from such a large family, there was no question that I would help out around the house,” she recalls. “Further, there was no question that if I wanted things, I went to work.”
Mulgrew studied acting at New York University, dropping out in her sophomore year after landing the role of strong-willed city girl Mary Ryan on Ryan’s Hope. She stayed with the ABC soap for a year and “loved it.”
Four years later, NBC developed Mrs. Columbo just for her; she played the sleuthing spouse of Peter Falk’s rumpled raincoat-wearing detective. But the series flopped, and except for a handful of films, including Throw Momma from the Train, a short-lived TV series (Heartbeat) and several TV guest spots, Mulgrew’s career floundered. Then she blasted off with Voyager.
“I needed this job,” she says. “just a couple of weeks before I got it, I was putting my house on the market. But I was in the right place at the right time — it was a magical thing. Finally, all my dreams are coming to fruition. Why not give it all I’ve got while I have the opportunity?”
Interview by Alan W Petrucelli