Clad in Starfleet regulation red and black, Kate Mulgrew helmed the USS Voyager for seven seasons as Captain Kathryn Janeway in “Star Trek: Voyager.” In the hit series “Orange Is the New Black” she co-stars as take-no-guff Galina “Red” Reznikov, who shrewdly navigates the echelons of a minimum security federal women’s prison. Now, Mulgrew proves equally commanding as a storyteller—with a new memoir that is equal parts triumph and heartbreak.
The tellingly titled Born with Teeth is no cookie-cutter career chronicle. Yes, Mulgrew mentions the more notable film, TV and stage projects of her 40-year career. And there is occasional name-dropping. (A boozy Richard Burton, with whom she is co-starring in an Arthurian romance, tells her to “Get. Out.” Get out of what, she wonders? He replies, “This business will kill you. . . .”) But the book’s emphasis is on family and friendships, along with the actress’ own indomitable spirit, which is a hallmark of the characters she’s known for portraying.
“If there is an arc to my life it is that wherever there is light, there is shadow,” Mulgrew says.
Speaking by phone from her Manhattan apartment, just days after recording the audio version of Born with Teeth, she describes what it was like to read her own words: “It was an existential, revelatory, bizarre, but strangely exhausting and moving experience. I encouraged the director and the engineer to keep rolling through it. Because if there were tears or a huskiness in my voice or an unexplained pause, the audience would certainly understand, and I think it endows it with an authenticity.”
The going was particularly difficult when it came to the passages about her beloved younger sister, Tessie, who died of a brain tumor. And then there were the sections about an early-in-her-career unplanned pregnancy and the decision to give the baby up for adoption.
“My own life—and I realize I’m at risk of sounding arrogant, but I assure you this is not intended that way—has surpassed, in richness, size and depth, anything that I have lived as an actress,” Mulgrew says. “The people that I’ve loved, the losses that I’ve experienced. . . . My upbringing alone was extraordinary.”
The eldest daughter of a loud, boisterous, unconventional Irish-Catholic family, Mulgrew grew up in a rambling house in Dubuque, Iowa, where she was mother hen to her six siblings (a seventh died in infancy), and the best friend and confidante to her mother, Joan, whose own dashed artistic dreams propelled her to urge Kate toward success.
A pivotal moment came when the young Mulgrew became transfixed by both writing and the theater. “You can either be a mediocre poet or a great actress,” said her mother.
Looking back at that exchange, Mulgrew, on the cusp of turning 60, says, “I was to complete her incomplete journey. At the time I couldn’t have understood that she needed to live through me, vicariously.”
It was after making her way to New York University, and into the acting program taught by the legendary Stella Adler, that Mulgrew encountered another defining figure. “Stella unleashed in me the things that allowed me to become who I did become. My mother had the map. She understood the road. But Stella knew the way.”
Mulgrew was just 19 when she was cast in a new daytime soap, “Ryan’s Hope,” and as Emily Webb in the Broadway revival of the Thornton Wilder perennial, Our Town. “I spent my days in the studio, my nights on the stage. I knew that I would never be this happy again in my life. Or feel so exhausted. Or joyful.” Adds Mulgrew, “I was elated. I was alive. I was unfettered and I was free.” Then came the unplanned pregnancy.
The soap opera star lived a soap opera of her own. A pregnancy was written into “Ryan’s Hope,” and Mulgrew made arrangements with a Catholic adoption agency.
After giving birth, she wasn’t allowed to hold her baby daughter—though a hospital nurse allowed her one quick peek at Baby Girl Mulgrew before closing the Venetian blinds that shielded the newborns from onlookers. Three days later Mulgrew was back at work—where the script called for her character to cradle a stunt baby.
Mulgrew subsequently moved from daytime to primetime TV as the title character in “Mrs. Columbo,” and starred in sweeping miniseries like “The Manions of America,” which introduced viewers to a handsome Irishman named Pierce Brosnan. There were movies, too, and lots of stage work. And romances and marriage and motherhood (two sons). And divorce. Through it all, Mulgrew agonized about the daughter she had given up. When queries to the adoption agency were ignored, she hired an investigator.
When, in 1998, Mulgrew was at last put in touch with her daughter, Danielle, and asked for an in-person meeting, the young woman said, “I’ll have to ask my parents first.” Today, birth mother and daughter are close. (“She’s coming in this weekend,” Mulgrew notes.) Danielle was given an advance galley of Mulgrew’s book—as were a handful of close friends, siblings and Mulgrew’s soulmate—husband Tim Hagan. (The memoir chronicles Mulgrew’s romance with Hagan, an Ohio politician.)
Mulgrew wrote Born with Teeth over a year-long period without the usual co-author (or ghostwriter). “Writing is different than acting, but it’s the same longing. It’s tapping into the same primitive place.”
UPDATE: Mulgrew has confirmed in an interview posted on her website that she is now divorced from husband Tim Hagan.