'Born With Teeth,' Actress Kate Mulgrew On A Life Lived With Abandon

'Born With Teeth,' Actress Kate Mulgrew On A Life Lived With Abandon

7:22pm Apr 11, 2015
Mulgrew starred as Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first woman to command a Federation Starship, in Star Trek: Voyager.
Mulgrew starred as Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first woman to command a Federation Starship, in Star Trek: Voyager.
CBS Photo Archive/Delivered By Online USA / Getty Images

Even if you don't know Kate Mulgrew's name, you know her work. She currently plays Red, the formidable prison kitchen manager in the series Orange Is the New Black. And for seven seasons she was Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.

"Nothing could be more challenging, more arduous, or more rewarding than that part on that series," Mulgrew tells NPR's Tamara Keith, referring to the role of Janeway.

But the story behind the actress is more dramatic than anything she's played on screen. In her new memoir Born With Teeth, Mulgrew pulls back the curtain on her own life with an honesty that's raw and refreshing. It's not your typical, "Oh, the people I've known" celebrity story.

At the heart of Mulgrew's story is a choice she made when she was just 22 years old, when her acting career was on the rise.


Interview Highlights

On getting pregnant and putting her baby up for adoption

I found myself pregnant at the age of 22 while I was playing Mary Ryan on a very popular soap opera called Ryan's Hope. And I immediately called my mother who was still in a passage of grief over the loss of her daughter Tessie, my sister Tess. ... I said to mother, "This is going to be very difficult, Mom, but I have to tell you the truth: I'm pregnant."

And she said, "Well, that's too bad. You've made a big mistake, kitten, and now you're going to have to fix it. And the only way you can fix it is to give the baby up for adoption. So I think you should go over to Catholic charities and find a wonderful social worker who will guide you through this process and you will do the brave thing and you will give up this baby. So, kitten, pull yourself together and do what you know you need to do. You won't be the first and you certainly won't be the last — " I think she said "actress" who's ever given birth to an illegitimate child. So that was that.

On how she went back to work on the set of Ryan's Hope just a few days later

Possibly more harrowing than the birth itself in terms of my sense of loss, my sense of disequilibrium, my understanding that the size of what I had done would never leave me. The dimension of the decision was not only epic but infinite. And whereas my teacher had promised me that the work would lift me up, in this particular case, three days after the birth of that baby, being handed a tiny stunt baby by the studio nurse and told to start a monologue ... and the monologue is a promise of fidelity and endurance, love and maternal care — I just thought I had to tap into something that I didn't even know I had in terms of sheer mettle because, the earth I had known .... disappeared.

On coping with the many personal losses she's endured

I have to be very straight with you about this — I've never considered it preponderance of loss. I've met too many people who've lost far more than I've lost. So I don't look at it that way, I just looked at it as my lot. When you are born into a big Irish Catholic family, these are the odds I guess. Somebody's going to leave you. I couldn't have predicted that it would be two sisters and I couldn't have predicted that one of them would be so deeply, deeply, deeply loved by me. But such is life!

And as for my relationships with men, well, I know a lot of women who've had a lot more! ... What I think I tried to call on in the book, is my sense of vulnerability. My sense of being just a middle-class girl from Dubuque, Iowa, being thrown into the world early and having these experiences in such a vivid and big way — I think that's what hits you when you read the book and when you begin to understand my life.

On how her life might be different if her daughter hadn't been adopted

I think about it all the time and did for those 20 years before I met her. ... I'm not one of those who will ever say to you "No regrets." I have serious regrets. And I think most thoughtful people do, if they live a life as I have lived mine with a great deal of abandon and passion.

I regret that I could not have raised her. I regret that I saw that decision as an impossible one. I regret that my mother was in such an agony of grief that she could not help me raise this child.

But do I regret her? Not for one second. And this is the thing of life. This is the deep mystery. Not for one second do I regret that girl or giving birth to that girl, who is now a fundamental, integral part of my life and part of my ongoing learning about the vicissitudes of love and loss.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Tamara Keith. Even if you don't know Kate Mulgrew's name, you know her work. For seven seasons, she was Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: VOYAGER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Initiate launching sequence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Sequence underway.

KATE MULGREW: (As Captain Jane Janeway) Engage.

KEITH: And more recently, one of the stars of the series "Orange Is The New Black," where she plays the formidable prison kitchen manager, Red.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

MULGREW: (As Red) You called my food disgusting. You're not getting hazed. You're not getting harassed. You're getting starved to death.

KEITH: In her new memoir, "Born With Teeth," Kate Mulgrew pulls back the curtain on her own life with an honesty that's raw and refreshing. At the heart of Mulgrew's story is how she dealt with the death of her sisters, along with the heartbreaking choice she made at the beginning of her career.

MULGREW: Well, I found myself pregnant at the age of 22 while I was playing Mary Ryan on a very popular soap opera called "Ryan's Hope." And I immediately called my mother, who was still in a passage of grief over the loss of her daughter Tessie, my sister Tess. But I said to mother, this is going to be very difficult, mom, but I have to tell you the truth. I'm pregnant. And she said, well, that's too bad. You've made a big mistake, kitten, and now you're going to have to fix it. And the only way that you can fix it is to give the baby up for adoption. So I think you should go over to Catholic Charities and find a wonderful social worker who will guide you through this process. And you will do the brave thing, and you will give up this baby. So, kitten, pull yourself together and do what you know you need to do. You won't be the first and you certainly won't be the last. I think she said actress who's ever given birth to an illegitimate child, so that was that.

KEITH: And then the actual process of giving birth to the child and not even being awake for the birth because they put you under.

MULGREW: Well, only for a minute. My best friend was with me - Beth. She was in the delivery room with me, and he only gave me the ether at the last minute to put me out of my misery. And I missed, indeed, that most important entrance, but Beth did not. She held the baby.

KEITH: And then, just a few days later, you're back on the set at your television show, "Ryan's Hope."

MULGREW: Yeah, possibly more harrowing than the birth itself in terms of my sense of loss, my sense of disequilibrium, my understanding that the size of what I had done would never leave me. The dimension of the decision was not only epic, but infinite. And whereas my teacher had promised me that the work would lift me up, in this particular case, three days after the birth of that baby, being handed a tiny stunt baby by the studio nurse and told to start a monologue when the light goes off. And the monologue is a promise of fidelity, endurance, love and maternal care.

KEITH: I guess we should say that your character on this television show also had a baby.

MULGREW: Well, of course. Anybody who watched "Ryan's Hope" at that time knew that Mary Ryan was pregnant, and many millions of people did watch me, in fact, carry this child to term. But at any rate - yes, many, many people watched me have that baby and then come in and claim another baby altogether as my own as Mary Ryan.

KEITH: What's remarkable in this book is just how many losses you've survived, how many hard hits - losing sisters, losing relationships. Have you poured that pain into your work?

MULGREW: Yeah, but here's the thing, Tamara, and I have to be really straight with you about this. I've never considered it a preponderance of loss. I've met too many people who have lost far more than I have lost, so I don't look at it that way. I just looked at it as my lot. When you are born into a big Irish Catholic family, these are the odds, I guess. Somebody's going to leave you. I couldn't have predicted that it would be two sisters and I couldn't have predicted that one of them would be so deeply, deeply, deeply loved by me, but such is life. I think what you're referring to - what I think I tried to call on in the book is my sense of vulnerability; my sense of being just a middle-class girl from Dubuque, Iowa, being thrown into the world early and having these experiences in such a vivid and big way.

KEITH: As I was going along reading, I kept thinking things are going to turn around. I know that she's going to get the "Star Trek" job and things - life is going to get easier. And, you know, she'll finally get to spend time with her two sons and everything's going to be great. And then we get to that part and no, life doesn't get easier. It turns out you get to work 16-hour days and you're gone from the house from...

MULGREW: Right.

KEITH: ...From before sunrise to well after baby bedtime.

MULGREW: You're right. I mean, by the time "Star Trek" came along I haven't - I'd met the love of my life, lost him, I had divorced my children's father; my boys were about 9 and 10. And I was just shot out of a cannon into the most extraordinary work I've ever done in my life or will ever be asked to do because nothing could more challenging, more arduous or rewarding than that part on that series.

KEITH: Than being Captain Janeway.

MULGREW: That's correct.

KEITH: I want to go back to your daughter, and you had her decades ago. It was clearly a different time. Do you ever think about how your life would be different if you had made a different decision?

MULGREW: I think about it all the time, and did for those 20 years before I met her. I'm not one of those who will ever say to you no regrets. I have serious regrets. I regret that I could not have raised her. And I regret, of course, the tangential pain, the ancillary pain it caused my daughter's father. But do I regret her? Not for one second; not for one second do I regret that girl, who is now a fundamental, integral part of my life and part of my ongoing learning (laughter) about the vicissitudes of love and loss.

KEITH: Kate Mulgrew is the author of "Born With Teeth." Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us.

MULGREW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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