Insights: an Evening with Kate Mulgrew and Claire Labine

Insights

Saturday night I drove up to the high school in Somers, Connecticut to see Kate Mulgrew and Claire Labine speak. The event, a fundraiser for SRO Productions, was billed as a conversation between friends and titled “Insights”. As the ladies came out on stage someone mentioned it’s Connecticut’s Coldest Winter Ever and Mulgrew quipped “Now you know I’ll do anything for you.” She was speaking to Labine, her friend and mentor of 40 years. They met when Mulgrew auditioned for the role of Mary Ryan in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope, which Labine wrote. The affection and respect these two women have for each other filled the auditorium. After the talk, the two posed for pictures and when I spoke with Ms. Labine I told her “I want to have a friend like you.” I was flustered — Kate Mulgrew had just complimented my hair, colored like her character, Red’s, on Orange is the New Black! — so I said it a little wrong. I meant, I want to have a friendship like theirs.

Me and Claire Labine

Me and Claire Labine

As they discussed all the ups and downs of life — finding work in the arts, negotiating with studios, navigating relationships with costars and the audience, falling in and out of love, raising children, losing loved ones, writing stories, meeting elephants — they’d hit so many milestones together, and influenced each other even when they were apart. It was an amazing evening of stories and I feel blessed to have been there.

Kate’s Advice to Actors

Always lie. Then always tell the truth.

Mulgrew started the night with the story of getting her first jobs. When she was a young and hungry starlet-to-be, just starting out, she padded her resume and lied her way into a meeting with the man who would be her agent. She made up a whole story about meeting him at a party in East Hampton, and being asked to come in to the office. That audacity got her in the door, her audition got her signed and on her way.

But later in the evening she expanded on the advice. Acting is truth, when it’s not true the audience can tell. Mulgrew was a student of Stella Adler’s and that influence is clear when, for example, she talks about reading up on Physics in order to understand what Captain Janeway was saying. But truth is more than study as shown in a story about her audition for Orange is the New Black. She was asked to do just a hint of a Russian accent and overdid it — but the performance was true, so she got the part.

Asked who her mentors were Mulgrew credited her mother, her teacher, Ms. Adler, and her friend, Claire Labine.

Kate Mulgrew listening to her friend, Claire Labine, talk. Photo by Marina Kravchuck. Source: TotallyKate.com

Kate Mulgrew listening to her friend, Claire Labine. Photo by Marina Kravchuk (@drakkorex). Source: TotallyKate.com

Claire’s Advice to Writers

Let the characters tell the story.

Labine is a playwright, screenwriter, and an award winning writer for daytime serials. The last, particularly, is very demanding. When asked how much influence the actors or fans had over her writing she explained “As a writer I can’t listen to the audience, I listen to the characters.” I loved this answer as a performer, fan, and writer myself. She continued, saying she disagreed with Aristotle, who lists plot ahead of characters in his Poetics. Labine feels if you really know the characters, they tell you the story. To write dialogue, she lets the characters have a conversation and writes it down. I honestly literally clapped my hands together in delight at this philosophy.

Asked about writing influences, Labine answered “It was my grandmother… she never met a story she couldn’t improve.”

Star Trek

Mulgrew was newly divorced when she started Star Trek: Voyager, and she spoke candidly about feeling like she wasn’t the mother her sons, then in their tweens, wanted her to be. An audience member posited that Mulgrew was being too harsh on herself, and that there is flip side to the story: Kathryn Janeway inspired, and continues to inspire, many, including her — and including me. In response Mulgrew told a story about being invited by Hillary Clinton to speak at a Women in Science event at the White House during Voyager‘s first season. She prepared a speech but threw it away when she saw the aspiring scientist young women gathered.

“I said, ‘Girls, I have nothing to say to you that you cannot say to me, but this much I do know: if Paramount Pictures is prepared at this time in history to put a woman in the captain’s seat, then you are prepared to go into the field.’ And as a result, a lot of those girls, in fact, who were going to go into research, went up. And to me there has been nothing more gratifying than all of those scientists writing me and saying to me over and over again that Captain Janeway changed their lives.”

Asked which Trek character, other than Janeway, she would like to take on, Mulgrew chose Kirk because “Why not?” — or as I’d put it, because obviously.

Photo by Marina Kravchuck. Source: TotallyKate.com

Photo by Marina Kravchuk (@drakkorex). Source: TotallyKate.com

Orange is the New Black

An audience member remarked that the characters she is best known for — Red and Janeway — are seen as both strong and vulnerable. Mulgrew agreed, and she and Labine both interjected that that’s what makes them successful. Real women are not just one way or another, our fictional characters should reflect that.

Asked if she could play any role in any medium, Mulgrew chose Red, for Netflix, which has all the positives of television (complex characters that evolve over time) and none of the negatives (grueling schedule of long days away from family). She loves the character and working with so many talented people like Lorraine Toussaint as the diabolical Vee and director Jodie Foster behind the scenes. She couldn’t tell us anything about season three, or “they’d have [her] head”, but she promises it will be lighter than season two, where she was beaten to near death three times over the course of the season.

Mulgrew did all her own stunts for the series, and has done all her own stunts since she got her certificate while on Star Trek.

Voyager is my collective

My mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly, when I was 13. It’s a very hard age for a daughter to lose a mother and I felt alone and unmoored a lot of the time. Star Trek, and especially Voyager, represented hope, belonging, and family to me. Voyager is made up of misfits who have to band together and make their own family and community when the one they had is lost. I latched on to the series as a map for family and Janeway as a mother figure. I was lucky enough to be able to stand up in the audience and tell Mulgrew my story, and thank her for being exactly who I needed.

Me with Kate Mulgrew

Me with Kate Mulgrew

I also said I can’t wait to read her memoir, available April 14, and asked about her experience writing. She answered that it was incredibly gratifying, that she wrote every day and loved it, like acting it felt both natural and necessary. But also scary. When another fan said she’d gotten an advance copy, had read and loved the book, Mulgrew teared up. I’m more excited than ever to read it. You may preorder the book online and here is a list of tour dates.

Elephants

Both Labine and Mulgrew told a story about a personal encounter with an elephant and if you ever get the chance to speak with either, ask about it. One point was that elephants memorize people, and it’s customary for a family to have an elephant who presides over important events — that the same elephant will accompany the family for ceremonies at birth, marriage, and death, and remember who they were. That’s what the evening was all about.