Kate Mulgrew has had a long and diverse career in soaps ( Ryan’s Hope), episodic TV ( Mrs. Columbo, Star Trek: Voyager), theater ( Tea at Five) and the movies ( Throw Momma From the Train, Star Trek: Nemesis). Now she’s attracting attention with her Emmy-nominated performance as Galina “Red” Reznikov, the tough Russian-American inmate in Netflix’s hit show Orange Is the New Black. Newsday spoke with the 59-year-old Iowa native during a break in shooting scenes for the third season of OITNB.
How would you describe Red? Any special preparation for the part?
Red is a survivor of the highest order, someone you want to be in the trenches with. She’s vivid in her red hair, red nails, and she will identify herself as singular in this institution and will survive it with her soul intact. I just jumped into it. I didn’t go to Brighton Beach. Maybe I watched a few Russian films and listened to a great deal of Russian dialogue. She just leapt into my imagination. I think I just worked by burrowing her into my imagination. And the accent is just something that came organically.
What is it that makes the show so popular?
Relatability. I would say we’re talking about life being stripped down in a way we’re not accustomed to seeing when it comes out of Hollywood. Everything is basic here, and I think the viewership is saying ‘I get it, I understand it, and I’m a scintilla away from it myself.’
How do you relate to all the same-sex relationships in the show?
I think it’s kind of interesting, most of it is appropriate. It speaks to the female nature; we will reach out to one another. It’s a thing of real need. It all works, it’s a Petri dish.
Have you had any previous experience with prison life?
I did a movie called Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. We shot some of it at Rikers, and that was terrifying. I don’t remember experiencing anything like it before or since. The feeling of walking between those cells, the sounds they were making, the despair of it, it was an amazing feeling. This [ Orange] prison is very different. It is minimum security, and we have everything we need to survive, except our loved ones.
You played Capt. Kathryn Janeway for seven years on “Star Trek: Voyager” and were the first woman to portray a captain in the “Star Trek” series. What’s it like being part of the “Star Trek” universe?
I was shot out of a cannon. I got the job on a Thursday, went to work on a Monday [ Genevieve Bujold was originally cast in the role but quit after two days of shooting]. I didn’t have time to think, to anticipate, anything. I had to adjust to 16- or 18-hour days, all the publicity that was demanded. But it was unbelievably satisfying. To be the first female captain of one of the most successful TV franchises of all time is a great thing. I’m glad I did it; it taught me a lot about myself.