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Kate Mulgrew Writes Her Own Script

The actress on her new memoir, Born With Teeth

Kate Mulgrew’s career has been long and varied. Before she took on her most recent role as the scene-stealing Red on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Mulgrew was a veteran of soap operas (Ryan’s Hope) and science fiction (Star Trek: Voyager) as well as series and stages too numerous to recount. So, of course, she’s got a few stories.

In Born With Teeth, the 59-year-old actress’ moving and intelligent new memoir, she lets them loose. From her childhood in Iowa to her life as a teenage actress in New York and a career spanning four decades, Mulgrew shares the surprising and exceedingly personal stories of what’s happened to her along the way.

What inspired you to write a memoir?

Having been an actress for 40 years of my life, and having played other people, I very much wanted to reveal myself for who I am. That requires some small amount of history, and in my case the death of my parents was an imperative to allow me to write this book. I didn’t want in any way to hurt anyone, and I think perhaps, some of the things I’ve written about my parents by virtue of the honesty that I’ve practiced could possibly had hurt them had they been alive. So that gave me the freedom to write it. 

So did you keep a journal as you we’re growing up or did this come from memory. 

I’ve always kept journals. I have copious journals, a stack of them in my closet. But this tale is from my mind and in my heart all my life. The book is a great tale, it’s a story of the moments lived in great definition. Every chapter of the book is a time and episode that defined my character and shaped the very core of me.

You expose some parts of your life that must have been difficult to write about, including giving up your daughter for adoption. That can’t have been easy. 

They’re tough times because they are not without their terrible complexities.  You don’t give away a child and not suffer. Those came with regret, deep agony, a kind of torment that I was not alleviated until I met her. Other episodes, such as the loss of my two sisters, are harsh reckonings when you’re young and they affected me deeply and probably shaped my character. I’m driven towards life, and I think you get that from the book. More than being a survivor, I’m in love with life.

So what is a bigger challenge to you: writing or acting?

I’ve only just written one book! There’s a kind of laser-like focus when you’re writing a book. A book is a singular kind of journey. Acting always has other people involved, other departments, other elements and many other components. Whereas it’s just you and your pen when you’re writing. It’s scarier. It’s also deeply vital. I don’t know how else to express this to you, I felt completely alive. I wanted to be nowhere but there. There are many times in acting where I wanted to be someplace else. In the bleak days, on the sunny days, on the snowy days and on the rainy days—I wanted to be there with my computer. It was a kind of bliss. 

Did you write this book while filming?

Yes, I did write most of it in the hiatus between [OITNB seasons] two and three. I took a house at the beach in Virginia and I wrote for six months without pause. Then I had to go back to work, but then I would go down there on the weekends. It took me about 10 months to complete the whole thing. 

If your reader was to walk away with a lesson, what would you want that to be? 

You have to live to your fullest and know that if you’re going to live fully and honestly, you’re going to pay a price. So gird your loins and get ready.

What does the title mean to you?

It means not that I was actually born with teeth, but that I will bite into life, and that’s the only way to approach it.