“An old friend? Yes indeed! How’s he doing?”
Kate Mulgrew, best known as Red Reznikov from the smash-hit prison drama Orange is the New Black, is in Germany at a Netflix showcase, leafing through a copy of The Big Issue featuring Patrick Stewart – her fellow Star Trek captain – on the cover. “He’s feeling a little alien at the moment? Aren’t we all.”
The shock of the new-ish US president is still all-pervading for this second-generation “Yellow Dog Democrat” (asked what this means, she replies “that we would die for the Democrat Party”).
I told them, ‘If you want to play with the Russians, you’ve got your girl right here’
But, this being 2017, there is always politically active, provocative, diverse, groundbreaking, popular television that can speak to modern America and the modern world.
“The voice from Orange is the New Black reaches far and wide. And because we are so globally successful, we could maybe cause a little tsunami. It will be interesting,” says Mulgrew, 62, cogitating on the show’s ability to represent a disenfranchised audience at home, and convey a more complex image of the US than its president abroad.
While season five is only now hitting our screens, Mulgrew is looking ahead to the first episodes to be written in the Trump era.
“Do I think that [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan is going to use this? I hope she does. You are looking at a Russian, aren’t you? I play a Russian,” she says, slipping into Red’s accent. “We don’t know much of Red’s backstory but we know the Russian mob were involved. So let’s go! I sent that up the flagpole. I told them, ‘If you want to play with the Russians, you’ve got your girl right here’.
“Jenji could play that card. She could play immigration. She could show disenfranchisement on every conceivable level. She has done the privatisation of prisons beautifully. She will find a way to poke Trump that will be so clever, so insidious that it will be over his head. Because he is not smart. He will watch it, he will hear that it is happening but he won’t get it.”
Mulgrew has been acting since she was a teenager. An early role on US soap Ryan’s Hope, one-and-a-half seasons as Mrs Columbo – “it was preposterous. I was 23 and playing Peter Falk’s wife” – then Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager.
“The greatest acting challenge of my life,” says Mulgrew. “Unbelievably physically and expressively demanding. I was raising two small children and working 16 to 18 hours a day for seven years. But I learnt I can perform under pressure. I have taken that with me. I played leading women. Orange is the New Black is a wonderful way to enter the next stage of my life as an actress, playing character roles. I can’t think of a character I’d rather play than Red.”
On season five of OITNB, Mulgrew plays more overt comedy, in scenes with Laura Gómez (Blanca Flores). “It is liberating for me,” she grins. “I was looking forward to a whole series of it. But then it flips. Red is plunged from whimsical into despair and terrible, terrible fear. It’s gorgeous!”
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
The new season is set over three days, picking up from the dramatic siege that ended the previous run. “This series is urgent, then it is anxious, then it is terrible, and then it is over! Our heads were spinning,” she says. “From script to script you don’t know if you are going to live or die. The stakes are incredibly high all the time.”
Mulgrew talks with pride about how film and TV have evolved, to the point where OITNB, in which most of the cast are women of colour, becomes a global hit. “We have much greater licence as actors, and we feel that – there is a new kind of respect and equality. It is indeed a big new day,” she says. “They wouldn’t have made Orange is the New Black even a few years earlier. Happy me to be a reasonably attractive white woman. Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. Talk to Uzo Aduba [OITNB’s Crazy Eyes] about this. It has opened up every door to opportunity and possibility and humanity.”
Season Five of Orange is the New Black is on Netflix