Kate Mulgrew is under pressure - and she loves it.
As the top star of "Star Trek: Voyager," premiering this week, she bears not just the weight of a new television show, but also that of the new United Paramount Network, of which she is the centerpiece.
Beyond that, Mulgrew assumes the role-model burden of playing the first female captain to helm a "Star Trek" series since Gene Roddenberry launched his space-faring creation in 1966.
Yet the 22-year acting veteran sounds up the challenge. Calling from her trailer on Paramount's Hollywood lot during her lunch break, Mulgrew was brimming with controlled intensity.
"There's pressure, but I think it's alleviated by the extraordinary sense of opportunity," she said. "One waits a long time for a chance like this. And I'm at a point in my life where I can really appreciate it."
That point follows years of respect but modest fame from such TV shows as "Kate Columbo," "Heartbeat" and "Ryan's Hope" and ocassional films such as "Throw Mamma From the Train."
Mulgrew almost didn't get the part she now seems born to play: Kathryn Janeway, captain of a Starfleet ship flung to the far side of the galaxy, where it starts a 75-year voyage home among new worlds and new civilizations.
But when Genevieve Bujold quit the part two days into filming, Mulgrew got the call.
"She didn't like the episodic-TV grind," Mulgrew said.
But for Mulgrew, "it's a great job - a great gig."
"I'd done this sort of thing before," she said. "I'm not a movie star. I don't have the luxury of subjective acting that takes time. I'm a shot-out-of-the-cannon person. I love it when it's a little tough. I love it under the gun."
Mulgrew was far from a Trekker before taking the role. So she watched tapes of earlier shows "to get a feel for it." Even so, she says, "We are a different ship, a different beast."
The Voyager is smaller and sleeker than the Enterprise, which never has been run by a woman. And Mulgrew realizes it's long overdue for the futuristic "Trek" to catch up with 1990s sex roles.
"Until now, I think they (the producers) were just being circumspect and probably judicious," she said, noting the franchise has a large male audience. "And let me be very frank: It's a man's job. It requires terrific physical stamina, which the sheer musculature and DNA of a male predisposes him to handle a little bit better."
"But I was blessed with a great constitution. So they can run me ragged, and I'll still be standing."
As for being a role model for girls and women, Mulgrew welcomes that challenge.
"We've come a long way," she said, "and what's marvelous about it is, on no level is this woman (Janeway) a victim. She's the person she is because of her own development and her own passions."
Though Mulgrew relishes her role and doesn't flinch at the thought of a seven-year hitch like "The Next Generation," she balks at the thought of "Trek, Trek" and nothing but "Trek" for the rest of her life.
So far, it's been just a job, and she hasn't yet experienced the series' massive and possessive fan mania. Still, she's already been asked to attend "Trek" conventions, but has politely declined commitments.
"I'll address that once we air," she said. "Now I'm concentrating on the work and publicity."
Mulgrew is at work five days a week, for as much as 18 hours daily. "And I also spend two hours a night at home studying scripts," she said. "But at least my makeup is a cinch." (Actors playing aliens can spend hours in the makeup chair.) Hair is another matter.
"Patrick Stewart (the bald captain of "Next Generation") should get down on his hands and knees every day and thank God," Mulgrew said. "We've had nothing but hair problems."
Letting her hair down - or not wanting to - will help make Janeway "conflicted as a woman," Mulgrew said.
"She's tough and decisive, but also cares deeply for this crew and has tremendous roots at home."
Mulgrew added: "I feel my gender will lend itself to a different kind of warmth, perhaps - a different levity and tactility than the gentlemen."
Janeway will have an on-board romance, but only via a fantasy on the ship's holodeck. "My holodeck program is Jane Eyre time," Mulgrew said. "It's a gothic romance, but it's also a dream world."
"All this science fiction has started me thinking more about the real universe out there," she said. "You stand outside and look up, and you see it's all another part of this vast mystery."
"I am nervous," she admitted of her new role. "This is the hardest work I've ever done, and I want it to be good. But I try to set a standard in that set, and I guess on that ship, too."
By Bruce Westbrook
Last modified on January 15, 1995