Kate Mulgrew talks Dragon Age: Origins

Q&A: Veteran actress and <i>Star Trek: Voyager</i> star discusses working with BioWare and acting in games versus television, film, and stage.

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Canadian developer BioWare made a name for itself with the classic Baldur's Gate fantasy role-playing games. The studio is now finalizing what it is billing as the spiritual successor to that game, Dragon Age: Origins. First announced in 2004, the long-awaited RPG will tell the tale of a kingdom besieged by dark forces.

Actress Kate Mulgrew.
Actress Kate Mulgrew.

As one might expect from a BioWare game, Dragon Age: Origins will be jam-packed with characters. These include Flemeth, a mysterious witch of the wilds and the mother of the equally mysterious sorceress Morrigan.

As revealed in a a recent cast announcement by BioWare, Flemeth is voiced by Kate Mulgrew, who is perhaps best known for her role as Captain Kathryn Janeway in the Star Trek: Voyager TV series. In 2006, she reprised the role in Star Trek: Legacy, her third game role after 2002's Run Like Hell and 2003's Lords of EverQuest, which also co-starred prolific voice actor Keith David.

Though David has had some plum game roles, including the Arbiter in Halo 2 and 3, Dragon Age will be Mulgrew's biggest part in a game to date. With its November 3 launch fast approaching, GameSpot caught up with the actress to talk about her experience working with BioWare and other projects.

GameSpot: You have very broad experience in TV, film, and theater. Tell us your thoughts on taking this different path of being a voice actor for a game.

Kate Mulgrew: Well, there's nothing more liberating, in a way. This is every actor's true dream. I've likened it to going into a dark room with a very smart child who demands an epic story on the spot--one that will change their life. And you have two flashlights, and you have that moment captured in time, and you get to just go, and the kid is going to go with you. So, it's a beautiful little journey you get to take.

In this particular case, the character of Flemeth would be just about every actress' dream because the vocal dexterity required is both challenging and very freeing…almost joyful to go that deep. She's dark. The game itself is epic, dark, and brutal, but it's very smart. So I'm always engaged. Everything that comes out my mouth is very important.

[The Flemeth character] is pivotal. She's a witch, but she's mysterious, and you have to stay with the game and stay with the character to discover just how mysterious she is. There are undercurrents and secrets to her, and when you understand that hers is a history rich in despair and loss, then you can grasp her fury and her power in a different way. And as an actor, being able to know that--and I know that people playing this game may not know that, and even our hero [of the game] doesn't know that yet--there's a sense of great adult play.

GS: Interesting. You suggest that being a voice actor is a bit more freeing than being an actor in a traditional production. There's no makeup, there's no costumes…

KM: That's exactly right. You've got the script in front of you, and you've got the [audio] engineer. And for some reason, it takes me back to the absolute core of who I am--as an imaginative person, as an artist--and that is to tell the story, in the moment. And being one of eight children, I often did this in the closet in my room, and it was better than being on Broadway! (laughs) It was great.

GS: But given that you've spent most of your career as a performer focusing on nuances like facial expressions and body language, especially on TV and in films where multiple cameras can zoom in for key shots, it must be a different experience…

KM: Yes, but you're still doing it. I found myself still absolutely owning her and endowing her with her hand gestures and her facial expressions. But it's very, very private. It's just me and the character. That could seem fracturing, but it's not. It's exactly what actors are. They really just want to tell the story in all its urgency and immediacy, and they want it to be realized instantly. And that's what a video game and a voice-over in a video game can do that no other genre does.

GS: Talking more specifically about the game, what are your thoughts on being part of a high-fantasy story, speaking pseudo-Victorian-era English, and playing a character whose problems and motivations are not necessarily the same as a more modern character (or, for instance, a starship captain)?

KM: Delicious. I mean, it's right up my street. It's classical, isn't it? I wouldn't say that it's Greek, but it's very smart, and it's all about mythology. It's better than fantasy--it's about a history, and from my own perspective, Celtic history. I think that these people at BioWare brought to bear on this video game just about every level of the imagination, and they have combined it with a high intelligence. So, I also think when I finish a job like this, "Ah, well, this is good." And whoever plays this game will find that it's good, and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

GS: About the character Flemeth. She's this very fearsome and mysterious witch of great power who lives off in the wilds. Have you done other roles or had other acting experiences to draw on to portray this sort of aloof character?

KM: I've done characters who touch on her, but they do not have her depth. They do not have her magnitude, and I don't think that they have her discipline. So, if you bring those three things together, it's a very advanced kind of character. She's much more than just a witch; she's more than just a mysterious witch; she's someone with a profound personal history, and she brings that to bear on every choice she makes…on every strange thing that issues from her mouth. And I think that whoever plays this game knows that, and they'll know to follow her very, very carefully.

The character Flemeth from Dragon Age: Origins.
The character Flemeth from Dragon Age: Origins.

GS: And another thing that's clearly notable about the Flemeth character is that she has a relationship with another character, Morrigan, who is treated as her "daughter," yet right when you meet those characters, you realize that this isn't just a simple mother-daughter relationship. There's another, more-complex story going on between these two characters. Do you have any thoughts on playing this role or other experiences to draw on to flesh out this relationship?

KM: Well, that was a very interesting part of doing this…to have that kind of co-mixture of acceptance and dripping disdain and fury…and the kind of sentiment about this daughter. And I think I live through this daughter in many ways. In many ways, this daughter stirs up my own past, in which I was beautiful and loved once. And the loss of that reality…I think this daughter Morrigan excites that and stimulates that memory in me, so that every time I'm with her, it's very tense. And one cannot know, ever, how I'm going to react to what [Morrigan] says because, I suspect, that I don't really know how I'm going to react. [Morrigan] taps into the emotional part of Flemeth more than anybody else, obviously.

GS: Switching gears a bit, you've played a variety of roles in your career, including starship captains and fantasy characters like Flemeth, but you've also played more real-life characters in realistic, modern situations. What are the differences between playing a role in a sci-fi or fantasy setting versus a real-world setting? Do you have a preference?

KM: No, I would say that I continue to be absolutely surprised at what evolves. I mean, if you had met me when I was 20, and you had said to me, "You're going to play these roles when you reach this certain age," I would've said, "You're crazy! That's not possible!"

But of course, they have come to be in a very significant way in my life, so I would say that, probably, these roles are tapping into something in my nature or my personality that is very important and must be revealed and probably couldn't be revealed when I was younger. "Epic" is too strong a word, but "powerful" elements reside within me, and they can probably only be contained in characters of this magnitude. Now, I'm very, very lucky to be able to play them, and they free me. I'm completely engaged in the work.

GS: To get a bit more abstract: When comparing classical media (theater, TV, film) and digital productions like this game, some might say that the former does a better job of telling stories and conveying emotion. If games aren't there yet, then what would you say are the missing elements in games that will bring them up to the same level of emotional impact and storytelling as, say, a really great TV show or movie?

KM: Well, it's interactive, isn't it? So the stakes are already much higher than they are even when you go to the theater. It's a very different approach. This is not what happens when you go to the movies or go to see a play. I mean, I just played Clytemnestra in [the theatrical production] Iphegenia 2.0, and we can't have people getting up on stage and responding in a physical way to what I'm saying.

I think that video games are a way for people to discipline their very large emotional needs…to discipline them and to direct them. And I think that if [the game in question] is as smart as this game is, it can be quite elevating. So there's a place for [games]. There's a very good place for [games]. [Games] will in no way replace theater, movies, or television, but [games] will have [their] own rightful place, I think, in the world, and certainly, technologically, in this new world we are coming to embrace.

GS: To wrap up, let's take a not-so-giant leap of logic and suggest that some of the same fans who enjoyed watching you on Star Trek: Voyager might also read a video game Web site. Is there anything in particular you'd like to say to your fans?

KM: I'd like to say to them that I found this to be a thoroughly compelling video game to perform in and that I hope that when [people] play it, they feel that from me. And just take the journey and understand that the excellence in this journey lies in the intelligence of this particular story.

GS: Outside of games, what have you been up to recently?

KM: I'm doing a series for NBC called Mercy. I play the mother of the leading lady…that's what it's come to (laughs). But she's an interesting character for me because I'm usually typecast as an upper-class, intellectual sort of person. And this is a working-class, alcoholic, Irish woman who is very concerned with how she looks and doesn't seem to have any interest at all in her daughter's post-traumatic stress disorder. [Her daughter has] just returned from a tour in Iraq. So it's a story about nurses and family, and it's very timely.

Other things in life are just as good. I love my teaching [at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting] and work with the Alzheimer's Association National Advisory Council. All of that, to me, is very challenging. And now, in my life, I do a good bit of writing and a great deal of reading. And [in terms of] my personal life--by that I mean, my intimate friendships, my children, and my sweetheart--all of that is very, very good right now.

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