Kate Burton, 56, is one of those rare actresses whose success came later in life.
She hit it big in television on "Grey's Anatomy" when she was in her 40s. Then came another hit TV show, "Scandal," when she was in her 50s. She's currently jetting back and forth between Los Angeles to film "Scandal" and Boston, where she's appearing in Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" at the Huntington Theatre.
The show is generally considered dark, but this production is laced with lots of humor, even though Burton isn't typically known for comedic acting. So when she came to WBUR for an interview, All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer asked if she feels she's stretching her acting muscles to be a bit of a ham on stage.
Kate Burton: Oh, no — I am a ham by nature! Born a ham, from a bunch of hams. No, not at all. Actually, that's what makes her human for me is that at first I was resistant to [her "Seagull" character Irina Nikolayevna] Arkadina because she can be a very negative character. But then I realized: oh no, this is who she is. She's a single mother, she works so hard. And she has all these hilarious, very outsized things that happen in her life.
Sacha Pfeiffer: In "The Seagull," your real-life son, Morgan Ritchie, plays your character's son on stage. You've actually acted with him before. What is that experience like, being on stage with your son?
I mean, it's always him. Obviously he's my child. But I do forget it's him him. He is playing my son, but we have a very different relationship in the play than we do in real life, thank God.
That's a good thing, given the relationship between the characters!
It's very fraught in the play, but it's very wonderful in real life.
In the play, your character is this very vain, self-absorbed older actress who's visiting her playwright son, and there's a scene where that vanity is very apparent. Here's what she says:
"Do you think I would ever leave the house, even go into the garden with a house coat on and my hair in a mess? Never! That's why I look so young! Nothing of the frump about me. I don't let myself go the way some women do. Look! How light on my feet I am! I could play a girl of 15 with no problem at all!"
Obviously very self-assured! How did you come to view your character? Dislikable? Insecure? Or what other emotion?
Well, the biggest thing as an actress when you're playing a character that is quote-unquote disliked is that you have to find the reason that these people do what they do. And, honestly, for most actors, these kind of characters are the most enjoyable to play. Because, God willing, they're very different from the actual person. So between Madame Arkadina in "The Seagull," Sally Langston in "Scandal," and Ellis Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," these are all women who all can be very tough and difficult at times. But what is the thread that links them together is that they all have reasons that they do what they do, just like every human on the planet has those reasons.
And so, with Arkadina, I really believe that she is a maverick in her time. She's a single mother, she's a working mother. And what's fascinating for me — as you can see with me sitting here with no make-up on — is that I am not like her at all as an actress. So for me to play this very vain actress who's always talking about herself and everything is about her, I would love to hope and think is completely opposite of who I am, which is what makes her so much fun to play.
On "Scandal," your part is the vice president, Sally Langston. And you've said that it's really fascinating to play her because things come out of her mouth that would never come out of your real-life mouth.
What is it like to play a character whose politics are so different than your own?
It's hilarious. Again, fascinating to play someone who is so polar opposite from you. And, of course, I'm a liberal Democrat from New York City, and Sally is a conservative Republican, Bible Belt, as conservative as they get. So, fascinating for me.
Even before "Scandal," you had "Grey's Anatomy," and this really put you on the TV map in a big way. Of course you played Dr. Ellis Grey, the mother of Meredith Grey, the title character, in a sense. How would you describe what Grey's did to your career?
You know, one day I auditioned for a show where it was the mother of a young doctor and she had early-onset Alzheimer's, and I literally thought, "Oh, God, no. I mean, this is the end of my career. How horrifying." But I auditioned for it. They cast me. I did the pilot thinking, "Nobody will ever see this pilot."
Why did you think that role would be a liability?
I just thought it was like I was aging myself too much. I thought that I was too young to play it. Turned out I wasn't. It turned out a lot of people have early-onset Alzheimer's ... And then Shonda wrote an episode where I come into the hospital.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the show.
Yes. And I come into the hospital, and it's the first time that anybody in the hospital has seen me. They actually might have thought that I was not alive because I'm such a famous doctor in the hospital.
And they don't realize that you're addled at this point.
And that I have this terrible affliction. And from that moment on I realized what a gift Ellis Grey was. And then it went on the air. And it, like, hit a zenith from the moment we appeared. And I would be on the subway in New York, like within the first or second episode, and I was doing a crossword puzzle and this woman said to me, "So, Dr. Grey, is that helping with your Alzheimer's?" And this was the second episode! I mean, I had been in "Law & Order." I had been in all the Law & Orders, I'd been in tons of TV. But nothing had ever happened to me like that, like "Grey's Anatomy." When that hit, it changed my life as an actress.
I do want to ask you about your parents, and I hope you don't groan when you think, "Oh, more Richard Burton questions."
Oh, no. I'm used to this.
You have said that because you grew up in this family of actors — Richard Burton, your dad; your stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor — you saw a life that you didn't think you wanted. You know — alcohol and people fashion-obsessed and paparazzi. But you ended up realizing you can have an actor's life and also have a serene life. But what's the recipe to follow your path and not your father's path?
I would say the biggest thing — and I've always said this — is, of course, my dad was an alcoholic. And, you know, when you're an alcoholic, it doesn't matter what you do for a living; it's going to invade your life. And so I am not, I am happy to report. I am my mother's daughter. I'm my father's daughter, but I'm also my mother's daughter and my mother was not at all an alcoholic. She was extremely on the ground. I grew up with this kind of juxtaposition of a glamorous child-of-a-movie-star-life in the summertimes, and then I spent my school years in New York City with my wonderful mom Sybil [Williams] and my wonderful stepfather Jordan [Christopher]. And my stepdad was a working actor. And my mom had a bunch of various very interesting things that she did, including run a nightclub in the 60s, which was hugely successful. But I had a very stable childhood.
You have several Massachusetts connections. Your husband, Michael Ritchie, was producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. You've been in Huntington shows before, as you've said. And you've said that the experience of living in Boston for two months every few years when you come and do these shows is what you say is "heaven on earth." Why do you say that?
You know, it's easy to get around. The T is great. It's also easy to walk everywhere, which is what I do. I have my favorite coffee shops and I have my favorite grocery stores. And it's a great artistic home for me. I'm blessed because I live in New York and LA and those are also places where arts flourish. But being in Boston has just always been extremely special for me.
This article was originally published on March 19, 2014.