As the daughter of famous performers, Kate Burton has forged her own distinguished stage career, known for playing Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as appearing in Grey’s Anatomy on TV. She tells Howard Sherman about exploring her Welsh heritage, being recognised on the street and welcoming better roles for women
Until recently, Kate Burton saw her career as defined by Anton Chekhov. Ticking off four Three Sisters, two Seagulls, two Cherry Orchards and a film of Uncle Vanya, she says: “I really felt that I purposefully did all of Chekhov’s plays, some of them in multiple productions. He never ceases to fascinate and enthral me.”
It wasn’t until looking back over her career for a ‘my life in the arts’ speech in Boston, that the actor – familiar to many for her roles in Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal – realised quite how important Shakespeare had been too.
Burton is currently performing in Coriolanus at the Public’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park, returning to the venue two years after playing multiple roles in Cymbeline. Last summer, she was Prospera in The Tempest at the Old Globe in San Diego, and her résumé includes productions of Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night, among others.
Having studied Russian literature at Brown University, Burton sought out Chekhov, but Shakespeare happened more organically. “In truth, my relationship to Shakespeare plays was like mother’s milk,” she says. “Literally because both my parents were in the Royal Shakespeare Company and my father, I think, was considered to be one of the finest Shakespearean actors who has ever been on the planet.”
Burton’s mother was Sybil Williams, who as Sybil Christopher would go on to preside over a hot 1960s New York nightclub and later found the Bay Street Theatre. Her father was Richard Burton, a star of stage and film and at one time one of the most famous men in the world. Her godfather was Emlyn Williams and Elizabeth Taylor was her stepmother. But while Burton references them often in conversation, she rarely does so by name. It is clear she doesn’t trade on their achievements.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Waitress for two nights at the Yale Cabaret.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Daphne in Present Laughter on Broadway in 1982.
What is your next job?
Acting in Lillian, a film written and directed by Alfred Molina.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I truly think reading reviews is a very bad idea for almost all actors. Also, never be jealous or resentful of fellow actors.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Find a way to know that the people who audition you want you to be great. They want you to succeed. It’s not a test. It’s actually them hoping you will succeed.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t say Macbeth.
For this production of Coriolanus, Burton approached director Dan Sullivan offering to play any role and was asked to read for Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. When Jonathan Cake, just 10 years her junior, was cast as the lead, Burton was turned down as too young for Volumnia.
Two weeks later, her manager called to say she had an offer, but Sullivan had one question. Burton replied: “Oh, they want to know if I would age up? The answer is yes. Of course.” Though, as it turns out, the only ageing aid for the show is a grey wig.
We speak midway through rehearsals and Burton is enjoying tackling the role. “It’s very different than the other Shakespearean ladies I’ve played. I’m very happy that I played Prospera last summer before doing this, because having played this extraordinarily powerful magician is a good warm up for Volumnia.”
Burton continues: “She’s a heat-seeking missile in that she doesn’t see how she’s brought Coriolanus up and how she’s made him. In a way, he’s like her Frankenstein’s monster. It’s been somewhat debilitating for him.”
Reflecting on Coriolanus’ relevance to the present day, Burton says: “I think all of Shakespeare’s Roman war plays are very resonant, because so many of them have these very flawed leaders. Do I need to say anything more?” The question hangs in the air, before she adds: “No I do not.”
Turning back to Chekhov, Burton traces her interest in all things Russian to reading Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K Massie aged 13 and to her education at the United Nations School in New York, where an ambitious drama teacher cast her in Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths during her senior year.
She went on to appear in Chekhov’s one-act The Bear during her freshman year at Brown, where she would play Nina in The Seagull in her senior year. During her time at the Yale School of Drama, she was also a summer acting intern at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she played Anna in The Cherry Orchard to Colleen Dewhurst’s Ranevskaya.
Burton now teaches acting at the University of Southern California, where she also directs Chekhov’s work – “It’s a fantastic tool for teaching young actors how to act” – and says: “What I love about teaching is that great moment when you’re working with a young actor, whether it’s on Chekhov or Miller or Tracy Letts or Shakespeare, and suddenly you see them get it. I’m not telling them how to do it, I’m not telling them to do it like this, say it like this. I’m just helping them find their own path. At that moment when they find their own path and it’s happening, it’s working, I feel so thrilled to be part of their journey.”
Asked about the relationship to her family heritage in Wales, Burton says: “My Welsh roots are pretty profound. I am pure Celt. My Welsh roots are deeply embedded, especially now there’s been a passing of the generational torch. Wales and Welsh culture has always been a big part of my life, but particularly in the past six years. I imagine it will continue to be so forever.” Burton points with pride to her participation in two different audio versions of Under Milk Wood, which her parents performed together in the first radio version.
Burton has worked consistently in TV, film and theatre since she graduated from Yale, with the distinction of being one of fewer than a dozen actors to be nominated twice in the same season for Tony awards for acting. But it is only in recent years that she finds herself being recognised, thanks to Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
“It’s interesting for me, because I grew up with a very famous father and a very famous stepmother,” she says. “I knew what that was like, because while they were famous for their acting, they were more famous for their relationship. I experienced that, from a slight distance, as a child, and that was not exactly anybody’s idea of a good time. That was something I always had a slight distaste for.”
But while Burton says she’s spotted on the street five or 10 times a day in New York, it’s not as intrusive as what she witnessed in her youth. “I am recognised,” she says with a chuckle. “But nobody, almost nobody, knows my name. They know my character. That’s fascinating in some way. It’s great because it’s a little bit anonymous.”
‘There’s great forward movement for women in the theatre. It’s slow, but it’s happening’
She credits the creator of both shows Shonda Rhimes with giving her more interesting characters, which has led to other interesting roles. “I have played my fair share of mothers and grandmothers,” she says. “But now I’ve played Supreme Court justices, senators, vice presidents, doctors and lawyers. It’s been really heartening that the roles for older women are so much more interesting than they were 15 or 20 years ago.”
That holds true for theatre as well. Burton says: “There’s great forward movement for women in the theatre as actors, directors, choreographers and producers. It’s slow, but it’s happening.”
Growing up in a theatrical family, Burton saw from a young age that it was a hard path to follow. But she recalls spending time with her mother’s three closest actor friends – Tammy Grimes, Rachel Roberts and Lauren Bacall. “They were all larger than life,” she says. “They were all brilliant and led fascinating lives, but I just didn’t see myself being in that group.”
Now Burton has her own theatrical family, as her husband Michael Ritchie is the artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, the largest subsidised theatre company in Los Angeles, and she has acted twice opposite her son Morgan, who she says is now focused more on writing. Her daughter Charlotte is not pursuing the family business.
She turns very definitive on the subject of children of actors entering the profession. “The truth of it is, and I say this to every actor who’s the child of an actor: you have to find your own path. You’re not going to be on your father’s path, you’re not going to be on your mother’s path. It’s about finding your acting voice, whatever that voice is. If you don’t find it for yourself and you’re only thinking about your parents all the time, then forget it. It is such a persnickety profession that you certainly can’t rely on anything.”
Born: 1957, Geneva, Switzerland
Training: Russian Studies and European History, Brown University; MFA, Yale School of Drama
• Present Laughter, Broadway (1982)
• Company, Broadway (1995)
• Hedda Gabler, Broadway (2001)
• The Elephant Man, Broadway (2002)
• Three Sisters, Playhouse Theatre, London (2003),
• The Constant Wife, Broadway (2005)
• Present Laughter, Broadway (2017)
• The Tempest, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego (2018)
• Theatre World Award 1982-83; Honorary doctorate, Brown University
Agent: Randy Goldstein at Gersh (US); Lou Colson at Lou Colson Associates (UK)
Coriolanus runs at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York until August 11