Kate Burton Finds Success On Both Coasts

Mar 21, 2014

Kate Burton has appeared in dozens of T.V. shows in in her decades-long career, but it was “Grey’s Anatomy” that really put her career into overdrive.

As she tells Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer, “It changed my life as an actress.”

Now Burton has two plum roles: she appears as vice president Sally Langston in the hit T.V. show “Scandal” and satisfies her love for the stage by starring as Madam Arkadina in “The Seagull” at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.


  • Kate Burton, actress most recently appearing in Huntington Theatre’s production of “The Seagull” and in ABC’s “Scandal.”
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Ever since her role as an Alzheimer-stricken doctor on "Grey's Anatomy," actress Kate Burton has been experiencing a career renaissance. She's becoming almost as well-known as her father, the late Oscar-nominated actor Richard Burton. And at age 56, an age when many actresses wait by the phone, Kate Burton is juggling not one but two great roles. On television, she's Sally Langston, a Bible-quoting yet also murderess vice president in the hit ABC show "Scandal." Here she is berating her husband when he claims he helped her get where she is.


PFEIFFER: It's a role set very much in the present. But at the Huntington Theatre here in Boston, Kate Burton is starring an Anton Chekhov's 1895 play, "The Seagull," as Irina Arkadina, a highly successful, high maintenance actress.


PFEIFFER: Earlier this week, Kate Burton came to our studios, and we asked her how she approaches characters like Madame Arkadina, who can come off as dislikeable and insecure.

: 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, you know, the actual person. So, you know, between Madame Arkadina in "The Seagull," Sally Langston in "Scandal," and Ellis Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," these are all women who all really 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.

PFEIFFER: On "Scandal," your part is the vice president, Sally Langston.

: Yes.

PFEIFFER: And she is strict. She is conservative. She is religious. She is a Southern Republican. 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.

: Ever.

PFEIFFER: What is it like to play a character whose politics are so different than your own?

: It's hilarious, fascinating to play, you know, someone who is so polar opposite from you. And, of course, I'm a liberal Democrat from New York City and, you know, Sally is a conservative Republican, you know, from the south so fascinating for me.

PFEIFFER: Is there a major shift of psychological energy required to fly to the East Coast, to Boston, to be in that century old Russian and then fly to L.A. to be in this hit pop, frothy soap opera show?

: Well, you know, in some ways, there's a lot that links these two ladies. I mean, they're very self-obsessed. They're larger than life. They're very passionate. What I find is that I feel so extremely blessed to be an actress at 56 years old and to be playing these two extraordinary roles.

PFEIFFER: Even before "Scandal," you had "Grey's Anatomy."

: Yes.

PFEIFFER: And this really put you on the TV map in a big way.

: Yes.

PFEIFFER: You, of course, played Dr. Ellis Grey...

: I did.

PFEIFFER: ...the mother of Meredith Grey, one of the - sort of the title character in a sense. And we have a clip of you - it's one of the flashbacks before Ellis Grey is sort of in her Alzheimer's stage...

: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...a flashback of you leading a morning meeting of doctors.


PFEIFFER: Assertive, confident, domineering...

: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...what do you make of all these roles you've landed, playing these ambitious, hard core, even the semi-troubled women?

: It's thrilling to play these people. You know, it's thrilling - it's why Bryan Cranston is playing, you know, LBJ right now. I mean, here is this magnificent actor. And, you know, I love to be in political dramas (unintelligible).

PFEIFFER: Well, I'd actually thought Bryan Cranston related to you because you and he have these very similar trajectories where you are working actors for a very long time.

: Yep, yeah.

PFEIFFER: No gigantic hits until you had gigantic hits...

: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...which came in when you're in your 50s.

: Yes.

PFEIFFER: Is there a sweetness to that success, coming later in life?

: Yes. It is very thrilling. I mean, you know, to see what's happened to Bryan and for me with "Grey's." "Grey's" happened to me in my mid-40s and then "Scandal" happened in my early 50s. And, you know, it's just - how thrilling is that, to be able to have these abilities to rise to pinnacles in your 40s and 50s. And I think that's the way it should be. I mean, for me, it was perfect. Had it happened earlier, I may not have been able to handle it as well, but I'm appreciative of it, and I also am able to put it in perspective.

PFEIFFER: How would you describe what "Grey's" did to your career?

: 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.

PFEIFFER: You felt like that kind of character was...

: I just thought it was like I was aging myself too much.

PFEIFFER: You thought you'd forever be seen as this kind of decrepit.

: Oh, well, no, and I didn't know that it would be successful because nobody had seen it yet. We did the first 13 episodes out of the public eye.

PFEIFFER: Why did you think that role will be a liability?

: 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 at 46 years old. And then Shonda wrote an episode where I come into the hospital.

PFEIFFER: Shonda Rhimes is the creator of the show.

: Shonda Rhimes is the creator. And I come into the hospital, and it's the first time that anybody in the hospital has seen me.

PFEIFFER: And they don't realize you're addled at this time?

: No. And that I have this terrible affliction, and that was honestly one of the most thrilling episodes of television or anything else I've ever done in my life. And then it went on the air, and it hit the zenith guys in such a profound way. And I would be on the subway in New York, like within the first or second episode, and I was doing a crossword puzzle as I always do, and this woman said to me, so, Dr. Grey, is that helping with your Alzheimer's? And this was the second episode really I had ever - so I thought...

PFEIFFER: So already, you were...

: I had no concept of what - I mean, I had been in "Law & Order." I'd 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.

PFEIFFER: I do want to ask you about your parents, and I hope you don't groan when you think...

: Oh, no.

PFEIFFER: ...oh, more Richard Burton questions.

: Oh, no. I'm used to them.

PFEIFFER: You know, 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 that 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'm 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.

You know, I grew up with this kind of juxtaposition of a glamorous, you know, movie star - child-of-a-movie-star-life in the summer times in various ports of call throughout the world, including, you know, Hollywood and London and, you know, the Mediterranean on a boat and Rome at Cinecitta.

And then I spent my school years in New York City going to wonderful schools with my wonderful mom, Sybil, and my wonderful stepfather, Jordan. 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. I saw both sides. And so, you know, and I wanted to be a working actor, and I've been able to be a working actor.

PFEIFFER: That's actress Kate Burton speaking to us earlier this week. For more information on "The Seagull" or "Scandal," go to hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.