Emmys 2012: Six Shows in One Season? Kate Burton, Daughter Of Sir Richard, Did It (Q&A)

Kate Burton Headshot - P 2011
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Kate Burton Headshot - P 2011

Richard Burton was nominated for seven Oscars and one Emmy. His daughter and sometime costar Kate Burton got two Emmy noms as a dying mother on Grey’s Anatomy (2006 and 2007) and won a 1996 Daytime Emmy as a dying mother in Notes for My Daughter. But now she’s done something her dad never did: she guest starred on six shows in one year, Grey’s Anatomy, Veep, Grimm, The Closer, The Good Wife, and Scandal. She tells The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Appelo what it’s like to be a perennial guest star, and the offspring of one of the greatest actors in history.

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THR: You’re the guest who never leaves!

Kate Burton: This last year was so nuts. I did 13 episodes of television. I’m being submitted for Emmys for Grey’s Anatomy, Grimm, and The Closer. I was a guest star on the Grimm pilot, and it ended up testing so well that they kept me on. So I did another episode and a flashback, and there’s talk of future episodes. Right before Grimm I did Veep, which was so thrilling because I don’t get to do comedy often. And then out of the blue, Scandal came along. And they said, “Do you want to play the Vice President of the United States?” I burst out laughing. And I did three episodes.

THR: And you came back from the dead as Meredith (Ellen Pompeo)’s Alzheimer's-victim mom on Grey’s Anatomy.

Burton: I was like, “You are kidding.” They said, “They’re doing an alternate reality episode called ‘If…Then.’” It’s about an alternate reality if I had not had Alzheimer’s, and McDreamy [Patrick Dempsey] is still with Kate Walsh, I’m running the hospital. It was so much fun, because I had never played Ellis Grey as a completely compos mentis woman. It was very unnerving actually, to have her be so together and ordering everybody about. It’s so much easier to play her with Alzheimer’s because all bets were off, I could do whatever I want.

On The Closer I play the wife of a corrupt evangelist. It was very intense, and I think I…I’m actually forgetting – I think I die in that one.

THR: You die a lot.

Burton: But then I come back. On the Grey’s Anatomy episode where I die, I was talking to one of the actors, and he said, “Oh yeah, you’ll be back.” I said, “But, I’m dying.” And he said, “Oh, no. Nobody dies on Grey’s Anatomy. They all come back…ghosts, dreams.”

THR: The Emmy guest acting category is weird – you can be on for one show, or be a recurring regular. But it’s interesting for actors and audiences.

Burton: I recurred on Grey’s Anatomy for three years, and at the same time, I recurred for eight episodes on Rescue Me. And I’d recurred for nine episodes on The Practice. Frankly, the guest star is often the most compelling character. Or they start to write for you, and suddenly you’re coming on more and more often. I’ve really found it to be my thing. Somebody who is a regular on one of the TV shows said, “What’s it like, playing eight different characters?” I don’t even know what it’s like not to play eight different characters. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to be a regular sometime in my life. And, frankly, to be a 54-year-old woman, it’s wonderful to get to have all these really interesting opportunities that challenge me. I did a lot of combat on Grimm.  

THR: What was your best stunt?

Burton: The hardest was a fight in the Grimm pilot. We practiced endlessly with a lot of the stunt guys from The Matrix. You take stage combat in drama school, and as a woman, you think, “Please, when am I ever going to use this?” And suddenly, there you are, 30 years later, standing on some street corner in Portland, Oregon doing hand-to-hand combat with an ogre.

THR: Your career is like a stock portfolio: well balanced.

Burton: I’m diversified. For me, hour-long drama was always the thing I felt the most comfortable doing, and I’ve played so many dramatic roles in the theater. But comedy was becoming more and more elusive as I got older. But I have small parts in two films this year, Liberal Arts and 2 Days in New York, quite funny, and then Veep came along. The great thing about Veep for me is that it’s satire, as opposed to sitcom, set-up, laugh line. And I can do that, but it’s not in my DNA, exactly.

THR: Do you have an image of being nice, or dead, or nice and dead?

Burton: Well, Ellis Grey was a tough customer, tenacious. She was a bitch. And very, very hard on her daughter. I play a lot of nice moms. But I do play a lot of semi-troubled women. I do that in theater all the time. I mean, Hedda Gabler is a tough girl.

THR: What is the legacy of resembling Richard Burton?

Burton: Growing up with this titanic pop, I was always dodging questions. But nine years ago on this very strange movie Stay with Ryan Gosling and Ewan McGregor, I had to get a life cast. I told the guy putting plaster of Paris on my face that my father was an actor. He asked, “Really? What’s your dad’s name?” I thought, “Well, OK, I’m just going to say it: My dad was Richard Burton.” And he went, “Who?” I said,  “Do you know who Elizabeth Taylor is?” “Yes.” “Well, she was married to my dad.”

THR: What was it like working with him on camera?

Burton: We were doing a very histrionic scene in a crazy old miniseries called Ellis Island. [It earned Richard Burton his only Emmy nom in 1984]. He literally put me in front of the camera for the first time, in this and in the 1983 PBS Alice in Wonderland. I was playing this very troubled woman. And he was so sotto voce during the scene, I thought, "Why is he underplaying everything?" And then I had a moment of, “Oh, wait a minute, perhaps I should pay attention.” Another day I was very tired and I was trying to manufacture this energy, and he said, “Don’t. Don’t worry about manufacturing it, just use your fatigue. Use where you’re at right now.” Which is wonderful advice for any young actor learning how to act on camera.

THR: You’re sort of quasi-British.

Burton: I do have dual citizenship. If I’m with a British person I morph into Briticisms. I made a very concerted decision to go to drama school in the United States. But I did have the opportunity to go to Britain’s Central School of Speech and Drama, and my dad and I had a few tense words about that. He wanted me to go to British drama school. He thought that I would get a different kind of training. Meanwhile, my dad never went to drama school. So I was like, “What? Get out.” But I do wonder to myself sometimes, “What would it have been like had I gone to school in Britain?”

THR: You need an alternate reality series.

Burton: I know, I need an alternate reality Kate Burton episode.

THR: Guesting is great for TV. You see lots of famous actors and actresses of a certain age cleaning up bigtime.

Burton: I love coming onto a well-oiled machine, meeting the cast. I did four or five Law and Orders and every time I would go, “Yay, meeting with the fantastic costume designer, going to Saks Fifth Avenue.” And because I’ve played so many legal professionals, I’ve worn more Armani than you could shake a stick at. On The Practice, I bought ten of my prosecutorial suits, and I use them all the time.

THR: Isn’t guest starring good, because it keeps you from getting typecast, and you never know what role will come up next?

Burton: There’s no rhyme nor reason. I auditioned for a show called Surgeons and my agent said, “Don’t freak out, it’s just one scene in the pilot. They don’t know what’s going to happen. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s.” My heart sank. And it ended up becoming Grey’s Anatomy. It changed my life, frankly. It put me on the map in a way that I had never been.

THR: All of this great stuff -- including Emmys -- has sprung from that moment.

Burton: It did. I had done all this theater and Broadway and been nominated for Tonys, which didn’t translate to anything out here.

THR: You just can’t know anything in this business.

KB: You just don’t.