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You don't interview Kate Mulgrew.

You get adopted by her.She wants to know about your job. ("You're a feature writer? It's hard, isn't it?")

She wants to know about your life. ("Are you in love? It's good, your marriage?")

Those earnest blue eyes lock onto yours and start searching your soul with the same intensity that her "Star Trek: Voyager" Capt. Kathryn Janeway turns on those murky galactic nebulas, eagerly seeking the secret to guiding her lost-in-space crew home.

Mulgrew leans close across the table at the busy lunchtime Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. She wants to make a real connection. Doing the inevitable publicity that surrounds anything Trek is one thing - "and it has to be done well," she adds, "because these Trekkers are a very serious bunch. They are responsible for my happiness, in a way. So whatever I say to you I want to be conveyed with great. . . ." She can't find the word, she's so intent about the feeling.

But more important: This is an hour out of her life. Why waste it? Get personal. Don't pussyfoot. When she did Tom Snyder's late-night CBS chat fest, they analyzed morality, Bible parables and their mutual Midwestern Roman Catholic upbringing. (He's from Milwaukee; she's from Dubuque, Iowa.) With NBC's comedic Conan O'Brien she joked, then acceded to his appeals that she do an Irish jig. (Their shared heritage, you know.)

"Talk-show hosts have a very high level of anxiety. Which I do not like," she says, sipping a chardonnay. "And I resent being there if I feel that anxiety. You become a character instead of a person. One way to defuse it is to say: `Are you in love?' Right? And every body stops for a minute. Then you can gauge each other."

Right? That's no space filler. She wants to make sure you're paying attention. Are you just checking questions off a list? Or are you here - human, open, curious? When you're facing Katherine Mul-grew, better be all of the above. She doesn't suffer pretenses gladly. Never has. The oldest girl in a self-described "salt of the earth" small-city Iowa family, she learned to be direct early on, when she was handed full responsibility for shepherding her younger siblings.

"My mother raised eight children. And there was no question that I would help her. And shut up about it," she says, characteristically punching out her phrases like jabs. "Nobody ever said anything. It just was. And further, there was no question that if I wanted things, I went to work. And I was working at 12 as a short-order cook. That's young. It didn't seem young."

Did Kate Mulgrew ever seem young? Even lunchtime chatter proves she's a take-charge person. Even if she is thrilled to have you along for the ride, this interview is clearly her vehicle. She's so driven, so "total."

"My mother said that to me last week," she notes. "It was my 40th birthday. And I was talking to her about the job, and she said, `Oh, Kitten. Don't you know you were total when you were 4?' " Meaning? "Passionate. All the way through."

Which she certainly is about Kathryn Janeway, "total" earth mother of the Enterprise. Oops - Voyager, of course. But Janeway's cocky cowboy stance does hark to the very foundations of "Star Trek" and the original '60s series' Enterprise captain. Like William Shatner's rash master of derring-do, Trek's first female captain is a lone ranger to some extent, certainly because her ship functions solo in uncharted space 75 light years from known territory (victim of a premiere-episode space warp), but also because Janeway's a seat-of-the-pants kind of gal. Unlike Trek's last two imperious, bridge-based commanding officers (Picard on "The Next Generation," Sisko on "Deep Space Nine"), she's a front-lines authority figure who doesn't just issue the orders but hops on down and leads the charge.

And "Trek" producers were worried about establishing a woman as their action hero! When they cast Mulgrew (after original pick Genevieve Bujold bolted two days into filming), they solved that problem instantly. Mulgrew invests Janeway with both her nurturing side and the force of her dominating personality. Like mom in a well-run loving household, she's simply in charge.

"Life is pretty good," Mulgrew declares. "I have a marvelous job. It's been a great year in my life. I've been in this business a long time. And this is a blessing. And I know it. I needed this job. I needed this character. Just a couple of weeks before I got it, I was putting my house on the market. It was a tough year for me," she says.

It had been a tough dozen-plus years, actually, after the young Kate Mulgrew had seemed like she had it made. Arriving in New York out of high school, she quickly landed in ABC's '70s soap opera "Ryan's Hope," making her mark as strong-willed city girl Mary Ryan. By the time she was 23, NBC had developed the 1979 prime-time drama "Mrs. Columbo" around her.

It was an incredible break - and a near-fatal career mistake. She was badly miscast and got personally blamed for the network's ill-conceived debacle. After tasting that early fame, she would bounce around for 15 years, grabbing a few features ("Throw Momma From the Train"), short-run TV series (ABC's "Heartbeat"), and memorable sitcom guest shots (an alcoholic newswoman on "Murphy Brown," Sam's councilwoman fling on "Cheers"). But nothing really suited Mulgrew's headstrong heart until Kathryn Janeway.

"All of this came, quite remarkably, without any of the stress and strain that usually accompanies (these things) - it's as if somebody ordained that this should be." She messed up her initial audition, by her own reckoning, but finagled another - and then Bujold walked.

"It's as in love, right? True or false? Don't we always say to each other - maybe you meet one, and if you meet two people you really adore in a lifetime, it's remarkable. The same goes for acting. It took me 40 years to find her. I've never been happier in my life. Except for the boys."

Those would be her two sons - Ian, 11, and Alec, 10. (She and their dad, stage director Robert Egan, divorced in 1993.) When it comes to her kids, Mulgrew is completely a woman of her era, caught in the middle like so many working mothers.

"It's irresolvable," she declares, shaking her head. "There is a double standard. I'm the mother. I'm not the father. We're not conditioned to accept this. My boys don't accept it. And they make no bones about it. Often they cry. It's hard to look at it," she winces.

"And then they say to me, `We don't care what your job is. We would prefer that you walk away from your job, because we need a mother.' . . . It's a form of torture. But," she adds, "I'd hazard to say to you that if I were sitting home cooking the world's perfect meat loaf every night, that in 10 years they'd still say, `You really screwed us up, Mom' . . . I mean, you just can't win."

But you can win with Kate Mulgrew. If you're candid and forthcoming, she welcomes you into her life like a family member. Ask about her feelings, and you get an instinctual response. Ask about her love life, and she'll go on about Rick Kolbe, a "Star Trek" director with whom she's now involved.

Ask away. You'll get your answers. But you'll get some questions, too. And, like mom, she'll expect answers.