As Patrick Stewart prepares once again to star in X-Men, he talks to Ed Pilkington about new love, success on Broadway, his phenomenal Twitter following and growing old with his best friend Ian McKellen
If I were a Trekkie, as opposed to someone who enjoyed Star Trek but was never a true devotee, I would surely have died and gone to heaven early on in my lunch with Patrick Stewart. Or, as a Trekkie might put it, I would have beamed up to the pleasure planet Risa, 90 light years from the Sol system, where the weather is always perfect, the beaches always immaculate, and love forever free.
Our lunch ascends to Star Trek nirvana when we are barely into the 15th minute of our almost two-hour conversation. We are musing about the surprising linguistic affinities between Treknobabble and Shakespearean iambic pentameter – both of which Stewart is fluent in, having spent sizeable chunks of his five decades in acting immersed in them. "There are lots of similarities," he says.
Then, with a mischievous glint in his eye, Stewart leans his famously bald pate towards me, over our dishes of Cobb salad, and says: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, its continuing mission to seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before." "You see! It has a poetic flow!" he exclaims, before adding quickly: "I swear to you, I haven't said those words for years and years and years. I wasn't sure I'd remember them." (I don't have the heart to tell him that he has actually got it slightly wrong and forgotten an important clause of Star Trek mission – "to explore strange new worlds".)
How to explain Stewart's rare slip back into the voice of the Starfleet captain? Perhaps he's relaxed because he's on home turf. We meet in one of the nicer restaurants in Brooklyn, close to his New York home. When I turn up early I am ushered to "Mr Stewart's regular table", located discreetly at the back. Stewart sweeps in precisely at the allotted hour, dressed all in black and disguised only by a working man's flat cap. He shakes my hand firmly and looks me straight in the eye. Not for the only time in our encounter he makes me think of a military officer.
The other possible explanation for Stewart's revival of Picard in front of an audience of one is that he seems to be in right royal good spirits. And why wouldn't he be? As he approaches his 74th birthday, he is firing on all cylinders. Far from showing any signs of engine fatigue, for the lad from Mirfield, West Yorkshire, life and work just seem to get better and better. In September he married his third wife, singer-songwriter Sunny Ozell, and they live in a converted carriage house in the heart of Park Slope, one of Brooklyn's most fashionable neighbourhoods. And he's just come off a critically acclaimed double run on Broadway of No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot with his bestie Ian McKellen, who officiated at their wedding.
The two actors are reunited this month in the new X-Men movie, Days of Future Past; and Stewart also appears in an indie film called Match which premiered at the Tribeca film festival. If that's not enough, just as we're finishing up our salads, the news breaks that he is to star in a 20-episode series of half-hour TV comedies conceived by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane. Did I omit to say that in the past 18 months he's erupted into a global Twitter phenomenon, with 1.2m followers? (A halloween Twitpic of him dressed as a red lobster lying in the bath was retweeted 40,000 times.)
With all that to go at, it's hard to know where to begin. Might as well launch straight in with the unlikely parallels between Star Trek, the vehicle that propelled him to fame, and his ongoing love affair with Shakespeare. A few weeks into shooting Star Trek: Next Generation Stewart had a eureka moment. He was sitting in the captain's chair in the bridge of the starship Enterprise when he suddenly saw himself back in his old milieu: "I realised that the set actually represented very much an Elizabethan stage, with the main acting area in the centre front, a raised area at the back, two vomitoria entrances low down. It was classic."
At 47, Stewart already had an accomplished career behind him with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but was unknown in Hollywood when one of the Star Trek producers saw him at a Shakespeare workshop at UCLA. "I'd never seen myself especially as a film or television actor, let alone sci-fi," says Stewart. "I went to LA to do it after I was assured the six-year contract I signed would never be called upon to be met; I was convinced we wouldn't even make it through the first season." Seven seasons, 178 episodes, four feature films and plenty of Spandex later, Stewart emerged, to his own astonishment, as a Hollywood superstar.
The exceptional quality about Stewart's work is that he has managed to keep his profile high in the film firmament while at the same time growing and deepening a distinguished theatrical career. Few other actors come to mind who have pulled off such a juggling act. Yes, the Ethan Hawkes and Denzel Washingtons may dabble with Broadway, but Patrick Stewart is one of a rare breed that can neither be called a film star or a stage actor – because he is both.
I wonder aloud whether it's more than coincidental, that perhaps there's something to the classical British thespian training that he enjoyed that produces actors peculiarly equipped to excel across stage and screen. Stewart eagerly concurs. "I absolutely believe that's what it is. It's a feeling for language, a feeling for drama that is something a little more than totally naturalistic. I use this word a lot: 'heightened'."
He expresses his gratitude to the retired Old Vic actor who trained him between the ages of 12 and 17, and to Peter Hall, John Barton and Trevor Nunn at whose feet he sat when he joined the RSC, in awe at "their immense knowledge and experience of Shakespearean language. I never knew you could speak Shakespeare in a way that was totally spontaneous and poetic at the same time." He likens himself to a Leeds United football player in Don Revie's day. "He had trained those buggers so intensely throughout the week that at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon those 11 players would run on to the pitch totally liberated, free to do what they wanted to do, having done the work."
As further evidence that none of this is coincidental, the other great straddler between theatre and franchise films is none other than Stewart's best friend, Ian McKellen. That the two knighted British actors have forged a deep friendship is abundantly clear from Stewart's effervescent Twitter feed. To mark their Broadway double-act last autumn they instigated the Twitter equivalent of a riot, taking selfies in iconic NYC places – the top of the Empire State Building, on the boardwalk in Coney Island – wearing Godot-esque bowler hats and looking more than a little deranged. What booms out of the photos is how much fun they are having in each other's company.
The bromance returns with X-Men: Days of Future Past. This time, the two thespian lions are allies both on and off the camera. In previous X-Men films, Stewart's character, Professor Charles Xavier, has been at loggerheads with McKellen's Magneto. The two characters are both mutants, but they occupy opposing political extremes. Xavier is the moderate negotiator who prefers talk over battle; Magneto is a fighter and revolutionary. But in Days of Future Past the two are thrown on to the same side by the common threat of enemy machines.
"When the film begins we are in a situation where Xavier has had to decide that force is the only way forward," Stewart says. "He is pushed into Magneto's camp and they become collaborators. We are dealing with machines and not human beings, so argument, persuasion, is no longer an option."
We are at a disadvantage to dig much deeper with X-Men, given that the 11th-hour final production work on the film means neither of us has yet seen it. But we can stick with the theme of persuasion versus force as it also runs through Stewart's second new film this spring, Match – an intimate, touching portrait set in Manhattan of a gay, dope-smoking, knitting, TV soap-watching and rather lonely classical ballet teacher called Tobi, who has an encounter with a married couple, strangers who as the narrative unfolds require him to confront the choices of his past. Stewart is stupendous, displaying a breathtaking range of emotional shades and dramatic tones. He is funny one minute, enraged the next, then cathartic and profoundly moving.
I ask him how he managed to capture so convincingly the historic conflicts Tobi wrestles with – such as the character's decision to devote his life to career and as a result forego having a child. "For many years I was making choices like that every day," he says, referring to his relationship with his children, Daniel and Sophia, by his first wife Sheila Falconer. "As my responsibilities in the theatre grew, I was gone from nine in the morning until midnight. I was an absentee father, largely, and there was a price to be paid for that down the road." He actively channelled such emotional conflicts into conjuring up Tobi. "Actors, we have this thing called a 'sense memory' which we draw on for particularly emotional moments. We have these things stored away in a vault and we can draw them out when we need to."
Like a filing cabinet of emotions, I suggest.
"That's right. That was part of my training at Bristol Old Vic theatre school. We were taught how to store emotions. It means no experience is ever wasted."
If the regret of being an absentee dad has provided him with a valuable emotional file or two, then his relationship with his own father must have filled the sense memory equivalent of the NSA's mass surveillance database in Utah. Alfred Stewart, a regimental sergeant major in the British army, was a troubled soul who, after retiring from the armed forces, suffered post traumatic stress disorder. At weekends it came bursting out in drunken assaults on his wife, Gladys.
The sense memory is all too viscerally visible here. At one of the pivotal moments in Match, Tobi places himself physically between the married strangers, played by Matthew Lillard and Carla Gugino, acting as a human shield. "Don't take another step! Not another step!" Tobi bellows at the husband, who is poised to strike his wife. It's an astonishing moment. Stewart unleashes himself with such explosive charge that the whole cinema feels as though it is quaking.
I remind Stewart of that point in the film, and of the haunting piece he wrote for the Guardian in 2009 in which he describes his father's domestic violence through his then child's eyes. "I knew exactly when the shouting was done and a hand was about to be raised – I also knew exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and her face, a skill no child should ever learn." It's the same incident, I remark. He pauses for a second, and then says only this: "You reach a choice moment where you say, 'That's enough. I'm not going to be a spectator in this any more.'"
The paradox about Stewart's fraught relationship with his father, who used to mock his son's fondness for theatre remorselessly, is that he's come to appreciate over the years how much he is in his father's debt in terms of his acting career. Take Picard and Xavier. Both of them stand for non-violence and peace and, as such, are arguably polar opposites to Alfred. But both of them are leaders, commanders –very much in Alfred's military mould.
"It's a source of sadness to me that my father never lived to see me do Star Trek," he says. "Because he would have approved of what I was doing and how I used the role. I mean, books have been written about Picard's command style. It's taught in the military academy!"
It sounds like there will be more than a sprinkling of Alfred Stewart in Patrick's new adventure, Blunt Talk – the upcoming Seth MacFarlane comedy series that will be broadcast on Starz next year. Stewart will play Walter Blunt, a working-class lad from the north of England with a military background and a career in TV news who gets shipped off to LA to front a cable news programme called Blunt Talk.
"You are going to think right away about Piers Morgan, but you mustn't!" Stewart says emphatically. "When we meet Blunt his show is no longer doing well, the numbers are dreadful and his career is in crisis." OK, now I am thinking Piers Morgan. Can't help it. "He just keeps falling into these tailspins. One after another. It's completely realistic and truthful. This is not a gag show, it's not one-liners. It's single camera on film – we'll be making a half-hour movie every six days."
With all that ahead, I say, he's not coming home to the UK any time soon. Stewart responds that he has a lovely house in Britain that he adores, and that he intends to spend as much time as possible in the mother country. But on this point he is resolute: "I am a resident of the United States."
He has even, he says, started for the first time thinking seriously about taking up American citizenship. It's partly the recent marriage to Ozell and how embraced he feels by her family. And it's partly a sense of political frustration at not having a vote in America. "It's long overdue," he says. "There's only so much I can do, only so much I can comment on."
Before we polish off the salads, I ask Stewart whether he ever fears, in those dark hours, that all the cornucopia, the largesse, the riches of his life that seem to just keep on giving will one day dry up. "I don't have those kind of dark hours, except where health is concerned," he says. "I've had two major scares in the past 10 years – one with heart, one with cancer – both of them taken care of." We both, in unison, start knocking on wood.
And then, as the waiter clears away our plates, Patrick Stewart launches into one final tale, this one about McKellen and how, as they waited for the curtain to go up for No Man's Land, they would moan and moan about their ailments. "Nobody would believe it. Here were Magneto and Charles Xavier, these power-houses, griping about their aches and pains."
He recalls one particular performance when Sir Ian and Sir Patrick, giants of the English stage, were sitting behind the curtain just before the start. "Ian was telling me about his experience with catheters. The call came: "We're going up!" The curtain rose, the lights went on, and we were both chuckling about catheters. That made for a slightly different show."
X-Men: Days of Future Past is released on 22 May
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