February 1999, Interview by Tom Doyle
Shakespeare. Technical gobbledegook. Baldness. Beavis and Butt-head. The letter B. And another Star Trek instalment.
Zapped into space in 1987 after 21 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a respectable smattering of television and film sideline roles, when Patrick Stewart first landed the role of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek : The Next Generation, he claimed he didn't realize that to some Americans, the matter of who occupies the captain's chair on the Starship Enterprise is possibly more important than who the President is.
Still, to his credit (and possible relief considering the fevered obsessiveness of the Trekker), after 178 episodes of The Next Generation TV series and three widescreen ventures - Generations, First Contact and the latest, Insurrection - he's proved himself to be an enduring successor to the beloved James T. Kirk.
Born 58 years ago in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, the son of a military officer, Stewart suffered a strict upbringing. Worse, at 19, he completely lost his hair, bringing on insecurities that haunted his teenage years only shaken out of him after joining the Old Vic Theatre School in 1959. Over the next 28 years, before bagging the role of Picard at the age of 47, he garnered theatrical plaudits for his performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company and made appearances in weighty TV dramas such as I, Claudius and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
He now juggles his movie career (notably his roles as the villainous Dr. Jonas in Conspiracy Theory, and as Sterling, the gay interior designer in Jeffrey) and his ongoing stage career, which in the past four years alone has seen performances of his one-man adaptation of A Christmas Carol and a "photo negative production" of Othello in Washington DC where he was the only white actor in an African-American company.
Stewart has now settled in LA where he is currently building up a production company with his fiancee and former Star Trek Voyager producer Wendy Neuss.
This perfectly-enunciated English actor entertains Empire in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel on London's Park Lane on an unseasonably fine December day. In fact, upon arrival, he wedges open a French window to let the air in. Sinking into the sofa, he proves warm and self-depreciating, with a perceptibly mischievous glint in his eye.
You've said in the past that you really don't know where Captain Jean-Luc Picard starts and Patrick Stewart ends.
Yes, it's a curious experience for me as an actor because a lot of my work has been about trying to get inside individuals who are very different from me, quite extreme per- sonalities. In this case, as the years went by and we built and rounded and filled out the character of Picard, a lot of what was going into him were things that I personally cared about - issues of attitude and intellect and so forth. There were even aspects of Picard that, bit by bit, I began to to think: these are really rather excellent traits and I ought to try and take some of them on myself.
(Smiles) For instance, he's significantly more patient than I am. The ability to see somebody else's point of view has not always been one of my strongest suits. So, literally, because of him I've tried to be a little more generous in respect to seeing another person's side of things.
Did the fact that your father was a military man have any influence on the way you first approached Picard?
I think it did. When I was growing up, my father was retired from the military, but it ws a set of attitudes that he always carried with him. Certain expectations that he had and the style of who he was, I think were helpful to me - although often unconsciously. I think it was only in recent years that I've been deliberately using aspects of my father as I remember him. There are moments occasionally, particularly as I get older and nearer to looking like how he was when I most remember him, I can see him very clearly on the screen. I think he probably would've rather admired Captain Picard, though he might've thought him a bit of a softie. My father wasn't incredibly strict, but he tended to like to have things done his way.
Did losing your hair at 19 blunt your confidence?
Well, yes, certainly it made me feel very unattractive and I was convinced that women wouldn't be interested in me because of it. it felt like a handicap and I think that's one of the reasons why I threw myself into character acting. I was never a juvenile. Ever. Even when I was 19 I wasn't a juvenile.
Suddenly being bald must have been fairly handy for some of those Shakes- pearean roles though.
Well, it was. Looking back now I think I've got cause to be grateful. Instead of playing straightforward, maybe not very interesting juvenile roles, I was always playing charac- ters much older than myself. I think that that experience helped me to mature as an actor quicker than I might've done than if I'd just been playing Patrick Stewart all the time.
Have you ever been aware of any parallels between Star Trek and your Shakes- pearean work?
Oh yes. There's always been something a little heightened and almost poetic about Star Trek. There's a theatrical quality to it. You will hear a line of Star Trek dialogue and recognize it immediately in the same way that you will recognize a bit of Shakes- pearean verse. In that sense, I think one of the reasons I was very comfortable in the beginning was that there was a certain familiarity to it all. I remember one day it oc- curred to me that the bridge of the Enterprise was very much like an Elizabethan stage - forward- projecting front stage, a raised area that might be a balcony at the back and the captain's chair set firmly there in the centre, with all of that obvious resonance of a chair of state or throne.
You were never particularly a sci-fi fan, were you?
No, I was not. Because I read a lot, I'd read a number of classic sci-fi authors, but they were not books that I returned to again and again. Particularly during the seven years of the series, the last thing that I wanted to do when I went home in the evening was to re- ad science fiction. But I always made a point of seeing every sci-fi movie that came out. I mean, going right back to The War Of The Worlds, which was one of my favourite films when I was a child. Then 2001, of course, was a movie that I saw again and again when it first came out. I tell you, I'm going to be first in line for the Star Wars movie when it comes out this summer. I saw the trailer in New York the other day and it's one of the most brilliant and astonishing trailers I've ever seen. The audience was on its feet cheer- ing and yelling. But I think to date, Aliens and Blade Runner are probably my two fa- vourite sci-fi movies because they're both kind of dark and ominous.
One of the main characteristics of Star Trek is the dense technological dialo- gue. Does it ever baffle you when you first read the script?
Oh yes, it's impossible. I used to groan when I saw that I had some of that. Luckily my character didn't have to deal with much of it. But it used to frustrate Brent Spiner so much when I would simply say, Mr Data, analyse, and then he would have reams of all of this stuff. More than once I remember hearing Brent say, "Aw goddamit, analyse it yourself". I have no scientific mind whatsoever and one of the curiosities, of course, is that people somehow expect me to know about the technology of Star Trek.
You built up a friendship with Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry, a man rumoured to be very difficult. What was he really like?
He was a fascinating and extraordinary man. A curious mixture of conservatism and a profound radical attitude towards the world, which created an interesting tension in his life. He was also very physically dominating. But he was an interesting man, way outsi- de Star Trek. When we were together we hardly ever talked about Star Trek. In fact, I re- member the very first meeting that he and I had just before we started filming the pilot - ostensibly for him to talk about how he had visualised what he wanted Picard to be. He asked me, if I'd ever read any of the Horatio Hornblower novels and I said I had. And he said, "Well, I'll have a whole batch of them delivered.....Just re-read those." Then we tal- ked about golf or flying or something else.
You were in 178 episodes of The Next Generation TV series. If you were to sit and watch them now, would there be vast chunks that you just wouldn't re- member doing?
Oh, undoubtedly. From time to time, either in a hotel room or at home, I'll be flipping channels and - bang! -there we are in the middle of a Next Generation episode. And again and again, it connects in no way with anything that I can remember. I've sat down and watched episodes where I simply didn't know what was gonna happen next. There are probably only half-a-dozen episodes that really stand out in my mind. Doing 26, 28 episodes a season, there were even times when we'd end an episode on one set at three o'clock in the afternoon, walk across the street to another set on another sound stage and start the next episode. There'd be another director there waiting to rehearse the scene and you would simply segue from one to another.
Were there moments when you just despaired?
Yes, there were, and it seems ungracious to admit that - given that I was so lucky to be doing this work, but there were times when it felt like a beautiful velvet trap that I was in. Around the fifth or sixth season, there were times when I honestly felt that I'd been doing it forever and it would never be over.
Your role as Dr. Jonas in Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory was liken to Laurence Olivier's character in Marathon Man. Were you happy with the com- parison?
No, I've got to tell you, it was a deep source of irritation to me that in the British press, reviewer after reviewer mentioned Marathon Man and Laurence Olivier. None of us had ever made that kind of reference at all. It was the fact that I was a British actor playing a bad guy torturing somebody in an American movie and that I wore glasses. So when those first references were made, I didn't get it, and then I began to see how there was a certain similarity. But the inference that I had somehow stolen most of these ideas from him was quite irritating.
Your supremely camp performance as Sterling in Jeffrey actually sparked ru- mours about your own sexuality, didn't it?
Well, yes, but I was very flattered by those rumours. For one thing, it was a sense that there was a certain amount of conviction in what I'd done in the role, even though there were protests that they hadn't got a gay actor to play him. So the fact that it was per- ceived to be that convincing was very gratifying to me. One of the best compliments I've ever been paid was one day soon after the movie had been released and I was driving down one of the boulevards on Los Angeles. A convertible pulled up alongside me with four guys in it, they sounded the horn, I looked to my left and all four of them said in unison, "Thank you, thank you".
Still addicted to Bevis and Butt-head?
Oh, yes, my passion for them remains the same. In fact, I had to do a deal with my fiancee the other night while flipping channels. I was permitted to watch one entire episode. I think it's one of the most original and brilliant pieces of television that we've seen in recent years. The dialogue is delightful. I simply sit and giggle and laugh all the time. Of course, they did do a Star Trek episode, which was very flattering. I also love the Simpsons, which I made a guest appearance on as the leader of The Stone Men, a sort of take-off on the Masons. Actually, I think my appearance in The Simpsons and an appearance that I did on Sesame Street - in praise of the letter B - were perhaps the two most distinguished bits of work that I've done in the United States.