February 1999, Interview by Jeff Craig
Rebel with a cause...
To have influence as the captain of Star Trek's USS Enterprise is one thing; to wield power as the actor who plays him is something else entirely. Yet this is exactly where Patrick Stewart finds himself, having donned the uniform of Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard for more than a decade.
Disappointed with Generations, the first outing for the Star Trek : The Next Generation posse, and wanting to veer dramatically away from the heavy action-film tone of the last Trek movie, First Contact, Stewart presented firm conditions before agreeing to star in Star Trek : Insurrection, the ninth instalment in the Trek film series.
Not only was the British stage actor made the film's associate producer, but he vetoed several earlier drafts of the script, by Michael Piller, before agreeing to his rumoured $12 million pay cheque and profit bonuses. Stewart's credo? Out with the Borg; in with the babes.
"I wanted to see Jean-Luc Picard have strong feelings and tap into his pas- sions," Stewart says, sipping coffee in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverley Hills."To hell with the captain's mental torment. I thought we should have less action, more humour. I was intrigued with the idea of making this film lighter, so that fans years from now can say, 'Oh, yes, Star Trek IX. That was the funny, sexy one.' "
More diminutive in person than you'd think from his larger-than-life on-screen persona, Stewart is also a lot quieter and thoughtful. But when he speaks, his regal baritone is so, well, engaging that nearly all of his sentences could warrant a spontaneous little burst of applause all their own.
"In the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard only had sex twice," Stewart quips. "His predecessor, Kirk, was a regular Casanova. He had a babe in every galaxy. I personally like to think Picard had a very active sex life. I can't believe the captain just read Shakespeare up there in his room all those years."
"I spent most of the first movie being kind of depressed. I thought it was centre- less. It didn't have a character locking the thing together. In the time I've had to reflect on the screen stature that Picard had in that film, I must say I'm not altogether happy with it. I thought that the storyline and the emotional line in Generations was, in fact, much closer to the kind of thing we would have deve- loped in one of our episodes, rather than something that should be filling a much bigger screen of a feature film."
In the more recent First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise ws pitted against the most popular villains yet in the Star Trek legacy: the robotic, ruthlessly-assimilating Borg. Directed by co-star Jonathan Frakes, it evolved into one of the highest-grossingTrek movies ever.
"It was a very, very good story," Stewart says. "Much stronger than the first. But they were two pretty intense movies. After a lot of analysis of what was well done and what was less well done, I think we all agreed we didn't want to go down that road any more."
In Insurrection, the Enterprise is drawn to a beautiful, remote planet populated by a small group of technology-eschewing people called the Ba'ku, whose secret of eternal youth is coveted by a nasty race called the Son'a - who strangely enjoy an alliance with Starfleet Command.
Enamoured of the Ba'ku, Picard takes up arms in defence - in support of the fabled Prime Directive, and in direct conflict with Starfleet. Along the way, he falls in love with one of the Ba'ku women.
"I don't like the idea of Picard being righteous, because that's just a step away from being self-righteous," Stewart says. "I wanted scenes in this movie that would make him look a bit foolish and a bit more vulnerable. It was a conscious and deliberate decision of mine to make Picard lighter this time."
Originally, Stewart and Tony Award-winning actress Donna Murphy, who plays Picard's amour Anij, filmed two kissing scenes. "They were the perfect pay-off to the rela- tionship," Stewart remembers. But executives at Paramount didn't agree and ordered them cut from the final print. "I was yelling and kicking and screaming about that," Stewart says angrily "I'm still irritated."
Neither Stewart, director Frakes, nor producer Berman has a definitive answer on why the studio heads don't want Picard participating in love scenes. "It's the same guys who cut the kiss I had with Alfre Woodard in Star Trek: First Contact," bemoans Stewart.
Another talky scene between Stewart and Murphy was also trimmed against the wishes of Stewart, Frakes and Berman.
"They were looking to take a big chunk out of it," remembers the actor, visibly annoyed and rolling his eyes. "They get very uneasy when they think scenes are going on too long. I never quite understood that. With The Next Generation, we've always tried to overestimate our audience. You treat an audience as though they're really smart and, damn it, they'll behave like a smart audience. Treat them as stupid and they'll be stupid. What's more they probably won't come and see your work at all. And there's too much of that in popular entertainment."
Aside from the excised kisses, Stewart proclaims the film..."we talked about for the most part is present. I think we took the script and put it on the screen very effectively."
Besides, he says, there's a good chance that the storyline in Insurrection will be continued in a subsequent film. "I'm confident we have one more feature in us and I think it should be an actual sequel to this one; not just so Donna Murphy and I can finally have our kiss, but because the story really isn't over," he says.
Stewart thinks there should be at least a three-year gap before the next flick, however, instead of the now-standard two. "I always thought we should take a little longer break," he says. "To create a bit of an appetite for the movies. My hope is that the phenomenal success of The Phantom Menace will only intensify the interest in seeing another Star Trek movie. I think there's a possibility for another good one in us. I look at us up on screen and it seems to me that we're all in pretty good shape."
Stewart has sometimes been the target of unfavourable press - in particular, a rather scathing unauthorized biography - whenever he voiced his candid complaints about The Next Generation series, but he's unapologetic about being so vocal.
"I speak my mind about all the work I've been involved with. There have been times when I've perhaps been too public with opinions that should have been expressed privately. But, as far as the series was concerned, I was always very proud of it. Often, when I got into trouble, it was because I was defending the show. I felt it had certain standards I didn't want to see undermined. But there was never a point when I tried to leave, despite popular opinion."
After seven seasons, however, Paramount decided to cancel Next Generation in favour of a sparkling new film franchise. Stewart was glad they made the move. "I was very happy to see the series end," he admits. "It had reached the point where I felt I had given it just about everything I could."
Amongst his lasting favourite episodes were the two-hour finale, All Good Things..., Offspring and The Inner Light.
"My feeling," he adds, "is that everyone should be happy that The Next Gener- ation ended when it did because I think that to sustain the standard any longer would have been increasingly difficult and all of us - cast, producers, as well as fans - would have ben miserable if we had found ourselves making second-rate Star Trek television. Besides, I was getting anxious to move on. And some things I never expected to be able to pursue, I have because of the success of Star Trek."
"I started preparing for the end of the series by creating solo stage shows for myself, which meant I could literally throw everything in the trunk of my car and drive to college campuses on weekends, get myself on stage and keep those muscles exercised.
I wanted to find material that would put as much distance between me and Star Trek as possible. Not because I'm ashamed or uncomfortable with Star trek. On the contrary, I'm very proud of everything we've done. But I knew it was going to be tough to free myself from the benevolent clutches of Captain Jean-Luc Picard."
The danger of being so readily identified with TNG's much loved captain became clear to Stewart one night the Summer after The Next Generation finished its run. Performing as Prospero in an outdoor performance of The Tempest in New York City's central Park, Stewart says, "I made the mistake of tugging on the front of my doublet. There was an instantaneous burst of laughter. I was very careful never to do that again."
But on balance, the actor believes that the character that made him famous won't interfere with his career. "When I first walk in front of the camera," he says. "They'll say, 'Ah, Jean-Luc, we recognize him, despite the charming little mous- tache', but I believe audiences are smart enough to let go of that pretty quickly. Also, that's my job as an actor : to persuade them that, you know, Jean- Luc Picard is left behind and this is someone entirely different."
Breaking convention and, indeed, expectation is something Stewart relishes. His first post Star Trek movie role was as the flamboyantly gay New Yorker in the independent flick Jeffrey, which attracted attention purely because it was Stewart's first post Picard outing. The actor, however, reckons it succeeded in shattering any sense of stereoty- ping. "It distanced me as much as possible from the good captain," Stewart said at the time. "A bitchy New York queen."
For the romantic comedy Let It Be Me, Stewart donned both an American accent and a wig in the role of a homeless ballroom dance instructor. He returned to the captain's chair, of course, for Star Trek: first Contact, but quickly jumped genres again and took well-received roles as nasty villains in the 1997 Summer action pictures Conspiracy Theory (opposite Mel Gibson) and Masterminds.
More recently, Stewart starred in a critically praised four-hour TV mini-series adaptation of Moby Dick, indie bank robber flick Dad Savage and contributed his noble tones to Dreamworks' animated adventure Prince Of Egypt. On stage, the actor also completed an acclaimed run in Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan in New York.
"I've had four and a half very happy and interesting years," Stewart says. "It's been very diverse. Real challenges stretching roles."
Through it all, interestingly, Stewart has managed to avoid being tabloid fodder common to such stars. In interviews, he firmly resists talking about his personal life and won't discuss his fiancee - rumoured to be his first serious relationship since divorcing his wife of 24 years, Sheila Falconer, in 1990.
Stewart will admit, however, that he's looking to make New York his home. "I've been a gypsy for a number of years (splitting time between homes in England and Hollywood) and I'm beginning to find it tiresome."
Something else surprising about the thespian is that, despite his lengthy association with The Royal Shakespeare Company, he's not the culture snob you'd expect. In fact, Patrick Stewart takes quite a ribbing from friends over his love of the now defunct MTV cartoon Beavis and Butt-head...
"They make me laugh like a drain," says Stewart, who admits freely that he thinks he's probably "got the biggest collection of Beavis and Butt-head memorabilia on the West Coast." "I went to school with those guys," Stewart has said in numerous interviews. "Just a shake of the dice, and I could have been in the English version."
In the new Star Trek flick, Stewart's Picard has a lengthy scene with Worf and Data in which they sing"A British Tar" from Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. Again, to some surprise, it's not Stewart's cup of tea.
"I'm sorry, but I really don't like Gilbert & Sullivan," he says, shaking his head between his hands. "It's like the Marx Brothers. I've tried but I just don't get it."
It turns out the overgrown kid who'd be a larger-than-life starship captain would much rather ride giant roller coasters - "It's been too long since I've been on one." - or play one of his favourite video games than tread the spaces between the stars.
Not that he's likely to have much time in the near future. In the coming year, Stewart plans to film a full-cast version of A Christmas Carol and is in talks to star as Prof. X in the forthcoming X-Men film. "I haven't seen a script, but I've had discussions with the director Bryan Singer," he says.
"I have many long-term plans for theatre work that I'd like to see happen over the next five or six years or even ten years. Usually, I plan six months in ad- vance for theatre projects, but it's a difficult situation because films tend to come up on fairly short notice. Moby Dick was an exception, where I had ten months' advance notice. Sometimes theatre work presents problems when film projects come up, so I've tried to keep a balance between my theatre work and film projects."
The actor has also begun work as a producer, establishing his Flying Freehold Prods at the Paramount home of Star Trek. His company, helmed by former Voyager and Next Generation producer Wendy Neuss, is searching for scripts with both wide commercial appeal and smaller works from first time writers, for Stewart to not necessarily star in, but to produce and direct.
"Writers are the cornerstone and substance of our plans," Stewart says. "My career has been built around a writer dominant philosophy and that is how it will be at Flying Freehold."
If anything, Stewart says, this diverse work makes coming back to Jean-Luc Picard a pleasure. "Yes, definitely," he says. "It's like they say; sometimes the best thing for a marriage is an affair. I spent four months of this year back in the good captain's skin, and I'm very content at how that feels."
"It embarrasses me a little to say it, but I truly no longer know where I begin and he leaves off. A lot of me has gone into this man, and there are some aspects of him - such as being a capable listener - that I've tried to absorb myself."
After more than a decade of playing Picard, however, the actor says his lasting fear is of the character getting stale and predictable. This is why he's so eager to flex whatever power his fame has given him to promote his ideals. "My worst horror is to find my- self just going through the motions," he says. "If that were to happen it would be like a death."
As for the current series - Deep Space Nine is in it's final season and Voyager will become the sole Trek series in production after Spring 1999 - Stewart pays little attention. Just as he doesn't like to involve himself in the marketing aspect of Star Trek - which he considers a sort of necessary evil, acknowledging the fact the series is a huge licence-to-print-money behemoth.
"We know why the product has got to be out there. This is a huge money-ma- king franchise," he says. "I feel the same way about all this millennium talk. I find it hard to get up any enthusiasm at all about the millennium. It seems to me that it's a merchandising project."
Voyager - indeed, any series that follows it - won't be able to succeed on the marquee value of Star Trek alone, Stewart predicts. "The key is in the stories,"he says. "A lot of very, very hard work will have to be done to find the right stories and tell them in the right manner."
So don't look for Picard to beam in for a guest spot on Voyager. However, the actor hasn't ruled out moving from the captain's chair to the director's chair for at least one episode, having previously directed some episodes of The Next Generation.
"I'm looking for an opportunity to direct an episode, should that occur," he says. "But I'm not interested in directing a feature. I want to direct some theatre. I'd be happy to direct some more TV and TV movies. But these are not the kind of films I want to direct."
His feelings about his on-going relationship with Star Trek, however, remain strong. "I'm committed to this," he says. "I believe there's another good film with this cast and I'm committed to keeping the standard as high as possible."
But there will come a time, Stewart believes - whether it's after the next film or two more - that Picard's retirement will come.
"I think we should pass the mantle on to the Deep Space Nine characters," he says. "We don't want to become The Rolling Stones of the Star Trek films."