Our mutant friend.
Before his meteoric rise to fame in Star Trek, Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart was best known for his role as the nasty Roman Sejanus in I Claudius. Now with two action dolls in his image, a lead role in the blockbuster smash X-Men and a sequel in the offing, the sky is indeed the limit for this Yorkshire thesp.


Patrick Stewart is imperiousness itself. Dressed in black, and with the looming presence of a Shakespearean villain sizing you up for the grave, he's designed by God to fill a room. That great domed skull of his captures the attention, but it's his voice - half velvet and half like the clip of a stiletto - that puts you in your place. It makes him sound a little like a murderous public school teacher; menacing, an erudite voice of authority that isn't to be messed with.

He's seated impeccably - back straight, legs straight, hands folded in his lap - in a suite on the second floor of the Dorchester Hotel in London's Park Lane. The suite comes courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind his latest movie X-Men, complete with flunkeys. Lots of them. Mostly young Aryan press relations people. And one of them is on the timorous receiving end of that voice. "Just keep the coffee coming, sweetie, that's all I ask," Stewart intones as if he had that moment stepped from the rehearsal stage to cut up rough on some daft young theatrical type.

"Yes, Patrick," she simpers, and then returns, before she could have even found a jar of Nescafe, with a fresh brew in a shiny china cup. He's just back from an early morning stint on the Big Breakfast and isn't feeling too robust this morning, apparently. In fact he looks a little like a gothic Donald Dewar. All crow-like and bony angles.

"Keep the coffee coming, sweetie". It sounds a bit familiar. In tone at least, he could have been back in the character of Jean Luc Picard, the skipper of the Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The order to the willing PR girl sounds like nothing so much as Picard's by now care-worn catchphrase, "Make It So". His voice says do it, and don't mess around, 'cos I say so. And people seem to agree. On the screen, and in the over-patterned suite in the Dorchester, the common folk positively leap to obey this balding 60-year-old Yorkshire chap.

Please note that Stewart, regardless of his roots, would not be suited to a voice-over for Last Of The Summer Wine. Think Richard Burton doing the epilogue of Zulu instead. Stewart has almost invented a new verb tense in the way he utters commands. At best it should be called the Biblical Imperative; a little like the sound of Moses coming down from the mount after a hard day with Jehovah and demanding his lunch. You've just got to do what he says; there seems no alternative. "Bring me coffee, PR girl ... Make it so."

Given his presence, it is unsurprising that despite a career which has seen Stewart playing hundreds of characters - the evil, the good, the troubled, the mad, the ordinary - he is becoming somewhat typecast as the paternalistic leader. There was Picard, and now there is Professor Charles Xavier, the head of the X-Men and another of those commanding guv'nors - again in Sci-Fi land - that Stewart shifts into so easily. He seems to wear their spacey jump-suits as comfortably as the Gucci loafers he's shod in now. Perhaps that's because they are so close in type to his own character. Not that he scoots about in a chrome wheelchair like the Professor, nor does he man the bridge of the pride of Starfleet a la Picard, but these authoritative, rod-of-iron heroes are strangely similar - to each other and him.

Or maybe they are more like his father, Alfred. Stewart's sense of pride, dignity and what makes a man a man is cast straight from his father's image. There's a long silence while he tries to find the words to describe this person, a man of the Thirties who endured a brutal life and raised his son in the harsh but loving environment of a working-class home near the Yorkshire pitheads. "He was a critical influence on my life. In fact he was the first star I ever met, only I didn't realise it then," Stewart announces. You half expect him to bow before the curtain when he finishes a sentence, so Shakespearean is his diction. Not a bad cover-up job for a lad from the Dales.

"He was a soldier. By the time he was demobbed in 1945, he'd risen to be the regimental sergeant major of the Parachute Regiment. Which in those days made you a superstar in the army if you were working class. He jumped twice into occupied Europe. It was his re-telling of his war stories that gave me my first taste of the dramatic. He was an instinctive story-teller.

"I was in Madame Tussauds the other day, looking at a model of myself, and as I found myself walking around 'me' I realised I was walking around my father. Physically, I resemble him more and more. He was a formidable man, he was disciplined and he was ambitious." Stewart hints at been driven to succeed by a need for his father's approval. "He was never really interested in the fact that I was an actor, but he got interested when I became famous. He liked meeting famous people and he'd travel miles to watch me perform all over the country. So I knew in the end he was proud of me.

"He died before my career really took off in America, and I regret that he didn't get to see what a life-changing event that good fortune was for me."

His father didn't just provide him with a template for heroism. The man also gave him an understanding of who the villains in this world are. "All my life I've had an obsession with the underdog, with unfairness and with power being used against the ordinary person," he says, and then by way of explanation adds that he's a life-long member of Amnesty International.

"I joined Amnesty in the late Sixties when a group of Greek actors were jailed by the military dictatorship there. I was shocked. These people were rehearsing an ancient Greek tragedy and here they were in prison. I thought 'That could be me'. I'd never looked beyond my small world of acting and ambition before. My father is from Jarrow. So I grew up with the hunger marches, the General Strike, the horrible conditions of the shipyards and my dad's teenage years in the pits as part of my cultural inheritance."

So he obviously sits a little uneasy in the mendacious hell-hole that is Hollywood. For it's lies, lies and more lies that really riles Stewart's autocratic wrath. And Tinsel Town is built on fibs. "I was lucky. I got to Hollywood late - I was 47 and had been an actor all my life - and was mature enough to see the place for what it is. The anger it raises in me matches what my father taught me: don't lie and do the right thing. It means I can be a little outspoken at times." And indeed he is famous for tearing Hollywood suits off a strip if they monkey around with his work.

Until Picard, Stewart was probably most famous for his role as the sadistic Roman soldier, Sejanus, in the BBC's acclaimed I Claudius series. "I had no expectation or ambition of going to Hollywood," he says. "It's not that I saw it as downmarket or that I doubted I could do it, it just seemed so beyond my horizons, I felt it wasn't going to happen to me, so why try?" He didn't have to try. By his own admission, his rise to superstardom - he closed a $12 million deal to star in Star Trek: Insurrection - was a "fluke, a freak, serendipity at the extreme". While giving a few lectures on drama at Californian universities, one of Star Trek's producers saw the imposing figure of this Royal Shakespeare Company member on stage, turned to his wife and said: "I think we've found the new captain."

"It was a bit weird being a Shakespearean actor working on Star Trek, but I brought the same dedication to it as I did to the RSC. Just make it the best and work hard," he explains. He constantly plagued Gene Roddenberry, the programme's legendary creator, with maddening midnight phone-calls querying scripts and character. "I think he sometimes wondered what the hell he had done hiring me, but in the end he knew that I cared about making the series as good as he did."

Stewart was driven to succeed by a catty aside from a bitchy columnist who dismissed the new captain as "an unknown British Shakespearean actor". Another remark, by an unnamed British producer, just before he left for America, also did its bit to focus his mind on success. "We were doing Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? and I was playing the lead. We needed to get the female lead cast and the producer wanted some big-named actress. He said: 'We need someone in this play who the public have heard of'. I thought 'Ouch. Is that what my career has come to? A commercial ailure?' I thought I'd better change that."

In 1994, when the final series of Star Trek: Next Generation was in the can, Stewart, with all his doubts and detractors dead in the water, was all set for a triumphal return to Britain. "I'd always had this fantasy of returning home on the QE2. I was just getting on board when a messenger arrived with a script for the first Star Trek movie. I didn't read it until I was two days into the voyage and it was great. So I disembarked at Southampton and flew right back to the States. I've been there ever since," he grimaces. Although what he's got to girn about is anyone's guess. His own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame and being voted sexiest man on television should make even the dourest of Yorkshireman smile.

"I suppose I get a little down when I wake up every morning and realise I'm an alien in a foreign land," Stewart adds, without any thought that the metaphor is just a little bit too Star Trekky. "I'm a Brit actor and I'll always be that. Part of my current discontent is that the clock is ticking and there are so many roles I haven't played." With these intimations of mortality fluttering over his head, he's planning a return to the stage. "I've done Othello - but I'll never play Hamlet, which is a source of much frustration as I feel able to play him now - but I still have Lear and the Scottish play left to do," he says, again without a flicker of awareness that this time he may sound just too luvvie for words.

His passion to play Lear may yet come true. He's producing Boss Lear, a version of the tragedy set in Texas in the 1870s. He was initially developing the part for his octogenarian buddy Gregory Peck, no less, but the distinguished star from Hollywood's golden era had to pull out, for reasons unclear. Stewart is now being cajoled and charmed into playing the part himself. He seems taken with the idea and has a twinkle in his eye about it - it is after all about as gutsy as roles come and will make a healthy change from his caring-but-firm line in heroes. "I love the parts the audience don't remember me for," he says. "I'd much sooner spend half an hour with that murderous Roman Sejanus than a whole day with Jean Luc Picard."

There is just a hint of the pompous about Stewart, but in an entirely pleasing fashion. It's not arrogant or insulting, just a little too self-aware. When I ask him what it's like being a toy - there are now dolls made in his likeness of Picard and the Professor - he looks terribly serious. "I'd much rather you referred to them as action figures. It's a little more dignified. I actually demanded the first Professor figure be withdrawn as the likeness was so poor. That's now made it something of a collectors' item. Being an action figure made me laugh at first because an icon was so far from the world I'd been living in in England. But that's Hollywood. Star Trek and now the X-Men are franchises. They make money. That's the point."

Stewart isn't averse to racking in cash, however. This Christmas, Channel Four's flagship programme will be Stewart's version of A Christmas Carol. From X-Men to Xmas, if you like.

Although admitting he has no knowledge of pop culture or comic books, he and the rest of the X-Men, have signed up for a sequel already. "The only criticism I have of the X-Men is that it's too short. It feels like a trailer. You get to know the characters and then it's over. It's like an elaborate rehearsal for the next film." He does also have a disturbing yearning to play the Mekon, the evil alien baldy who fought Dan Dare in the Fifties Eagle comic.

The only time Stewart seems to play fast and loose with the truth is when he's asked what his time in Hollywood has cost him. What's the sacrifice? All he will admit to is that he's fallen out of touch with friends, he gets awful phone calls now and again from England telling him pals have died and it's hard to see his children - one's in London, one's in New York. But what he doesn't say is that it cost him his marriage too.

Even in that domestic nastiness there are echoes of his family history, and particularly the men in his family. His grandfather abandoned his wife and four children to run off and chase dreams of being an actor. And Stewart divorced Sheila Falconer, his partner of nearly 25 years, in 1990, just three years after moving to Hollywood. Perhaps that is one inheritance he doesn't want to recall.

He resists my probing. "You're getting married this month, I believe?" I ask him, having found out he's due to be hitched to Wendy Neuss, one of Star Trek's producers. His forthcoming marriage might encourage him to talk about the last failed one, I imagine. "Yes, I'm getting married the week after next," he replies. "Re-married? Isn't it?" I ask. "Hmm ... Yes, remarried."

And then that pretty, blonde, coffee-toting PR girl-cum-guard springs from her corner and carts me out of the Dorchester. "Good luck with the wedding, Mr Stewart," I say as she clangs the panelled door on my nose and dictaphone. "Thanks. Bye," he booms, beginning to loom again.
28.08.2008