Interview by Jasper Gerard

  His universe is expanding all the time.
He may possess the world's most celebrated bald pate, but he is remarkably reticent about showing it. Before our photographer could snap Patrick Stewart, an English Shakespearian thesp voted Hollywood's sexiest actor, he endured hard negotiations with an army of Stewart's blonde PR guards. "No more than half an inch about the eyebrows please," was the decree. There were to be no wide-angle shots and no, he would not lean forward, because "it doesn't work for him".

Your humble correspondent faced similar hoops. I was plonked in front of a television in the Dorchester hotel showing a children's game show. Occasionally one of the pretty PR poppets would waft in, offer me a puff pastry and ask if I was nervous before my Meeting With The Big Star. With eight minutes to go, I was moved to another ante-room, now only a few feet of shag-pile from The Star (makers of Stewart's new flick, X-Men, which has grossed $80m in its first fortnight in America, seemed to have taken over the entire floor).

Word filtered down that the film's rather talented female stars were sunbathing on the roof, but having sized up my companion, a giant bodyguard - who sent a bellboy away with a Tysonesque menace - I decided not to explore.

During my long wait, I pondered what Stewart's father, a Yorkshire trade unionist, would make of this Hollywood charade. Sure, like every reputable Hollywood superstar, Stewart has his own dedicated stalker after 13 years in Star Trek, but even Shakespeare - if transported back to life as an X-Man mutant - would be subject to less fuss.

So it was with some surprise that, when I was finally beamed up to my third suite of the morning, I encountered a cultivated, clever and courteous man. Refreshingly, he made little effort to talk up the film (a spectacular cavalcade of special effects, stunts and laboured symbolism: the usual) and, after two of my allotted 27 minutes, he seemed delighted to be diverted to other subjects - in particular politics (he hints he might become an adviser to Al Gore) and theatre (which he makes no secret of favouring over film).

Seeing as he is used to adulation, I start with flattery. Many actors, I venture, either achieve critical acclaim and live in a garret, or commercial success and live in guilt; yet he has wangled both. He laughs, his 60-year-old face wrinkles and he begins to boom his deep, modulated English, with a hint of West Coast breezing in. He is smart casual today (in the film he looks immaculate Savile Row) and it is not hard to see why women of a certain age find him devilishly handsome.

"It was the result of 25 years' work here in England, followed by an unexpected, unlooked-for transition into a successful American TV series," he says. "But my interests have not changed, they have just been broadened a little." There must be a limit to how much one's interest broadens over seven years going boldly where he has been before.

This is why he has just starred on Broadway in an Arthur Miller play. (At curtain call he denounced the show's producers, to the horror of New York.)

Anyone with a classical training must find theatre more satisfying than Hollywood? "Profoundly," he smiles, his eyes sparkling as if recognising that he will receive slapped wrists later from the PR poppets. "I have an ambivalent relationship with film. The fact is that there are so few extraordinary and original pieces of film writing that there are not enough to go around. Most movie screenplays are derivative and ordinary."

Efforts such as American Beauty are rare. "You cannot hope to have a film career based on that kind of work because there just isn't the material." He has set up his own film company in search of a life less banal, but admits that "the well of great scripts" lies in theatre "and the intellectual stimulation is necessarily going to come from there. The feature film world is much more shallow".

However, he is anxious not to appear elitist (he has, after all, just starred in the summer's biggest blockbuster, which is worth seeing if only for the powerful delivery of Stewart's last line, which gives his performance the edge over his co-star, Sir Ian McKellen). "Something can be popular and of high quality - it does happen from time to time. Expectations are set very, very low and so are expectations of the audience."

An exception, he ventures, is Star Trek. "We assumed the audience was smart and could understand a lot of technical jargon, and it could." Indeed, he thinks the show is prophetic. "Captain Kirk used to talk into what is effectively a cellphone. And a British scientist has now done work on how we can travel faster than the speed of light. That was always thought fantasy in Star Trek. Arthur C Clarke [shy pause in recognition of the un-British burst of name-dropping] sent me the article and said, 'You may not follow the detail because it is highly technical, but this is amazing.' "

Stewart has been in Britain for only a day, but has already heard of Big Brother. "This real-life drama is the most depressing of all. The content is pathetic. And it will reflect on the kind of drama that is performed. Years ago, the BBC did a play called Year of the Sex Olympics, with Leonard Rossiter, about a time when we became so bored with conventional television that people would be put to death in front of the cameras. We seem to be a breath away from that now."

During the last election Stewart, a long-time Labour party member, introduced Tony Blair on a platform and apparently even wrote him a poem. Declaring himself broadly "satisfied", he expresses alarm at new Labour's dictatorial tendencies. "The government has been a little careless at addressing certain issues. A government is only as good as its opposition and what made me uneasy was that its majority was so enormous and the necessary challenges were not there, which has led to the discontent."

It is the presidential election that really captivates him and he is frustrated that, having been invited to the convention hall for Gore's big speech, this is a rare period when he is not in Los Angeles. "It's a fascinating time," he says. "You have a president who has been more successful than any in the last 30 years, yet the whole presidency is tainted by the personal life of this man." No such difficulties for the new Democratic contender, of whom Stewart declares himself "an enthusiastic supporter".

"He has been the most active and the most successful vice-president in years," Stewart claims. "He has a difficulty in public of communicating all aspects of himself. He tends to freeze." So might you offer to teach him? "Well, yes." I look interested (imagine the headlines: "new-age president takes advice from Capt Picard"). "I have had some thoughts about that," he adds, but clams up and looks flustered. "There is the potential for a very dynamic, centrist White House which, considering the power of the United States, I think is a very good thing."

He says he will always retain his British nationality. "I am described as an English actor and that is how I want it to remain." Yet his last two roles have been playing Americans. Has he any intention of returning to live in Britain? "I have never thought of it in those terms, "he says obliquely. "I have always felt I have been on an extended leave of absence" - amusing, but absurd seeing as he has been away all these years (and set to marry a Los Angeles sort, having split from his English wife). He says that he will come over next year for a "major" theatre role, an opportunity to "re-establish myself" in Britain. "There are roles coming to me and I should play them soon."

He discloses, with a hint of relief, that the next Star Trek film is "likely to be the last for the Next Generation team". Not that he is ashamed of the show. "I am known to most people in the world as Jean-Luc Picard," he says a little boldly. "I feel great about that. If it had been a piece of crap and I had played a real scumbag, it would have been different, but he is an interesting, cultivated character."

The poverty and violence of his childhood in Mirfield, near Huddersfield, has driven him on. He is grateful to a teacher who forced him to read Shakespeare aloud, but he describes his education at a secondary modern as "basic". "I mentioned to someone that I had learnt something at school in gardening and they were astonished. 'You did gardening?'

"Much of the week was spent doing metal and woodwork, but that was incredibly valuable to me. I lay bricks and do plastering. We were blessed with an extraordinary group of teachers."

His background and its unfairness shaped his political views. "I like to brag that my first political act was aged six, during the first election after the war. I was told to move along by a policeman outside a polling station." Yet his years in America have transformed a man who still professes to be lefty but who is essentially the embodiment of the American dream. Equality of opportunity, the justification for capitalism, is now his credo.

Stewart is a strange, rather endearing, contradiction: part Sunset Boulevard, part Yorkshire boulevard of broken noses: "I sometimes think that, if I turn round quickly enough, I will catch sight of the man who all this has happened to."

He has a romantic yearning for old England, which in his imagination still resembles a Hovis advertisement; yet he lives in Los Angeles, enjoying sunshine and success. "I sometimes wonder about the English capacity to be happy," he reflects. "An American said to me that the British have an amazing ability to turn disaster into public triumph. We are comfortable with less than total success, while in America success is relished.

"The more sombre tone of Britain I find hugely refreshing. I miss British irony; I ache for it. It's the subtext of a nation that is interesting. I am out of touch with English subtext and I want to get back in touch with it again."

To do so, he will have to hop off the Starship Enterprise and come home - but somehow I doubt he ever will.
28.08.2008