Patrick Stewart gives one of his most passionate, powerful and heartfelt performances in Match, a new indie film based on the Stephen Belber play of the same name. Frank Langella commanded the stage in the Broadway production, and Stewart does likewise here, playing Tobi, an aging, lonely and bisexual Juilliard professor and ex-dancer who has to face the music when a married couple (Lisa and Mike, portrayed by Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard), under the guise of an interview, try to compel Tobi to admit to a closely guarded secret.
Stewart is deeply proud of Match, which is now in theaters and on video on demand via IFC Films. Knowing that longtime Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, those who follow his career closely, might be an ideal audience for the film, Stewart agreed to an interview with StarTrek.com. As always, he was thoughtful and talkative. Below is part one of our exclusive conversation, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to check out part two.
How aware were you of Match and Frank Langella’s performance as Tobi?
STEWART: Not at all. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I missed it. It was on Broadway and it had a very successful run there, with Frank Langella, who was Tony-nominated for playing Tobi. And it must have been during a time I was doing a season at Stratford on Avon. Because of that, everything else just faded into the background.
Do you think you were better off not having seen the Langella production?
STEWART: I think so, yes, especially when the performance has been very good. An original work, it has no pre-history. I’ve done a lot of classical works, which have plenty of history, and chances are several other actors have done it before you do it. So I do stay away from those performances. On the other hand, I love talking to actors who have played these roles. When I played Macbeth a few years ago I did talk to Ian McKellen about it because he was probably the great Macbeth of my generation when he did it with Judi Dench back in the 80’s.
What facets of Tobi were you most eager to explore?
STEWART: His love of the work that he did. His commitment to the world of dance, his love of dancers. Especially now, as a man too old to be a performer, his love of teaching. Tobi Powell, my character, is actually based on a real person, Stephen’s friend, Alfonse. It’s not the details of his life, but the structure of his life that are very much like Tobi’s. I had lunch and dinner with Alfie, and I was privileged to attend one of his classes at Juilliard, a 90-minute morning class with the graduating class. So I was in the company of some of the finest young dancers in North America. I actually ended up going to two or three of these classes because I found them to be so delightful and awesome in the level of commitment, in the physicality of what these young people were doing, as well as Alfie’s evident pleasure in being in the studio with them and teaching.
Plays and movies are very different beasts. On stage, the action of Match was really confined to one set. How impressed were you with how Stephen Belber – who wrote and directed the film based on his own play – opened things up?
STEWART: I never read the play. It fell into my hands when it was a screenplay. I think I’d been told upfront that it was a play and that Frank had played Tobi. But, yes, there is strange unease among filmmakers about scenes being too wordy, as though it’s only action or silence that can be effectively dramatic. Language is action, to me. There is absolutely no reason why talk should not be as exciting as anything more physically dramatic. And that’s what I found in Belber’s screenplay. The language was so original and fresh and unexpected that it gave enough energy, I felt, never to seem to be just talking heads. I felt that same way when we were shooting the movie and, watching it, I never get a sense of simply talking heads. And, incidentally, we shot the film in 15 days.
We’re not doing our jobs if we don’t ask about something specific in the film. Tobi collects his nail trimmings. He’s got a whole jar of the things. How weird a character quirk was that?
STEWART: (Laughs). I love that character detail. You see him clipping his nails into the jar and it’s only later when Mike asks, “What are these things? Are they seashells?” Tobi says, “No, no. They’re my fingernails.” And they do play an important part in the film later on. Tobi saves them because he feels they connect him to his past and that makes him happy. But it is an odd obsession, that I’ll grant you.
Little films like this don’t often see the light of day. How pleased are you that moviegoers will have a chance to see Match in a theater or at home with this hybrid theatrical/VOD release it’s getting?
STEWART: Oh, I am thrilled. It’s always a gamble, and you know that at the outset. I’ve done three or four movies that never got a proper release of, if they did, it was so small that the movie just vanished. I’ve had some projects that I really cared a lot about that never quite saw the light of day. It’s a risk you take when you take on something a little bit out of the ordinary, like Match. I think a year ago I was ready to consign Match to that list of others, and then Tribeca, the New York film festival, saw the movie and loved it, and gave it such exposure. Of course, it’s a New York movie, and that’s true, but they could not have supported us more. That brought us distributors online and brought us where we are now. We have opened in New York and Los Angeles, quite well, and in the next week or 10 days, we’re opening in another 20 cities around the country. And if you can’t get to a theater, you can see it on-demand. That’s just in the U.S. I’m hoping the film will have a life elsewhere as well, particularly in the U.K.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read the second half of our interview with Sir Patrick Stewart.