Patrick Stewart once feared that Star Trek – and his iconic status as Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation – would prove to be an “albatross” around his neck. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Post-Star Trek, Stewart has engaged in a remarkably expansive array of work that includes starring roles on Broadway and the West End and in films and televisions programs. His voice – that sonorous, authoritative voice – has been heard in everything from documentaries and commercials to videogames and animated shows/features. Some credits include: the blockbuster X-Men features, The Lion in Winter, Antony and Cleopatra, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Macbeth, Eleventh Hour, Hamlet, American Dad! and Waiting for Godot.
And today, Stewart’s good fortune continues. He was knighted on June, 2, 2010, by Queen Elizabeth II, turned 70 years old on July 13, and has a slew of projects on the way, among them a new Broadway play (A Life in the Theatre), a PBS movie (Macbeth), a videogame (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow) and several features (Gnomeo & Juliet, Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage and Dorothy of Oz). StarTrek.com recently caught up with Stewart for an exclusive, extensive and revelatory conversation. Part one can be found below, and look for part two tomorrow.
The Next Generation debuted 23 years ago last week. How true is the story that you thought Next Gen would provide you with a few months work and income, and an opportunity to get a nice tan, and that you’d then head back home to England?
Stewart: Well, that is what I was advised when I was offered the role, which was on a Monday, lunchtime, and told that I had until Friday lunchtime to make a decision. I was shocked because I’d never for a moment believed that I would get cast in Star Trek. I’d been called back to Los Angeles three times from the UK for auditions. So I raced around L.A., talking to anybody I knew I had any connection with, who was in the television and film industry, asking their advice. “What should I do?” I was to discover I had to sign a six-year contract. I was very naïve about the conditions attached to series television in the U.S.A. Every single person I spoke to – agents, directors, screenwriters, other actors – said, “Oh, don’t worry about six years. You’ll be lucky to make it through the first year.” Everybody felt it was madness to try to revive an iconic series like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek. So, on the basis of that advice I signed the six-year contract.
Looking back at your entire run, from the show to the features, who was Jean-Luc Picard supposed to be and who was he by the end? Also, what influence would you say you had on the character's evolution through your performances and as a result of conversations you had with (executive producer) Rick Berman and the writers over the years?
Stewart: I had dinner with Gene Roddenberry at the Bel Air Country Club the weekend before we began rehearsal for the pilot. I’d read the pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” by then and my reason for meeting with Gene was to take from him his counsel and his guidelines as to how I should develop this character. All Gene said to me was, “You know the Horatio Hornblower stories?” And I said, “I did, because I read them as a teenager and enjoyed them.” He said, “I am sending some copies around to you. Read them. That’s all you need to know.” (Laughs). Well, I did read one of the Horatio Hornblower stories and I think I got the idea of what Gene was after. In the pilot episode and throughout the first season I was following that path of a rather heroic, romantic leading officer who was on a voyage of discovery. Then, working with the writers, talking to the writers, different aspects of his character, the rather more complex and at times ambivalent aspects of his character began to emerge.
And when Gene died tragically early – and certainly tragically early in the life of Next Generation – there were some shifts after that. I had been working very closely with Rick Berman and I knew some of the things Rick was interested in, and he knew some of my passions: social issues, politics, sexual politics, and so forth. And we began to investigate those aspects of the character a little more than we had in the first couple of season. Rick was always very generous to me and took on board suggestions and discussed ideas, even down to details of dialogue. So my involvement grew and grew and grew so that by the time we got into the seventh season there was a total overlap between Jean-Luc Picard and Patrick Stewart. I no longer had to sit in my trailer getting into character. I knew this man intimately. He was very, very close to me. I don’t take credit for the creation of Jean-Luc Picard. That came from Gene and the writers at the very beginning of the production, and those who subsequently came to write for the character.
As it stands now, Nemesis is Picard’s swan song. How accepting are you of that? Or is there a part of you that wants one last crack at Picard to perhaps send him off a little more appropriately?Stewart: While we were filming Nemesis an idea was being developed by John Logan, the screenwriter of Nemesis, and Brent Spiner for a fifth and final movie. It was a very exciting idea for a screenplay. It would have been a real farewell to Next Generation, but it would have involved other historic aspects of Star Trek as well. I can’t go into details because the project wasn’t mine. When that didn’t happen, the studio announced in its own inimitable way that we were suffering from franchise fatigue and that there was to be no more, and I am absolutely content with that. I remain very proud of the work that we did, very proud of the series and the movies, but I do not wish to return to it.
Let’s talk about Macbeth. You starred in a West End version of it in 2007, then in a Brooklyn Academy of Music production in 2008, and now you, co-star Kate Fleetwood and director Rupert Goold have reunited for a PBS film adaptation that will premiere on October 6. Why was it important to you to have this production captured for posterity?
Stewart: Theater is a sort of transitory, ephemeral business and the best performances very often only live on in the memories of the people who saw them. But when something which was as successful as this Macbeth and had such an impact on stage, if there is a chance to preserve something of what was done it’s really satisfying. If you watch this PBS presentation you will see that it is much, much more than a recording of the stage production. It’s a film and it stands as a film in its own right. I am delighted with it and thrilled with the work that Rupert Goold has done.
What role in the Shakespeare canon is still on your actor’s bucket list?
Stewart: Well, of course, there are two that are absolute essentials. They are Falstaff in the Henry IV plays and, of course, Lear. Lear will have to wait a little bit, as we’ve had rather a surfeit of Lears in the UK in the last few years. But that’s no problem. The good thing about Lear is that the older you get, the more suitable you are for it, at least, as actors always point out, just so long as you can still carry Cordelia. And Falstaff is a role I must play at some point. I have always looked on Falstaff as the middle-aged actor’s Hamlet. It’s hugely complex and very diverse and, of course, very funny, too.