Interview : Patrick Stewart

It may have been a long time between Romulan ales on the Enterprise, but Patrick Stewart doesn’t mind the four year gap in the Star Trek franchise, “because I had been one of those arguing that we needed a bigger gap as it was becoming like a conveyor belt. I also said that if we take more time, all of us might come to the conclusion that we’ve actually finished and we don’t want to do anymore; that might just happen organically.”

Stewart was feeling fresh and energised at the end of a long day of interviews. Casually dressed wearing brown corduroy trousers, the classically-trained Brit feels at home as we chat in the midst of New York’s Manhattan. Even though he currently lives in Los Angeles’ upscale Palisades suburban community, the 62-year old one-time Yorkshire native is thinking of switching residential coasts, describing New York as “more mature” than Los Angeles. “It feels worldlier and more forgiving” than Los Angeles which has been his US home since attaining intergalactic stardom on Star Trek. Widely travelled, Stewart recently married Star Trek producer Wendy Neuss and spent their honeymoon in Sydney, Australia. “Sydney is just great and I just hope I get to do more work there. While we took part of our honeymoon there we stayed for the Olympics and then we went to the Kimberlies for a glorious week up there,” says an enthused Stewart.

It is appropriate that this world-travelled gentleman actor has spent fifteen years, on and off, travelling through galaxies battling an array of aliens aboard the classic U.S.S Enterprise. Before he became an international star as the heroic and good-hearted Picard, Stewart was one of Britain’s most respected stage actors. Still yearning to play all those great Shakespearean roles from Lear to Falstaff, having already shone in Hamlet and Macbeth, it is the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, for which he is now best known. While 15 years after the series debut he has genuine affection for the character and no qualms about the recognition, that wasn’t always the case, he laughingly recalls. “There was a time when it irritated me, when I would walk down the street and someone would say: Hey, captain how you doing or people would say: Oh, you’re Captain Picard and I would say: No, that is not my name, and was somewhat prickly.” But Patrick’s attitude slowly began to change as he assumed the role with confidence. “I have come to realise that given that the captain is really an outstanding individual, a fine, compassionate, articulate, honest, fair man, that identification is in a sense flattering and if people are happy to call out on the street or to speak to me, they apparently feel good about it as well, so it is something that I have come to be proud of.”

Yet even so, as we are chatting about a character whose genesis began 15 years ago, Stewart had no idea that Picard or his involvement with the phenomenon of Star Trek, would last as long as it has. “I wouldn’t have done it if I had known that,” concedes the actor, adding that he only agreed to do it in the first place “because I was assured, not by the Star Trek people of course, but because of everybody else, that it wouldn’t last long, if at all. From the morning that I was offered the role, Monday morning, until about noon when I left, I had until the end of the business day Friday to make my decision. When I was offered the role I was excited and then my agent met with me and it became clear to him that I didn’t understand how pilots worked and the contracts of pilots worked. I thought I was just signing on for the pilot and if I didn’t want to do anymore after that I could just walk out,” he recalls smilingly. “When he said this is for six years, I said that is out of the question. There are things I have to do; I can’t spend six years here. It is absolutely out of the question. I won’t do it. And every single person that I asked said you don’t need to worry about that. It will be a year if you are really lucky, two years.” Finally, his agent said, “Come on you have never made any money in your life of what you do. You have had a great career but what have you got to show for it, where is your security?” At the time Stewart recalls that he had been living month by month. His agent assured him that no harm can come of doing the series and under that understanding Patrick Stewart signed the dotted line “and I would not for the world have changed it now with hindsight,” says Stewart. “It doesn’t mean to say this in the fifth and sixth seasons there weren’t times that I wished I was anywhere but walking under the bridge of the Enterprise, but they were only moments. It was just sometimes frustration when I was ready to move on.” But here we are, 15 years later, and Patrick’s enthusiasm for this fourth cinematic Star Trek adventure is genuinely heartfelt. “I had such a grand time doing Nemesis, I really did.”

In Star Trek: Nemesis, the cast of "The Next Generation" returns on a diplomatic mission to initiate peace with the Romulans. But upon arrival to the alien planet, the crew is faced with a threat that could lead to the Earth’s destruction, and Picard meets his most dangerous adversary yet, a surprisingly personal nemesis. Part of the reason why he was drawn to Nemesis, was the script by Trek fan and aficionado, John Logan, “who has brought something else and has a great since of history. He came to this project not only as an absolutely outstanding screenwriter which he is, but what I didn’t know at the time was that he came as an obsessed fan of the Next Generation and he knows the Next Generation world inside out, better than I do. His enthusiasm, his fan’s hunger to see the characters doing things he had always wanted to see them do and his eagerness to work with actors were genuinely apparent. We would spend hours on the telephone before we even met just getting to know one another and of course I discovered he was a man with a theatre background who loved the theatre and so it was in the early days talking with Logan that I just knew this could be a wonderful journey on which to embark.”

A journey which allows Patrick the chance to do something different with the 15-year old Picard, something that may not have been so easy in previous films or throughout the lengthy series. “This film raised questions and made me brood a lot more, the whole notion of coming face to face with yourself, in conflict with yourself and trying to find harmony and understanding; these were interesting challenges.” The actor admits that when asked whether there is more of the actor in the character, having played him for so long, that line is utterly blurred now. “I truly could not define where Jean-Luc Picard begins and Patrick Stewart leaves off partly because during the course of those years of the series a lot of myself went into the things that the character did, how he thought, what he said, all based on Gene Rodenberry’s strong foundation. But a lot of the things that I cared about went in and as time went by the transference was happening the other way as well.” Patrick even concedes that he even learned from Picard. “There were certain areas in my life that needed attention and he helped me to pay attention,” says a thoughtful Stewart.

The Star Trek series and subsequent film franchise have clearly brought Patrick not only fame and fortune, but the luxury of choice. At a very youthful 62, Stewart works at a frenetic pace, dividing his time between revisiting the classics on stage and screen, and starring in next year’s much anticipated X-Men 2. On the latter, the guarded actor says little but again, his enthusiasm for the sequel is very real. “I think we have got a really sensational movie,” Stewart enthuses. “It’s been such a wonderful year and I am so energized by Nemesis which I believe in so strongly and then realise that X-Men 2 has taken off from the first one, which was really like an extended expensive trailer, introducing everyone and this world of the X-Men. Now the X-Men are just soaring and it is going to be wonderful.”

Taking a break from the world of fantasy-laden Hollywood, Patrick will take to the London stage in April with Ibsen’s The Masterbuilder. Following that play’s limited West End run, he returns to Broadway “in a revival of a British play which I can’t talk about but I am very excited about it and some wonderful roles ahead.” These include a television remake of the classic period drama, The Lion in Winter, in which he will play King Henry II to Glenn Close’s Eleanor of Aquitaine. “We have a brilliant, finger-licking good screenplay to work from.” And yes, he says, another Star Trek feature is not out of the question. “If John Logan signs on as writer, I’m on board, no question.”

STAR TREK: NEMESIS OPENS NATIONALLY ON DECEMBER 13.

- PAUL FISCHER