In Toronto to promote his engaging new memoir, Making It So, the veteran British thespian and Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Patrick Stewart talked to The Globe and Mail about his acting heroes, his one nervous night driving a Beatle around the south of England, and his less than stellar relationship with salty Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Reading your book, I learned you were a cub reporter as a teenager before you became an actor. Given your background in journalism, I expect you’ll be patient with me.
[Laughs] I was only at the newspaper for one year. It certainly wasn’t at The Globe and Mail’s level of journalism, I can tell you that.
You’re only 23 years older than I am, yet your upbringing in a small town in West Yorkshire reads like you grew up in another century. What did you do for entertainment?
Well, since I was 7, I did love going to the movies. When I got a bit older, I would go to the cinema alone. There were some films you could only see if you were with an adult. I would ask adults near the box office to say that I was with them. I did that for a number of years.
You didn’t grow up watching television, and others of your generation and older didn’t either. Do you think television affected the acting sensibilities of younger generations raised on TV?
Yes. That’s an interesting thought. For me, all I was interested in was the stage. My drama teachers were training me to be a stage actor. I never absorbed what it would be like to act in front of a camera. When I did get in front of a camera, I very quickly realized that a different approach to the work was necessary.
Can you explain the difference?
The difference was underlined to me on the very first film I ever appeared in, which was a half-day’s work on Hennessy in 1975. There was a leading American actor, Rod Steiger, who was very kind to me on that half a day. We went to lunch, and he said to me, “You know, there’s one thing very important you have to know: The camera photographs thoughts.” Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before.
Who were the actors you looked up to?
When I was 13, 14, 15, I had fallen in love with American method actors such as Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint. I fell in love with them as opposed to Doris Day, who I’d been in love with before that. It was because they had a different approach to the work. And although it took me a long time to absorb that and put it into practice, eventually I did, and still do to this day.
As a Shakespearean actor, did you transition to the screen well?
I think I was a trifle demonstrative. Now, demonstrating is one of the harsh words you can say to a young actor. It means you’re not living the role, you’re not experiencing it – you’re illustrating it. And that’s not what the communication of true acting is about. So, when I was told I had too much demonstrating, I did intuitively know what they meant by that. It made me think about alternate ways of working.
And you took that to your portrayal of Captain Jean-Luc Picard?
When I arrived on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, my main thought was, “I am a captain of a Starship, and I have spent much of my life captaining the ship. It’s an authoritarian role.” Now, I had already played kings, dukes and barons and prime ministers. I thought I could access those experiences to create the leadership qualities of Jean-Luc Picard. I think it did very well for me.
But it didn’t go 100 per cent smoothly at first, isn’t that right?
No. When I got to the Star Trek: The Next Generation section of my memoir, I decided I’d better go back and watch some of the work I did. I watched the entire Season 1, and it was very uncomfortable. I thought it was too big, too demonstrating, too much authoritarian and too serious and too grim. But I learned a lot from the actors I worked with – Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, LeVar Burton, I could go on. I’m so grateful for the instruction that they gave me in performing on camera and how to prepare and how to relax when the camera is close up into your face. All these things developed in the first two seasons. As each season came up, I got better at it.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was not a supporter of yours. I would have thought, given the allusions and references to Shakespeare on the shows and movies, he would have connected with you on that level at least.
We did not connect at all, in fact. Gene had not wanted me in his show. I had done my first audition, which was set up by his senior producer Bob Justman, who had seen me on stage in Los Angeles. He went back to the production office and said, “I think we found the captain. His name is Patrick Stewart.” And nobody had ever heard of me.
What about your first meeting with Roddenberry?
It was at his house, and it was very uncomfortable. Gene just sat there frowning, looking at me. Very suddenly he said, “Thank you, Patrick.” I realized that it was time for me to go, and I was happy to do so. I felt there was a resistance to me.
The resistance was Roddenberry, right?
Yes. Months later, after I was cast and filming, Bob Justman said to me, “You know, I never told you what it was that Gene said at his house.” I said, “No, what did he say?” Robert then told me that Gene said, “Who in the hell had this idea that this actor could play the captain?” That was it. I was finished, written off. But then Rick Berman joined the production team. He became a supporter of me, and Gene was persuaded to let me take the job. The studio wanted me, and he had to go along with it.
This kind of thing happened with you and director David Lynch on Dune. You got the role, but he didn’t want you. How does an actor deal with that?
It’s looked upon as being an aspect of the profession. You cannot make everybody happy. Not everybody will like the work that you do. They have their own tastes.
I have to ask you about playing chauffeur to Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher one night in the 1960s.
Paul is such a delightful, sweet and generous person. It all came about because Jane was in the Bristol Old Vic Company with me. Some of the actors would go to the pub and play games. One day, someone said, “You’re given a million pounds, what do you spend it on?” When it came to me, I said, “Oh, an Aston Martin DB4, no question about it.” About three weeks later, word got around that Paul, on a Saturday night, was coming to see the play. When the show was over, I was changing in my little dressing room. I’m in my underwear, and there’s a knock on the door. I said come in. The door opened and there was Paul McCartney – I mean, unmistakably Paul McCartney, standing there. He said, “I heard you like Aston Martins, drive this.” He then tossed me a bunch of keys. I ended up driving them from Bristol to Bath, about 15 miles away, and back.
Did you have fun driving, or were you freaking out that Paul McCartney was in the back seat?
All I could think of was that if I crash this car now and kill Paul McCartney, that’s all I will be remembered for. The man who killed one of the Beatles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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