Patrick Stewart: On Stage and Unplugged

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A Patrick Stewart interview at the Dubai International Film Festival was funny, touching, and enlightening.

Sir Patrick Stewart, stage and screen thespian and geek hero, was in Dubai for the film festival this past weekend. I had the pleasure of seeing the man himself in conversation at the Dubai International Film Festival, where he discussed his life, love of Shakespeare and his work in science fiction and fantasy.

Stewart, hoarse from a morning full of interviews, was still happy to talk non-stop, often apologising to the moderator for his lengthy answers. We, the eager audience, were certainly not complaining.

Patrick Stewart performing at the Young Vic. Source: Catherine Ashmore/ Young Vic via Bloomberg

Early life and Shakespeare

Stewart spoke about his childhood and how in post-war North Yorkshire, he participated avidly in amateur theatre. However, he never imagined that it would end up being his profession of choice. The strong Yorkshire accent didn’t help his chances much. Stewart even shared a Yorkshire dialect ditty his aunt (“we pronounced it Ant-ee, not Aahnt-y”) used to share at Christmas. Needless to say, we understood not a word!

The grammar school Stewart attended was more vocational-based and he struggled because he didn’t feel very smart. At 15, one didn’t so much graduate from the school; “you just left”.

However, it was at school that Stewart first came across Shakespeare, thanks to one of his English teachers.

His class was asked to read the famous court scene from The Merchant of Venice and Stewart was asked to play Shylock. He admitted he didn’t understand a few words but the rhythm of the speech enchanted him.

The same teacher then cast Stewart as the youngest member of a play featuring mostly adults. His life was never the same.

For a while, he lived a kind of double life, each with its own separate accent. It was an escape from the difficulties at home, so he became more involved with theatre while his peers took more conventional routes.

Stewart eventually joined drama school and went on to appear in productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre for decades.

Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Source: IMDB

Star Trek and Eva Marie Saint

It turns out we have the legendary Eva Marie Saint to thank for Stewart playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Stewart was acting in the stage play A Winter’s Tale and would often stay late after the end of the play to enjoy a beer on his own. On one particular night, Stewart’s nightly repast was interrupted by none other than his childhood crush, Eva Marie Saint, and her husband. They were so pleased with his performance that as they were heading back to their hotel, they decided to turn back around and return to the theatre in the hopes of meeting him.

In 1987, Stewart spent several months auditioning for the new Star Trek series. It finally came down to Stewart and one other contender, whose identity he has yet to uncover.

Stewart had even done an audition with a headpiece in the hopes of procuring the role. He was called in for one final audition with little preparation, apparently so that the producers could see him without the head piece. Once it was over, he headed to his favourite café nearby and spent some time reading the sports section of the newspaper, assuming it would take a while for the decision on the casting to be made.

It didn’t. The studio informed Stewart’s agent that he had won the role. But the agent couldn’t get a hold of him because Stewart was still enjoying reading his papers instead of heading home.

When Stewart finally did leave the café, he went to meet an English professor friend of his, and just as he arrived, his friend’s phone rang. It was for Stewart. Another English professor friend had managed to track him down because Stewart’s agent had called him looking for Stewart. That is how he found out that he had been offered the role Captain Picard.

Despite all this drama, Stewart was still unsure about taking on the role. At a dinner following the offer, he found himself at a table with… Eva Marie Saint. One of their fellow guests commented on Stewart’s upcoming big break but Stewart explained that he was still in two minds about it. Marie Saint said from across the table that he must take the role. “Do it for me,” she pleaded. The rest is science fiction history.

Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier in Logan. Source: IMDB

Logan

Among Stewart’s immense filmography, he singled out his experience on Logan as being particularly fulfilling.

Logan director James Mangold was the kind of director Stewart “loved working with”. Mangold went into the film with a clear idea of what he wanted it to look and feel like. He would often talk to the cast and crew about his vision of the film, in great detail. But, while shooting, Mangold was conscious of the actors trying different things that he liked and would then incorporate these eccentricities into his existing plan. He was very open to his actors’ contributions and ideas. Stewart compared Mangold to great soccer coaches, saying, “He wants to tell you how he sees it, and then he sets you free”.

In particular, Stewart remarked about the dinner scene in Logan when the mutants are on the run and take refuge in a family’s home. Once the master shot of the scene had been completed, Mangold asked for more takes with improvised dialogue. Hugh Jackman, Stewart explained, was known to include adlibs in his dialogue throughout the X-Men series. During this scene in Logan, Mangold particularly liked the free-flowing chatter between the characters – not just the main cast of Stewart, Jackman and Dafne Keen, but also between the actors playing the family. They improvised the scene for ten minutes and only stopped when the camera ran out of film. “It was so much fun!” Stewart exclaimed to us.

However, as fulfilling as the experience of playing Professor Charles Xavier was for Stewart, he reiterated that Logan would be the last time he portrayed the character on film. He shared with us an anecdote of watching Logan for the first time at the Berlin Film Festival, with Hugh Jackman seated beside him. “Both Hugh and myself were so moved by the last 15-20 minutes of the film – I still find it hard to watch the last 20 minutes.” Jackman was gripping Stewart’s hand as the credits rolled, which made him realise that “there cannot be a better au revoir to Charles Xavier…”.

As much as we will miss Stewart’s and Jackman’s presences in the X-Men franchise, we cannot help but agree.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart performing in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 2016. Source: Johan Persson

Ian McKellen friendship

Stewart’s friendship with fellow X-Men actor Sir Ian McKellen is legendary. When asked how this friendship came about, Stewart smiled widely and shared the story.

Stewart first met McKellen while working on Waiting for Godot. The two came from different worlds – McKellen being a Cambridge graduate while Stewart had attended grammar school. McKellen was academically much stronger and had cut his teeth at a good drama school. Plus, he was “the most gorgeous thing” Stewart had ever seen on stage. At that point, Stewart was much too intimidated and envious of McKellen for them to strike up a friendship.

It was only while shooting X-Men­ that the two connected. Their trailers were side by side and, Stewart explained, on films such as these, one spends more time inside trailers than on set. The two actors gravitated towards each other and soon realised they had so much in common especially their love for Shakespeare and theatre.

Stewart had explained to the audience earlier that numerous British actors had worked in comic book films because of their experience with Shakespeare on stage. The language in Shakespeare is heightened, said Stewart, and so is the language of comic book films and science-fiction like Star Trek. “I would recognise Star Trek dialogue a mile away, even if I’d never, ever heard it before.”

McKellen and Stewart, while shooting together, discussed this particular point a great deal – “how there were so many overlaps between classical theatre and comic book movies”.

This shared interest evolved into a full-blown friendship, and the rest, as Stewart said, is on social media.

Patrick Stewart in American Dad!. Source: IMDB

The future

Stewart has definitely put the X-Men franchise behind him but we were all curious as to what the future holds for him, considering the career he has enjoyed till date.

Stewart’s recent roles have been slightly left-field and he has made plenty of fans with his work in comedy, a genre he has greatly enjoyed being part of. He started off in comedy with Ricky Gervais’ Extras and has since gone on to work with Seth MacFarlane on Ted, Ted 2, Family Guy and American Dad!. More comedy projects may indeed be in the pipeline for him.

Apart from comedy, Stewart said (quite giddily, I may add) that he would definitely be open to returning as Captain Picard if Quentin Tarantino were to helm a new Star Trek film. As much as he would like to work with other great directors, “Tarantino is my hero!” he proclaimed to a round of applause from the audience.

Shakespeare is never far from Stewart’s mind, however. When asked whether he would consider appearing on stage again in a Shakespearean play, Stewart gave the audience an impromptu and moving performance of the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V. The applause was thunderous.

Stewart’s parting words to the packed house were for all of us – whether we are actors, writers, directors – to be brave and to always share our thoughts because, no matter what has been said by others, each of our perspectives are unique and thus, necessary. And, with those words of advice, the man known as one of our favourite starship captains and superheroes departed.

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