Patrick Stewart Boldly Goes There

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When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premièred, in 1987, a newspaper referred to its leading man as an “unknown British Shakespearean actor.” Patrick Stewart was already forty-seven and had spent fourteen years as a full-time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. But he had known nothing like the fame that playing Jean-Luc Picard—captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise and model of enlightened masculinity—would soon bring him. When he showed up on set the next day, a castmate had taped a sign on his trailer door that read “BEWARE: UNKNOWN BRITISH SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR.”

Stewart is now eighty-three, having spent nearly half his life as Jean-Luc Picard, and he’s been reflecting on the unlikely trajectory that brought him from an impoverished childhood in the North of England to the final frontier. As a boy in Mirfield, an industrial town in Yorkshire, he had no hot running water, refrigeration, or toilet in his house. “Mirfield boys like me weren’t expected to have lofty ambitions. Certainly none that would ever take me into outer space,” he writes in his new autobiography, “Making It So.”

“I am in unknown territory,” Stewart told me recently. “I’ve never written anything before, other than maybe a two-hundred-word introduction or a thank-you letter.” He was in a sitting room in a hotel in Manhattan, where his third wife, the musician Sunny Ozell, was topping off his coffee. Stewart had been asked to write his life story before, but he always declined. “I never had the time to do it. But then my agent, early in 2020, said, ‘Look, Patrick, there is no work. It’s going to be a shut down everywhere, and it could last for months. This is the only window, so why not give it a go? If it doesn’t work out, we’ll just return the advance, and you can go back to doing jigsaw puzzles.”

As Stewart spoke, his sonorous voice filled the room, and his thick eyebrows—which seem magnified, being the only visible hair on his head—danced above his eyes. Stewart is a born storyteller, as anyone who has seen him perform his solo stage version of “A Christmas Carol” can attest. I first met him thirteen years ago, when he was acting in the David Mamet play “A Life in the Theatre” and met me in his dressing room, for a Talk of the Town interview about some of the unknown British stage actors with whom he had worked early in career. I remember sitting spellbound, asking questions that were answered with long, luxurious monologues, rich with reminiscence. That’s the feeling I got while reading “Making It So,” and again when we talked last month. (In deference to the SAG-AFTRA strike, we discussed “Star Trek” only in the context of his memoir.) Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, covers his lifelong fascination with Shakespeare, his encounters with rock stars and Old Hollywood royalty, and getting high—in more ways than one.

Your whole life is so vividly remembered, going back to your early childhood. As you were writing, did you need to do anything special to conjure the detail? Did you have to do research into yourself?

A kind of research, Michael. I hadn’t read many memoirs, two or three perhaps. I’m a great novel lover. I’ve been passionate about books since I was five or six years old and was introduced to the local library in my small town in the North of England. We had no television in my house. We had no record player. All we had was BBC Radio. And so I used the library as my source of not just entertainment but also education as I got older. My education was very basic, and for years I felt uncomfortable about that, when I found myself working with Oxbridge men and women and so forth.

For a couple of days before I began writing, I just let what memories that I had of my early life [come]. Let me start at the beginning of the story and set a scene, which may take a lot of people somewhat by surprise, to find that I grew up in the relative poverty that I did. We lived in a house called a one-up, one-down, where there was one room downstairs, one room upstairs, and the front door opened onto a cinder yard. When I was a child, it was occupied by myself and my older brother, Trevor, and my gorgeous, kind, sweet, loving, funny mother. The first five years of my life were bliss. Heaven on a stick!

By opening up those doors, things trickled and then ended up flooding in.

One of your earliest memories is when you encountered your first peach. Can you tell me what happened?

My father had come home from war in 1945. He came home in uniform, and he kept his uniform for a long time. We had very simple holidays. We would go either to the North sea towns or to the west side of the U.K., facing the Irish Sea: Morecambe, Blackpool. We were in Blackpool walking along the promenade—my father, my brother, my mother, and me—and we went past a fruit-and-vegetable store. My father peeled off, and then in a few minutes came back with his hands behind his back and said to me, “Patrick, close your eyes and hold out your hand.” And something was put into my hand which I didn’t like the feeling of at all. I thought it was a creature or something. And I pulled my hand away. My father yelled at me, “Don’t do that!” I opened my eyes and found that it was a fruit I’d never seen before, which was now smashed on the sidewalk. And my father hit me. I think it was the only occasion he actually hit me. He was a hitter, but I think that was the only time. So I have always associated that fruit with that moment, an embarrassing and uncomfortable moment. There were actually many. I got used to them.

You write, “It’s taken me decades of analysis, beginning in the late 1980s, to understand and cope with the impact of the violence, fear, shame, and guilt I experienced as a child.” What did you come to understand about why your father was behaving the way he was?

When I was growing up, I never talked about my background, because I was so embarrassed. Our neighbors knew what my father could do and would do, and they were well aware of the shouting and yelling that he produced. Somebody—I think it might have been my doctor—said, “It’s very likely that your father is suffering from shell shock.” Well, they didn’t treat for shell shock in those days. A few years ago, the BBC asked me to do that show “Who Do You Think You Are?” On that program, there was an historian who specialized in medical conditions brought about by being in the military, and he told me that there is no doubt whatsoever that my father had suffered from P.T.S.D. Well, there was no P.T.S.D. back in the nineteen-forties. So my father was sick, and it was the sickness that made him lose control as he did. He was a “weekend alcoholic.” Friday evening, he began drinking, and that went through until Sunday evening. Those were the times when he was dangerous to be around.

You write that acting was a “safe space.” Can you describe how you first discovered Shakespeare?

My schoolteacher when I was twelve years old was responsible for all of that. His name was Cecil Dormand. Cecil first put a copy of a Shakespeare play into my hand. I’d never heard of it. It was “The Merchant of Venice.” He went around the classroom, handing copies, and said, “Patrick—Shylock.” I’d never heard of Shylock, of course. He said, “All right, start reading. Act IV, Scene 1.” And every single one of us then dives into the script, but I’d be surprised if there were any of us comprehending what we were reading. And we were reading to ourselves. Cecil Dormand shouted out, “Not to yourselves, you idiots! This is a play! It’s drama! It’s life! Start again, and this time, read it out loud.” And we did. I had no idea what I was talking about, and there were words I had never encountered. The first speech that Shylock has in that scene is about twenty-five lines long, so it was a struggle. But something had penetrated me that I had never experienced before. That was the beginning.

And then at some point you were both doing amateur theatricals and working as a newspaper reporter?

I was. My headmaster had pulled some strings with the editor of our local newspaper, the Dewsbury and District Reporter, and I was called in one day and told, “They’ve offered you a job, but as a very junior reporter.” The building we were in was pointed, and the journalists’ room was at the very narrowest end. Sitting in front of the end window was a man called Charlie Pickles, the subeditor. And he was difficult. We would hear him sigh and groan and mutter to himself. I was given calls that I should make every week, some of them twice a week. One was to the owner of a pub. One was to a working-men’s-club secretary. This is where the gossip came from. I was able to write one or two things, and there was a groaning and sighing, and he would correct it and cross out stuff.

Well, time went by, and I was finally called to the editor’s office. Henry Wilson was his name. And he had found out that I was missing evening assignments, largely because by the time I was fifteen I was working with a handful of amateur drama groups. They rehearsed in the evening, so I used to have to find a substitute, who would take over for me and then write the piece in my name. I was found out when there was a big fire in a weaving mill, and the editor and the subeditor called one another. They said, “Patrick is in the council house next door. We’ve got an eyewitness!” Well, of course, I wasn’t there. I was in another town rehearsing. They found that out the next morning, and I was in deep shit. I was sent to the editor’s office, and he said, “Look, Patrick, I think you could do quite well in this job. But you have got to focus on what you’re doing. You’ve got to give up these amateur theatricals, because you can’t do both.” And I said, “Well, I’ll say goodbye right now, then, Mr. Wilson.” He looked at me in astonishment. I packed up my typewriter that same afternoon and never went back.

This eventually brought you to drama school, and I want to ask you about baldness, because you write that you started losing your hair at seventeen and were as bald as you are now at nineteen, which must have been rather alarming. How did you react?

I hated losing my hair. I had a wonderful, thick head of hair. My father was bald. I’d seen photographs of my grandfather—he was bald. So I knew what lay ahead for me. I also knew that it meant the chance of me getting a girlfriend was getting thinner, as my hair was thinning. So I struggled, and I went to hairdressers, and I had treatments, which did nothing at all but cost me a lot of money that I couldn’t afford. Then one day, when I was already at drama school, there was a Hungarian chap who had come because of the revolution. He was a director, I think in Budapest. He said to me one day, “Patrick, I know you’re worried about losing your hair, but it’s going to be who you are. Why don’t you just cut it all off?” And I said, “Absolutely not. I’m trying to keep it.” A couple of days later, I’d gone to his house, and all of a sudden he grabbed me by the arms, and his wife approached me with a pair of scissors. I knew immediately what they were going to do. I struggled and yelled and cursed. And she cut my hair off, my long hair which I used to comb over my head. Then, when she’d done it, he said, “Now you be yourself!” Which was exactly what he should have said, because I was hiding.

When I finished my drama school and started going for professional auditions, knowing how hard our regional theatre was, I would go to the audition wearing my hairpiece, my toupee. Usually, you perform two pieces for an audition. I’d perform the first one, and they’d say, “O.K., let’s see the second one. What is it?” As I was telling them what I was going to do, I used to remove my hairpiece, and they would gasp. I would say, “You’ve got a choice. You could have another actor, or you could have two actors for the price of one.”

I’m sure you have so many fans approaching you in life—“Star Trek” people, theatre fans—but do you get particular kinds of comments from bald men?

Yes. How many times have I been spoken to in the street by somebody who would pull off his cap, revealing a bald head, and say, “You saved my life!” As luck would have it, my wife and I had this conversation only a couple of days ago, and she admitted to me that she had always been attracted to bald men, from her teen-age years. I said, “Oh, at last! I now understand why you had the nerve to let me take you out.”

Your training in drama school and in your early career in the British theatre seems almost diametrically opposed to what was happening in America at the time, which was the rage for Method acting. You write, “ ‘Living’ or ‘becoming’ the role was never part of our vocabulary or curriculum.” What was your feeling about Method acting, and did you ever wind up drawing on it?

I drew on it immensely, but exclusively by selecting the films I saw [as an adolescent]. I’d fallen in love with Technicolor, and then one night I went to my local cinema, and the first thing that hit me was that it was in black-and-white. I wanted to see a Technicolor film. I went in to see it. It was called “On the Waterfront.” I hadn’t heard of any of the actors in it, but their names were Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger. I had never seen that kind of work on a screen before. I was at first disappointed, and then intrigued. It was as though I was watching a documentary—it was so real, so truthful. And I became enraptured by what I discovered. Later, it was explained to me that these were all Method actors. When I learned that, I began to look into the Method and read Stanislavski and so forth. It became a guiding light, though, to begin with, I wasn’t very good at it, because I wasn’t being trained like that. I know that Duncan Ross, the principal of my school, did talk to us often about our performances coming from inside us, not from the outside. In other words, the opposite of Method was demonstration. So I learned not to demonstrate a role but to live it.

You write about playing Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981. It’s a very tricky role, because he’s this psychopath who ruins his own life through pettiness and jealousy, and you needed to reach for something that was maybe more Method. How did you figure out how to play that part?

It was with the help of a director [Ronald Eyre] who had offered me the role. This character was a horrible guy—I just couldn’t connect with him. I didn’t know what to do. It was my first leading role with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I was excited by that, but confused about the play itself. One day in the greenroom at the R.S.C., I saw sitting alone Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who was without any question the most important actress in the U.K. for a good number of years. I said to her, “Dame Peg, may I sit down? I’ve got a problem.” I told her about the offer I’d had, and she said, “Stop, stop! He’s a dreadful man. The audience won’t like him. Nobody will like you. Patrick, don’t do it!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Well, if that’s what Dame Peggy Ashcroft says, she must be right! So I called the director and said, “Thank you for the offer. I’m very flattered, but I have to turn it down.” He said, “Patrick, can we meet?” When we got together, he said, “Look, Patrick, there’s something I have to tell you that may be hard to hear, but I believe it very strongly. I know that Leontes is inside you. All you’re going to have to do is let him out.” Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before in my life.

Where did you find Leontes within you?

Suppressed anger, suppressed rage, sadness. Some touch of hatred, here and there. I don’t know if my director knew the details of my childhood or my upbringing. Maybe somebody had told him, or maybe he had seen it himself. I looked inside myself and focussed on those feelings that I’d had that were perhaps closer to Leontes than they were to Patrick Stewart. And I lived the role. I have a very dear friend in Southern California who was an English professor at U.C.L.A. when I met him, and he came to see “The Winter’s Tale” twice. The second time, we went out for dinner. The woman who played my wife got rave reviews, as did another actor who played one of the comedy roles, and mine had been sort of, “Yeah, yeah.” And my friend, Professor David Rodes, said, “More people would have enjoyed what you did if they hadn’t felt that it was too private to be on a stage.” Of course, I took that as a huge compliment.

Then came the major turning point of your career, being cast as Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” You write that you rewatched the series as part of your writing process and that it was an “emotional roller coaster.” Why was that?

I watched the first and second seasons, and I was disappointed with what I saw, particularly the first season, and specifically my work. I found it lacking intimacy. It was very authoritative, but there were few other qualities in him. I tell the story of calling a meeting of my principal fellow cast members and telling them that I thought we were not disciplined enough, that we should not be fooling about on the set as much as we were but taking everything seriously. And one of the cast members said, “Oh, come on, Patrick, we’ve got to have some fun.” And I thumped the chair and said, “We are not here to have fun.” Which they have never let me forget. They taught me so much about loosening up and being freer. All this fed into the feeling I had about Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. I think that the work that we did got better through the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh seasons.

It's interesting to hear that, because you seem like a very fun person. In the past ten years, you’ve become a social-media star: eating your first New York pizza slice, dressed in a lobster costume in your bathtub for Halloween. You’ve let the world see Patrick Stewart’s silly side. How did you get into social media?

My wife and my P.R. company, ID PR. They would often talk to me about social media. It wasn’t in my world at all, and I thought there was something fundamentally silly about it. And then when the time came to promote “Picard” or other work that I’ve done, they began to encourage me to explore social media. My wife, Sunny, was very experienced in the Internet, and she had a lot of good ideas.

Can you tell me about the video you two made, where you demonstrated the “quadruple take”?

I’ll be very honest with you, it partly came about because of . . . [Sir Patrick Stewart mimes smoking a joint.] One weekend afternoon, when we were staying out in the country, we had a hit of weed. With me, it was literally one hit, because I have very low tolerance. I don’t know how the quadruple take came up, but I showed it to my wife, and she said, “Quick, let me shoot that! Do it all again!” So I did, and she said, “I think we should post this.” Oh, it made me squirm! To my astonishment, it absolutely exploded.

For the last part of our interview, I want to play a game I’m calling Drop That Name. I’m going to throw out a name, and I’d love to hear a story about the person. The first one is Paul McCartney.

Popular music has never played a big part in my life, and yet the Beatles impacted me. I thought they were astonishing. I knew they were four working-class lads from Liverpool. O.K., so they were Lancashire, not Yorkshire, like me! [In the mid-sixties,] I was working at Bristol Old Vic Theatre, and there was a young actress in the company—we all knew that she was the girlfriend of Paul McCartney, but nobody ever talked about it. One day, we learned that Paul had come down to Bristol and was going to see the show that night. A few days before that, most of the principal actors had been in the local pub having lunch, and we played a game: If you were given a million pounds, what’s the first thing you would buy? When they came to me, I said, “Oh, there’s no question. An Aston Martin DB4.” They were very expensive and beautiful cars, and I’ve always been a car enthusiast. And so, on the Saturday night that we knew Paul was in the audience, I was in my very tiny dressing room. There was a knock on my door, and I was still in my underwear. I said, “Come on in,” and there was Paul McCartney. He said, “I understand you’re a fan of Aston Martins. Here, drive this.” And he threw me a bunch of keys.

Well, still gasping at the sight of Paul McCartney standing outside my dressing-room door, I said, “No, no, I can’t.” He said, “I’ll tell you what—take us both for a ride. I’ve never been to Bath in my life. So you can drive us to Bath and back.” So we went out, and there at the end of the alleyway that led to the stage door was this silver Aston Martin. It wasn’t a DB4—it was a DB5! And I drove them the twelve miles to Bath and brought them home. Paul kept saying, “Come on, put your foot down!” I didn’t want to, because I was so nervous. I thought, If I crash, all I will be remembered for is that I am the man who killed Paul McCartney and nothing else.

Years and years went by, and I was coming out of a rehearsal room in Covent Garden and saw Paul McCartney pop out of another door and start walking towards me. And he said, “Patrick Stewart! DB5! You drove my car!”

The next dropped name is Vivien Leigh.

When I was twenty, the London Old Vic signed me up to do a tour of the world doing three plays, all of which would star Vivien Leigh. Now, Vivien Leigh in those days was still a huge star, and had won Academy Awards. I said yes before I knew the details of the offer. In the three plays accumulated together, I had a total of four and a half lines! But I was getting a pretty good salary, thirty-five pounds a week. One of the plays was about Marguerite Gautier, a beautiful nineteenth-century upper-class prostitute, and Vivien was to play this role. I was to play her lover, a wealthy elderly man. However, it turned out that he only had one scene, and that scene was silent. I arrived outside her door, which led into a box where Marguerite was sitting in a theatre. All they would see would be me going in and her gesturing for me to come in, then me bending over her hand and kissing it, and then the doors closed. The very first time we did this, I thought, My God, I’m going to be alone with Vivien Leigh! We were in the semi-dark [after the scene], because we couldn’t get out of this box until that section of the play came to a halt. And she said, “Patrick, dear boy, sit down here and tell me, what have you been doing today?” I was so dazzled.

We met like that every week for about fifteen months. Our conversations became pleasanter, funnier. I wouldn’t say sexier, because she was a very properly behaved woman, and her boyfriend at the time was in the company as well. And she came to my twenty-first birthday party. I still have the amber-colored cotton handkerchief that she gave me as a gift, which was soaked in her perfume.

Incredible. O.K., the next name is Al Gore.

I was doing a film [in 2000], and the director of the studio said, “Patrick, Al Gore is going to come and make a speech on one of our stages here. I’ve learned he’s a ‘Star Trek’ fan, so would you mind being the person to introduce him to the audience?” And I said, “Of course. I admire him very much.” He was lovely, very warm, not aloof at all. I introduced him, and he came on and got a great round of applause. I stood in the wings and watched him. But what I saw I had uncomfortable feelings about, because as he started speaking he put one hand into a pocket and talked, and then he would take the hand out of the pocket and gesture and put his other hand into his pocket. He did this all the way through his speech, moving from hand to hand, and it looked too casual. It didn’t look like the leader of a party, speaking about becoming President of the United States.

So, when his speech was over, I said, “Could I just make one suggestion? When you put your hands into your pockets, you look as though you’re showing how relaxed and comfortable you are. But, if you don’t put your hands in your pockets and just stand there and gesture, you’re being open, freer, and we’re looking at a man who is liberated.” And he said, “Thank you very much. That’s great advice.” Well, I watched other moments in his campaign, and he was still putting his hands into his pockets. Then, a few years ago, I went to an event. With a glass of wine in my hand, I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. There he was: Al Gore. And he said, “If I had listened to you, I might be President of the United States.”

Next name drop: Whoopi Goldberg.

In Season Two of “Next Generation,” I was informed that Whoopi Goldberg was joining the cast. She had just been nominated for an Academy Award. I thought, Why would she want to join a sci-fi series that’s already been running for a year? And she was lovely—warm and friendly, and, of course, amusing. One day, they were lighting a scene or changing scenery, and she was sitting alone. So I sat beside her and said, “Whoopi, I don’t understand why you agreed to do this.” And she told me the story of when she was a child, what the original “Star Trek” had meant to her, with Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner. And she said, “There was also a Black woman in the cast [Nichelle Nichols]. And it made me think, One of us must have made it.” It was her presence not just in the role but in the future—one of us is going to make it. I loved that. And we’ve become close friends ever since.

The next one is Sting.

Oh, Lord. This is the most embarrassing one. We were filming “Dune” [in 1983], and I learned that there was someone called Sting joining the cast. I thought, Sting? That’s a weird name. I’d never heard it. He showed up a few days later, incredibly handsome guy. One day, like Whoopi, he was just sitting on his own, and I went over and said, “We haven’t really met. My name is Patrick Stewart. I’ve been told you're a musician. What do you play?” And he said, “Bass.” I said, “You know, I’ve often wondered why people choose to carry that huge instrument around. I mean, some of them are bigger than they are! Why not play the flute or something like that?” He laughed. And I said, “Well, are you with a band?” And he said, “Yes, the Police.” And I said, “You play with a police band?” He understood that I didn’t know who the hell he was. I mean, he couldn’t have been a bigger star.

Sir Ian McKellen.

Ian is one of my very closest and dearest friends. He performed our wedding ceremony, beautifully. One day, I was in Covent Garden in London, and there he was, walking in the other direction. He said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m about to start rehearsing ‘Macbeth.’ ” I was a little awkward saying that, because he had been the Macbeth of my generation, in a production that he did with Judi Dench. And he said, “Oh, can I give you one piece of advice? The line ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’—the important word is and.” “Oh, I see.” He said, “Yes, ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.’ ” He did this on the street in Covent Garden—we got some heads turning, because people were recognizing the two of us. That piece of advice opened up the role to me. Thank you, Sir Ian.

Finally, Queen Elizabeth II.

I have met Her Late Majesty several times, on occasions of contrast in formality, maybe at a Buckingham Palace garden party. I then, to my astonishment, was offered a knighthood. And I was thrilled when I learned that the person who was going to knight me would be Her Majesty, because when I got my O.B.E. it had been presented to me by Prince Charles, who is, I find, a delightful and remarkable person. On the day that I was knighted, she performed the ceremony, and I managed to do it without falling over or tripping on the carpet. When it was over, with everyone who was receiving an award that day, she then had a little chat. She said to me, with a nice smile on her face, “And how long have you been doing this?” And I said, “A very long time, Your Majesty.” ♦


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