Actor Patrick Stewart

The iconic actor reflects on his career, and discusses his starring role in the new film Match, the screen adaptation of the Tony-nominated play.

A true icon in his field, Sir Patrick Stewart has earned global praise for his numerous roles on stage, television, and film. In 1966, Stewart joined the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, and toured internationally with some of the most respected and talented actors from his native Britain. Since then, his iconic roles as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men film series have solidified him as one of the most beloved and recognizable performers in the world. Knighted in 2010 by the Queen, Stewart has not slowed his pace one bit. The Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated actor is currently starring in the new film, Match, in which he plays a high-spirited Juilliard dance instructor. The project is based on the Tony-nominated play by Stephen Belber, who also wrote and directed the film.  

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley

Tonight, a conversation with Sir Patrick Stewart, Golden Globe and Emmy nominee, currently starring in the new film, “Match”, based on the Tony-nominated play by Stephen Belber.

Stewart plays a Juilliard dance instructor who opens his home to a couple intent on interviewing him. The true motive of their intense questioning is ultimately revealed.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with actor Patrick Stewart coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Sir Patrick Stewart back to this program. In the new film, “Match”, written and directed by Stephen Belber, Patrick stars as a Juilliard dance instructor who opens his home to a couple intent on interviewing him.

When their line of questioning becomes personal, the true motive behind the couple’s visit begins to emerge. We start with a scene from “Match” and then our conversation.

[Clip]

Tavis: [Laugh] I was in the floor when I saw that scene. I saw this clip before I actually saw the film. But seeing this clip said to me, I gotta see this. That’s hilarious.

Patrick Stewart: Well, there is more of the same in the movie.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Stewart: Tavis, it’s rare that I get to have opportunities to use dialog like that.

Tavis: Yeah.

Stewart: And Stephen Belber has written–well, it was originally a stage play and he adapted it for himself for the screen and directed it for the screen too. And he handed the three of us a wonderful piece of work.

Tavis: For those who have not seen the play, the story line, without giving it away, is…

Stewart: No, no.

Tavis: I’ll let you do this. How would you describe this?

Stewart: Well, if we are talking about it thematically, it is about choices that we might make early on in our lives which don’t seem so important, but can later on come back to just zap you. That’s what happens in this story. My character is a teacher at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. He teaches classical ballet. He was a dancer and he was a choreographer and now he’s a teacher.

There is a real man behind my character. The details of the story are not his story, but much of what he has done in his life is shown in the character that I play. I don’t think I’ve ever played a living character before, at least not one who I wanted to spend some time with [laugh].

And we had lunches and dinners. He took me to his apartment and we had many conversations there. He showed me his knitting sweater collection because my character in the movie knits. Yes, Patrick Stewart is seen knitting [laugh].

Tavis: Knitting, yes [laugh].

Stewart: There are many firsts in this movie for me. And he’s now a teacher at Juilliard, as I said, and he agrees to meet with a young couple because she is writing her thesis on 20th American classical dance which my character has been involved in all his life, and I agree to meet with them. But it’s not why they’re there.

Tavis: Yeah, the true motive, as I said earlier…

Stewart: Is something different.

Tavis: And we won’t say that.

Stewart: No, sir.

Tavis: We won’t tell that part.

Stewart: No, sir. Thank you.

Tavis: Since you were last here, I was looking at your life since you were last on this program. You’ve been so kind to come on the program so many times, but it’s been a couple of years since you were here last.

I was just looking at all the things that have–I mean, major things have happened in your life since you were here last, aside from your brilliant work as a thespian. So you carried the torch in 2012 for the Olympics. How cool was that? How cool was that?

Stewart: It was one of the experiences of my life. I have been an athlete and a sportsman. Not any more, you understand, but when I was younger, I was a sprinter and a hurdler. And the Olympics had been a major part of my–I remember the first post-war Olympics in 1948 held in London, of course, bomb-chaos London.

And I even managed to get to the L.A. Olympics and to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. So to find one day that I’d received a letter inviting me to carry, for only a quarter of a mile, the torch was such a thrill to me.

Tavis: That’s long enough [laugh]. I mean, you look great, but you’re not a spring chicken. So a quarter mile, that’s about enough, isn’t it?

Stewart: And I came in here thinking I was a spring chicken! What happened between then and now? Suddenly I’m a kind of tired old…

Tavis: More than a quarter mile, I don’t want damage to be done.

Stewart: Let me tell you about that. I took this thing seriously. Somebody tipped me off that the torch was quite heavy. So do you know what a walking stick is? The thing that you fold out and you sit on? I have a very heavy version of one of those and a flat level of road outside my house out in the country.

This is not in Brooklyn. This is in the U.K. So I measured out a half mile and I thought, if I can jog at a decent pace for half a mile, then I would rest for five minutes and I would jog back the half mile, I can do a quarter of a mile with the torch.

Tavis: So you practiced this thing.

Stewart: Two things went wrong [laugh]

Tavis: Okay.

Stewart: When they gave me the torch, it was many times heavier. That was brass. You can imagine what a brass object that big weighed. And I was the last person in our morning team to run. I was going to be handed the torch from another runner. Well, not handed, but we lit the torches one from the other one.

I got off the bus, the very last person, and I was at the bottom of a hill. I said, well, where’s my other guy coming from? They said, oh, he’s coming along here, and I was facing a quarter mile that was all up a pretty steep hill.

Tavis: But you did it.

Stewart: I did it, but it was hard. And I did think, if I collapse and die right now halfway through this run, at least I’m gonna get some great press out of this, you know [laugh]. Okay, I won’t be back on Tavis’s show anymore. But I made it, I made it, but was I glad to see the finishing line.

Tavis: But it’s such a high honor, though. It really is a high honor.

Stewart: It’s an incredible honor.

Tavis: I assume–I mean, your story notwithstanding–I assume that in the great pantheon of things that you have done in this career, that’s got to be…

Stewart: Highlights.

Tavis: Highlights, yeah.

Stewart: Huge highlight. Not only that, but when the games started, I was invited to go down onto the track in the middle of the day, in the middle of one of the big stadium days, and sold-out arena and the athletes close to. For somebody who loves sport of all kind, it was an exhilarating moment.

Tavis: So I mentioned three things that you have done since I had last saw you. The second, you kind of teed off already or teed up. So Brooklyn is like all that now. It’s like everybody is trying to get to Brooklyn and you now have a place and reside in Brooklyn.

Stewart: How cool is that?

Tavis: That is cool. Well, you’re cool, but you and Brooklyn together, that’s really cool.

Stewart: There’s always room for more cool, I find [laugh]. But it wasn’t my idea. When I met my wife now going on seven years ago, she was living and working in Brooklyn. I was temporarily working in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, doing a play.

We met in a restaurant and, as the relationship developed and became stronger and stronger, it was a kind of transatlantic relationship because I was living in the U.K. then. When the time came that we knew we wanted to be together, she made it clear she didn’t want to leave Brooklyn.

By that time, I had fallen in love with Brooklyn. It reminded me so much of where I grew up. The diversity of the population, the kindness of the population, the politeness and courtesy, people do not expect that necessarily in Brooklyn. I went to…

Tavis: In New York, period [laugh].

Stewart: No. Well, it sounds as though everybody’s in the middle of a terrible row. They’re not. They’re just talking, but that’s the way it is in New York. I went to Brooklyn first of all in 1971 with a production from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It was considered so unsafe at that time, particularly the neighborhood of Fort Greene. We were bussed in from Manhattan. The bus would go around, pick us all up. There was a list of names. We were ticked off as we got on the bus, ticked off as we got off it [laugh].

And truly we were advised it would be better if you don’t move beyond one block from the perimeter of the theater. It is a different place now. Now there’s all this controversy about gentrification and I think that’s an unfortunate and inaccurate term.

It is not gentrification that’s going on. In fact, the neighborhood is being preserved. It is being improved. Money is being spent in Brooklyn. The schools are getting better. The facilities are getting better. The entertainment that’s available in Brooklyn now is fantastic.

There was a time it used to be bam or nothing. Now you can see all kinds of shows every night of the week. It is a great place to live. And when Gowanus becomes the Venice of Brooklyn–I see your…

Tavis: I’ve been reading this, yeah [laugh].

Stewart: I mean, who knows where it will end? But you’re right. A lot of very cool people are moving into that neighborhood.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate just for half a second, and how dare I do this to Sir Patrick Stewart, but I’ll do it anyway. For those who make this gentrification argument, I think the point–I do not speak for them, but I have many friends who live in Brooklyn that have been born and raised in Brooklyn.

I think the argument is that there’s nothing wrong–I mean, everybody. I’m a homeowner. Everybody wants to see the tax base. They want to see the property values go up. They want to see the neighborhood cleaned up. They want to see the schools get better. The question is, for whom? And who’s being pushed out in the process? And is the social fabric changing? Is the culture changing?

I know these are fights and debates they have in Brooklyn all the time. They don’t need me to weigh in on PBS. But how do you respond to folk who have that concern that the neighborhood is changing?

Stewart: It’s a very potent argument. Luckily, we have in Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York, a man who takes this very, very seriously. So the new controversy is all surrounding what I think in the U.K. we call affordable housing, but maybe it comes under another title here, community housing.

And de Blasio is insisting that, if you want to build up a new high-rise or a new domestic development, it has to have a high percentage of affordable housing as well. And this is going to have a significant impact on all areas of Brooklyn, but it’s like, as some people would say, it’s a disease.

Having grown up in a very poor working class, blue collar neighborhood of the north of England, I wish something like that had happened to my neighborhood because it’s spreading outwards and outwards. Neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens that many people would not have considered living in are coming up and up.

Okay, property prices can be brutal sometimes, but following through on what Mayor de Blasio is doing, I think that we’re going to see on the whole the majority of changes are for the good.

Tavis: Well, if there is one borough that he is particularly passionate about, for obvious reasons…

Stewart: He was a neighbor until he went to live in Gracie Mansion.

Tavis: You see that? It’d be Brooklyn. So you got married, you live in Brooklyn, you carried the torch. Speaking of Brooklyn, are there Trekkies in Brooklyn? And how do they treat you as you walk the streets of the borough?

Stewart: Tavis, there are Trekkies…

Tavis: Everywhere. I knew that was coming. I set myself up for that. They’re everywhere.

Stewart: You know where they aren’t?

Tavis: Where?

Stewart: Well, there is not a public Star Trek appreciation group in China. Star Trek was never shown in China and this is an interesting and amusing fact. It was considered revisionist. Now given that it is…

Tavis: [Laugh] It’s about the future, but it’s revisionist. That is funny, yeah.

Stewart: On the other hand, “X-Men” is huge in China. So there, I’m Professor Xavier. The Star Trek fans on the whole get a bad press. You know, because there are one or two people who like to shave their heads and put on the Captain’s uniform, you know, people think they’re idiots to do this kind of thing.

I don’t feel that. The support of the fans kept the original series on, brought it back as movies, and kept us going for seven years, and I have nothing but respect for these guys.

Tavis: Two things come to mind. For all the money to be made by the billions of folk who live in China, I’m surprised that somebody who owns and controls the interest to Star Trek has not quite yet figured out how to get…

Stewart: You don’t think maybe it’s already happening?

Tavis: Somebody’s working on it as we speak [laugh]. There’s just too many people in China for Star Trek not to be seen in China, but I don’t know. That’s another conversation.

Do you recall the first time you realized–to your point about these folk, you know, some being labeled crazy. They’re not crazy. They love the show. But do you recall the first time you realized what you had on your hands in terms of how the audience of fans felt about this enterprise, pardon the pun?

Stewart: There were two occasions. The first was when Robert Justman, one of our producers–in fact, the man who “discovered” me at UCLA–Robert Justman said to me on the day that our show aired, the pilot episode was first seen. He said, “More people will watch you act this evening than have seen you act in total of the whole of your career” which at that time was 27 years. That was a reason for a pause for reflection.

The other was nearly a year later when I finally agreed to attend what my colleagues had been attending for some time, a Start Trek convention. And I went to Denver to do this, taken to what looked a big building. I went in a little back door and they said, okay, you’re on in 10 minutes.

And I said, is there anybody out there? And they said yes. And I said, oh, well, good. I just, you know, wanted to be reassured I wasn’t going to be talking to rows of empty seats. Well, they announced me and I walked on.

And in all modesty, in that moment, I felt what it must have been like–what is like–to be Paul McCartney, to be Sting, to be the Rolling Stones at the Hollywood Bowl [laugh]. I honestly couldn’t deal with it, the appreciation.

Tavis: Not that there’s anything you could do about this at this point in your career, but I assume that, if that ends up being the thing or certainly at the top of the list of things for which you are remembered, you’re okay with that?

Stewart: Absolutely. If it all ended tonight…

Tavis: Please, not on my set, please not on this set.

Stewart: No, no. Let’s finish the show.

Tavis: Yeah, please [laugh]. Do you know what that would do to my bookings if you just keeled over on the set right here? That would not be good.

Stewart: Yeah. I mean, I was thinking if it all ended for all of us, actually, Tavis.

Tavis: Okay, okay [laugh].

Stewart: I mean, why should I be the only one to go? Come on, guys! Volunteer! Go with me!

Tavis: Narcissistic me. I’m just thinking of myself. Yeah, yeah, I guess. Okay [laugh].

Stewart: I’m immensely proud of the work that we did for seven years on the series, 178 episodes and the four films, very, very proud.

We worked hard to make them the best they could possibly be in storytelling, in adventure, in excitement and in promoting conversation about important contemporary social ideas as well as other kinds of–you know, it got a lot of people, I understand, talking about Shakespeare for the first time, he said, giving you a cue you thought you would never get.

Tavis: Oh, no, no. Thank you. I appreciate that. He’s good. This guy’s good, man. He’s really good. When he walked on the set, I said to him, Sir Patrick, I was in the car this morning on the way to the set to tape the show this evening. And I was thinking what and how I was gonna get into this Shakespeare conversation.

It’s a part of our lore. Patrick Stewart has never been on this program where we didn’t have a conversation about Shakespeare. So I said to him I don’t know how we’re gonna get into this today. But the brilliant mind that you are, you just led me right into a Shakespeare conversation, so thank you for that. I appreciate that.

Stewart: You’re very welcome, Tavis. It occurs to me, you know, if things don’t work out for me in the acting world, well, somewhere here…

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. No, please no, not on PBS. I don’t need anybody else competing for this seat. But since you went there, I guess there’s no particular question, but, again to my point, we never have you on this program without having something to say about Shakespeare. So at the beginning of the year, what Shakespearian formulation do you want me to wrestle with?

Stewart: Well, earlier one of your colleagues here on the set was talking to me about having seen in New York 20-odd years ago a production of The Tempest, a production by George A. Wolfe, one of the most exciting and colorful and lively and entertaining versions of The Tempest because The Tempest often isn’t colorful and enlivening and entertaining, that I have ever been involved in.

We did it in Central Park in the Delacorte Theater, then we moved it to Broadway. It makes me reflect on some of the fantastic language used in that play ’cause I was talking about ending it all.

For instance, “Our revels now are ended. Those are actors, as I foretold you, are all spirits and have vanished into air, into thin air. And like this weak, insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Now halfway through that, I got…

Tavis: That’s my man [laugh]. He set that thing up and rode into it and delivered it beautifully as if…

Stewart: Did we rehearse that?

Tavis: No, we did not rehearse it! That’s what I’m trying to tell you! And you haven’t done that, what, in 20 years probably?

Stewart: Oh, no, no. They are lines that I think about a lot and actually I have to say before the phones start ringing, I got some of them wrong. But you didn’t notice?

Tavis: No, I didn’t notice.

Stewart: That’s okay. That’s how good we are at making this [bleep] up when we have to, you know.

Tavis: We’re a team, we’re a team, we’re a team. His words are so enduring, to your point, so enduring for you. Why? Why do you keep coming back to them?

Stewart: I don’t know. I don’t know. By the way, I should say I first played Prospero when I was 14.

Tavis: 14.

Stewart: So I’ve been saying those lines for–I played him six times in different productions. I cannot explain why at the age of 12 my English teacher who I wish he were here ’cause he’s still alive, living in the U.K., put a copy of The Merchant of Venice into my hand and said, “Stewart, you’re Shylock, so start reading.”

So I started reading and he said, “No, Stewart! Not to yourself! This is not a poem. This is drama. Out loud. Read it out loud.” And I was not an academic boy. I was not at an academic school, quite the contrary.

But it never puzzled me or scared me or intimidated me. And I don’t know why. With some people, it’s music. You know, some people take up the violin or the piano or the guitar, and they’re instantly comfortable and at home. I was that way with blank verse and I don’t know how or why except that I didn’t know it then.

I was in my 20s when finally I was introduced to a part of my history. But my grandfather, who I’d never known, he was a bad guy. He deserted my grandmother and four children and went off, allegedly came to the United States.

He had been an actor and I like to think he might have been–I’ve been able to find out nothing about him. His name was–if there’s anybody out there who knew a William Stewart who was an actor, but he was a smart…

Tavis: If Skip Gates is watching at Harvard with his program, he’ll find him for you, yeah [laugh].

Stewart: You know, it’s pretty certain, knowing the little I know about him, he would have been here under a different name. So genes? Genetic, maybe?

Tavis: So pivot for me from Shakespeare to “Match”.

Stewart: It feels that a pivot really isn’t necessary because what I do in “Match” I have essentially been doing all my life, which I think now is 53 years as a professional actor. That is, taking the language, the text, the script of the play, and finding in that all of the clues that I need to know to create a person who is Patrick Stewart and yet other than Patrick Stewart at the same time, and trying to live his life instead of your own.

One of the great things of being an actor is that we, in order to do our job, have to put ourselves into other peoples’ shoes and that is the one thing I wish all of us could do more and more in every aspect of our lives, in every aspect of the work that we do and the things that we care about. What does it feel like to stand where that person is standing?

Tavis: That’s always the question. How we develop–I think the answer is that’s how we develop the empathy that’s required to come into the fullness of our own humanity by putting ourselves in other peoples’ shoes.

Stewart: You said it perfectly.

Tavis: No, no, no. This is why he’s one of my all-time favorite guests. He is welcome here today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. Whenever you’re doing nothing, you come hang out, which is never. You’re always busy doing something. The new project, the new film, is called “Match” starring one Sir Patrick Stewart. Delighted, sir, to see you again.

Stewart: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you, my friend.

Stewart: Great pleasure to be here.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: January 16, 2015 at 9:34 pm