Actor Patrick Stewart

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Emmy- and Grammy-nominated actor , of Star Trek and X-Men fame, explains what young people can learn from Shakespeare, his affinity for the stage and his feelings about knighthood.

Patrick Stewart's career spans some 50 years. For seven seasons, the Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning actor starred on TV in Star Trek: The Next Generation—in a role that made his a household name and that he reprised in the film franchise. He's also been in blockbusters like the X-Men films. For the classically-trained actor, theater was an outlet for a troubled home life in his native Britain, and acting became a lifelong obsession. Stewart is chancellor of the University of Huddersfield and was knighted for his services to drama.


Tavis: Delighted to have Patrick Stewart on this program. The terrific actor has enjoyed success in a wide variety of roles including, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men series. Beginning April 28, though, right here on PBS, you can catch him in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. So here now a sneak preview of Hamlet.
Tavis: Ahhh (laughter).
Patrick Stewart: Tune in next week (laughter).
Tavis: I was just thinking on the way in here, what makes this stuff relevant hundreds of years later? Why are we still turned on and fascinated by this stuff?
Stewart: It’s the only question and it’s the big question because there’s never been a talent on this scale. There’s never been, certainly not in the world of dramatic literature, a man who was able – in the words of his contemporary, Ben Johnson, after he had died said, “This was not a man for an age, but for all time” and he said that a year or two after Shakespeare had died.
They already knew that this was a voice that was going to go on and on and on resonating. I spent a big chunk of my life with his words in my mouth and I never feel as though I’m speaking 400-year-old dialog. People don’t hear it in that way either. It is a unique and special talent that this one guy we should give thanks for had.
Tavis: As an actor, what is it about his work that resonates with you that makes you want to do it and feel comfortable delivering it?
Stewart: Why does a 12-year-old with minimum education and a poor background connect with William Shakespeare? It always felt easy and accessible to me. It was never frightening. I was initially excited by the sound of the words.
When I was three or four, my brother who was 18 years older than me was in the Royal Air Force. When he came home on leave, he had met somebody who loved music and loved dramatic literature. So my brother would sit by the bed and would read me bedtime stories, but they were Macbeth and Hamlet and King Lear. I didn’t understand a word of it, Tavis, but I loved the sounds that they made. It was exotic and exciting and strange.
So when at the age of 12 or 13, I began to speak out loud some of these words, it was always familiar to me and it always meant something to my life. It was never something out there that I had to struggle for. I was able to relate it to how I was living too, which is what I try to do now when I’m doing the stuff.
Tavis: To your brilliant point now, when you were just a child, you were relating it as you said a moment ago to the way that you were living. I wonder what there is in a contemporary sense for young folk to learn from this material that can be related to the lives that they are living.
Stewart: We’ve got a great instance in this film which we’re going to see in a few days because the principal character, Hamlet, a young man who has lost his father, disconnected from his mother and from his mother’s new husband, disconnected from society, feeling outside of it and confused as to where he should go and what he should do with his life.
I think this alone is going to speak to a lot of young people not able to act and potentially on a path which might lead to his own destruction. When you have an actor like David Tennant who already speaks to young people from his work as the science fiction hero, Dr. Who, people will connect with the character and with David.
Also, David has a way of using this language which makes it sound like spontaneous everyday language. I know no one is going to struggle with this in any way.
Tavis: Brilliant thespian that you are, you don’t play one character; you play two roles.
Stewart: Yeah. Well, they’re two brothers and it’s always seemed to me to make sense that, if possible, you should cast the same actor so that there are echoes of the other person in whoever is speaking that you can identify them as brothers.
Yeah, well, that’s a little shot of me over your shoulder (laughter) which, I don’t know about you, but it scared me when I saw it. The first time I was in this play, which was over 40 years ago, the same actor played both roles and that influenced me into feeling that, if ever I got the chance to do it – the problem for a director is that, if you cast one actor in both roles, you lose a juicy part to offer to another actor.
Tavis: You get two checks for that?
Stewart: No, sir, no.
Tavis: Just thought I’d ask (laughter).
Stewart: If only.
Tavis: Just thought I’d ask so when they ask me to do two roles, I’m gonna ask for two checks.
Stewart: It doesn’t work that way.
Tavis: It doesn’t quite work that way, yeah. You were in this 40 years ago, as you said. Have you ever played Hamlet?
Stewart: No. I was never a juvenile, Tavis. I was always a character actor. I was a character actor when I was 16. I lost my hair. By the time I was 19, I looked pretty much like this. Actually, I looked worse than this when I was 19. I’m gradually improving.
Tavis: I want to ask you about that, but go ahead.
Stewart: And now I’ve forgotten the question because I suddenly remember that I have a plaster on the top of my head. It’s suddenly come to me. I hit my head getting into a car yesterday. I do it all the time because I don’t have anything to warn me that my head is near a hard surface. You know, like cat’s whiskers.
I’ve been thinking that I should have one of those devices they have on cars when you’re reversing and they go beep, beep, beep, beep. I apologize for that.
Tavis: Just so you know, no one had seen that until you mentioned it.
Stewart: And now everybody’s talking about nothing else.
Tavis: Now everybody’s leaning into their HD television trying to see the thing on the top of your head (laughter).
Stewart: I’d like to say I was in a barroom brawl, but I wasn’t.
Tavis: I was asking about whether or not you’d ever played Hamlet and you were saying.
Stewart: No, because I was never a juvenile and Hamlet is always played by good looking, cute guys and I was neither of those things.
You know, one of my first jobs as a professional actor when I was 19, I played an 85-year-old man, no makeup. That’s a lie. I did wear a little makeup. But a few years ago, I got to do one of Hamlet’s soliloquies in a recital program when you’re doing little bits of this and little bits of that. I thought I could do it.
It meant something to me, so I’m ready now. I’m ready to play Hamlet, but no one’s going to ask me. I sometimes think the closest I could get to it will be if I directed the play and then I could have a kind of subliminal relationship with the role through the actor who was playing it.
Tavis: You mentioned your hair and I want to come back to that because there’s something here seriously that I want to go pick up on which is, as you well know, this hair business for men is a billion dollar industry worldwide.
Stewart: Oh, you mean saving it?
Tavis: Saving it, putting it back, replacing it, holding on to it, making it grow. It’s a billion dollar business. When you say you lost your hair at the age of 19, there are two things here.
One, how did you navigate past that at 19, number one. And number two, I mean, part of what we know about you and love you and makes you instantly recognizable for us is the dome. There’s Patrick Stewart. You’re so known by this head.
Stewart: Well, that’s now, but at 19, that wasn’t how it was. I thought that a large part of my life had ended; certainly any romantic aspect of my life will be over. Who could possibly go for a guy, you know, who’s 19 and has no hair? The prospects were grim.
Tavis: Did it run in your family, hair loss?
Stewart: Yeah, yeah, yeah, all of us. My son, too, who is an actor, same thing. He looks great. Luckily, we’ve all had half decent heads and that’s been a compensation of a kind.
One of the nicest things that ever happened to me, one horrible rainy, windy evening, working day ending in London, everybody’s rustling and hustling down the street to get in the subway. I walked past a guy and he’s got a hat on, a Trilby, and he suddenly calls out my name and I turn around and he lifts his had off and he’s bald. He says, “Thank you, thank you.” (Laughter) So there are compensations.
Plus, I save hundreds of thousands of dollars in hair dresses and hair preparations, you know. Just a scrubbing brush is all I need.
Tavis: I mean, I ask that seriously because I know there are a lot of guys because of this billion dollar industry who struggle with trying to – Andre Agassi was on this program a few months ago and we had a bit of a conversation –
Stewart: – another role model.
Tavis: Yeah.
Stewart: You know, there was a time he had all that.
Tavis: But in his book, he talks about it was a wig.
Stewart: It was a wig?
Tavis: Absolutely.
Stewart: Extensions, maybe?
Tavis: He talked about that in his book, that he was wearing a – he would wear the headband to hold it down. He always wore the hair with the headband around it. He had not gotten to that point at that age being comfortable with his hair loss.
Stewart: Does he talk about any moment when he was able to take off the wig?
Tavis: Oh, absolutely.
Stewart: And it was a significant moment?
Tavis: His wife at that time, Brooke Shields, to her credit, is the one that talked him into it.
Stewart: Well, I’m a big fan and I admire him for that. I had a similar moment. I had a comb-over. You know what I mean? And when the wind blows, it goes like this.
Tavis: Yeah, the old Rudy Giuliani look.
Stewart: Exactly (laughter), but let’s not go there.
Tavis: But his new wife talked him into getting – I mean, it takes the right woman, I guess.
Stewart: It takes a woman!
Tavis: Yeah, exactly (laughter).
Stewart: Well, in my case, it took a Hungarian black belt judo player who’s also a director. I had lunch one day with him and his wife and lunch was over and they both left the room and I thought they’re going to make coffee.
Suddenly, my arms are gripped from behind me and pulled back by this guy and his wife appeared with a pair of scissors and I knew exactly what she was going to do. I began to yell and scream and struggle, but he was so strong that I couldn’t move. He had me pinned.
She lifted up my hair and it all went. I was screaming and howling at them. Then he came around, he never let go of me and he knelt in front of me and he said, “Now be yourself. No more hiding.” George [unintelligible].
Tavis: Wow.
Stewart: You’ve fallen silent, Tavis.
Tavis: You got me with that.
Stewart: I wonder if Andre says anything like that, about hiding? Because that’s what you do.
Tavis: He talks about it in the book. Beyond the hair thing, though, I wonder if you can speak to me about this. That seems to be good advice for all of us, those of us who have a full head of hair, about how we journey to a place where we are comfortable being ourselves. Tell me about that journey for you.
Stewart: For me, it came through the stage. I certainly wasn’t comfortable being myself as a child or in the environment I was in. I’m on record, so this is nothing new in saying my home life was difficult. There was danger in my home life. There was danger at school.
When I was 12 and my English teacher put me on a stage, I found that I was on the safest place I had ever been. Nothing bad could happen to me on that stage. I didn’t mind the bright lights. I didn’t mind the people sitting out there. I never have done.
The main thing was that I could become someone else in a different time and in a different place and that shifting over into another person helped me to feel comfortable about myself. So when I’m on stage, when I’m working, if I’m doing what you’ve just seen here, I now feel most myself because acting became for me the only means I had of communicating who I was.
So although I’m playing King Claudius, King of Denmark, actually no. What you’re looking at there is Patrick Stewart being himself. Does that make sense?
Tavis: It makes sense. Let me challenge you on that, though, because I don’t want people to misread this and I don’t want to misread it. I see the value in that.
The flip side of that, though, is that too many times we wear the mask and we don’t want to be who we are. Hiding behind another character keeps us from dealing with who we really are. I’m not saying you’re guilty of that. I’m just asking you to speak on that.
Stewart: I understand. The mask is what I used to wear when I performed. I used to believe that acting was a process of putting on a disguise, of becoming someone else. Then luckily, thanks to the influence of clever people and people who cared about me, I was able to take off the masks, able to throw away the disguises and, first and foremost, primarily to be myself.
I saw over your shoulder a shot of me as Macbeth, a bad man, mass murderer, cruel, child killer. The fact is, although I have never done any of those things, the potential for that lies inside me. So when I play that character, I find that potential in me, so it is as if these things might have happened or might have become Patrick Stewart. So it’s always an expression of myself and the actors I have most admired in my life.
You take Jack Nicholson. I know it’s true. I met him once, nice guy. But if you want to know about Jack Nicholson, you start with his first movies. You start with Easy Rider, say, and you go through Five Easy Pieces and you watch his movies and that’s how you know about Jack Nicholson because that’s all these varieties of characters, but it is the man inside that speaks through the work that he does.
That has always been for me the kind of acting that most excited and interested me. I didn’t know it at the beginning. I didn’t know that I was attracted to the man inside the performance.
Tavis: You’re submerging so deeply and I’m trying to stay with you. The deeper you go, I’m trying to submerge with you.
Stewart: Oh, you led me there.
Tavis: I’m trying to hang with you because now you’ve said something I want to go back and get as well, which is that when you play these characters, Macbeth you were speaking a moment ago, what Macbeth did, Patrick Stewart is capable of doing.
Stewart: Yes.
Tavis: And yet there are a lot of people watching this right now – and I’ve had these conversations countless times in my life where someone goes off the range and does something crazy or strange or evil or illegal, immoral, unethical, and people are so quick to say, “I could never do that.”
I learned years ago to stop saying what I could never do because I firmly believe now as an adult that you don’t know what you will do until you are caught in said situation. So when you say to me that I’m channeling Macbeth because Patrick Stewart could do these things, you got to tell me more about this.
Stewart: Actors have a thing we call sense memory and that means that no experience is ever wasted on us, but it can make us sometimes uncomfortable people to be with because there is always an aspect of the actor that is monitoring an experience. So you can be in the middle of a profound and emotional experience.
I don’t know what, you can be breaking up with your girlfriend, for example, but there is something that is monitoring what’s happening, watching, observing and storing away for future use in that experience. You’re saying to yourself, “Oh, that’s what it feels like when all of a sudden I think I’m going to be mugged in the street and I feel threatened. That’s what it feels like. Store this away. Remember it. It’s important.”
We do that all the time. It builds up this bank balance of experience and it’s authentic. It belongs to us. All right, I don’t know what it’s like to cut a child’s throat. It happens in Macbeth. But I have to imaginatively put myself into that place, so maybe I can find some parallel.
I don’t know. You have to imaginatively process an experience until you can find the connection and that’s why the work that actors do – well, I can only speak for myself – that they do in private, alone in a room, when you put yourself into those situations imaginatively and let them become you. Once you’ve done that, you can then be there and you can tap into that every single time.
Tavis: Not that other actors don’t in this town – and you and I have just met for the first time a few minutes ago – but I get the sense from this conversation that you take this craft very seriously, very seriously.
Stewart: It’s my life. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t act. It is really my sole means of pure self-expression. I can’t paint, I can’t play. You know, I’d never make a politician.
Tavis: That must mean you’re an honest guy (laughter).
Stewart: (Laughter) Oh, that’s a low shot.
Tavis: That was a low shot, wasn’t it? You must be too honest for that or a truth-teller, one of the two.
Stewart: I mean, I’m very active in politics in the UK. I always have been all my life. My first act of civil disobedience was when I was five years old at the first post-war election. My father, who’s a trade unionist and a passionate socialist, had given me a placard and I was walking up and down the polling station with my placard. It said – I remember the name – Vote for Mr. Paling – who was our labor candidate.
A policeman told me to move along or he would tell my father and I said no because that’s my father over there with the other placard (laughter). So politics plays a big part in my life and I do find those who are involved in it who have the courage and the bravery to take on the business of politics fascinating people.
Tavis: I don’t want to color this question deliberately, but when I say Star Trek to Patrick Stewart, you think what?
Stewart: Oh, laughter largely.
Tavis: Laughter?
Stewart: Yes.
Tavis: Wow, you got me on that one.
Stewart: A few weeks ago, I came into Los Angeles and it just so happened that every one of the principal cast members of Next Generation was in town and I had something to celebrate, so I got everyone together and we sat down for dinner, all of us. Some brought their wives and partners with them.
My memory of that evening, apart from good food and wine, was laughter. It remains the dominant sense memory of those days on the set of the Enterprise was laughing sometimes uncontrollably. Directors would go on their knees – I’d seen it happen – and say, “Please, guys, say the lines seriously once.” We’d say, “Hey, roll the camera. We’ll do it seriously.” If you don’t roll the camera, we’re just going to fool around.
I’m painting a grossly exaggerated picture of what life was like because we worked very hard and very seriously and I’m really proud of that series.
Tavis: And yet you have, obviously, an affinity for the stage.
Stewart: One person said it better than me. Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish director who is responsible for some of the great films of the 20th century, was also a theater director and ran his own company. He was asked this question. He said, “I love cinema, but the theater is my life.” Nothing to be done.
Tavis: I like that. I should give him his proper respects or, who said in the hood, his props, Sir Patrick Stewart. That was pretty cool, huh?
Stewart: You said it beautifully.
Tavis: No, no.  Not my saying it, but being Sir Patrick Stewart is pretty cool.
Stewart: Oh, I think it might just be the coolest thing that I’ve ever known (laughter) and it’s very recent. So, you know, when I hear somebody use the title, which I do not expect or ask for, I turn around to look and see who they’re talking to because it’s still a little uncomfortable.
Tavis: He didn’t expect it or ask for it, but I’ll say it again. Sir Patrick Stewart can be seen right here on PBS in Hamlet and soon Macbeth and we are delighted to be showcasing it here on PBS. I’m honored to have met you and talked to you so much. I enjoyed it.
Stewart: It’s mutual. Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm