It’s hard to believe that Sir Patrick Stewart got into the business of acting because he didn’t like himself. It’s more difficult to fathom that even today, after iconic performances as Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier, he still feels the same way.
Stewart has always used acting as a form of escapism, starting with his days at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. In front of an audience, he felt safe. It’s the same way he felt safe when he went to the cinema on his own, wiping his tears when the credits rolled because he didn’t want to go home. He lived in a one-up-one-down house with no washroom, no hot water, no kitchen and an abusive father.
“On stage, I was not being Patrick Stewart, of whom I didn’t have a particularly high opinion,” said Stewart last week, at the 14th Dubai International Film Festival, where he was honoured for his career. “I was someone else. I so much more enjoyed being someone else than being Patrick Stewart. It’s something of a confession, but I have to say: I still feel the same way about what I do.”
This doubt in himself lasted long into his career. From the very beginning, he wanted to work with a theatrical company — an ensemble of people that he could do project after project with.
“Maybe because I felt safe in that kind of environment, not having to stand out on my own,” he said. For 12 years, he remained in the world of theatre. He was utterly content, particularly now that he was getting leading roles.
“One colleague said, ‘Come on, Patrick, there’s a world elsewhere. There’s other things you could do,’” he recounted.
In 1986, he would finally be thrown into that elsewhere world. During a course of public lectures Stewart was involved in at UCLA, he was spotted by a co-producer for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“There I was, doing some Shakespeare, and he turned to his wife and said, ‘We’ve found the captain.’”
Showrunner Gene Roddenberry was not convinced. It took six months to confirm Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a role that would become seminal in his career. It took much longer for Stewart to believe his luck.
“I was in denial about it for a long time. For nearly two years, my colleagues on Star Trek used to say, ‘Oh, Patrick has a poverty mentality.’ I grew up poor. I was very much influenced by that,” said Stewart.
He also had to stomach the widespread doubt around what they were doing. Every person in Hollywood warned him it was not going to work out.
“You cannot revive an iconic series like Star Trek. You do six months, make some money for the first time in your life, get a suntan and go home,” he remembers hearing.
But fifteen years, seven seasons and four films later, he had proved them wrong. “I realised how true that saying was — in Hollywood, nobody knows anything about anything,” said Stewart.
A LIKELY FRIENDSHIP
There was one Hollywood counterpart, however, he could trust. Sir Ian McKellen, now counted among Stewart’s dearest friends, had started started in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but McKellen received his big break first. In fact, Stewart was a fan before McKellen even knew he existed.
“One night, I was doing a performance of the Merchant of Venice, and word went round Ian McKellen is in the house, he’s sitting out front. I thought I might freeze because he was out there,” said Stewart.
It was not until they were both cast in the X-Men — Stewart as Professor X, McKellen as Magneto — that they really struck a friendship.
“We had adjoining trailers. We hung out and drank tea and coffee and, maybe when it got into the evening, something a little stronger,” said Stewart.
They had a large amount in common. They were both Northerners — “he’s a Lancastrian and I’m a Yorkshireman” — they both loved theatre, and they were both obsessive over Shakespeare.
“It seemed crazier that we had not connected sooner, but I’m so glad that we did,” said Stewart.
Stewart’s latest and final X-Men hurrah came this year in the form of Logan, a dark and heart-wrenching drama that was more human than Herculean. It was always going to be Hugh Jackman’s last appearance as Wolverine, a role he had been playing for 17 years, but Stewart had only realised he wanted to say goodbye to Professor X after he had watched the movie.
“There will never be a more perfect time and opportunity to say au revoir to Charles Xavier than what I have just seen,” he said. “Since then, of course, people have come up with a multitude of ideas which would mean I wouldn’t have said goodbye to X-Men, but we’ll see.”
Does he think it smart to pass the baton to Dafne Keen, who plays the young, sullen and totally captivating mutant Laura in the film?
“I do. I can’t say anything more than that, but she is remarkable,” said Stewart, with a fond smile.
Keen was only 11 years old when they were filming. They spent days — “but it felt like weeks” — in a truck together, in some of the hottest conditions Louisiana had ever known.
“It was not pleasant, but we all got on so well. She was such a delightful, interesting and entertaining person. We became really good friends,” said Stewart.
THE GOOD FIGHT
It would also seem that the Star Trek baton was being passed on to a new generation. What did Stewart make of this year’s reboot of the franchise, Star Trek: Discovery?
“I think that’s marvellous. I have seen none of it, nor indeed the most recent film, but that the franchise continues gives me great satisfaction,” he commented.
“We were just a part of it. We were a significant part of it — we probably did more Star Trek work than any of the other groups that there have been.”
Stewart couldn’t count the amount of times he’d been approached by fans because of the show’s socially and politically charged themes.
“It must be hundreds [of times] now, that I have been stopped in the street or in a restaurant or a bar, and someone has said, ‘When I was a child growing up, I only made it because of Star Trek.’ That’s a terrific thing to hear,” said Stewart.
One of the most memorable of these encounters was with a sergeant from the Las Vegas Police Department, who had written Stewart about his job.
At the end of his letter, he said, “But there are some days when I go home and I despair for humanity, for what we do to one another, how we hurt one another, how we hurt ourselves. And when I feel like that, I go to my shelf and I take down Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I reassure myself that all is going to be well, and that the fight is worth fighting for,” recalled Stewart.
“When people write that and say that about your work and what it’s done for them, it’s meaningful.”