Just before the USS Enterprise embarked on a new mission with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in 1987, an article in the Los Angeles Times referred to the distinguished Englishman portraying the ship’s captain as an “unknown British Shakespearean actor.”
The description stuck with Patrick Stewart, who refers to the unintentional jibe during the supplemental cast reunion video included on the newly remastered Blu-ray edition of the second season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It’s no surprise he remembers it — his costar Brent Spiner made a point of hanging a sign on Stewart’s trailer door reading, “Beware unknown British Shakespearean actor.”
Today, Stewart remains beloved for his turn as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Next Generation,” though he’s got another fantastic elder statesman on his résumé too: Professor Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” films (James McAvoy played the younger incarnation of the character in “X-Men: First Class”).
He’s scheduled to reprise the role in the upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and he’s confirmed for a very different sort of project as well, co-hosting “The Second City Guide to the Opera” with soprano Renée Fleming. An evening of opera-themed sketches and musical performances penned by the famed improv troupe, the event will take place Jan. 5 in Chicago. (Anyone who caught Stewart’s guest-starring spot on HBO’s Ricky Gervais comedy “Extras” knows how funny he can be.)
Stewart recently spoke to Hero Complex by phone from New York City to reflect on his time aboard the Enterprise and his own connection to Hollywood history, though he was a little more tight-lipped about what to expect from the next installment in the highly anticipated comic book movie franchise.
HC: Have you forgiven The Times for describing you as an “unknown British Shakespearean actor” 25 years ago?
PS: Believe me, it was an accurate description at the time. I tell that story now because it’s kind of fun to tell it when circumstances have changed somewhat. But when it appeared, even though I was described as unknown, I had been a very busy working actor for 27 years and there was a slight sting, particularly given the fact that I had worked in the theater in Los Angeles twice and had already appeared in a couple of major Hollywood movies and so forth. But it did lead to my dear friend and colleague, Brent Spiner, playing his joke. Curiously, there was fallout from that. I was once at a show business auction at one of the major auction houses and I saw that this sign that Brent Spiner had made for my trailer door was an item in the auction. And I was able to go to one of the directors of the auction house and ask them to withdraw the item because I happened to have the original. People will buy anything.
HC: Do you have a lot of mementos from “Star Trek”?
PS: I don’t have a lot. In fact I have only one physical item from the seven years on TV and eight years of movies. What I do have is a complete, annotated cataloged collection of every script. Every rewrite, every draft, everything. One of my colleagues on Day 2 of the show, seeing me collating new pages on the pilot episode and watching me toss the old pages into a recycling bin very wisely said, “Nooooo. Save everything.”
HC: Must be strange going from work in the theater, where all that really matters is the finished product, to this world where every item is a collector’s item.
PS: Yes, that was a process that I’d never encountered before, because a lot of the work I’d done during those 27 years I simply felt to be one in a procession of actors playing these great roles in great plays on the same stage or stages and you were a living part of a great theatrical tradition. This tradition was being cataloged anyway, by the simple fact that I had someone say to me, “Don’t throw away anything. Hold onto everything.” I remember how I felt on the day I discovered, from a wonderful individual named A.C. Lyles, the living historian of Paramount Pictures — he’s been associated with the studio for decades and he was very welcoming to us when we arrived on the lot and made us feel part of the Paramount family — A.C. said to me, “Of course, you remember what movie shot on Stage 8 don’t you?” Stage 8 was the soundstage that had the bridge, captain’s ready room, 10 Forward and the conference room. He said so many films had been shot there, including “Rear Window,” which was one of my favorite films. And so I got a big kick out of being in that place. In fact, I don’t know if it ever happened, but shortly after we arrived, there was an exchange of executives and Frank Mancuso became head of the studio and one day talking about the history of the studio I said it was so exciting to learn that “Rear Window” had shot on Stage 8, wouldn’t it be interesting to maybe put little plaques or signs outside each stage listing the great movies that had been shot on that stage? I remember Stage 16, which is affectionately known as “Planet Hell” because it was where we shot all the alien landscapes with sand or water. Stages 16 and 17 had been where many of the great black-and-white Fred Astaire movies had been shot. It was for me a source of continuing excitement to film in such a historic environment.
HC: Did you leave anything behind there? Carve your initials anywhere?
PS: What is it they say about blood, sweat and tears? No, I’m not a carver of initials at all. But I do remember another thrill was to discover that … this was a very old part of the studio. Above the entrance to Stages 8 and 9, which were connected sets, there were a series of very small offices with wooden steps that led up to an ancient wooden balcony that gave access to all these offices. I worked out myself that it was in one of these offices where they shot the scene between the hero and his girlfriend in “Sunset Boulevard.” There is a shot where you see out of the doorway and you are quite clearly looking down the avenue outside our stage. So there was a little bit of Paramount history up above our heads. They repainted that whole block sometime during our tenure and I came across in a plastic waste bag, obviously about to be thrown out, all the little cheap, brass numbers that had been screwed onto the doors of the office. So I took them. It’s the only thing that I stole from Paramount.
HC: That’s part of the fun of film and TV over theater, finding all the actual locations.
PS: It absolutely is. And as someone coming from Europe who had grown up with Hollywood movies, it was especially exciting. I remember the day when I discovered only a 30-minute walk away from the first house I owned in Los Angeles in Silver Lake, a very short walk away was a staircase where Laurel and Hardy were attempting to move a piano up in “The Music Box.” And I got stills from the film and it’s unfazed. It looks exactly the same. This is very, very nerdy stuff, but it made me happy. Behind the supermarket where I shopped were cottages that were originally part of the executive offices of the very original Disney studios before they moved over into the Valley. And the Tom Mix studio was just around the corner. I was charmed by all of it, the wonderful Hollywood history. I remember an older guy, a director, telling me how when he grew up in the Valley as a kid, there were still developments and apartment buildings, but there were also still orange groves, and he remembers going to school in the morning and seeing guys, cowboys, extras who worked as cowboys, with saddles over their shoulders, waiting on the street corner for the studio bus to pick them up and take them out on location.
HC: The first seasons of “Next Generation” seemed so chaotic with Denise Crosby leaving the show, Gates McFadden being fired, the writers strike. Did you feel then that any fears you might have had about working in Hollywood were coming true?
PS: You know, I think much of that passed over my head. I was very, very sad, we all were, when Gates left. Although, happily, it was only for one season. I had no expectations of the show, and indeed, I’m on record as saying that there were a handful of people I knew in Hollywood who I consulted during the four days to decide if I wanted the role once it was offered to me. All the people I spoke to assured me the series would be a failure. You could not revive an iconic series like “Star Trek.” I should not be remotely anxious about signing a six-year contract because we’d be lucky to make it through Season 1. This was all the advice I was given, including from my own agent. The writers strike, at the time, threatened our existence, and by then I was already excited about the work we were doing. So I would have been, by then, I would have been disappointed. But as is well known I lived out of a suitcase during the time that we were making the first season.
HC: Did your first “Star Trek” convention experience — when you realized how famous you had become — change your approach to the character or the work?
PS: Well it was then, of course, that we had the writers strike. We were due to start shooting the second series in late April/early May and in fact, we didn’t start back until late August/September. And we were very happy and relieved to be back, albeit, we had lost Gates. I think at that point we were settling in for the long haul and building a body of work that was as interesting and engaging as we could make it. On the day-to-day basis, that’s what we were doing. To do a series like that, there is a bit of a conveyer belt element to it. Sometimes we would wrap an episode at 4 in the afternoon and we’d start a new episode with a new director an hour later, so there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. The reflecting had to be done in front of the camera, and in the long, lengthy conversations I had with Rick Berman, particularly since Gene [Roddenberry] so unexpectedly and disappointingly died so early in the run of the show. I guess my conversations with Rick most locked me into the feeling of creating a specific character and a character with as much complexity we could reasonably give him.
HC: The cast has described you as their leader on and off camera. Did you immediately feel comfortable in that role?
PS: I think once I understood what my role on screen was going to be and then I got to know my friends and colleagues better, I realized that it was no different from being the leading actor in a Shakespearean company, that there are responsibilities that go with being the lead, and they’re not just about doing the best possible work. I probably took on too much of this, but I also felt a pastoral role as well, looking after the well-being not just of the cast, but of the crew and everybody on the show was my responsibility. I was the one person that had the voice if there were issues to be raised. I enjoyed that. I always have done it. For me, I’ve always believed the tone and standard of a project filters down from the top and is imposed from the bottom. I enjoy that aspect of it.
HC: Did you quickly adapt to working in television?
PS: I spent the first season in a state of perpetual terror. I had never done anything where there were always so many lines to be learned and more lines to be learned. And I had never worked those hours before. People complain about life in the theater but you know, really we have it pretty good insofar as rehearsals and performance. The basic 12-hour day a drama series has while shooting is challenging. For me, the pressure in that first season was not so much about creating or building a character who would have legs to run for six more years, but rather staying on top of the work and nothing else. My great fear was to go on the set one day and not know what I was supposed to say. It was all very new to me. But I got accustomed to it and by the second season, a routine began to develop. You acquire a system for doing the work but without stress. That’s what happened for all of us particularly during the second season. The second season was where we started to put down markers on who we were and what we thought the whole thing should be about.
HC: You gave an interview recently in which you said you had no knowledge of the new “X-Men” movie. Any updates you might be able to share?
PS: I’m very happy to report that Bryan Singer is coming back to direct the movie. I’m very happy that my lovely friend Ian McKellen is going to be with me. I don’t know anyone else who is to be involved in the project. Maybe it’s just the two of us! That would be a movie! Magneto and Xavier’s conversations…. I’m not being cute. That’s all I know. Maybe once the holidays are over, more information will begin to come through. I have a vague idea of the time commitments, but I don’t know where we’re going to shoot. But I’m greatly looking forward to it.
— Patrick Kevin Day
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