Sir Patrick Stewart can still remember the solitary line he was given on his very first theatrical tour: “Antonio, I arrest thee at the suit of Count Orsino.” (Twelfth Night: Act 3, Scene 4 – but you knew that already.) The tour was to Central and South America, under the tutelage of the towering Vivien Leigh. Sir Patrick was 20. And for a long time those sparse syllables, in the fine role of Second Officer, might well have been enough.
“I wasn’t especially ambitious to be famous or special,” Sir Patrick says. “I just wanted to be with a nice group of actors and an interesting director, with good scripts.” Things haven’t quite gone to plan. While the good scripts and the nice actors and the interesting directors have flown to Sir Patrick like rose stems to an orchestra pit, fame too has popped into the dressing room and left him a vast, gaudy bouquet.
“Sometimes it is awkward. I can’t sit in a bar for an hour on my own any more, like I used to. Tourists are the worst. Something happens to people when they’re on holiday – they lose their sense of what’s proper. But little by little, I’m enjoying it more and more.”
This is the running theme of our conversation. At the age of 80, Sir Patrick is having more fun than ever. Though his first love was the stage, he has come, in recent years, to adore the world of film and television. “The relationship with the camera has changed for me. It’s become much more of a friend than a threat,” he says. “The camera is curious. It wants to know.” Then his face crinkles up and he shrugs and smiles coyly. “It is so easy to sound pompous having these conversations. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve just become much more interested in the inside stuff than the exterior stuff.”
A great deal of the inside stuff was nurtured and honed in his years in California in the 1980s, when Sir Patrick was cast, in a bizarre colliding of fates involving a university Shakespeare lecture, as Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. “This man called Robert Justman – who was one of the executive producers of Star Trek – came to the lecture I was acting in, and he claimed that he turned, then and there, to his wife and said: ‘We’ve found our captain.’” A nifty promotion from Second Officer, certainly. At the age of 47, Sir Patrick had been transformed, overnight, from quietly respected thespian to intergalactic hero.
“Right away, the whole way of life in LA appealed to me. Exercising, taking care of my skin, my body, my health – and even starting therapy,” he says. “I used to be afraid that if I had therapy – emotional, psychological therapy – it might take away my ability to act. But of course, as all actors have found out, it actually opens more doors to new demons.”
"I wasn’t especially ambitious to be famous or special. I just wanted to be with a nice group of actors and an interesting director, with good scripts..."
More than ever, Sir Patrick finds himself searching, in the quieter moments, for flickers of that interior life in others. “I’m trying more to read between people’s eyes. Other people are our job. And nothing is ever wasted on an actor. Because there’s a thing called ‘sense memory’.
“I’ll give you an example: I had eight needles put in my hands the other day, because I have arthritis. And it was agony,” he says. “But I kept saying to myself: ‘Remember what pain like this feels like – what does it do to you, what’s happened to your breathing, what’s happened to your skin; do you want to pull your hands away, do you want to strike somebody?’ No experience is a waste of time.”
Worn long enough, this mask becomes a face. “A few years ago I did a film, The Gift, about a very unhappy pianist who feels like he’s lost his ability. I found that I could effectively mould myself in that emotional state, and stay there for long periods of time. I think that’s why my wife stopped coming up to Montreal while I was filming – she didn’t like being around a depressed husband!”
It’s this kind of realism – often painful, always honest – that Sir Patrick believes is behind the great resurgence in British film. “I think we’re right on the edge of a wonderful period of creativity for actors and directors in this country. There is a sense that people are taking this industry into their own hands. The world of the small film and the small stories – true narrative and script and direction – they are what it’s all about.”
It is a new wave that the venerable actor – smiling conspiratorially like some glorious muddle of Buddha, headmaster and favourite godparent – is still deeply excited to ride. “I love my job. I’ve being doing it now for 60 years. And I get more out of it today than I’ve ever done before.” No plans to retire, then? “Pah!” he cries, throwing up his hands. “Not a chance!”
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